Friday, August 26, 2011

Physicists & Priests | John William Draper's Conflict Thesis

"As a better knowledge of Nature was obtained, the sky was shown to be an illusion…But this did not take place without resistance. At first, the public, and particularly its religious portion, denounced the rising doubts as atheism." -- John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, 1874

Born in 1811 in Merseyside, England, the American scientist John William Draper was a professor of chemistry and botany at New York University starting in the early 1830s and later became the president of the school of medicine. He was also a founder of the NYU Medical School and the first president of the American Chemical Society. He contributed important research to the field of photochemistry, and in 1840 became the first person to take a photograph of an astronomical object, the Moon.

Draper is also known for his 1874 book History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, a seminal work in the area of conflict thesis, the idea that a fundamental intellectual conflict exists between science and religion. Along with the American educator and historian Andrew Dickson White, who addressed the restrictive elements of Christian dogma in his 1896 book History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Draper was a leading proponent of this idea. The term "conflict thesis" came from the title of his book.

According to conflict thesis, the relationship of religion and science will inevitably result in hostility between two ideological factions in the public realm, particularly when a new scientific discovery refutes a religious belief. Prime examples of this thesis in action are the Galileo Affair — when the Catholic church refuted Galileo's support of Copernican heliocentrism — and the clash between Darwinian evolution and Biblical creationism, a conflict that still exists today. (A December 2010 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans believe in strict Creationism.)

It would have been interesting to know what Draper's father, John Christopher Draper, might have thought about his son's thesis. The elder Draper, who passed away in 1831, was a clergyman of Wesleyanism, a Protestant Christian movement that espoused the Holy Scripture as the ultimate authority and the basis by which all truth should be tested. The movement's founder, a Church of England cleric named John Wesley, would likely not have approved of the younger Draper's scientific bent. After all, it was Wesley who once warned his followers, "Beware you be not swallowed up in books!"

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[Last month, "Deep Space" looked into the expanse of the universe beyond the limits of our solar system. Such investigations often end with the types of questions that puzzle not only scientists, but also philosophers and religious and spiritual thinkers. How did we get here? How did it all begin? And what was here before the beginning? For the month of August, the series "Physicists & Priests" considers the complex and often contentious relationship between science and religion.]

image: John William Draper (Wikimedia Commons)

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