Conflict for the Conflict Thesis

When you think of the relationship of faith and science, what images come to mind? Images of bloody battles, war and violence are conjured by the press and the sensationalism of the media. Many view faith and science as strident adversaries. Science and Christian belief are incompatible, so it is thought, and neither can live while the other survives. But is this an accurate way to view that relationship?

I want to examine an event that lies at the origin of this understanding and briefly consider how this image of conflict has developed in the history of faith and science.

The event at the heart of this understanding is the Oxford Union debate in 1860 between Samuel Wilberforce, the Lord Bishop of Oxford, and the botanist T. H. Huxley (also known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”). This debate took place one year after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. It was an exchange between congenial opponents, with polite society in attendance. Michael Ruse comments, ‘Reports from the time suggest that everybody enjoyed himself immensely, and all went cheerfully off to dinner together afterwards.’ There are mixed views on who was the winner on the day, but most seem to favor Huxley.

The event, which should have passed into obscurity, gained notoriety years later when legendary accounts were circulated. The classical example was published in 1898 (nearly thirty years later) in the form of an autobiograpghical memory from Mrs Isabella Sidgewick, published in Macmillian’s magazine;

“I was happy to pre present on the memorable occasion at Oxford when Mr Huxley bearded Bishop Wilberforece . . . The Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and fluent, he assured us that there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock pigeons were what rock pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed decent from a monkey?”

So the image of the event that arose later is of a magnanimous Huxley condescending to Wilberforce who was shown to be an ignorant, simple, and somewhat arrogant cleric. But this is at odds with the facts. The Sidgewick statement contradicts accounts published closer to the meeting. Wilberforce’s criticisms of evolutionary theory were extensive and chiefly scientific in nature, partly developed from the criticisms of Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913), who was the co-discoverer of evolution through natural selection. Wilberforce was no simpleton, being a fellow of the Royal Society. Darwin, who did not attend due to illness, valued his critique and responded seriously to it.[1] Wilberforce thought he had done well in the debate, though his slur on Huxley, it must be admitted was ill considered and Huxley took the advantage that was handed to him.

What was it then that precipitated such legendary accounts thirty years later? It is important to consider a few factors offered by the sociological perspective. In nineteenth century England, the relationship between science and religion represented the struggle of two opposing classes: the church parsonage with its traditional religious conservativism and the bourgeoning parsonage of the scientists struggling for acceptance and their own place in society.[2] For centuries, clergy had been some of the most intelligent people there were. Because higher education was a requirement for most denominations, it was the clergy and ministers who were the intelligentia in all manner of fields – including the sciences. But the span of hundred years saw a complete about-face in the public perception of the clergy. By the end of the ninetieth century, with the rise of modernism and occurence of the industrial revolution, it was now the scientists who were considered the wisest.

However, it was the publication of two books that introduced the perception of conflict into public consciousness; the first by John William Draper called History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s book History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). These books were the birth of the Draper/White thesis, better known as the Conflict Thesis. Lindberg and Numbers note;

“White’s Warfare apparently did not sell as briskly as Draper’s Conflict, but in the end it proved more influential, partly, it seems, because Draper’s strident anti-Catholicism soon dated his work and because White’s impressive documentation gave the appearance of sound scholarship.” [3]

The influence of the conflict thesis that these books championed was profound. However, the scholarship of these books was soon to come under heavy criticism. In 1908 Walsh wrote a damning appraisal that stops just short of calling Draper and White outright liars. He writes;

“…the story of the supposed opposition of the Church and the Popes and the ecclesiastical authorities to science in any of its branches, is founded entirely on mistaken notions. Most of it is quite imaginary. Much of it is due to the exaggeration of the significance of the Galileo incident. Only those who know nothing about the history of medicine and of science continue to harbor it. That Dr. White’s book, contradicted as it is so directly by all serious histories of medicine and of science, should have been read by so many thousands in this country, and should have been taken seriously by educated men, physicians, teachers, and even professors of science who want to know the history of their own sciences, only shows how easily even supposedly educated men may be led to follow their prejudices rather than their mental faculties…”[4]

The conflict thesis in the earlier half of the twentieth century remained popular though not undisputed. When scientific historiography matured in the 50’s[5] new scholarship produced a barrage of research on the topic. White and Draper were utterly refuted and the conflict thesis was dead in academia by the 70’s. Its final downfall is attributed to Frank Turner’s book Between Science and Religion (1974) and James Moore’s penetrating essay “Historians and Historiography” in the book Post-Darwinian Controversies (1979).

Colin Russel notes;

“Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study. The same is nearly as true of White, though his prominent apparatus of prolific footnotes may create a misleading impression of meticulous scholarship”[6]

Though images of warfare still linger – at least at the popular (non-academic) level, many people recognize today that the history of Christianity and science reveals a rich and complex interaction that has been more beneficial than detrimental.

There is, for instance, no doubt that modern science was born in a Christian milieu. Christianity furnished thinkers of the Renaissance with a worldview that permitted them to believe the universe could be understood. A rational God had created a rational universe, and given men rational minds to comprehend it. There were other factors that contributed to the birth of the scientific revolution,[7] but Christianity was a very important one.[8]


[1] There was not a polarization of “science” and “religion” as the idea of opposed armies implies but a large number of leaned men, some scientists, some theologians, some indistinguishable, and almost all of them very religious, who experienced various differences among themselves. There was not organization apparent on either “side” as the idea of rank and command implies but deep divisions among men of science, the majority of whom were at first hostile to Darwin’s theory, and a corresponding and derivative division among Christians who were scientifically untrained, with a large proportion of leading theologians quite prepared to come to terms peacefully with Darwin. Nor, finally, was there the kind of antagonism pictured in the discharge of weaponry but rather a much more subdued overall reaction to the Origin of Species than is generally supposed and a genuine amiability in the relations of those who are customarily believed to have been at battle.

God and Nature: p7-8, quote from Moore, Post-Darwinian Controversies

[2] Alister E. McGrath. The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998) p. 21-2.

[3] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 3.

[4] James Joseph Walsh, The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time, Fordam University Press, New York 1908, p.19

[5] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 6.

[6] Colin A. Russell: The Conflict of Science and Religion in Encyclopedia of the History of Science and Religion, New York 2000, p. 15

[7] Such as the influence of Neo-Platonism, and a climate of skepticism created in part by the Protestant reformation and the erosion of political authorities.

[8] “The full historical picture is complex: science, philosophy, and theology are inextricably intertwined. To single out one factor as the sole cause is to misrepresent the actual situation. Voluntarist theology neither “caused” modern science nor acted as the simple cause of a particular kind of science. It was a rather one factor, albeit a very important one, in giving modern science its strong empirical bent.”

Mark A. Noll. Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) p. 89

7 replies
  1. ropata
    ropata says:

    One of the benefits of democratic society is the free exchange of ideas. Although the debate can be rough and tumble over the Galileo affair and other incidents in the history of science, the dialectic approach is a great way for scholars on both ‘sides’ of the conflict thesis to assess arguments for and against, and establish a reasonable view of the interactions between church and science.

  2. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    As clarification, the Conflict Thesis is a view of how religion and science interact and have interacted in history. ‘Rough and tumble’ is the kind of speech that the Conflict Thesis affirms, and the kind of metaphor that does not describe the true interaction of science and religion. I’ll be posting more about this soon.

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