Killing off the Conflict Narrative (of Science and Religion)

It’s been a long and tiring century or more of fake news, but I nurture a precious hope (how can one live otherwise?) that the voices of evidence, reason and truth will ultimately prevail.

One of the more persistent myths that have invaded our conversation, media and (very sadly) education, is the late Victorian invention that religious faith and science are necessarily in conflict. So prevalent and normalised is this assumption, that recent surveys in UK high schools find up to 70% of 15 year olds think it (but without being able to say why). I say ‘late Victorian’ for before the publication of two books, now forgotten and unread but best-sellers in their time, there is no great ‘conflict narrative’. The books were: History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), by Andrew Dickson White, and History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, by John William Draper (1874). Purportedly historical writing, more recent scholarship has demonstrated that these (actually anti-Catholic, rather than anti-religious) texts are largely polemic. When history failed to rise to Draper and White’s expectations, they simply invented it.

Fortunately, recent years (including this one) have seen an abundance of good recent writing both scholarly and for lay readership, that puts the conflict myth to bed, from historians, sociologists and philosophers as well as scientists themselves.

Readers still under the misapprehension that the history of science can be accurately characterised by a continuous struggle to escape from the shackles of religious oppression into a sunny secular upland of free thought (loudly expressed by a few scientists but no historians) can consult Peter Harrison’s masterly The Territories of Science and Religion (OUP 2015), or dip into Ron Numbers’ delightful edited volume Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard UP 2009).

Likewise, assumptions that theological and scientific methodologies and truth-claims are necessarily in philosophical or rational conflict might be challenged by Alister McGrath’s The Territories of Human Reason (2019) or Andrew Torrance’s and Thomas McCall’s edited Knowing Creation (2018).

The late-Victorian Draper-White origin of the ‘alternative history’ of unavoidable conflict is fascinating in its own right, but as we saw, is also damaging in that it has multiplied through so much public and educational discourse in the 20th century in both secular and religious communities. That is the topic of a new and fascinating study by historian James Ungureanu: Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict (2019).


Finally, the concomitant assumption that scientists must, by logical force, adopt non-theistic world-views is roundly rebutted by recent and global social science, such as Elaine Eklund’s major survey, also published in a new book Secularity and Science (OUP 2019).



Nick Spencer (and Darwin) on the BBC Radio 4 website for The Secret History of Science and Religion

The history of scientific, philosophical and social evidence that the relationship of science and religion is much more entangled and interesting was the subject of a recent three-part BBC Radio 4 series by Nick Spencer, The Secret History of Science and Religion. It’s well worth a listen. Nick’s interesting report on the current state and effect of the conflict myth and its associated misperceptions is available here



It is, of course, the rich and creative consequences of a future public discourse that recognises the falsity of the conflict narrative, that Faith and Wisdom in Science is all about. In particular we need to ask what a ‘Theology of Science’ might look like, rather than negotiating an uneasy standoff between Theology and Science. More than that, we need to explore ways that the Church can first understand how to receive science as a gift,  and secondly how to support it. That is the role of (among many other movements and projects) the St. John’s College Durham/University of York/Church of England project Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science (ECLAS). But that is another story.


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