How Liberal Protestants Bought White's Conflict Thesis and Lost Their Faith


I just noticed this 2nd and shorter comment from you. It’s actually quite fine! I like the way you phrased it.
If I had seen it earlier, I’m sure it would have influenced my immediate prior posting.

I will step down a little lower down from the top level of my podium. I do not need to defend White’s GRAND version of the Conflict Thesis. There are exaggerations for sure.

But I think there is enough historical material, even when handled MOST SCRUPULOUSLY, to justify the Conflict Thesis in a lower voice.

I think EVERYONE should know about the “Bedford Level Experiment” conducted by amateurs (clever amateurs) in 1870!

"The Bedford Level experiment is a series of observations carried out along a six-mile (9.7 km) length of the Old Bedford River on the Bedford Level, Norfolk, England, UK, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to measure the curvature of the Earth. Samuel Birley Rowbotham, who conducted the first few observations in 1849, claimed he had proven the Earth to be flat. In 1870, Alfred Russel Wallace, by virtue of his surveyor’s training and knowledge of physics, avoided errors caused by the effects of atmospheric refraction and showed a curvature consistent with a spherical Earth. "

The whole point of the effort was for devoted amateur natural philosophers to prove that the Greeks, and everyone else after them, was wrong about the Earth being a sphere.

The deep mystery that was completely under-appreciated at the time was the lensing affects of denser layers of atmosphere close to the Earth’s surface, and how it could (entirely predictably) distort the findings of this grand test. The Flat Earth testing went on well into the 1900’s… again, without ever acknowledging the affects of atmosphere.

[There is a recent documentary that indicates one of the reasons the Titanic (during the same period as the last tests of the Level Experiment!) didn’t see the ice berg soon enough was that weather factors at the time exaggerated the tendency for what was called “Refraction” by sailors… the “illusion of the horizon” was forced higher into the sky … and so the lookout’s ability to see the BLACKNESS of the iceberg blot out stars low on the horizon was severely impaired! By the time the “nose” of the iceberg finally reared up against the star field (above the level of the refracted horizon) … the ice berg was just too close to avoid!!!]

But the idea that one test could dismantle all the interlocking pieces of science that existed even as early as the late 1800’s is the same lack of humility that surrounds supposed YEC proofs against Evolution (say, for example, the Second Law of Thermodynamics).

Myth 15. That the Theory of Organic Evolution Is Based on Circular Reasoning [Nicolaas A. Rupke]


Are you interested in discussing this?

Yes, but not on this thread, since it’s not part of the standard Conflict Thesis that the current series is about.

If you want to do that, Roger, you might create a forum thread and open it with a clear summary of that chapter, so that others can understand what it’s about. Then, pose a question or two and I might join you. I simply don’t have time to get this started myself, regrettably.

Thank you for having the integrity to say this, George–all too many people think the blogosphere is a place for rhetorical conquest by any means possible, including the manufacturing of “facts” and the distortion of real facts. I appreciate this.

Perhaps we’re on the same page, partly. You’ve seen my points about distinguishing between the real presence of some “conflicts” between science and religion the historical record, on the one hand, and the creation of an unsupportable (from the point of view of contemporary historians of diverse ideological commitments) “CONFLICT” thesis, in which conflict is not only the norm, but also acts as a gatekeeper for ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

A very significant case in point: the modern scientific attitude (I hesitate to “a method” in the singular, since scientists in various disciplines use a wide variety of methods) that nature ought to be understood through both reason and experience, with contingent knowledge of nature’s contingencies emerging from it. That came to the fore during the Scientific Revolution, in large part owing to Christian theology. See this:

That’s something that neither White nor Draper would have countenanced. Indeed, their influence on scholarly conversations for many decades (down into the 1970s) was profound, preventing or discouraging the kinds of scholarly inquiry that lead to very different conclusions.

Another pertinent example comes from the great Robert Merton, arguably the most important American sociologist of the last century. Although he was Jewish, Merton famously argued for the decisive postiive influence of what he called the “Puritan ethos” on the rise of science. It’s a hotly contested claim even today, but I’ll leave that aside and cut to the chase. At the time he did that work in the 1930s, his claims faced much resistance on a priori grounds. When his book was reissued decades later, he added a preface with fascinating comments about this. At the time, he said, many scholars saw that concludsion as “an improbable, not to say, absurd relation between religion and science.” This was because Draper and White had convinced so many scholars that conflict between religion and science was a “logical and historical necessity,” so that “a state of war between the two was constrained to be continuous and inevitable.”

This sort of thing, which has happened often in the history of the history of science, helps one understand the magnitude of the eclipse of historical truth caused by the Conflict Thesis.


George, I’m fully aware of Bruno’s circumstances–much more than Tyson is, for that matter. Remember, even though most of my writing for BL focuses on topics related to natural history since 1800, my doctoral work focused on the Scientific Revolution and by far the greater part of my publications do also. I could say much more about Bruno than Tyson tells you, but with my travel schedule in the next two weeks I really don’t have time to say all of it–and this isn’t the place to write a whole paper either.

Please keep in mind, George, that this column of mine has been inserted into a long series (with much more coming) of columns written by Steve Snobelen–another expert on the Scientific Revolution. A couple of weeks ago he wrote a bit about Bruno and Tyson: did you see it?

I hope you’ll read the whole series, b/c upcoming columns have much more to say about the problems inherent in the Conflict Thesis.

I have one or two short things to add, but I’ll do so in separate replies.

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I’m glad we won’t waste anyone’s time with that. I will make just one small point that should illuminate the larger picture.

When that myth got going (in the nineteenth century), the discipline of art history also got going (for the most part). Given many works of pre-Columban art that clearly and unambiguously depict a spherical earth (to find a very famous example, search for “Christ in Majesty” by Fra Angelico), it’s simply astonishing that any serious scholar ever believed the nonsense that medieval Christians believed the earth is flat. Yet, there you have it, such that it was still included in middle school social studies books used by my children twenty years ago. It takes a strong ideological bent to invent stuff like that, and the Conflict Thesis made much of it for the same reason.

You then have a pile of quotes, which directly address the challenge I made to you. Thank you for giving me specific sources. Responding to each of them isn’t possible, with my travel schedule at the moment (as I said just a moment ago), but I’ll still write a few replies and then I must let this rest.

We agree that Bruno is properly seen as a champion of free thought and a symbol of religious persecution. That isn’t the same thing as saying that a scientist was burned at the stake because of science. It’s much more of a political statement. Whether that implicit claim about the importance of free inquiry for science is actually true, historically, is a very interesting matter. I don’t have a dog in that fight myself. However I would note that many of the best scientists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries worked under a politically repressive German government (first the Kaiser, then Hitler); ditto for dozens of Soviet Nobel laureates. And, in modern democracies you find some very strongly anti-scientific movements that represent popular uprisings against conclusions of a scientific elite. Creationism is only one of many, several of which are not rooted in traditional religion at all. You see where I’m going: there might be good reasons to defend freedom of thought, but to see it linked unambiguously with scientific progress is a deeply problematic historical claim.

This is from a book edited by Numbers, but Numbers didn’t write this. The author is Jole Shackelford, an historian of pharmacy whom I might perhaps see later this week when I speak at his university (Minnesota). See I’ve known him for 35 years, since we were both grad students at different universities.

Anyway, that is accurately quoted from the penultimate paragraph of his chapter in Numbers’ book. Right after the quoted passage (ending with “singular”), he says, “But was this then a scientific question–a matter for philosophers–or a religious doctrine that constituted a serious breach of the letter of scriptural revelation, church discipline, and centuries of Catholic tradition?”

In the next (final) paragraph, he concludes with several points that don’t fit the Conflict Thesis at all. His final two sentences, which can’t really be appreciated without reading the whole chapter (and I urge you, George, to buy this inexpensive book rather than quoting cherry-picked passages from wikipedia), say this: “The association of Copernicus’s ideas with the ancient central fire cosmology of Pythagoras was more than a dismissal of the antiquity of heliocentrism; it was especially damning, inasmuch as it implied other shared heresies, such as the Pythagorean belief in the transmigration of souls. Such teachings were not to be tolerated in post-Tridentine Rome.”

In other words: there was just so much going on in the actual historical situation that seeing Bruno’s conviction as the church vs science is more than highly misleading: it’s flat wrong.

Finally, George–and this will be my last comment on Bruno–please note the chronology in this part of that quote from wikipedia: it simply states (accurately) that Bruno was seen as a martyr for science in that period. So much has since been written about Bruno, starting with the famous work of Dame Frances Yates in the 1960s.
Her seminal book is one that I read very carefully in grad school, even writing a paper solely about that book.

Please pay close attention to the accurate summary of her book’s thesis in that wiki article.

Finally, I will say that Bruno was questioned on 34 specific matters. A document from the trial listing all of these was found in 1942. The summary of the questioning contains 261 paragraphs in all. There was indeed much interest in his position on the plurality of worlds (16 paragraphs) and some interest in his position on the eternity of the world (10 paragraphs), which of course had been taught by Aristotle and denied in the famous condemnation of 1277. No other properly scientific topics are among the other 34 topics, and even those two questions were at least as much philosophical/theological as they were scientific. This should suffice by itself to refute the claim that he was burned for making certain scientific claims. Take those 26 paragraphs out and you still have everything else.


Hey! Now I’m starting to see some light to go with all the heat.

Are you saying that part of White’s Conflict Thesis is this conflict is a logical necessity due to the premises of the two sides? Because I would certainly have to oppose such an assertion!

However, if the “logical necessity” of the Conflict is a distortion of White’s original thesis, we need to make this distortion the main point of our future discussions.

Up until now, my position has always been that there has been Conflict, but because of the fears and anxieties of a long chain of religious leaders, not because there was no way for the two camps to reconcile.

We have the proof that they Can reconcile: In the early episodes of the Cosmos TV remake, the Catholic Church was the implicit villain, and today the Catholic Church is more or less at peace with God’s Book of Nature.

And latter episodes of Cosmos, with a good bit of intentional finesse if you ask me, switch the villain to the circles of American Protestant Evangelicals that have decided to make Evolution an issue. And yet Presbyterians or Congregational communities don’t really support a very strong stance against Evolution.

(Note: Some evangelical groups have not taken an official position on Evolution, and wrangle internally about how much should the unofficial position 6-Day Creation should be uniformly accepted by of their most ardent supporters and/or their most wealthy supporters. Technically speaking, the Nazarene Church has not taken an official position on Evolution. But the average Nazarene frequently insists that to be in sync with all Evangelicals, that position is the default position.)

So, Ted, which do you think is the normal state of the Conflict Thesis?:

  1. Conflict is inescapable because Religion and Science are fundamentally different.
  2. Conflict is the occasional result of the unique history of any given denomination.

This thread clearly demonstrates that the so-called “conflict thesis” has never been so much about “science and religion” as it is about contending worldviews—or even conflicting religious traditions. Note also that the first episode of the new Cosmos with Tyson, during the scene where Bruno is getting the boot from Oxford theologians, the writers for the series have him exclaim in frustration, “your god is too small.” In short, the “conflict” is real—but it has never been, and still is not, between “science and religion.”

@JCUngureanu, I think Maybe we could believe that … if the only person involved was Bruno.

Have you ever stopped to consider that if you are a modern Presbyterian who is quite content and satisfied that human creation was via Evolutionary forces… your Faith-and-Worldview includes Evolution.

So when a Baptist Evangelical challenges Evolution … he is equally challenging your religious view as well. Is the Presbyterian delighted to have someone impose a 6 day creation on his understanding of what is real about God and nature?


I have to wonder if you are not over-exerting in an effort to remove Bruno entirely from the catalog of evidences in refuting the traditional interpretation of the Conflict Thesis. I know it is handy to make a clean sweep of anything dealing with Bruno, but it doesn’t seem to require it. Even without Bruno, the simple truth that religious zeal stifled generations of ‘Natural Philosophers’ (for example, prohibitions against dissecting human bodies) is enough to see that the Conflict Thesis can’t be entirely refuted.

Burning any living human is not a casual affair. And based on the footnoted material, for Bruno’s naturalistic belief that there were other worlds, with other peoples to attract so much attention in his Vatican-sponsored trial would suggest, at the very least, that his ideas had moved beyond mere metaphysics.

In the interests of time and your schedule, let me pull out the one clarification I am hoping for from you:


I do not support those who would say Conflict between Science and Religion is inevitable. But I cannot support the idea that there has not been conflict between them.


(Mea Culpa! Having just discovered these follow-on postings, I apologize for exiting the thread without thoroughly checking the thread for multiple postings!)

Yes, I concur that there was more than just naturalism at stake in the Bruno case. It did not escape my notice that the Numbers quote was something Numbers was quoting, rather than something he wrote himself.

But I included his quote because I thought it was still valid, even if Numbers didn’t! Is the Bruno case really so complex that any inclusion of metaphysics in his conviction exonerates the Church’s persecution of those with “unacceptable” claims in Natural Philosophy? For example, one could argue that Galileo’s assertion that celestial bodies were not perfect was an assault on the Church’s view of metaphysics… but it is only in retrospect we know the imperfection of celestial bodies is not a metaphysical claim.

Do we sweep the table completely free of Bruno’s tragic case … really tragic … because in hindsight we can knowingly examine Bruno’s claims for Pythagorean reincarnation was not a claim that could be categorized with Galileo’s imperfect lunar landscape?

Let me offer the gesture of sweeping the table of Bruno “on your behalf”. I would continue to assert that even without Bruno, there is still more than enough in the history of 2000 years to sustain the Conflict Thesis, even if some writers with Protestant sympathies exaggerated the evidence here and there. . . . to be followed later by other writers, with no religious sympathies at all, who also exaggerated some evidences.

Respectfully, George

What “catalog”, George? What you have, so far is a catalog of one (Bruno), and even that entry falls apart under examination – other than as a case that the church did burn people at the stake for heresies (a very bad thing, yes, but not the same as the church having consistent conflict with science).

You do appear to soften your position somewhat then when you write:

One could argue that … with the obvious weakness that if this was an attack on the church, then somebody should probably have informed Galileo. He didn’t seem to think he was attacking the church or its theology. He was writing from within Catholicism. That some took it as an affront (that somebody not trained in theology would presume to lecture theolgians) is not a great surprise. But mostly this has only been seen as an “attack on religion” by ideological purveyors of the conflict thesis. That you want to fight to see Galileo that way is understandable. Your “evidence catalog” of two (Bruno and Galileo) is pretty thin ice --and turns into almost nothing at all when real historians look into it.

So those who are desperate to promote the CONFLICT thesis, are to history what so many pseudosciences have been to science. We need to remind Dawkins, Nye, Tyson, & co. (and you, George!) that pushers of this thesis occupy the same intellectual ground as those pushing the pseudosciences you so despise.

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The discussion up to now has been more of a “house-keeping” chore … of how to categorize or treat the more notorious “cliché’s” of the Conflict Thesis.

The usual “trigger cases” are Bruno, sometimes Columbus (which frankly, was more of an amusement than anything else, since it mostly centered on “common beliefs/superstitions” rather than on the Church imposing its will on Columbus or enthroned leaders).

These two items do not exhaust the “catalog”. Depending on what one is trying to prove, we can go all the way back to Socrates, who was put to death for teaching the youth of Athen not to believe in the Gods - - which is pretty ironic! Imagine putting someone to death because he said “You don’t really think there is a god named Mercury with wings on his ankles, do you?”

Part of the problem with descriptions of the Conflict Thesis is the application of the generic word: “Religion”. As I’ve written elsewhere, it really isn’t about “Science vs. Religion”. Over the course of multiple generations it has been about “Science” vs. Various and Changing Denominations" !

1] The Vatican used to be a problem; it no longer is.
2] The Calvinists used to be a problem; they no longer are.
3] The American Episcopal Church used to be a problem
(my Great Grandfather the priest who felt compelled to
resign); I don’t believe that group is a problem any more.
4] The Victorian-era Flat-Earthers emerged out of nowhere …
and now only sardonic remnants of it are left.
5] And if I were to dig deeply into the archives of the
Spanish Inquisition, I’m confident that I would find many
cases of legal actions based purely on contrary naturalist
views, rather than metaphysical arguments about reincarnation.

Your good discussion about Galileo is Perfect ! I agree with you that he probably didn’t think he was attacking “the Church” - - which for an Italian would only be the Roman Catholics. And yet “religion” (or a specific denomination) certainly came after Galileo!

This is what I think is the valid core of the Conflict Thesis. It’s not destined. It’s not “unavoidable”. It is completely an accident of the times and the dominant denominations in existence at the time
and place.

So … I’m going to try to be consistent about terminology. I’m going to avoid the phrase “Science vs. Religion”… when in fact, it is a case-by-case progression of Science vs. Denomination !

Certainly folks like me, who supports BioLogos, should want to avoid broad sweeping generalities like science “Vs. Religion”! I don’t oppose all religion … or even most religion.

But then, suddenly, we have the New Atheist crowd who certainly Do want to “throw down” against any and all religions!

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Okay – I think all that sounds pretty reasonable. I would add though, that just like “religion” is not one monolithic thing through all time, the same is true of “science”. Natural philosophy back then came bundled with things that would would not bundle with science now. So we only extend this conflict back so far into ancient times by anachronistically extending our (one!?) modern take on science (which we all agree on, of course, right? :->) back into all those previous centuries.

@Mervin_Bitikofer, I can tag along with what you are saying above… but not if you are going to use it as a bowling ball to knock down any remaining pins of “conflict”.

The Four Element model of chemistry prevailed for centuries … even past the founding of America! But what a Denomination finds offensive about one kind of inaccurate science may not be the part that is inaccurate … but some part of science that the Correct Science would also share.

For example, the prohibition against the dissection of the human body. The Catholic Church didn’t oppose this practice because the doctors were wrong about balancing the bodily humors. The Catholic Church opposed it for reasons so odd, I literally and frequently can’t remember the reason.

Back when virtually all Astronomers were also working Astrologers … the Church didn’t oppose Astrology because it was baloney - - the church opposed it because it was immoral to rely on the dark forces of the Universe to obtain your special insights into the future!

I understand the desire to not fall helplessly into the errors of the Conflict Thesis. But I think the modern writers are just a little too quick to sweep it all aside as trash. The Church, and then the great Protestant diaspora, offered Plenty of urgency and zeal to hunting down people who thought “new” or “different” things … and punished them for the privilege.

There’s nothing fictional about the conflict of some churches with some students of science or the earlier natural philosophy.

But don’t you want the erroneous “pins” to get knocked down so that you can refine your argument (or even better yet, realize how starved for evidence it is)? You set up one more that really just must be knocked down – the whole alleged church opposition to dissection.

Cutting into human bodies was pretty much taboo in nearly every culture through all antiquity with a couple notable exceptions such as mummification processes in Egypt or in 3rd century BC Alexandria. But by and large, nobody did this – even Galen (2nd century Greek --not much in the way of “church influence” here yet, much less on a pagan Greek) did not do his dissections on humans but on animals instead, supposing that what he learned there should apply to humans. So given all this, one should be properly shocked to find the revolutionary practice of dissection starting up …when and where? Northern Italy toward the end of the 13th century! No church disapproval in sight. In fact Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) is on record ordering the forensic examination (autopsy) of a murder victim! To quote James Hannam “God’s Philosophers”: “If the Catholic Church had really objected strongly to human dissections, they would not have rapidly become part of the syllabus in every major European medical school.” (p. 255) Hannam also tells of a papal bull that forbid the boiling of corpses (which had apparently become a common practice to help separate flesh from bones of deceased crusaders, making it easier to repatriate the deceased for burial back home.) But this cannot be confused with opposition to human dissection generally --at least not by those who trouble themselves to look at the facts.

So just take a breath and repeat this litany: “faked moon landings, holocaust denial, medieval flat earth, church opposition to dissection, CONFLICT thesis between science and religion.” These are all members of the same intellectual family. It is no trouble at all to make sure that if you stand up some bowling pins, they ought to be golden ones, not the other kind. You’re welcome.

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