James C. Ungureanu
 on March 08, 2019

Rethinking the “Conflict” Between Science and Religion

Is the notion that science and religion are inherently at war with one another an idea that emerged from secular society, or are the historical roots of it born from conflicting religious traditions?


Is the notion that science and religion are inherently at war with one another an idea that emerged from secular society, or are the historical roots of it born from conflicting religious traditions?

Is the notion that science and religion are inherently at war with one another an idea that emerged from secular society? When we delve into the history of it, we actually find this perceived conflict being one born from conflicting religious traditions.

When historians of science and religion write about the “conflict thesis,” what are they talking about? Readers of BioLogos will have a general idea, even if unfamiliar with the exact term. Historians usually trace the origins of the conflict thesis– the notion that science and religion are fundamentally and irrevocably at “war”– to the late nineteenth century, specifically among Anglo-American writers. For instance, many scholars point to the scientific naturalists, a Victorian coterie made up of biologist Thomas H. Huxley (1828-1895), physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893), and evolutionary philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), among others, who supposedly employed conflict thesis in their attempt to professionalize and secularize the sciences. More specifically, historians look to John William Draper’s (1811-1882) History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s (1832-1918) A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) as central historical narratives promulgating the belief that science and religion have been and always will be at odds.

There is a great deal of truth in these accusations. Indeed, Huxley once declared that “extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules.” He believed that history demonstrated that “whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain.” The historical record proved, he asserted, that as natural knowledge increased, belief in the supernatural decreased. According to Huxley, no one should “imagine he is, or can be, both a true son of the Church and a loyal soldier of science.”

But the story is a bit more complicated, and we are only now beginning to recognize that many of the accused did not, in fact, envision a conflict between science and religion.1 The reasons why scholars have incorrectly located the origins of the conflict thesis is itself a complicated story, but here it is enough to make a few observations. First, we must appreciate the wider religious context in which such historical narratives appeared. Advances in the natural and historical sciences, whether intentional or not, seemed to many a direct assault on orthodox Christian belief. Debates about the character of religion raged both inside and outside the church during the nineteenth century, and out of these debates emerged new ways of thinking about God, the nature of Christianity, and the historical Jesus. In short, the nineteenth century witnessed an evolution of Christian expression born out of this process.

Secondly, while this new expression of Christianity was deeply contested, many men and women in the nineteenth century believed that the reconciliation of science and religion depended on it. Significantly, those who promoted a more diffusive version Christianity at the end of the century turned the term “theology” into a pejorative. By contrasting the idea of a free, progressive scientific inquiry against the authoritative, reactionary methods of theology, many intellectuals imagined dogma as the obstacle of modern thought, not faith. Thus “conflict” occurred, they believed, not between scientific truth and religious truth, but between contesting theological traditions.

The scientific naturalists Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and the even Draper and White, all made just such a distinction between theology and religion. What enabled them to make such distinctions were the changes in religious thought that occurred during the century. Draper, for example, argued in his History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, which was published in 1863, that Christianity had been “paganized” under Emperor Constantine. Interestingly, he believed that early Christianity was a gift of God whereas ecclesiastical organizations were the product human invention. By the fourteenth century, he complained, “God had altogether disappeared.”

With the paganization of Christianity, Draper argued, came what he called the “tyranny of theology over thought.” He declared that those “who had known what religion was in the apostolic days, might look with boundless surprise on what was now ingrafted upon it, and was passing under its name.” Even his notorious History of the Conflict, under closer inspection, continues to make such distinctions, as when he argued that he would only consider the “orthodox” or “extremist” position, and not the moderate ones.

White shared much of the same sentiments. By separating religion from theology, White could denounce that the “most mistaken of all mistaken ideas” was the “conviction that religion and science are enemies.” While science has conquered “dogmatic theology,” he argued, it will “go hand in hand with Religion.” For White, science was an aid to religion, encouraging its “steady evolution” into more purified forms.

White also believed that Jesus had preached a pure and undefiled religion, and that the present conflict “was the fault of that short-sighted linking of theological dogmas to scriptural text which, in utter defiance of the words and works of the Blessed Founder of Christianity, narrow-minded, loud-voiced men are prone to substitute for religion.” In his Autobiography, White concluded that history had demonstrated that “while the simple religion of the Blessed Founder of Christianity has gone on through the ages producing the noblest growths of faith, hope, and charity, many of the beliefs insisted upon within the church as necessary to salvation were survivals of primeval superstition, or evolved in obedience to pagan environment or Jewish habits of through or Greek metaphysics or medieval interpolations in our sacred books.”

In short, Draper, White, and the scientific naturalists did not see the conflict as one between science and religion but between “dogmatic theology and science.” More precisely still, the conflict was between contending theological traditions. They believed that theology was not only in conflict with science but also with religion.

Upon deeper reflection, then, the arguments and the history these nineteenth-century scientists and historians promoted is nothing new. They have a long Protestant pedigree. As far back as the sixteenth century, Protestant reformers used history, reason, and natural philosophy in their attack on the Catholic Church. But this history of polemic also demonstrates that these rhetorical strategies quickly backfired. More liberal Protestants used the same polemic of history, reason, and science against their orthodox opponents. By the seventeenth century, an anti-Catholic polemic had transformed into a Protestant self-critique. Toward the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, however, religious skeptics, freethinkers, and atheists had appropriated the polemic and used it against all religion.

Having a more accurate understanding of the origins of the “conflict between science and religion” being one that emerged within contending religious traditions will not only give us a better understanding of how it developed, but where it truly lies today.


About the author

James C. Ungureanu

James C. Ungureanu (PhD, The University of Queensland) is Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland and Honorary Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also has a B.A. in Religious Studies and Philosophy from the University of California-Davis, and a M.A. in Church History from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His first book, Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict, published by University of Pittsburgh Press, will appear October 2019. An historian of science and religion, his research is mostly focused on nineteenth-century religious thought. He resides in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.