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The War Between Church, Science, and History

Updated on February 22, 2011
"The Trial of Galileo"
"The Trial of Galileo"

The Conflict Thesis: 19th Century Scholarship and the Galileo Affair

“The whole struggle to crush Galileo and to save him would be amusing were it not so fraught with evil”[1]. These are the words penned by Andrew Dickson White in his substantial 1896 two-volume polemic, A History of The Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom. This pugilistic treatment of the Galileo Affair – with the noble genius Galileo in one corner and the conniving Cardinals in the other – pervaded the influential histories of the late nineteenth century. Oversimplified and ideologically driven, this argument symbolized the intellectual climate of the time. The conflict sparked by Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) deeply influenced the prominent American historians Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) and John William Draper (1811-1882), an epic conflict in which they viewed science as ultimately victorious over religion[2]. It is through this lens that they foresaw the whole of history, and the Galileo Affair in particular.

All of historical study is comprised of arguments and interpretations. This paper will simply argue that the “Conflict Thesis” of White and Draper neglected or distorted evidence, attempted to simplify and dramatize the Galileo Affair at the expense of historical understanding, and ultimately proved historically unsound.

In order to understand the motives and arguments of White and Draper, one must first look to “The Crisis of 1859”, the year of publication for Darwin’s Origin of Species. While Darwin’s work itself provided many occasions for the debate between science and religion, it is also representative of the intellectual climate of the nineteenth-century. After its emergence, “Darwinism” became a complementary extension of the social evolution and materialism that had been fermenting and developing for decades beforehand. Origin of Species provided the catalyst for a new scientific understanding of the sweep of nature and new scientific endeavors (e.g. taxonomy), but perhaps more importantly, its proponents fostered “the adoption of science as a religion”[3]. The emergence of this secularism laid the foundations for the Conflict Thesis proposed by Draper and further developed by White.

John William Draper
John William Draper

Draper and the Birth of the Conflict Thesis

John William Draper was born in 1811 in England. His father was a Methodist clergyman, and Draper himself was baptized by a Wesleyan minister. Upon the death of his father in 1831, Draper and his family moved to the United States. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Draper went on to become the professor of chemistry and botany, and ultimately became a founder of the New York University School of Medicine in 1841.[4] Draper wrote a three-volume History of the American Civil War from 1867-1870, but his work History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, published in 1875, proved revolutionary. It was written only a few years after the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) wherein Pope Pius IX sought to reassert papal infallibility. Draper’s History was undoubtedly influenced by these reforms. In the concluding chapters of his History, Draper commented on the “Dogmatic Constitution” codified by Council, arguing that it “requires of all men the surrender of their intellectual convictions”.[5] He then remarked that the “whole composition is a passionate plea to Reason to stultify itself in favor of Roman Christianity”, an obvious insight into Draper’s opinions on the Roman Catholic Church.[6] In his History, Draper proposed and expounded upon his Conflict Thesis (which borrows its name from the title). Draper’s overarching approach to the historical interplay between religion and science can be found in his Preface: “The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries, it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other”.[7]

This approach proved to be very problematic for Draper’s treatment of the Galileo Affair. In essence, Draper did not draw on evidence to formulate his argument; instead, he distorted and neglected evidence in order to fit within the confines of his argument. In his History, Draper considered the Galileo Affair to be one of the defining conflicts of science and religion. Regarding Galileo’s support of Copernican heliocentrism, Draper cast Galileo as the representative of Science proper, noting that his “issue was the overthrow of the Church on the question in dispute”.[8] This is a problematic claim because Draper assumed that Galileo was motivated and inspired by science alone, neglecting his Catholic faith so prominently evident in his open letters to his friend and student, Benedetto Castelli (1613) and Tuscany’s Grand Duchess Christina (1615). While he entirely neglects the “Letter to Grand Duchess Christina”, Draper does write about the “Letter to Castelli”. He notes that after murmured accusations of heresy, “[Galileo] addressed a letter to Abbe Castelli, suggesting that the Scriptures were never intended to be a scientific authority, but only as a moral guide”.[9] It is true that in the letter Galileo argues that it is not the place of Scripture to prescribe scientific truths, but to assert that Galileo saw Scripture as merely a moral guide stands as a gross oversimplification and lacks evidential weight.

In the letter itself, Galileo does not refer to Scripture as simply a source of morality, but as the source for salvation. He states: “the authority of the Holy Writ has merely the aim of persuading men of those articles and propositions which are necessary for their salvation”.[10] Galileo’s reference to a remark made by Cardinal Baronius (1538-1607), an ecclesiastical historian, in his “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” echoes this sentiment: “…the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes”.[11] Draper’s implication does attempt to reduce Galileo’s respect of Scripture in the minds of Draper’s readers. After all, one of the underpinnings of Galileo’s argument was that “Scripture cannot err, nevertheless some of its interpreters and expositors can sometimes err in various ways”.[12] By neglecting Galileo’s loyal Catholicism and his actual views of Scripture, Draper could more easily fit the Galileo Affair into his Conflict Thesis. On this view, Galileo, the enlightened outsider is subdued “by the low and ignorant ecclesiastics”[13] of the Church. Draper’s depiction proved to be a stretch in light of Galileo’s easily accessible “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”. In the “Letter”, Galileo states that he is merely trying to inform the Church on Copernicanism, and if his work is not useful “let my book be torn and burnt, as I neither intend nor pretend to gain from it any fruit that is not pious and Catholic”.[14] Casting Galileo as the “noble outsider” might better fit the Conflict Thesis, but it did not fit square within the actual historical record.

Galileo facing the Inquisition
Galileo facing the Inquisition

Mythology v. History

In reality, the noble Galileo and the villainous Pope Urban VIII had grown quite close. Before his accession to the Papacy, Urban VIII was the influential Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the uncle of Francesco Barberini, one of Galileo’s pupils at the University of Pisa.[15] In their correspondence, Barberini even signed his letterscome fratello (“as a brother”), a symbol of their warm relationship. This relationship constituted a major factor in the Galileo Affair. While Barberini did tell Galileo to avoid overstepping his bounds into theology in 1616, Barberini is believed to have been the driving force that kept Galileo’s name out of the Decree of the Index.[16]This relationship also played a significant role in the later Inquisition proceedings of 1633. In his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), Galileo drew on conversations he had had during private audiences with Pope Urban VIII. The Dialogue’s character Simplicio, the intransigent proponent of Aristotelian geocentrism, represented the opinions and views of Urban VIII. Whether Galileo intended this or not, Urban VIII viewed this as a mix of betrayal and exploitation, on the part of his friend Galileo’s using a favored position to gain material to lampoon an old friend, in the name of argumentation. This is but one example of convenient simplicity, and the Conflict Thesis overriding the complexity of reality.

Draper also asserts that in 1616, Galileo “was summoned before the Holy Inquisition… [and] was ordered to renounce the heresy [of heliocentrism], on pain of being imprisoned”.[17] Once more, Draper neglects historical evidence. In the record of the 1633 Inquisition, Galileo states that he came to Rome in 1616 to “hear what was proper to hold in regard to [Copernicanism]” and that he “came to Rome of [his] own accord, without being summoned”.[18] Perhaps Draper was not privy to this information, but it is evident that Draper’s version of these events was constructed within his Conflict Thesis. Perhaps Draper’s most lasting historical legacy is his portrayal of the 1633 Inquisition and the subsequent punishment of Galileo.

In a rather dramatic fashion, Draper recounts Galileo’s recantation: “he was compelled to abjure and curse the doctrine of the movement of earth. What a spectacle! The venerable man, the most illustrious of his age, forced by threat of death to deny facts which his judges as well as himself knew to be true!”[19] The fact of the matter is that not even Galileo knew that heliocentrism was true. Truth claims in all forms bear the burden of proof, and while many of Galileo’s observations (e.g. the phases of Venus) pointed towards heliocentrism; they could not demonstrate his propositions.[20] Draper is simply utilizing the (historically problematic) clarity of hindsight. The demonstration of Foucault’s pendulum predated Draper’s History by a mere quarter-century (1851), yet Draper makes the assumption that heliocentrism was easily evident in the seventeenth-century. This clearly neglects the historical significance of Aristotelian thought on the cosmos, and the role that it played within the Church’s model of geocentrism. The Copernicans’ lack of proof does not justify the Decree of 1616 or Galileo’s fate, but it does illuminate further complexities that do not fit so nicely into the Conflict Thesis.

On the matter of Galileo’s punishment, Draper wrote that Galileo “was committed to prison [and was] treated with remorseless severity during the remaining ten years of his life”.[21] What Draper neglects is that the “spectacle” of Galileo’s confession and abjuration was a seventeenth-century plea deal. On June 23, 1633, one day after Galileo’s renunciation of Copernicanism, his sentence was commuted to house arrest in the Villa Medici. One week later, Urban allowed Galileo to move to Siena to stay with his friend Archbishop Piccolomini. After being treated “as a good Catholic and honored guest” in Siena, Galileo was allowed to return to his villa in Arcetri, near Florence, where he lived an intellectually productive life until his death in 1642.[22] The assertion that Galileo was imprisoned is simply false, and the argument that he was treated with “remorseless severity” resides quite easily within the Conflict Thesis, but well outside the bounds of sound history. Draper had successfully restructured and fabricated a version of the Galileo Affair that would come to dominate historical understanding in the ensuing decades. The influence of Draper’s History and Conflict Thesis would persist long after his death in 1882, ultimately finding a new champion in Andrew Dickson White, whose influence can be measured by his positions alone: Professor of History, State Senator, Diplomat, President of Cornell University, President of the American Historical Society, and historical author.

Andrew Dickson White
Andrew Dickson White

Andrew Dickson White: The Thesis Improved

Andrew Dickson White was born in New York in 1832. In his autobiography, he refers to his father as considered “one of the leading men of business in the county” who kept company with clergymen and educators.[23] This had a profound effect on White, who saw his “education into that great truth” as being counter to the ingrained religious sentiment within American intellectualism.[24] After graduating from Yale in 1853, White went on to spend three years in Europe.[25] What is most significant about his time abroad was the time that he spent studying History at the University of Berlin throughout 1855-56. The significance of the University of Berlin is the fact that only twenty years prior to White’s studies there, G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) was the chair of Philosophy at the University. Hegel’s Dialectic, which hinges on the conflict between the thesis and antithesis, had an enormous influence on Prussian academic life. White undoubtedly was influenced by this philosophical view.[26]

When White returned to the United States in 1856, White became a professor of History and Literature at the University of Michigan. After serving at Michigan for a few years, White returned to his home state of New York, where he began serving as State Senator in 1864.[27][28] In 1865, with his friend and fellow senator Ezra Cornell, White put a land grant act through the legislature that established CornellUniversity. This proved very significant, because White and Cornell had conceptualized the University as being the first explicitly secular private University in the United States. White, Cornell’s first president, wanted it to be “an asylum for Science – where truth shall be sought for truth’s sake, not stretched or cut exactly to fit Revealed Religion”.[29]

In the 1870s, White delivered a series of lectures entitled “The Battlefields of Science” and authored a small book, “The Warfare of Science”.[30] Paralleling Draper’s History, White further developed the Conflict Thesis. His writings and lectures culminated in his two-volume work published in 1896, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White distinguished himself from Draper by arguing that while Draper views the conflict as being between Science and Religion proper, White views the conflict as being between Science and “Dogmatic Theology”.[31] With this distinction, it would seem that White’s approach would be more accommodating for the complexities on the side of Religion, but in the end, White’s arguments were as inflammatory as Draper’s. In his History, White’s underlying argument is that religion has been “used against almost every man who has ever done anything new for his fellow-men”.[32] Like Draper, White uses his version of the Conflict Thesis to frame his treatment of the Galileo Affair.

Upon inspection of White’s history of the Galileo Affair, one immediately notices that he surpasses Draper as a historian. White does allow for the complex motivations of the Church. For example, he does explore Pope Urban VIII’s personal distaste for Galileo’s Dialogue, noting that he was motivated by “his personal vanity, for Galileo had put the Pope’s arguments into the mouth of [Simplicio]”.[33] In his influential Whig Interpretation of History (1931), Herbert Butterfield argues against a simple compartmentalization of the past along the lines of good and evil. However, like Draper, White was not immune to oversimplifying the Galileo Affair conflict into heroes and villains.

White wrote of Theology’s “most terrible champion”[34] Cardinal Bellarmine, scheming Archbishops, and a “screaming mass of priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals”.[35] White wove this tapestry of interpersonal drama to present the Church as a frenzied, monolithic opposing force. To support this thematic history, White also neglected Barberini’s support of Galileo in the 1616 Inquisition. In White’s History, the Church is combative, lacking any officials that were “broad-minded” or “tolerant”, and singularly set on crushing Galileo. White also made the same mistake as Draper in his assertions concerning Galileo’s attendance at the 1616 Inquisition, arguing that he was ordered to “be placed in the dungeons of the Inquisition should he refuse to yield”.[36] This ahistorical assumption appears to be an obvious extension of Draper’s outsider argument.

While White did explore a greater diversity of motivations of the Church, some of his evidence lacks legitimacy. When writing of Copernicanism’s perceived threats to the doctrines of salvation and incarnation, White does quote Bellarmine directly, but seems to place his own opinions into the mouths and writings of “others”:

“Others declared, ‘It upsets the whole basis of theology. If the earth is a planet, and only one among several planets, it can not be that any such great things have been done specifically for it as the Christian doctrine teaches. If there are other planets, since God makes nothing in vain, they must be inhabited; but how can their inhabitants be descended from Adam? How can they have been redeemed by the Saviour?”[37]

In the introduction, White wrote that he hoped his work would serve as general reading for the layman, not the scholar. Therefore, while this may excuse the omission of sources, this unsourced quotation is problematic because it attempts to give historical weight to White’s own personal assumptions.

White also makes the mistake of neglecting context by applying contemporary judicial standards to the past. When writing of Galileo’s 1633 Inquisition, White writes of Galileo’s lack of legal representation, as if due process were a guaranteed right in an increasingly absolutist seventeenth-century Europe. White also treated Draper’s views on Galileo as revelation, he states, “the world knows now that Galileo was subjected certainly to indignity, to imprisonment, and to threats equivalent to torture” and that “[Galileo] was kept in exile from his family [and] his friends”.[38] As stated before, Galileo was placed under house arrest, and his movements were restricted, but he was always allowed to receive friends and family.[39] White deliberately aimed to reinforce Draper’s claims of “remorseless severity”. Ultimately, White explored the Galileo Affair at a deeper level than Draper, yet he still employed the same erroneous approach – relying on argument over evidence.


Draper, White, and the Conflict Thesis Today

While they share many similarities, a major difference between Draper and White turned out to be their differing views on what “Religion” represents in the Conflict Thesis. As a former Methodist, Draper explicitly aimed his attacks against the Roman Catholic Church. He argued that while Protestant Churches had been opposed to certain scientific developments, they did not have the “civil power” that the Catholic Church had at its disposal.[40] In attacking “Dogmatic Theology”, White was not denominationally exclusive in his indictment of Christianity. He pointed out that Protestant movements (Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican) were all allegedly vehemently opposed to Copernicanism as well.

White’s History was initially less popular than Draper’s, but it soon became a “part of the Western cultural heritage”.[41] The Conflict Thesis formulated by Draper and refined by White permeated throughout historical scholarship in the early 20thcentury, and as late as 1955, the Harvard historian George Sarton praised the thesis.[42] Although this militaristic and simplified method of historical study, the Conflict Thesis was gradually outmoded by more complex historical scholarship. While the Conflict Thesis of Draper and White has fallen into disrepute within more recent historical scholarship,[43] it persists in contemporary public opinion and popular authors such as Richard Dawkins.[44] Therefore, while historians largely reject the notion of a persistent conflict between Science and Religion, Draper and White succeeded in creating a conflict within their works that holds weight in the popular mind. Their appeal was not grounded in the historical record, but in the pervading secularism of their era. It mattered little if the conflict existed in history, what is significant is that the conflict existed in the authors’ imaginations and public perception.[45]

Works Cited

[1] Andrew Dickson White. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology. New York: George Braziller, 1955. p. 136

[2] David Lindberg. God and Nature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. p. 352

[3] Lindberg, God and Nature, p. 355

[4] Donald Fleming. John William Draper and the Religion of Science. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.

[5]John William Draper. History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. London: Henry S. King and Co., 1875. p. 354

[6] Ibid., p. 355

[7] Ibid., p. vi

[8] Ibid., p. xiv

[9] Ibid., p. 171

[10] “Letter to Castelli” in Maurice A. Finocchiaro. The Galileo Affair. London: University of California Press, 1989. p. 51

[11] “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” in Stillman Drake. Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. New York: Anchor Books, 1957. p. 186

[12] “Letter to Castelli” in Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair, p. 49

[13] Draper, History of the Conflict, p. 171

[14] “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” in Drake, p. 181

[15] Dava Sobel. Galileo’s Daughter. New York: Peguin Books, 2000. p.102

[16] Ernan McMullin. The Church and Galileo. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. p. 71

[17] Draper, p. 171

[18] Finocchiaro, p. 257-258

[19] Draper, p. 171-172

[20] McMullin, p. 157

[21] Draper, p. 172

[22] William Shea and Mariano Artigas. Galileo in Rome. Oxford Oxfordshire: OxfordUniversity Press, 2003. p.195-199

[23] Andrew Dickson White. Autobiography. New York: The Century Co., 1905. p. 5

[24] Ibid. p. 6

[25] Ibid. p. 35-38

[26] Ibid. p. 39-40

[27] Murray Edward Poole, A Story Historical of CornellUniversity. New York: The Cayuga Press, 1916. p. xiv

[28] White, Autobiography, p. 100

[29] Lindberg, God and Nature, p. 2-3

[30] W. Mark Richardson and Wesley Wildman. Religion & Science. New York: Routledge, 1996. p. 29

[31] White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, p. ix

[32] Ibid., p. 135

[33] Ibid., p. 141

[34] Ibid., p. 134

[35] Ibid., p. 136

[36] Ibid., p. 137

[37] Ibid., p. 134

[38] Ibid., p. 142-143

[39] Shea, p. 197

[40] Draper, p. xi

[41] David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers. When Science and Christianity Meet.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. p. 58

[42] Lindberg, God and Nature, p. 3

[43] Willem Drees. Religion, Science, and Naturalism. Cambridge: CambridgeUniv. Press, 1996. p. 89

[44] Charles Birch. Science and Soul. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008. p. 98

[45] Richardson, 33-34


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