Phoney War

The premise that science and Christianity are in conflict is without foundation. Many atheists have a vested interest in promulgating the idea, to the extent that it has become a myth. As with all propaganda, if a falsehood is repeated long enough and often enough it erodes and eventually supplants the truth.

Vocabulary is very useful in propaganda. At school I was correctly taught that the period known as the ‘Dark Ages’ is called thus by historians because there are few extant writings from that period – its history is dark and obscure for us. This is the view of sensible historians, but unscrupulous popularizers, and those with particular axes to grind, would prefer to put it the other way around, that the ages were ‘dark’ because the populace were superstitious and unlearned. By pushing this line, it becomes easier to get acceptance of the word ‘Enlightenment’ to describe the so-called Age of Reason in the eighteenth century, as if light came in and dispelled darkness when ‘reason’ was elevated to the highest authority, displacing divine revelation. But, of course, this ushered in unitarianism, deism, and eventually atheism, which, from a Christian worldview, were wandering in ever-increasing darkness, the blind leading the blind so that both are now fallen in the ditch.

Edward Gibbon, described by the historian Franco Venturi as “The English Giant of the Enlightenment” makes a good examplar of a prejudiced historian in his famous and highly influential work in 6 volumes (1776-88) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Not only does Gibbon excoriate Christianity for its enfeebling effect on a virile civilization (a theme recapitulated with a good deal less learning and erudition in the nineteenth century by the philosopher and God-hater, Nietzsche) and for supplanting “the great culture that preceded it”, but he also describes the Middle Ages as “the triumph of barbarism”, which is an utter travesty. Gibbon ignorantly writes off the Roman Empire that continued in Byzantium for a thousand years after the western part of the empire was overrun in the fifth century as “a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery” which bequeathed nothing to posterity, and his definition that “wars, and the administration of public affairs, are the principal subjects of history” is excessively narrow. To Gibbon’s credit, he did immense research on primary sources, but this simply makes his end product the more blameworthy. As J.C. Stobart pointed out

…this is one of the cases which prove that History is made not so much by heroes or natural forces as by historians.

Another highly influential writer, whose writings were peppered with references, thus giving the appearance of scholarship, was Andrew Dickson White, founder and first president of Cornell University. White had it in for Christianity because the churches would not support his founding Cornell on a non-denominational basis. His History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) assumes something in the title (as had John Draper’s earlier History of the Conflict between Religion and Science) that was clearly begging the question, and which cannot be sustained except by inventing falsehoods. The conflict/warfare thesis has been utterly discredited and disowned by historians of science, for example Colin Russell:

Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study. The same is nearly as true of White, though his prominent apparatus of prolific footnotes may create a misleading impression of meticulous scholarship.


The conflict thesis, at least in its simple form, is now widely perceived as a wholly inadequate intellectual framework within which to construct a sensible and realistic historiography of Western science

Shapin notes in 1996 that

In the late Victorian period it was common to write about the “warfare between science and religion” and to presume that the two bodies of culture must always have been in conflict. However, it is a very long time since these attitudes have been held by historians of science.

In Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction (2002) Gary Ferngren outlines that

in the late twentieth century [the Draper-White thesis] underwent a more systematic re-evaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour.

Ferngren notes that while this is the distilled analysis of historians, popular images are hard to shift and

the traditional view remains strong elsewhere, not least in the popular mind.

Thus ghosts in the popular mind can be conjured up by unscrupulous propagandists. The same myths and prejudices propagated by Draper and White continue to turn up in writings of the axe-grinders of our day, such as Richard Dawkins, who is preying upon the ignorance of today’s masses, just as the friars did on a superstitious mindset in the fourteenth century.

Thanks to White’s disinformation, it is still popularly held that scholars in the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat. But, with very few exceptions, no scholars since the third century BC believed the earth was flat. Mediaeval scholars certainly knew the earth was a sphere, and knew its circumference to within 1% of its present measured value. The most popular mediaeval work on astronomy, Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi, was used in universities for hundreds of years, and taught that the circumference of the earth, in accordance with fourth century St Ambrose’s teaching, following Eratosthenes (276-194 BC), was 252 000 stades (=39,690 km, which is within 1% of its known value through the poles) and shows how the circumference can be accurately verified scientifically. That illustrations of the world as a globe were used in sermons in vernacular languages during the Middle Ages also serves to demonstrate that the sphericity of the earth was a fact universally known, even by peasants. No-one with reputation could have got away with the crass ‘Flat Earth’ historical distortion until the so-called Enlightenment, and, in fact, no historian before 1834 taught that Christians ever believed in a flat earth – it was the invention of the anti-Christian Antoine-Jean Letronne. As Jeffrey Burton Russell, Professor of History, Emeritus, University of California, questioned:

…why did the false accounts of Letronne…begin to be served up in schools and in schoolbooks as the solemn truth? The answer is that the falsehood about the spherical earth became a colorful and unforgettable part of a larger falsehood: the falsehood of the eternal war between science (good) and religion (bad) throughout Western history.

This vast web of falsehood was invented and propagated by the influential historian John Draper (1811-1882) and many prestigious followers, such as Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), the president of Cornell University, who made sure that the false account was perpetrated in texts, encyclopedias, and even allegedly serious scholarship, down to the present day. A lively current version of the lie can be found in Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers, found in any bookshop or library.

The reason for promoting both the specific lie about the sphericity of the earth and the general lie that religion and science are in natural and eternal conflict in Western society, is to defend Darwinism…The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: “Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?”

In truth, there is a conflict going on, but painting Christianity as the opponent of science is a mere smokescreen for what is being played out behind the scenes – the destruction of science by atheistic naturalism. To paint Christians as the enemies of science is as false as when Nero blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome to deflect the accusation that he himself was the arsonist. As Alvin Plantinga has correctly pointed out,

People like Dawkins hold that there is a conflict between science and religion…the truth of the matter, however, is that the conflict is between science and naturalism, not between science and belief in God…


1 Response to “Phoney War”

  1. 1 Dr Peter Naylor December 3, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Colossians 1:16-17 states that the entire universe including invisible things was created through the Son of God, the Word. For this reason, Christians can be delighted with every genuine step of progress in science. As it examines the world, it is discovering the wisdom of God, displayed in the workings of nature.

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