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The Story That Fooled the World, and How We’re Trying to Unmask It

Dr Franziska Kohlt

What if I told you that 150 years ago, two guys you’ve never heard of wrote two books you’ve never heard of, that have fooled the entire Western world ever since? 

This isn’t the plot of the latest conspiracy-fuelled blockbuster. 

This actually happened.

And chances are, you fell for it too. 

War of the Words

150 years ago two Victorian gentlemen, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, invented a story which has since become embedded in our culture.

In two books, titled The Conflict of Science and Religion and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, they asserted how “throughout history, science and religion have always been at war”.

Backed up by now-familiar myths about the Church’s treatment of scientific progress – from insisting that the Earth was flat, to the persecution of Galileo, to banning dissection and inoculation – they established what is known as the “conflict thesis” of science and religion. 

The problem is that none of their stories – nope, not even the Galileo one – actually happened. 

From a historical and theological point of view, the conflict thesis has been disproven multiple times. As author and physicist David Hutchings describes: “There wouldn’t be any historian of science anywhere in the world who would say it is correct”.

“The most successful conspiracy theory of all time”

So why is the conflict thesis still so omnipresent, cited in countless viral tweets, blogs and podcasts which paint the Church as anti-science?

Hutchings credits a mix of ingenious marketing, plus personal and cultural benefit for its proponent, that has made it “the most successful conspiracy theory of all time”.

Indeed, Draper and White’s idea has a lot in common with modern conspiracy theories: a big headline that relies on a wide, high-profile distribution network, plus a few good anecdotes to back it up (never mind their relationship to the truth). 

“It’s simple: it has a goodie – science – and a baddie: religion,” says Hutchings. And it’s convenient in its simplicity – in a crucial situation, when things run the risk of just getting a bit too complex, it can get us off the hook. 

Like many conspiracy theories, it has social and cultural capital: it allows us to swiftly align ourselves with certain perceived values. In this case “facts”, a “progressive” outlook, and a rejection of “superstition”, “monolithic beliefs”, or “fairy-tales” – often terms used to disparage religious belief.

People who cite the conflict thesis to gain social capital do so at the expense of accuracy, truth and facts, in a way that resists comprehensive empirical evidence – in contrast to their alleged commitment to scientific values.

The conflict thesis also has a detrimental impact on the field of science itself, as it can cause STEM to be a less diverse and inclusive discipline, meaning we’re missing out on potentially brilliant scientists. In the UK, STEM subjects struggle to attract people from backgrounds which are more likely to identify as religious. Furthermore, research shows that many practising scientists have abandoned their careers, not because they felt their belief conflicted with their work, but due to the anti-religious sentiments of their colleagues.

The only thing that’s powerful enough to replace a story is another story

“The only thing that’s powerful enough to replace a story is another story,” says Hutchings. Draper and White’s ideas have been scientifically assessed, weighed, and found wanting. More than that, their theory is a harmful, self-fulfilling prophecy that, in a world facing a number of scientific crises, could potentially put us all at risk. 

After 150 years of conspiracy, it’s time to tell a truer story.

 

In Of Popes and Unicorns, physicist David Hutchings and historian of science and religion James C. Ungureanu dissect the work of Draper and White.

They take readers on a journey through time, diving into the formation and fallacy of the conflict thesis and its polarising impact on society. The result is a tale of Flat Earths, of

anaesthetic, and of autopsies; of Creation and Evolution; of laser-eyed lizards and infinite worlds. It is a story of miracles and mathematicians; souls and Great Libraries; the Greeks, the scientific method, the Not-So-Dark-After-All Ages… and, of course, of popes and unicorns.

 In Of Popes and Unicorns, physicist David Hutchings and historian of science and religion James C. Ungureanu dissect the work of Draper and White. They take readers on a journey through time, diving into the formation and fallacy of the conflict thesis and its polarising impact on society. The result is a tale of Flat Earths, of anaesthetic, and of autopsies; of Creation and Evolution; of laser-eyed lizards and infinite worlds. It is a story of miracles and mathematicians; souls and Great Libraries; the Greeks, the scientific method, the Not-So-Dark-After-All Ages… and, of course, of popes and unicorns.

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