This thrilling drama suffers from only one limitation: it is not true. Historian David Lindberg writes, “There was no warfare between science and the church.” Indeed, historians are virtually unanimous in holding that the whole science versus religion story is a nineteenth-century fabrication. The names of the fabricators are known. The first is John William Draper, who introduced the “warfare” model in his popular 1874 book History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. This book is full of whoppers and lies, and is today read mostly as a case study in fin de siecle anti-religious prejudice. The second source is Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell University, whose 1896 two- volume study History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom is a more sophisticated warfare account, but no less misleading than Draper’s.
The source documents have now been discredited, but their tune continues to be sounded by leading atheist writers. This tune is now hummed throughout our modern culture, even by people who know very little about the details of the issues involved. To this day many people believe that the medieval church held that the earth was flatuntil modern science demonstrated to an exasperated clergy the roundness of the globe. In reality the ancient Greeks and the medieval Christians all knew that the earth was round. They observed that the hull of a ship sailing from shore disappears before the top of the mast. They also saw that during a lunar eclipse the earth casts a circular shadow on the moon. Dante’s medieval cosmology was based on the idea of a spherical earth. So the idea that the church or educated Christians believed in the flat-earth theory is a concoction of the nineteenth- century “warfare” propagandists.
Other well-known episodes in the great war also require serious revision. Do you recall hearing about the famous debate between the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and Darwin’s ally Thomas Henry Huxley, in which the ignorant bishop taunted Huxley and Huxley shot back with a crushing rebuttal? “The exchange quickly became legendary,” notes Edward Larson in his book Evolution. As Larson and others tell the story, Wilberforce inquired of Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he was descended from a monkey. Huxley replied with great dignity that he would rather have a miserable ape for a relative than a bishop who used the authority of his office to ridicule scientific debate on a serious question. So widely reported was this exchange that historians who checked the transcripts of the British Association were surprised to discover that it never happened. Darwin’s friend Joseph Hooker was present at the debate, and he reported to Darwin that Huxley made no response to Wilberforce’s arguments. Larson’s use of “legendary” acquires a quite literal meaning in this context.