Conflicts Do Not Equal CONFLICT: My Last Word on Cornelius Hunter’s Misunderstanding of the History of Science and Religion

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

Andrew Dickson White’s 2-volume screed, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), has profoundly influenced American thinking about religion and science right down to our own day—despite the fact that modern historians have thoroughly discredited both its overall attitude and many of the alleged “facts” it contains. As with this copy of the second printing (1897), it was handsomely bound in bright red cloth with gilt lettering, boldly proclaiming its author’s agenda. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.


Cornelius Hunter recently said that BioLogos “promote[s] the false Warfare Thesis” of science and religion. He was referring to the view that Christianity and science have always been engaged in ongoing, inevitable conflict, with science winning every battle--a view that was widely accepted for much of the last century, but almost all historians today think it’s badly mistaken. Hunter realizes that the Warfare Thesis has been decisively refuted, and he shares my enthusiasm for its demise. However, as I have already pointed out, if he really understood what originally motivated the Warfare Thesis, he wouldn’t be able to link BioLogos with that discarded idea.

Unfortunately, Hunter has replied by repeating his unfounded claim. Commenting on Deb Haarsma’s columnabout Jim Stump’s resignation from Bethel College (IN), he says this:

“President Deborah Haarsma expressed concern that Bethel College has decided that its faculty ought not to be advocating the view that God used evolution to create the first humans. The concern at BioLogos is that such a decision ‘effectively sets faith commitments in opposition to clear scientific evidence in God’s creation.’

This is the Warfare Thesis. Religion ought not to oppose ‘science.’”

I could write volumes about this, but I’ll cut to the chase. Hunter’s presentation of Andrew Dickson White’s overall attitude toward Christianity and science (see the opening paragraphs of his column) is on target. He also understands that historians have rejected White’s depiction of the history of science and religion as unsupported and profoundly biased by his own views on secularism and higher education. What he fails to understand—or at least, what he fails to tell his readers—is that we historians continue to think there are some instances of genuine conflict between science and religion in the historical record, while at the same time we have wholly rejected the larger conclusion that science and religion are engaged in ongoing, inevitable conflict.

In short, as I like to tell my students, conflicts ≠ CONFLICT. This subtlety apparently escapes Hunter, but he’s not an historian and the subtleties that historians deal with daily are often lost on the general public. Unfortunately, by presenting a bowdlerized version of the Warfare Thesis and its deficiencies to his readers, he’s selling yet one more historical myth to readers who don’t know enough to see the problem. Just as Copernicus cautioned his readers that “mathematics is for mathematicians”, I caution mine that history is for historians.

Don’t just take my word for it. No historians have done more to debunk the Warfare Thesis than the late David Lindberg and his close friend Ronald Numbers, both of whom taught at the University of Wisconsin, one of the top programs in the world for the history of science. In an article they wrote nearly 30 years ago, they argued, “We are not suggesting that all was harmony—that serious conflict did not exist—only that it was not the simple bipolar warfare described by White.” Note the title of their essay: “Beyond War and Peace.” Their overall point is that no simple conceptual box—neither warfare nor harmony nor anything else—accurately captures the whole history of science and religion. Thus, historians now stress the complexity of the real historical situation.

My first goal in writing for BioLogos is to get the history right, in all of its complexity. If we want to overthrow the Warfare Thesis (and all of my work is aimed at doing just that), we can’t be replacing it with an equally inaccurate, sanitized view of things. My columns aim to provide glimpses of historical episodes that readers can trust.

Finally, as for BioLogos—the organization that gives me a platform to advance good history—we do think that some parts of genuine science are sometimes in conflict with some widely accepted interpretations of the Bible, and in those cases we ought to look for new interpretations. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. I’d bet the ranch that Hunter believes this, too. Does he really believe (for example) that the Earth lies motionless in the center of the universe? Virtually all Christians in Copernicus’ time believed that the Bible contradicts Copernican astronomy. Likewise, nearly all Christians in the 17th century believed the Earth and the universe were created around 4000 BC. Does Hunter believe that Christians shouldn’t have changed their minds in those cases, in response to accumulating scientific evidence? BioLogos accepts the evidence for biological evolution and the old age of the Earth and universe, and so we are trying to help Christians think about that part of science, just as Kepler and Galileo helped Christians think about astronomy in their day.

All told, Hunter would do well to study Galileo’s Letter to Christina before accusing BioLogos of promoting the Warfare Thesis. Would he have accused Galileo of the same thing?




Davis, Ted. "Conflicts Do Not Equal CONFLICT: My Last Word on Cornelius Hunter’s Misunderstanding of the History of Science and Religion" N.p., 7 Aug. 2015. Web. 18 January 2019.


Davis, T. (2015, August 7). Conflicts Do Not Equal CONFLICT: My Last Word on Cornelius Hunter’s Misunderstanding of the History of Science and Religion
Retrieved January 18, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/conflicts-conflict-my-last-word-on-cornelius-hunters-misunderstanding-of-th

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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