As we were saying, John William Draper’s History of the Conflict of Religion and Science has set the story arc for much of the modern blah blah on faith and reason. Which is too bad, because even a quick glance at the book (as opposed to positive glosses by Carl Sagan, Jacob Bronowski, William Manchester, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Dawkins) reveals it to be an orgy of anti-Catholic buggery from cover to cover, without even the decency of a wrap-around footnote or bibliography.
Draper’s mega-bestselling diatribe has twelve chapters, eight of which contain the word “Conflict” or “Controversy.” Chapter II sets an ominous tone: “The Origin of Christianity — Its Transformation on Attaining Imperial Status.” (Close up on the Pope polishing his jack-boots!)
Writing in 1876, Draper notes optimistically “there is a great and rapidly-increasing departure from the public religious faith,” particularly among “the intelligent.” Whew!
Of course, it’s still true that “divine revelation must necessarily be intolerant of contradiction.” As he sees it: “The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests in the other.”
In particular, “the Papacy … insists on a political supremacy … and a restoration of the medieval order of things” — which, to be fair, is a pretty accurate description of Catholicism in the 1870s. That was the era of the idiot-megalomaniacal Pope Pius IX and his infamous “Syllabus of Errors,” which condemned, among other things, free speech, public schools, and the separation of church and state. As well as the First Vatican Council, which gave us Papal Infallibility and explicitly demoted reason to a status below that of faith. Modern Catholics (like me) look back with well-earned embarrassment on this reactionary moment.
Draper’s story quickly becomes a battle between Good and Evil: “Science … has never attempted to throw odium or inflict social ruin on any human being,” he says. On the other hand, Satan — I mean, “The Vatican … They have been steeped in blood!” (He likes exclamation points, as does The God Project Dot Net!)
Draper’s simple narrative begins with Christianity and “its incorporation with paganism” at the conversion of Constantine. The first big Conflict he (puzzlingly) calls the Southern Reformation. Somehow, as Draper sees it, the Church’s insistence on Creeds and whatnot caused the Roman Empire to lose the Middle East, which then became a thriving center of science, while the Christian West descended into the Dark Ages.
Draper sees the 16th Century Reformation not as a conflict of Protestants vs. Catholics but as a chapter in the battle of Reason vs. Power-Mad Evil. Luther, though religious, stood for “intellectual freedom.” And so into the 19th century, which he sees as a battle of rational progress against “divine intervention” (i.e., irrational stasis).
Seeing history as a series of progressive conflicts is very Hegelian, of course, and Draper’s narrative is of a piece with Hegel’s prevailing thesis-antithesis-synthesis system. In fact, the system overwhelms the facts, as Draper recklessly edits, misquotes, unbalances and otherwise distorts a history he probably knew to fit the epic script he definitely believed. And I think he knew exactly what he was doing: “It is impossible to comprehend justly the doings of persons who lived many years ago,” he warns us in the Preface.
As Johns Hopkins Professor Lawrence Principe points out in a sweet set of lectures on “Science and Religion,” Draper’s book “is not good history: historical ‘facts’ are confected, and causes and chronologies are twisted to the author’s purpose.”
For example, Draper blames the Catholic Church’s bias against sex for depressing the population of Europe during the Middle Ages. Another battle: Lust vs. the Pope. Draper says it is well-known that the “generative force [i.e., horniness] will double a population in twenty-five years.” But England’s population “scarcely doubled” from two million to four million between 1066 and the Reformation. According to Draper’s “math,” England’s population in 1500 — without the evil influence of Rome — should have been 2.1 trillion. (p263)
Draper has a chapter on the age of the earth and of course trots out (with no citations) the statement that “the Fathers of the Church” believed that “the date of Creation was comparatively recent, not more than four or five thousand years before Christ” and that “the act of Creation occupied the space of six ordinary days.”
However, our friend Augustine — about as Church Father-ly as it’s possible to get — wrote early and often that the Biblical “days” of Genesis could not possibly be literal days because time requires change, change requires matter, and God had not created matter in the beginning but only light. So time did not exist … in the beginning. The six-literal-day thesis has always been a fringe opinion, especially among Catholics.
And so on. Draper had a near contemporary, a Cornell historian named Andrew Dickson White, who also published a book in 1876 (“The Warfare of Science“) and a much longer, two-volume doorstop called “A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology” 20 years later. Despite having footnotes, White was no more judicious than Draper. He’s now known as the guy who made a century of American schoolkids believe that before Columbus, everybody thought the Earth was flat and the Church opposed sphericity, on principle.
In reality, anyone who looks out at the ocean horizon can see the world is round, and the Ancient Greeks had done exactly that.
* Since this is now officially my longest post ever, I figure there’s no harm in really going for it and making it longer … I recently read a fun historical mystery set in the 17th century, part of a series by a young woman named S. J. Parris featuring the mystic-scientist Giordano Bruno. Coincidentally, this series is very much in the tradition of Draper and White, Sagan and Bronowski: Parris sets a very rational astronomer (Bruno) against the Church, and claims on almost every page that Bruno’s belief in a heliocentric universe and planetary systems made him a hunted man. White says the same thing (“[Bruno] was hunted from land to land”). However, the historical record is much more ambiguous. Apparently, we don’t know why Bruno was persecuted, but according to historian Frances Yates, he was certainly a self-proclaimed magician who worshipped the Sun and wanted to start his own religion. And, of course, solve mysteries.