The story of the “conflict thesis”—the notion that there exists some fundamental and irrevocable conflict or warfare between science and religion—is part of our modern self-understanding. Historians of science and religion usually trace the origins of the “conflict thesis” to the late-nineteenth century, particularly to the narratives of New York chemist John W. Draper and historian Andrew D. White. In this talk I argue against that convention. Their narratives should not be read as stories to debunk, but rather as primary sources reflecting themes and changes in theological thought during the late nineteenth century. I contend that Draper and White were part of a long liberal Protestant heritage that emphasized history, reason, and religious emancipation against ecclesiastical authority. As an alternative source of origins, however, I suggest that the real “conflict thesis” is to be found in the fledgling discipline of the history of science as it emerged during the late-nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. The real origins of the “conflict thesis” is found in the very discipline that now seeks to condemn it. To move the conversation forward, among historians of science and theologians, recognizing the complex historical trajectory of ideas that ultimately supported Draper and White in their historical endeavors will hopefully help us all avoid the pitfalls of earlier attempts at reconciling science and religion.
This event is made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this conference are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.