Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The War That Never Was:
Evolution and Christian Theology

by kenneth w. kemp
cascade, 234 pages, $28

Conventional wisdom has it that science and religion have perennially been at war. This “conflict thesis,” as historians call it, can be traced to the late nineteenth century and to two influential books in particular: John ­William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, published in 1874, and Andrew Dickson White’s two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, published in 1896.

Draper stated the thesis this way:

The history of Science . . . is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.

What Draper meant by “traditionary faith” was Catholicism, a religion he detested. The eminent historian of ­science Lawrence Principe has characterized Draper’s book as “little more than a thinly disguised anti-Catholic rant.” For Andrew Dickson White, by contrast, the problem lay not with any particular religion, or with religion in general, but with “dogmatic theology.” “The theological method,” as he saw it, “consists largely in accepting tradition and in spinning arguments to fit it.” The history of science is “full of ­interferences” by theologians fearful of new ideas:

Religious men started, centuries ago, with the idea that purely scientific investigation is unsafe; that theology must intervene. So began this great modern war.

Of course, Draper and White did not invent the notion that scientific ideas and theological ideas can sometimes be in tension, even to the point of conflict. This had been ­obvious since at least the time of Galileo. What they did invent was the notion that there had existed two distinct and warring camps, Science and Religion (or Science and Theology), and that history was replete with clashes between them. This notion is belied, of course, by the fact that the great majority of scientists well into the nineteenth century were themselves religious. Draper and White, in addition to inventing the conflict thesis, amassed much of the evidence that has since been cited to support it. This they did by variously misconstruing, taking out of context, garbling, embellishing, distorting, and in some cases simply fabricating historical facts and events. A few of the many myths they promoted were that Christian theologians before Columbus had taught that the earth was flat, that the medieval Church forbade human dissection, and that Christian theology had opposed the use of anesthetics.

What continues to give power to the conflict thesis, however, are two actual historical conflicts: the conflict over heliocentrism in the seventeenth century, and that over the age of the earth and the evolution of species, which persists to this day. Are these actual conflicts to be understood as battles in a war between science and religion? That is the question ­Kenneth W. Kemp, professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, addresses in his fine new book, The War That Never Was. What gives Kemp’s work outstanding value is its ­combination of conceptual precision, sharp analysis, and thorough historical research.

A preliminary question is whether it is even possible in principle for there to be real conflict between science and religion. Some notable scientists, religious and nonreligious, have said no. For example, the Catholic physicist, philosopher, and historian Pierre Duhem took an anti-realist view of science, according to which science merely describes appearances and phenomena rather than making truth claims about reality. This, of course, would make it impossible for science to contradict the truth claims of religion. As Kemp points out, however, such anti-realism, though it might allow religion to sidestep conflicts with physics, would have little relevance to disputes over evolution or the age of the earth. As he pithily puts it,

Whatever plausibility antirealism has for theoretical physics vanishes when the matter under discussion is not quarks but tyrannosaurs. The two are simply not “unobservable” in quite the same sense.

From the other direction, the Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould, an atheist, argued that science and ­religion cannot conflict because they are “non-overlapping magisteria,” with science being about facts and religion being about values and meaning. Kemp points out, however, that Gould’s irenic claim fails to do justice to Christianity, which makes many factual claims, preeminent among them the bodily Resurrection of Christ, without which, as St. Paul says, Christian faith would be “in vain.”

At the other extreme are those who claim that religion and science are inherently opposed, apart from any particular factual claims that either might make. Many atheists, for example, take “ontological naturalism” to be foundational for science. Ontological naturalism says that nonnatural beings don’t exist, or, if they do exist, have no causal influence on the natural world. The evolutionary biologist Richard C. Lewontin famously argued that to admit any nonnatural causation would destroy the very possibility of science:

Either the world of phenomena is a consequence of the regular operation of repeatable causes and their repeatable effects . . . or else at every instant all physical regularities may be ruptured and a totally unforeseeable set of events may occur. . . . We cannot live simultaneously in a world of natural causation and of miracles, for if one miracle can occur, there is no limit.

Kemp acutely notes that by the same faulty logic science would be impossible if scientists ever made mistakes in the laboratory. He drives home the point by adapting ­Lewontin’s words with the underlined replacements:

Either the world of phenomena is exactly as it is reported in laboratory notebooks . . . or else all the data in all our laboratory notebooks could be completely wrong. . . . We cannot simultaneously rely on science and admit that scientists can make mistakes, for if one mistake can occur, then there is no limit.

In other words, science depends on both the regularity of nature and the honesty and competence of scientists; but science no more requires miracles to be impossible than it requires scientific fraud or blunders to be impossible. At most, it requires that miracles, like fraud and blunders, be relatively infrequent and identifiable. And, indeed, the Catholic understanding of miracles (in scriptural terms, “signs” and “wonders”) is that they are recognizable by clear indicia and rare enough to astonish. As Kemp writes,

If miracles were not recognizable, they would not be able to fulfill their theological function. . . . No scientist need worry about the provenance of the wine served at Cana; there is no theological reason for suspecting that such a transformation might occur in the laboratory or winery. It could, but it won’t.

We come, then, to the question of whether science and religion can ever conflict in their factual claims. It depends on what one means. Christians believe that any truths uncovered by science must accord with the truths revealed by God, because truth cannot contradict truth. But science has not completed the task of investigating the world, nor has theology answered every question about the content of revelation. So, at any particular time, the ideas of scientists and those of theologians might be in tension. As Kemp points out, however, that in itself does not imply that science is at war with theology. Within science itself, there are always unresolved tensions, both between theory and experiment and among experiments. No one would call those tensions a “war between Science and Science.” Rather, wrestling with and resolving such apparent conflicts is what drives science forward. Similarly, there are always tensions within theology, both among Scripture verses and among doctrines. And wrestling with these is what has driven theology forward, as the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the early Church and many later ones show.

The greater part of Kemp’s book is devoted to a careful and richly detailed study of the history of the interaction between Christian thought and what he calls the “paleoetiological sciences,” which are those that investigate the origins and development of life and of the earth itself. That history could be said to have begun with the foundational work in geology published in 1669 by Bl. ­Nicolas Steno, who developed the correct theory of the origins of sedimentary rock and fossils. Over the next two centuries, evidence mounted that the earth, geological formations, and life had beginnings vastly more ancient than had traditionally been estimated from literal readings of Scripture.

How did Christians react to these developments? Kemp finds that most scientists and theologians who were interested in such questions “not only saw no contradiction, but attempted to construct integrated accounts of the history of the natural world, drawing now on the Bible, now on observations, as necessary to the completion of their task.” Others “were content simply to await future resolution of the controversy.” Some sought to “dissociate geology . . . from theology, altogether.” Relatively few were what Kemp calls “incompatibilists,” “who used the alleged contradictions to cast doubt on the new scientific ideas.” He notes that those few provided “warfare theorists” such as Draper and White “with their whole stock of examples.”

The next phase of the story began with Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. The ensuing battles were fought within ­science and within theology as well as between them. But, as Kemp notes,

The fact that the theory of evolution (especially the Common Ancestry Thesis) prevailed quickly within the scientific community and won the assent of people whose primary interests were theological only somewhat later (and even then not [all of them]) has sometimes made this war look like a war between scientists and Christians.

It was only natural that theologians should take longer to come to terms with evolution and resolve the issues it raises, given that theology deals with a broader range of issues. As Kemp puts it, “If Christians [were] slower to embrace the new idea, it is because they had more work to do in ensuring that the new theory was consistent with the rest of what they know about the world.” In particular, evolution raised a host of difficult questions of fundamental importance about the nature of man, morality, the spiritual soul, and original sin. It was therefore the evolution of human beings in particular that most concerned Christians.

One sees this in what Kemp calls the “First Curriculum War,” which was an attempt by some conservative Protestants in the 1920s, led by William Jennings Bryan, to ban or restrict the teaching of evolution in public schools. Bryan wrote:

I would not be concerned about the truth or falsity of evolution before man but for the fact that a concession as to the truth of evolution up to man furnishes our opponents with an argument . . . [that it] raise[s] a presumption in behalf of evolution to include man.

Among Catholic theologians too, human evolution was the key issue. The position that ultimately prevailed within the Catholic Church was that the evolution of human beings at the physical level is consistent with the Catholic faith as long as the spiritual soul is understood to have been conferred by God directly (in other words, not by secondary causes alone) upon the first humans, as upon all subsequent humans. This position was given official toleration in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, the first pronouncement ever made about evolution by the universal magisterium of the Catholic Church.

While the First Curriculum War did involve “incompatibilists,” including aggressive atheists and secularists on one side and biblical literalists on the other, it was not a battle that pitted Religion against Science. Most Protestants, including many conservative Protestants, opposed Bryan’s movement, which made very little headway and petered out by 1928. The Catholic Church stayed out of the conflict altogether. Moreover, it was not science as such that provoked opposition, but extreme naturalistic extrapolations from the science that denied divine providence or reduced man entirely to biology.

What Kemp calls the Second Curriculum War began in the 1970s and featured two new strains of anti-­evolutionism, “Creation Science” and the “Intelligent Design Movement.” Unlike the First Curriculum War, which centered on human evolution, this war involved broader attacks on evolution, including Common Ancestry and Darwinian theory even as applied to plants and animals. As Kemp notes,

It is a curious fact that, as scientists have made progress in understanding the history of life, Christian anti-evolutionism (in both its Creation Science and its Intelligent Design formulations) has become more comprehensive in its rejection of the scientific consensus on questions of ­paleoetiology.

Is this latest flare-up over evolution a war between Science and Religion? Many on both sides see it as such, as Kemp notes:

Both anti-evolutionist Christians and the New Atheists—Henry Morris and Richard Dawkins, William Dembski and Daniel Dennett—claim that evolutionary biology (“science”) is inconsistent with the Christian doctrines of creation and providence. Too many journalists and other outsiders echo that view.

That view, however, is largely the result of sloppy thinking that fails to make necessary philosophical and theological distinctions, as the very fine analyses in Kemp’s book demonstrate. Moreover, neither the Intelligent Design movement nor Creation Science can claim to speak for Christianity. Indeed, the Intelligent Design movement denies being based on religion at all. The Catholic Church and many Protestant churches have stayed out of the Second Curriculum War, as they did the first, and have disavowed the idea that biological evolution is incompatible with Christian orthodoxy.

Kemp’s book shows that the relationship between Christian theology and the paleoetiological sciences, from its beginning in the seventeenth century down to our own day, has been far more interesting and complex than the simple-minded picture given by the “warfare theorists.” It has involved many subtle and important scientific, theological, and philosophical issues. It has featured many-sided debates and controversies whose participants often held more nuanced positions than is generally realized. For those interested in moving beyond simplistic polemics and understanding the real history in all its depth and fascinating detail, there is no better guide than this perceptive and enjoyable book. 

Stephen M. Barr is professor emeritus of physics at the University of Delaware and president of the Society of Catholic Scientists.