New Atheists and the Conflict between Science and Religion

(system) #1
What the New Atheists want you to believe about the historical relationship between science and religion, and why it's entirely false.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Phil) #2

The promotion of conflict seems to be the modus operandi of many modern institutions and organizations, be they political, religious, or educational. It generates emotions and donations. Biologos seems to be an outlier in that they are trying to promote understanding and harmony. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they catch it from both sides.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #3

Very true, Phil. On the religious side, the reality of spiritual warfare (and biblical references to it) is surely part of the motivation for this; and on the secular side, the fear of theocracy (and the reality of it in some parts of the modern world) is surely part of the motivation. BL isn’t interested in advancing theocracy. Spiritual warfare is part of our lives as Christians, but that need not translate into denying well supported scientific conclusions about the past. The same evidence is available to all people, and the assumption that nature works the same way now as in the past is actually (IMO) consistent with Christian theological teachings since at least the time of Basil and Augustine. That assumption is also directly testable now, at least in some instances–such as studies of spectral lines from distant objects showing that certain laws and constants in nature apply not only to what we encounter here and now on Earth, but also to other parts of the universe in the distant past.

There simply is no need for us (as Christians) to make war on science, and there is no reason for secular people to use science to make war on us.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #4

Let me add that when Tyson’s series was airing I saw a fair bit of discussion about it among historians, and I don’t recall that any of that was positive. To say that historians reject the approach that he and Sagan have taken is a very broad, but entirely valid, generalization.

(Preston Garrison) #5

I wrote down something Jonah Goldberg wrote once in National Review that I thought got to the problem. He said “Science is very good at the things that science is good at. Otherwise it tends to look for its car keys where the light is good.”

(James Ungureanu) #6

Although there is much that is good here, I think there are also many misunderstandings. First, Draper did not “turn” into an historian. Most nineteenth-century men of science meshed their scientific endeavours with certain metaphysical assumptions. Draper was always interested in history. He was already making historical arguments in his early lectures of the 1830s. And the Catholic Church wasn’t simply his “main target.” He also attacked the Evangelical Alliance and other more conservative Protestant traditions. Moreover, most of the _History of the Conflict_was taken from his earlier work, where he did make a distinction (like White), between “religion” and “dogmatic theology” (or “ecclesiastical systems” of any kind). Furthermore, although White claimed to be targeting “dogmatic theology,” his narrative seemed to attack Christianity core and all.

So just to clarify (and extend) Snobelen’s point—both Draper and White were pitting two distinct theological traditions against one another: a progressive liberal Christianity against a more traditional conservative Christianity. While Draper seemed to uphold a more rationalistic Christianity, White promoted the more romantic Christianity of Matthew Arnold and other American liberal Protestants at the end of the century.

Thus while they offered the essential elements of what would become the “conflict thesis,” they did not believe that there was essential and irrevocable conflict between “religion and science.”

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #7

Whereas I certainly agree that there is serious conflict between good science and Christianity, I would say in light of the events of 2016 that to claim that there is no conflict between a real form of religion and some aspects of science. I think that we need to change our approach and be more critical of bad science and bad religion.

Dawkins is very clear about the conflict that he finds between science and religion. He sees religion as embracing Western mind/body dualism, which is generally true, while science embraces monism in the form of materialism, which is true certainly for his brand of science. This is a real conflict of philosophical world views that needs to be discussed and evaluated from many aspects.

The problem from my point of view is neither Western mind/body dualism nor materialist ( or idealist) are adequate to meet the needs of contemporary thinking. Certainly neither side is going to accept the other’s point of view as right. A third view needs to be constructed.

We can discuss the details of history to kingdom come, and we need to understand our history, but this will not solve the real conflict problem.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #8

Thank you for adding your insights and nuances to this post, James. I fully agree with this part of your comment–which is a central point in a book I’m finishing–and much of the rest. I hope you will come back often to my blog and contribute. Let me simply say, for the benefit of other readers, that James is finishing a doctorate in history of science under Peter Harrison at Queensland–which is a very high qualification.

I didn’t know some of this information, though I can’t speak for Steve Snobelen. I know much more about White than about Draper. I know their two big books quite well, especially White’s (even bigger one), with which I’ve been working fairly extensively recently as I complete a project about American religion and science in the early 20th century. And I have a decent working grasp of White’s career and other work–but not Draper. If we limit the field to Draper’s book on the conflict thesis (leaving out his earlier book on the intellectual development of Europe, which I have not studied carefully though I have a copy), I think it’s fair to say that Roman Catholicism was his major target. Protestants are given a pass, but Muslims and Protestants come off better than Catholics. Draper simply hated Catholicism partly for family reasons; on this, listen to Ron Numbers’ podcast here: In his view (as seen in the book), the Catholic Church was so closely tied to political power that they merited a special animus. Ultimately (consistent with what you say) it was ecclesiastical power that he detested, and Catholicism just had more of it.

A lot of work remains to be done on both men and their legacy. I was part of a conference on this two years ago and learned much from it, but I don’t recall learning very much about Draper’s background and don’t recall anything about any specific attacks on fellow Protestants such as those you mention. Again–thank you for this.

As for White, we agree that White made a wholesale attack on Christianity, but it was specifically Christian thought that he attacked wholesale, not Christian ethics, which he wanted badly to preserve. In his view, Christian thought and Christian higher education were essentially oxymorons–a view that seems to be shared by Dawkins, Coyne, and Sagan among others. He wanted a purely secular education; indeed nothing else in his view was worthy of being called education. Incidentally, White’s college roommate at Yale was none other than Daniel Coit Gilman, the first president of the first research university in the USA, Johns Hopkins. I don’t think it’s an accident that the public launching of JHU included an address by Thomas Henry Huxley, who also had a very low view of Christian education.

Perhaps the best indication of White’s agenda is the flowery preface to his magnum opus:, especially the final lines: “My conviction is that Science, though it has evidently conquered Dogmatic Theology based on biblical texts and ancient modes of thought, will go hand in hand with Religion; and that, although theological control will continue to diminish, Religion, as seen in the recognition of “a Power in the universe, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness,” and in the love of God and of our neighbor, will steadily grow stronger and stronger, not only in the American institutions of learning but in the world at large. Thus may the declaration of Micah as to the requirements of Jehovah, the definition by St. James of “pure religion and undefiled,” and, above all, the precepts and ideals of the blessed Founder of Christianity himself, be brought to bear more and more effectively on mankind.”

Anytime you encounter language of that sort in an early 20th century American author–especially the reference to “pure religion and undefiled”–it’s likely that you’re seeing White’s footsteps. He did indeed want a type of liberal religion that jettisoned the bodily Resurrection and the Deity of Jesus while keeping the Sermon on the Mount. As the later “modernist” Christians would say, they wanted the religion of Jesus, not the Jesus of religion.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #9

I meant to write, Protestants are not given a pass…

(James Ungureanu) #10

Thank you for the kind words. I know Snobelen’s work well. I’ve been following him since my undergrad days. He changed my world when it came to Newton scholarship. In my post I just wanted to clarify some points.

I hope to publish parts of my dissertation soon, as it is all about Draper and White and the so-called “conflict thesis.”

Both Draper and White believed their work would ultimately lead to a reconciliation between science and religion. So I think it is incorrect to say they were co-founders of the “conflict thesis,” as so many historians have done. I think it’s better to say that they provided certain key elements of the thesis—but the notion that “religion and science” have always been at loggerheads comes after Draper and White, when freethinkers, secularists, and atheists proper appropriated their narratives in their campaign to rid the world of all religion. Thus in an important sense, Draper and White lost control of their narratives.

The story about Draper’s sister, Elizabeth, comes from Donald Fleming’s biography of Draper, written in the 1940s. Fleming learned about the story from Draper’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter. There is no written record otherwise (Fleming even admits this). For all we know the story could be entirely apocryphal. What we do know, however, is that most nineteenth-century Protestant Englishmen were anti-Catholic. Draper’s Wesleyan background alone was enough to make him anti-Catholic. This is one of the reasons why I think citing Draper’s anti-Catholic sentiments doesn’t tell us much. In fact, I think Draper was trying to save Catholicism from what he believed was self-annihilation. Thus we should be discussing how certain elements of the “conflict thesis” were an extension of Protestant vs. Catholic polemics.

Regarding White, he actually went out of his way to give Cornell a “Christian” foundation. He did, after all, install Sage Chapel and encouraged students to attend its religious services. In private letters and many public statements, White maintained that Cornell was a “Christian” university. He wanted, however, a “non-sectarian” university—which is, I think, different from “secular.” His model for university education was taken from the Humboldtian University of Berlin—which, again, was non-sectarian. Incidentally, the University of London, which is where Draper studied before emigrating to America, also derived its model mostly from Berlin.

With my thesis, I hope to show that both Draper and White were far more complex than what most historians of science and religion have led us to believe. Maybe I can post about it on BioLogos!


Minor note: Tyson is an agnostic, not an atheist.


One of the most preposterous claims that certain atheists (not all) have made is that religion is mental illness. That would mean that almost all people who have ever lived in the past, and most people alive today are mentally ill. What incredible and delusional chutzpah!

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #13


It has been brought to my attention that while the Old Atheism was primarily Philosophy against Christianity, the New Atheism is about Science against Christianity.

Bertrand Russell, a philosopher, is the prime example of the Old Atheism, while Richard Dawkins, a popularizer of Darwinism, is the primary thinker of the New Atheism. Indeed Dawkins denigrates the discipline of philosophy.

The fact is that humans need to understand science, philosophy, and theology (Christianity), not either/or, but both/and. Serious problems arise when we exclude one of these, or impose one over the others as the Old Atheists, the New Atheists, and the Fundamentalists do.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #14

My column for Jan 19 will pick up on the learned comments from James Ungureanu. Stay tuned!

(Doug B) #15

In response to the 3rd article where comments aren’t loading-

Regarding Universe From Nothing, can we not simply assert (devastatingly of course) that to presuppose an effect without a cause, at any stage, is itself a philosophical choice. Religion is happy to do this; indeed, orthodox Christianity demands it. However, the scientist that is satisfied with the proposition has left the domain of empirical science because they cannot prove this position. So Universe From Nothing isn’t science.

So I take much of Conflict Theory as a battle between philosophical positions. A historian certainly has no business proving or debunking anything here. In fact I would assert historians have no business debunking anything except technical (evidentiary) history. To argue that opponents have ignored certain historical facts is reminiscent of the 19th century Whig and Tory historians now known mostly for their polemical partisanship than insightful history. Butterfield would study them for their vestigial contribution to human historiography.

Finally, I would say Conflict Theory is what does not really exist. There are certainly many fruitful ways we can study the relationship between science and religion/faith. That a huge swath of this country denies a/the central tenant of biology in the name of their Christian faith is itself a historical situation (conflict) to be studied. And I’d say Biologos has done this exceptionally well tracing things back to Adventists prophetesses for example.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #16

When science determined that the Big Bang is true, it means that science cannot go back in time before the beginning, which is nothing in terms of matter, energy, space, and time. There is no reason to assert there is no infinite cause and effect, because we have clear evidence that there is on fact a Beginning.

Therefore, there is no conflict between science and theology over Creation ex nihilo because science cannot say what happened before the beginning. Dawkins tries to claim that the universe was not created out of nothing, or has no beginning, which is not true.

Philosophy has claimed that the universe is eternal, so there is no Beginning. Now that science has demonstrated that this is false, it follows that God created the universe ex nihilo.

Dawkins asserts a conflict between monist materialism and Western dualism, which is a false dichotomy. The only real conflict is in the form of dualism itself.

(George Brooks) #17

The pictures of the pair “Neil deGrasse Tyson (left), one of today’s most successful popularizers of science… , [with] the late Carl Sagan (right)” certainly captures the state of the popular mind!

What a wonderfully timely article… January 2017!!! I’ll be back with an assessment … in a jiff !

[time machine stops humming… okay, I’m back!]

While I think the writers have done a nice job of explaining that sometimes people exaggerate trends found within the human condition, I have to politely object to this section:

“While a careful consideration of the context of these two books helps to explain their original motivations, it is nevertheless the case that collectively Draper and White’s biased, selective and tendentious accounts did much damage to relations between science and religion by introducing the metaphors of conflict and warfare to popular and even scholarly understandings of the history of science and religion.”

Implying that the contentious state between Creationists and Christian Evolutionists on White et al. doesn’t seem very fair-minded. I can easily imagine the polemics circulating during White’s day … I can imagine why he was attempting to align science with anti-Catholic forces… despite the fact that it was now Protestant amateurs that were increasingly plaguing a naturalist interpretation of the Universe.

Let us not forget that as early as 1849 that Englishman Rowbotham was popularizing his new scientific evidences for a flat earth… and his writings and experiments were frequently re-attempted and carried on right past White’s time into the 1900s!

In a time of easy prejudices and even easier superstitions, to have the physics of the Earth so blatantly challenged by those who had no real interest in cosmology is not something to be lightly ignored. Being able to laugh at the Victorian Flat-Earthers does not remove the problem of that day … which carries on into the more contemporary period.

I think we all want Conflict with Religion to end. And in many quarters it has ended. The Roman Catholic church now embraces science with refreshing enthusiasm.

So… maybe we should stop generalizing the Conflict. It is not a Conflict with Religion. It is a conflict with some very specific and large denominations. I don’t believe these denominations will allow themselves to be reformed.

And this is not because of the writings of White and other champions of an over-stated description of the Conflict Thesis.