Re: [asa] On American Catholics and science

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Tue Jul 29 2008 - 13:40:51 EDT

I fully agree with David's comments about anti-Catholicism and universities.
 It's yet one more factor, and perhaps the single most important one.

But the factors I pointed to are historically accurate, and IMO also
relevant. Naturalism had a lot to do with scientists looking down their
noses at Catholics, who maintained a supernatural view of both the Eucharist
and the soul. I don't think it's widely realized, but the really dangerous
science at the turn of the century was, in the opinion of liberal
Protestants, psychology. Not evolution (which they readily embraced), and
certainly not geology or physics or astronomy. The psychologists, as one of
them (James Angell, president of Yale) told paleontologist Henry Fairfield
Osborn, have gotten rid of the soul. This was the period of Dewey and
Jacques Loeb, and that's why nearly every important seminary had a course in
the psychology of religion: materialism (ie, the belief that mental
phenomena are merely manifestations of hard-wired events in the brain) was a
very serious threat.

Protestants dealt with this is various, usually nebulous, ways. Catholics
affirmed the supernatural nature of the soul. The Protestants could at
least feign scientific respectability, but the Catholics couldn't--at least
not in the eyes of the Protestants who still mainly ran the scientific

Let me put this another way, David. Anti-Catholicism was widespread and
very important, but that doesn't mean that the specific forms it took can't
be seen as having some specific, historically situated factors that shaped

Anti-catholicism was of course intimately connected with the Draper/White
"warfare" thesis, itself substantially if not solely a response to
assertions of Papal inerrancy in 1870. The Columbus myth is a prime
example: a sailor shows the stupidity of Catholic intellectuals, who insist
on quoting scripture and Augustine against his intuition and experience of
the earth's sphericity. Washington Irving created the American form of that
myth specifically to advance anti-Catholicism.

For a nice English example of the same thing, I understand from Peter
Bowler that the liberal Protestant theologian (a major one) E.W. Barnes had
little patience with Catholicism, particularly b/c transsubstantiation ran
so obviously counter to naturalism. I suspect that's also why Edwin Grant
Conklin, a leading American biologist who was also a leading public
intellectual before WW2, had a bee in his bonnet about Catholics.


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Received on Tue Jul 29 13:41:25 2008

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