The Conflict Thesis

@paulbraterman we were discussing the conflict thesis. Have you see this article yet?

If you haven’t done so yet, join our mailing list. Tomorrow, the first in a series of excerpts on this topic is coming out.


But is Kemp?

The problem seems to be that he is dismissing an explicit “Warfare Thesis”, that raises the bar far higher than mere conflict:

First, the thesis presupposes that the line between scientific matters and theological matters is fairly clear.

Are clear lines of division required for there to be a conflict? I would not think so. I’ve seen no end of messy complicated conflicts.

Second, the Warfare Thesis suggests that the controversies (whether over substantive matters or over the exact location of lines of demarcation) saw scientists arrayed on one side of the issue and theologians arrayed on the other.

Did the existence of German resistance fighters and English collaborators mean that WWII didn’t happen? Of course not.

Finally, the thesis suggests that what conflict there was was always due to the unreasoning resistance of theologians to new ideas.

I see no reason why a conflict would require one side to be entirely in the wrong.

At best, Kemp would appear to be demonstrating that the relationship between science and religion is less than the perfect platonic ideal of a Manichean war between light and darkness.

This may render the Conflict Thesis imperfect, but it doesn’t disprove it.

It arguably also disproves too much. The Cold War would arguably fail Kemp’s “three reasons”: it was (in Kemp’s words) a “war that never was”, in that there was never open warfare between the American led NATO and Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, and contained a mess of ambiguities and contradictions, and villainies committed by both sides. However it remains one of the most important conflicts of the 20th Century.

I’m not sure that the Conflict Thesis is even a good thesis, but it is not without at least some explanatory power. Where scientific advances in fields such as cosmology, geology and biology have seemed to threaten religious people’s sense of their place in the universe, there has been a reactionary seam of conflict against it. Whilst I am not claiming that this reaction is pervasive, I cannot see it easily being explained by the competing “Independence”, “Dialogue” and “Integration” theses.

And given that the issues of first Climate Change, and more recently Anti-Vax have seeped into the Culture Wars, I see a thesis that has some explanatory power over areas of conflict as having some importance.

At other times, however, the source of the problem is rather the aggressive scientism, agnosticism, or atheism of scientists (or of science-enthusiasts) who fail to distinguish between the genuine fruit of scientific inquiry and the naturalistic or atheistic philosophy in which they manage to entangle it.

I have yet to see any evidence that this rises to the level of a substantive problem.

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Yeah that’s what he is discussing. We just started a series on this:

Keep in mind they are discussing a particular idea put forward in history.

I don’t think anyone disputes this. Even a broken clock is right two times a day.

Did any scholar ever actually suggest a conflict between science and religion (by which it appears we mean the Christian church) over the shape of the earth? I’d like to see some documentation. The real conflict seems to have been over heliocentrism, deep time, the Flood, and evolution. Are these valid areas of confict? Are there others?

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Yes they did. Read the series we are releasing, starting here: Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes .

I don’t find anything there about a scholarly claim, just a popular belief that made it into grade-school textbooks. Nothing about a conflict either, except when heliocentrism and a round earth are conflated in a garbled account of Galileo’s persecution.

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Well, it certainly is in the academic literature:

John William Draper, History of the Conflict Religion , D. Appleton and Co. (1881)

White, Andrew Dickson (1876). The Warfare of Science . New York D. Appleton.

Just spend some time talking to historians of science, and usually in the first conversation they will complain about the conflict/warfare thesis, much in the same way that biologists complain about YEC in interdisciplinary conversations.


I asked about the supposed flat-earth controversy. Was that not clear? You pointed me toward urban legends about Columbus and Galileo. Now you point me toward a general discussion of the conflict thesis. Neither seems relevant.

I’m pretty sure that Draper White make those claims about a flat earth. I’ll point Derrick @subrationedei here too. Perhaps he will answer.

Draper and White use the flat earth myth (which they are in part responsible for inventing) as a centerpiece, one might even say mascot, for their broader ideas of conflict. It represents for them the emerging literalism that would become a staple for creationism in the mid 20th century. On the other side, Samuel Robotham, the man who styled himself with the nickname Parallax and is largely single handedly responsible for the myth of the flat earth as he perpetuated it as part of his broader money making strategy along with quite literal snake oil salesmanship, is also one of the first to invent the myth of the perpetual war of science and Christianity, and this primarily in terms of the flat earth. His argument is startlingly similar to that which we find in creationism among Seventh Day Adventists following Ellen White’s supposed prophetic visions: a literal, clear eyed reading of Genesis not only leads to a young earth, but a decidedly flat one. To believe otherwise is to place one’s faith in godless science that has forsake God, and with its professionalization in the Royal Society, has forgotten the common man’s opinions of what he sees in nature. The flat earth myth migrates from here into the very definition of scientist, where William Whewell, who coined the term scientist in 1833, uses the flat earth myth as representative of the Dark Ages supposedly perpetuated by Catholics that he, as a good Anglican and scientist, finds reprehensible. Thus several things are historically tied together: the flat earth, the conflict of science and Christianity, and the emerging class conflict and conflict over the professionalization of science and what that means. The flat earth is constantly and consistently from the 1830’s used in the literature (again, White and Draper being particularly relevant examples) as not only representing the conflict of science and Christianity, but being one of its primary driving forces. Belief in a flat earth did not really exist before the early 19th century. But because it arrived at this time, was tied to an emerging biblical literalism that fancied itself as for the common man and against the emerging professionalization and elitism of science, and flat earth defenders quite literally had public debates with key figures like Alfred Russel Wallace in the emergence of Darwinian evolution, became styled as the key element of Christian opposition to science (despite the fact that many who wrote this, such as White, were themselves Christian and were ultimately championing a different vision of true synthesis between religion and science as opposed to flat earthism and its literalistic creation myths etc). This also occurred at the same moment history (and then history of science) were themselves becoming institutionalized in universities as a recognized discipline. So suddenly, despite having little to no precedent and standing on myths like that of Columbus, the flat earth as the key factor of Christian opposition to science found an artificial pedigree in history of science textbooks that painted it as a historically perennial occurrence.

In addition it made its way into others like the father of the history of science like George Sarton, who put the work of White and Draper into textbook form where the open polemics were lost, and the idea that this was “history as it happened” because of the more subdued, dry as dust wisdom that Sarton exuded gave it impeccable street credit among scholars. The association between this myth, science, and the emergent discipline of the history of science continues to this day as many scientific figures like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and others, perpetuate the idea that Christians because of the flat earth, and now six-day creationism, have always opposed science in the majority. The flat earth might just seem like some bizarre but ultimately innocuous pop culture myth, but it is part of the very homework of the history of science, and even the defining moment of the coining of “scientist.” While medievalists and historians of Christianity have for some time known it is total bunk, truly expunging it from scientific works was no small thing. Neil Degrasse Tyson not just a few years ago tweeted that it was part of the Christian dark ages, and that is was why Christians laughed at Columbus. The flat earth is a constant and vexing tool of many scientists who should know better but who show a startling lack of curiosity at anything other than their pet subjects or in their broader communiques to a public that hangs on every word like the oracles of old. It is no little problem, however bizarre it seems.


Thanks @subrationedei . I’m curious @PdotdQ 's thoughts too, as a physicist that engages with flat earthers. Do they see it as a recent belief or an old belief?

Draper promotes the myth that pre-modern Christians largely accepted a flat earth. White claimed (in a famous 1869 speech) only that Ferdinand Magellan somehow “proved the earth to be round,” even though every educated European of the sixteenth century already knew it.

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Partly accurate, but misleading.

Draper and White argued that science conflicted not with “religion” as they understood it, but only with traditional Christian theology. White’s title is explicitly about the “warfare of science with theology in Christendom.” White regarded himself as a liberal Christian of sorts, but really defined his faith by borrowing the words of Matthew Arnold about there being a power, “not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.” Draper hated Catholicism, especially for how it had often been closely tied to secular power in many places, such that orthodoxy was enforced by authorities. The notion of “intrinsic intellectual conflict between religion and science” is a harsher form of the conflict thesis, endorsed not by Draper and White but by some modern scientific atheists, such as Coyne, Dawkins, Weinberg, and the late Victor Stenger (God disturb his soul).


Except that Kemp is muddying the waters on this. He may have linked to the Wikipedia page on the Conflict Thesis, but he renamed it the “Warfare Thesis”, and from his three reasons it is entirely unclear that he is in fact talking about the former. The former asserts at its core “an intrinsic intellectual conflict between religion and science”, Kemp’s three reasons ask whether there is a perfectly pervasive and one-sided conflict – a completely different question.

Please tell me Joshua, where in that Wikipedia article (or in any more rigorous delineation of the Conflict Thesis), that thesis requires “that what conflict there was was always due to the unreasoning resistance of theologians to new ideas”?

And is Kemp’s airy dismissal any less “a broken clock”? ‘The religious aren’t coming en masse with torches and pitchforks to burn every scientist at the stake, so there is no conflict.’


The proper response to a thesis that arguably overstates the level of conflict is not an argument that attempts to misrepresent the thesis and sweep the conflict under the rug, but a thesis that does a better job of explaining where and how what conflict there is arises.

Do any of the alternative perspectives do a better job of explaining this?

What historians of science point to now is “complexity.”

I’m not a historian, but my personal opinion is that this is true but also non-explanatory. This one reason that the conflict thesis is so hard to move past, because it provides an overarching meta narrative that “complexity” does not.

I think that Draper and White were wrong, and they constructed a pseudo history. But there has not yet arisen a good narrative to take its place.

Can you point to an articulation of this “Complexity” thesis/model/etc? The Conflict Thesis Wikipedia article merely mentions it in passing.

I’m emphatically not arguing that Draper and White were right. But I cannot help but feel that an argument that appears to place equal (or near equal) blame for the conflict on “evolutionists … [and] scientists”, and “the aggressive scientism, agnosticism, or atheism of scientists (or of science-enthusiasts)” is itself “a pseudo history” – if for no other reason than that the latter is a recent phenomenon, and thus arguably a product of the conflict rather than a root cause.

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Thanks for the actual informative response. So what’s going on with White and Draper? Did they merely make the assertions of flat-earth beliefs, without evidence, or did they present something to demonstrate their case?

Wouldn’t they have a better case regarding the age of the earth and heliocentrism?

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I see that Draper invokes both Lactantius and Cosmas Indicopleustes in support of his flat earth claims. And Augustine too, at least to the extent of his rejection of inhabited antipodes. It seems less a conflict between science and religion and more one between science and biblical literalism. Can we agree that the authors of the Pentateuch believed in a flat, roofed earth?

That’s not agreed upon. See what Richard Averbeck (a leading scholar on the matter) says about that here: