James Ungureanu has undertaken extraordinarily exhaustive research and produced a book that offers an insightful, refreshing re-evaluation of two of the most influential figures in the modern history of religion and science. This book promises to reshape how historians understand the origin of the conflict thesis.
The story of the “conflict thesis” between science and religion—the notion of perennial conflict or warfare between the two—is part of our modern self-understanding. As the story goes, John William Draper (1811–1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) constructed dramatic narratives in the nineteenth century that cast religion as the relentless enemy of scientific progress. And yet, despite its resilience in popular culture, historians today have largely debunked the conflict thesis. Unravelling its origins, James Ungureanu argues that Draper and White actually hoped their narratives would preserve religious belief. For them, science was ultimately a scapegoat for a much larger and more important argument dating back to the Protestant Reformation, where one theological tradition was pitted against another—a more progressive, liberal, and diffusive Christianity against a more traditional, conservative, and orthodox Christianity. By the mid-nineteenth century, narratives of conflict between “science and religion” were largely deployed between contending theological schools of thought. However, these narratives were later appropriated by secularists, freethinkers, and atheists as weapons against all religion. By revisiting its origins, development, and popularization, Ungureanu ultimately reveals that the “conflict thesis” was just one of the many unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation.
Ungureanu develops an arresting reinterpretation of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, traditionally perpetrators of the ‘conflict thesis,’ but whose intentions, he argues, were not to attack ‘religion’ but to protect its progressive forms from obstructive theological orthodoxies. I highly recommend this book, which is particularly important for historians of liberal Protestantism and its secularizing legacy in late nineteenth-century Anglophonic debates about ‘science and religion.’
James C. Ungureanu is an honorary research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland and in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A historian of science and religion, his research is mostly focused on nineteenth-century religious thought.