At the end of the 1800s, an insidious fiction was invented. Unfortunately, this fable took root in the hearts and minds of the American public, and it has grown to a point where it casts its shadow on the whole ground of religion, especially Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. This false framework is known today as the warfare model or the conflict thesis between religion and science; it posits that the intellectual relationship between the fields of science and religion is one of inherent warfare, and these two endeavors have been in a fight to the death since the time they met. They bear one another an intrinsic opposition. The very nature of religion contradicts the very nature of science.

Thankfully, historian of science Lawrence Principe points out that no serious historian maintains the warfare model. Unfortunately, the conflict thesis is interwoven with the very fabric of popular consensus.

The book that first promulgated this thesis was written by John William Draper and published in 1874: History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. The second soon followed: A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, by Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s first president, in 1896. Both books were written with specific political and ideological agendas, and both are some of the worst history ever written. They commit almost every historical fallacy possible.

They are also the source of many specific myths about the history of the Church and her interaction with science. The story about Columbus and the flat Earth, written by the same author as Rip van Winkle and The Headless Horseman, is put forward as a historical source by White. Draper doesn’t cite any sources, much like most modern textbooks.

Principe writes: “White popularized the baseless notions that before Columbus and Magellan, the world was thought to be flat and that the Earth’s sphericity was officially opposed by the Church. He is also responsible for the equally fallacious notion that the Church forbade human dissection. The notion — eternally repopularized by Hollywood — that the medieval Church condemned all science as devilry runs throughout White; this view is likewise baseless.”

Why, then, did these books have such a large influence? First of all, they played to the popular anti-Catholic bias in a time of heavy Catholic immigration. Secondly, popular readers were not checking their sources. Thirdly, science is turned into its own religion, as Principe says, “replete with battles, and martyrdoms, and saints, and creeds.” He continues, “As we know, or should know, myths are often much more powerful than historical realities.” A whole generation of readers devoured lies and dutifully passed them on to the next generation.

Today, my physics students are surprised to find out or hear that I am also religious. The idea that I can be a devout Catholic, pray, go to Mass and also believe that the earth is round, the Big Bang theory is possible, and that the earth does, in fact, move around the sun is difficult to believe. They are even more surprised to find out that the people of Ancient Greece and Rome and Medieval Europe knew the earth was a sphere, the Big Bang theory was invented by a Catholic priest, and the Church has never officially condemned heliocentrism.

In popular opinion, we are witnessing one of the consequences of the warfare myth; science implies that God does not exist and religion is inherently false. Atheists like Richard Dawkins have taken advantage of the ignorance of the public to turn an exercise in bad philosophy into a bestseller. I have read false statements about the teaching of the Church in science textbooks.

Thankfully, there are scholars who are doing what they can to debunk the science versus religion warfare model. The antidote is good education. Anyone with a firm understanding of history and the proper natures of the disciplines of science and theology will see right through the myths and fictions of the warfare model.