Author Interview: James Ungureanu, Historian of Science

One of our goals at ESN is to support Christian academics in their scholarly writing and publishing, so we love to highlight publications by ESN writers as we can. This fall University of Pittsburgh Press is releasing James Ungureanu’s new scholarly book. We greatly appreciated Dr. Ungureanu’s work for ESN’s new faith and science study guide, and we’re delighted to present this interview about his new full length book. 

Book: Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict

(University of Pittsburgh Press, October 2019)

ESN: Would you give a brief description of your new book? 

James: Very briefly, it is a story about unintended consequences. The “conflict thesis,” the idea that science and religion are in perennial conflict or warfare, is a commonplace among young and old in our society. But where does this idea come from? What are its origins? As the story goes, two nineteenth century figures are often credited (or blamed) for creating in the minds of many the perception that there is a conflict between religion and science. New York University chemistry professor John William Draper (1811-1882) and historian and first president of Cornell University Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) are alleged to have constructed dramatic narratives in the nineteenth century that cast religion as the relentless enemy of scientific progress. This is the conventional view among historians of science and others. But I argue 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. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century that these narratives were appropriated by secularists, freethinkers, and atheists as weapons against all religion. By revisiting its origins, development, and popularization, I hope to show that the “conflict thesis” was just one of the many unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation.


2. ESN: Since this is a scholarly book in your field, I know in a certain way the main audience is your academic colleagues in the history of science. What other audiences might learn from it? 

James: Well, at first blush it may look like a book on the history of science—but it is far more than that. The personae dramatis span from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, from natural philosophers (“scientists”), to theologians, philosophers, historians, and even presidents of American colleges and universities. As such, the book ranges widely across disciplinary boundaries. Those interested in the Protestant Reformation and theology will, I hope, find something interesting here. Those interested in early comparative religion scholarship will also discover important antecedents in Protestant thought. And those interested in the history of science and religion will no doubt find their conventional views challenged, stretched, and ultimately broadened. To be sure, the book is intellectual history, and thus the focus is on ideas. But these ideas impacted almost every facet of public life. In short, there is a little bit for everyone. For those especially interested in the religious origins of secularism, I hope this book will give them a better understanding of how we ended up where we are today.


ESN: What insights from your research would you want to share with ESN’s readers? Or to put it another way, what can current Christian scholars beyond your immediate field learn from your research? 

James: I just wanted to do good scholarship. I actually came to the project with a conventional understanding of who these figures were and what they argued. But from the very beginning I was committed to reading everything they had published, whether I thought it was interesting or not. It turned out much of it was interesting. I also made every effort to unearth archival material. Thanks to advances in the digital humanities, numerous online databases provided a wealth of periodical material. This “electronic harvest,” as historian Jim Secord put it, helped me cultivate a greater sense of empathy with my historical figures. And that is good. Archival research may be laborious, but it is essential to the historian’s craft. I would also argue that, as Christian scholars, whatever our discipline, we are all called to enter the archives. After all, Christianity is a historical religion, and our faith is founded on historical events. In other words, all Christians must be historians. We are truly surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and their testimony is often the written word.


4. ESN: As you know, many of our readers are in graduate school or the early years of serving as an assistant professor. Do you have any words of wisdom on the process of writing and publishing a first scholarly book? 

James: Everyone does things differently. My approach may not be as effective or useful for others. My only recommendation is to read—and read a lot. In his Celebration of Discipline, Richard J. Foster perceptively observed that “superficiality is the curse of our age.” Foster wrote those words back in 1978, but not much has changed. In film, media, popular literature, and even in some scholarship, we encounter old and worn-out assessments again and again. Part of the problem here is that, in the academy, we’re often told “publish or perish.” But that forces us to be provocative rather than scholarly. We are in such a hurry to publish that we sometimes forget to read. So the best advice I can give is to slow down and read more widely, abundantly, and deeply. Read, moreover, with pen-in-hand—write your thoughts in the margins of your books or journals. Let your library be your journal or diary. Debate and dialogue with whatever you’re reading. Our books should be full of our own annotations. Then, when you come to the empty page and begin writing, all of it will already be there in your books and articles.


5. ESN: What’s your next research project? 

James: I’ve spent a lot of time on one side of the Protestant spectrum. I’d like to look at the other side now. My first book traced the religious history of the “conflict thesis,” particularly among liberal theologians. But in my new project I would like to examine how more moderate voices sought reconciliation—those who refused to demarcate science and religion into separate domains or subordinate religion to science. What some of these more conservative Protestants attempted to do during the nineteenth century was a return to an Augustinian tradition of the unity of God’s truth, thus marking the advances in science safe. Evangelical organizations such as the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (1698) and Religious Tract Society (1799) published popular science books from a theological framework. Lectureships such as Boyle (1692), Bampton (1780), and Gifford (1887) endowed lecturers with the apologetical task of defending the study of the natural world. During the first half of the nineteenth century, eight Bridgewater Treatises (1833-40) was commissioned to explore “the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” Other organizations later in the century, such as the Victoria Institute (1865) and the Christian Evidence Society (1870), were founded with the concerted effort to demonstrate the compatibility of God’s two books, the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. The “two books” metaphor is also a very old idea, and I would like to trace its history as well.

6. ESN: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

James: Research and writing is a time-consuming and sometimes painful process. To do it well you need to eliminate the nonessential distractions in our lives. That means taking a break from social media and the news cycle.

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Hannah Eagleson

Hannah Eagleson is Interim Associate Director of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). She launched and still edits ESN's collaboratively written devotional for academics, Scholar's Compass. Hannah also crafts other community-building events and materials for ESN. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Delaware, and an MA from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. she’s working on a novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights to become a tea importer in eighteenth-century England.

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