In a dense, rambling blog post published on July 26, Cornelius Hunter accuses us at BioLogos of “promot[ing] the false Warfare Thesis” of science and religion, a view that he says “was constructed by evolutionists to frame the origins debate in their favor.” Although in that column he does not directly associate the Warfare Thesis with Andrew Dickson White, he has done so elsewhere and it’s abundantly clear that White’s idea is precisely what Hunter accuses BioLogos of advancing. As I’ve explained myself, White helped create the view that the history of science and religion is best seen in terms of an ongoing, inevitable conflict throughout Christian history, with science always winning the battle. An outspoken advocate of secularism in higher education, over the course of his career White produced a 2-volume doorstopper that painted progressive science as the hero and Christian theology as the backward villain. Although the opening chapter pits creation versus evolution, the rest is devoted to medicine, astronomy, meteorology, and several other topics, all subsumed under his grand conflict narrative. Incidentally, although White wasn’t trying to promote atheism—he believed that Christian charity was vital for the modern world—it’s no accident that you can download the whole thing at a site called infidels.org.
Eager proponents of this notion are easily found amidst the current culture war, as Hunter realizes. Although he notes correctly that “historians have shown that this Warfare Thesis is a false history,” he fails to point out that a current BioLogos Fellow (me) is one of the historians who made it possible for him to say this in the first place. The irony is not lost on me.
As a graduate student in the early 1980s, because my interest in Christianity and science was already known, the late David C. Lindberg invited me to observe the private conference that produced one of the first books directly to challenge the Warfare Thesis. I then completed a dissertation on the positive, formative influence of specific Christian theological views on key aspects of the Scientific Revolution—a specific example of what can be done when the Warfare Thesis is discarded. That was just the first of several projects in the same spirit, including an essay for a trade book from Harvard University Press refuting the widespread myth that Isaac Newton embraced the idea of a clockwork universe that limited God’s role in nature. As I told readers when I first introduced myself at BioLogos, “my scholarly work aims to debunk the now-common view that the history of science and Christianity is one of ongoing, inevitable conflict—with science winning a bitter war against religion.”
Most recently, three months ago I delivered a commentary at another private conference devoted to understanding the Warfare Thesis and its legacy. My theme was the damaging influence of the Warfare Thesis on the theological Modernism of the last century. So far I am the only historian to have investigated that important, but long overlooked topic. When I drew on that work some time ago for BioLogos, I didn’t explicitly mention the Warfare Thesis, as I did at the conference. Nevertheless, that column illustrates how upholding an orthodox understanding of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus enables Christian proponents of evolution to avoid the trap that engulfed the Modernists and their intellectual descendants when they bought the Warfare Thesis.
Thus, Hunter’s claim that BioLogos advances the Warfare Thesis is wholly unfounded. In his opinion, apparently, we’ve swallowed that idea simply because we find the scientific evidence for evolution persuasive (while he claims that “evolutionary theory is not scientific” at all). He can say this only because he believes that the Warfare Thesis “was constructed by evolutionists to frame the origins debate in their favor.” I beg to differ.
Historians have known for a long time that White went on the warpath against what he disparagingly called “dogmatic theology” as a way of taking revenge against political opponents in the New York State Assembly—not to promote evolution. When the US Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grant Acts during the Civil War, new financial resources were made available to the States, designated to enhance the teaching of subjects like agriculture and engineering at the college level. To make a long story short, after an ill-conceived effort to give the money to one struggling institution didn’t work, Senator Ezra Cornell proposed an alternative: divide the money between that school and another struggling institution. At that point, the newly-elected Senator Andrew Dickson White, chair of the education committee, killed Cornell’s bill. Instead, he proposed the creation of a brand new university that would be explicitly non-sectarian in nature, and he was able to persuade Cornell to co-sponsor it. Having seen two bad ideas already fall by the wayside, the established liberal arts colleges—all of them started originally by Christian denominations—wanted their shot at the money, and at least one of them (Union College in Schenectady) had already been teaching engineering for almost twenty years.
Needless to say, this made for a major political fight, with all of the things that usually happen. Motives were viewed with great suspicion, words were used with little reflection, and enemies were made on all sides. White won, the new college got named for Cornell, and their opponents underscored the fact that White promptly left the Senate to become its first president. Telling Ezra Cornell at the time that he would give his religious opponents “a lesson which they will remember,” White initiated a three-decade process of speaking and writing about the great historical myth of never-ending “warfare between science and theology in Christendom.”
Contrary to what Hunter says, BioLogos fully understands the Warfare Thesis and wholly rejects it. We don’t usually address the Warfare Thesis directly—we have other fish to fry. However, if we embraced the view that science makes Christian beliefs outmoded, why would we feature columns defending the evidence for the bodily Resurrection, showing how science supports belief in God, affirming the reality of creation from nothing against liberal theologians, correcting the widespread belief that belief in God makes for bad science, or showing how the denial of divine transcendence was implicated in the embrace of eugenics? As my friends in the ID movement like to say, follow the evidence wherever it leads.
The Warfare Thesis was a politically motivated, wholesale assault on Christian thought, not an attempt by “evolutionists” (a word that Hunter and others like to use as an all-purpose pejorative) to frame the origins debate. The problem isn’t that BioLogos promotes the Warfare Thesis; the problem is that Hunter doesn’t acknowledge that BioLogos rejects religious Modernism and the warfare-dominated view that comes with it, while offering an alternative view of Christianity and science rooted in our faith in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus.