Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White.

A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom is both a part of history and a book about history. In 1865, Andrew Dickson White was the founding president of Cornell University.  He conceived it as an institution that “should exclude no sex or color” and “should afford an asylum for science” (White, p. 13). Almost immediately, White and Cornell were attacked by administrators of sectarian colleges, who described the new university as irreligious and immoral. White responded with a series of lectures defending his university. These lectures grew into written thoughts which, over a period of thirty years, (interrupted by duties at Cornell and ambassadorships to Germany and Russia), became the work we have today. It was published in 1896.

White’s thesis was that “theology” was the villain in the struggle against science; not “religion.” In his chapter on astronomy, White states that misinformation and attempts to hamper science concerning heliocentric theory were “not the fault of religion; it was the fault of that short-sighted linking of theological dogmas to scriptural texts which, in utter defiance of the words and works of the Blessed Founder of Christianity, narrow-minded, loud-voiced men are ever prone to substitute for religion” (White, p. 153). While this attempt to divide theology and religion is the author’s tactic throughout the book, it is unclear if White truly believes what he is saying, or if he is strategically attempting to drive a wedge between religious leaders and the believing flock.

Regardless of his motivations, White’s reasoning is unsound even to an atheist like myself: Theology is the study of religion. Religion, in the Judeo-Christian sense, is a revelation by God to his followers. The chronicle of that revelation is the Bible. Any reader of the Bible can easily identify the verses that support the notion that the Sun travels around the Earth: 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalms 93:1, Psalms 104:5 and Ecclesiastes 1:5, all clearly state this belief. It is not a matter of theological interpretation by church leaders, or the over-intellectualizing of medieval scholars; it is an aspect of revealed religious belief. But whether these wedge ideas were honest opinions of White’s, or just propaganda, is immaterial to the result. His generation of voices weakened the religious claim upon explanation of the physical world.

The structure of the book is simple. Each chapter is devoted to a scientific issue: Cosmology, Evolution, Geology and Archaeology, to name a few. Each example shows a consistent pattern by presenting Christian beliefs (identified by White as “theology”), presenting the scientific challenge, then showing the reaction of religious leaders. The response of religious leaders begins with threats, brutality and censorship, moves on to compromise and ends with the inevitable surrender of ground to science. This element of the book is methodical and well-documented, presenting a chronology of religious misunderstanding and the answers of science. With this evidence, White is most convincing.

The author concludes his tome with an attempt to drive the wedge deeper between leader and flock. He contends that “science in general has acted powerfully to dissolve away the theories and dogmas of the older theologic interpretation,” helping to purify the sacred texts of a confusing overlay (White, p. 500). This view places science on the side of religion and its followers, against interpreters of the Bible. What exceptionally bold misrepresentation: stating that science has done more for scripture than have Christian scholars and leaders. But it’s propaganda and one has to admire his temerity. More plausible are his chronologies, of science’s advance and religion’s retreat, concerning explanations of the physical world. In the end, it was writing like this which deftly slid between the grip of religion on the throat of science and dislodged it. We breathe more freely today, with unencumbered scientific study and fewer clerics administering universities, thanks to people like Andrew Dickson White.

White, Andrew Dickson. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. New York: The Free Press, 1965.

For review of a good general history of Western Science, see: