Andrew Dickson White co-founded Cornell University, the first major American institution of higher education unaffiliated with any religious body. Religious conservatives railed against Cornell and against White himself. In 1869 White struck back, delivering a combative lecture attacking religion as the greatest enemy of scientific discovery. In short order the lecture grew into an influential series of articles in the magazine Popular Science Monthly, then into an 1876 book in which he condemned “ecclesiasticism,” not religion as whole, as the chief obstacle to scientific discovery.
Under White’s leadership, Cornell did emerge as a center for heterodoxy and even unbelief in American higher education. In 1878, Cornell’s tenth year of operation, a newspaper’s survey of the graduating class of 58 revealed that only 35 could be considered religiously orthodox, the rest identifying themselves with labels including deist, atheist, materialist, and "on the fence."
While serving as a U.S. diplomat in Russia, White collected his subsequent thinking on this subject into his two-volume magnum opus, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). White indicted “theology,” which he viewed as the imprudent extension of religious teachings into truth claims about the universe, and which White saw as a threat both to science and to pure religion. But his florid rhetoric stressed science as the victim of the church — his account of Galileo’s persecution was especially fervid — and most readers took away the idea that science and religion were locked in ceaseless combat.
White’s History became a notable bestseller. It reinforced the message of an earlier and even more successful book, John William Draper’s 1874 History of the Conflict between Science and Religion, driving home the “military metaphor” of war between science and religion that shaped much twentieth century thinking. White was especially praised by atheists and freethinkers, an outcome that gave this thoughtful religious liberal little comfort.
Twentieth century historian Stephen Carter concluded that White’s History did as much as any published work “toward routing orthodoxy in the name of science.” Science and religion were widely viewed as enemies, with science holding in the eyes of many the moral high ground. However inadvertently, Andrew Dickson White stands as one of the most effective and influential advocates of unbelief.
Cornell University’s official biography of White is available here.