This is the first of a three-part series taken from Mark Noll’s Scholarly Essay, which was originally presented as the 2009 Frederick C. Wood Lecture at Cornell University. A video of the presentation can be found here. All references and citations have been removed for the blog series but can be found in the full paper.
As a historian who has long pondered the controversies in recent Western history involving religion and science, I am naturally much interested in the founding president and inspirational genius of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White. In this paper I will spend a fair amount of time on White and the historical circumstances surrounding the founding of Cornell, but this effort is meant to advance a general thesis. To express that thesis, I will shamelessly paraphrase the opening line of Steven Shapin’s wonderful little book, The Scientific Revolution: there has never been such a thing as warfare between Science and Theology, and this is a paper about it.
Andrew Dickson White
Andrew Dickson White was a man of many parts. Besides working energetically with Ezra Cornell to use the fortune Cornell had amassed in the telegraph business to build their new university; besides taking on several substantial political tasks for the state of New York; besides filling U.S. diplomatic posts in Santo Domingo, Germany, and Russia; besides shouldering many duties as reformer and public advocate—besides all this, White was an indefatigable historical researcher and a tireless writer. As a scholar and author, White doggedly pursued a single theme.
For nearly three full decades, at random moments snatched from the crushing pace of his official duties, White researched, wrote, researched, and wrote some more—but always in service to one grand historical argument: “In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and to science, and invariably; and, on the other hand, all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed for the time to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good both of religion and of science.”
For the next thirty years, White exploited the travel necessitated by his official duties to gather vast quantities of evidence in support of this argument—the result of these continuous labors was a short book in 1876 titled The Warfare of Science; then an expanding series of articles published in magazines like The Popular Science Monthly; and finally in 1896 a 900-page, two-volume brickbat of a tome titled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.
Science and “Dogmatic Theology”
Between White’s first lecture in 1869 and the publication of his full statement in 1896, others had also taken up the cry. White knew well the work of John W. Draper, an English-born, New York City chemist, who in 1874 had published a widely noticed study entitled The Conflict between Science and Religion; moreover, White considered Draper’s book “a work of great ability.” Still, White persevered in his own parallel research because, for White, the critical conflict was not between “Science and Religion,” as it was for Draper; rather, White held that the critical conflict lay between “Science and Dogmatic Theology.”
White’s 1896 volume spelled out what he meant by the difference between “Religion” and “Dogmatic Theology.” This differentiation enabled him, as he came to the end of his second volume, to move from describing Warfare to predicting a Peace. In White’s picture, “the atmosphere of thought engendered by the development of all sciences during the last three centuries” had enjoyed a tremendous success in dissolving what he called “vast masses of myth, legend, marvel, and dogmatic assertion.” Because of what “all these sciences” had achieved, White confidently concluded that “accounts formerly supposed to be special revelations to Jews and Christians [were] but repetitions of widespread legends dating from earlier civilizations, and . . . simply based on ancient myths.” These legends and myths were what White called Dogmatic Theology.
But with such Theology swept away, White was confident that a purified form of Religion would flourish. Because of what “modern science in general” had achieved, and especially “the evolution doctrines which have grown out of the thought and work of men like Darwin and Spencer,” White thought he was witnessing in his own day “the most striking evolution of morals and religion in the history of our race.” With Dogmatic Theology ousted by the labors of modern science, White held that “the world at large” was moving from a place where belief in “tribal god[s]” provoked “every sort of cruelty and injustice” to a new conception of humanity as “a vast community in which the fatherhood of God overarches all, and the brotherhood of man permeates all.” More clearly than Draper, White held that since Science had dethroned Dogmatic Theology, Religion of a beneficent sort would prevail, and unprecedented moral progress would occur.
White’s False Contribution
A. D. White remains a consequential figure in Western intellectual history, but not for his prediction that Religion, stripped of Dogmatic Theology, would join with scientific progress to usher in a golden age of universal human flourishing under a benignly accommodating deity. Rather, White remains important for the controlling metaphor of his great historical work. That image is of warfare.
The staying power of White’s image has been extraordinary. Its continuing force can be illustrated by widespread reactions to current events like law suits over the teaching of evolution in public schools, or widely-publicized books denouncing traditional religion as a superstitious relic of barbarism, or debates concerning the use of embryonic stem cells for research. The power of the warfare metaphor persists strongly in some religious communities that equate “evolution” with “atheism.” The metaphor seems almost as powerful in some academic communities that equate “Bible believing” with “anti-science fanaticism.”
Whenever we react, upon hearing of such matters, by thinking—“here we go again”—or, more tellingly, if we instinctively lapse into cheerleader mode and hope that “our side” in these controversies “wins,” we testify to how pervasively White’s depiction of warfare between Science and Theology has taken hold.
White’s reconstruction of the past was fundamentally mistaken. In point of fact, his metaphor of warfare grossly oversimplified the actual relationship between Science and Dogmatic Theology. Before, during, and after the time he was writing his landmark book, relationships involving science and religion have rarely amounted to warfare.
This judgment comes from my standpoint as a Christian believer of a traditional type. By traditional, in this context I mean Christianity defined as straightforward belief in the propositions of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. And for the sake of simplicity, this discussion in these posts is limited to western Science in relationship to Christian Dogmatic Theology, though it is my impression that similar perspectives could be offered by traditional Muslim believers and traditional Jewish believers as well.
My argument in these posts will be that for patent historical and philosophical reasons, it is nonsensical to speak about a condition of warfare between Science and Dogmatic Theology.
But in my essay, I also develop a second argument: despite being wrong in the conclusions he drew from his research, A. D. White’s big book nonetheless made a genuine contribution to a better understanding of religion and science. That contribution came directly from the very last word of his title—again, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. With his reference to “Christendom,” White explained why, though in fact there has never been a state of war between Science and Dogmatic Theology, incidents of conflict and the perception of conflict appear everywhere in Western history.