The War That Never Was

Evolution and Christian Theology

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Kenneth W. Kemp
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock
    , May
     234 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The purpose of Kenneth W. Kemp’s The War That Never Was is to argue that the notorious social conflicts over historical geology and evolutionary biology are not, at bottom, between science and theology, contrary to what is generally known as the warfare thesis. A philosopher by trade, Kemp begins with a series of brief and lucid philosophical discussions. He clarifies that he is concerned with epistemic, rather than ethical, conflicts. He discusses to what extent science is compatible with, and to what extent religion is incompatible with, the ontological principle of naturalism, plumping instead for a “modest” methodological naturalism, according to which there is a strong but defeasible presumption that natural events have natural explanations. And he rejects attempts such as Stephen Jay Gould’s in his Rocks of Ages (Ballantine, 1999) to dismiss conflicts between science and theology as illegitimate by definition. “The only way to show that the Warfare Thesis is profoundly mistaken is to review the history of the conflicts that are cited in its favor” (23), he concludes, and it is that historical review which constitutes the bulk of the remainder of the book.

Thus, in chapter 2, Kemp extracts a minimal version of the warfare thesis from its two canonical statements, John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (Appleton, 1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (Appleton, 1892): essentially, that the history of science is permeated by conflicts in which religion or theology culpably harmed science by interfering with the acceptance of scientific conclusions. He then proceeds to test the thesis against pre-Darwinian controversies over the age of the earth, the six days of creation, and the flood of Noah in chapter 3 and against Darwinian controversies over evolution in chapter 4. Taking pride of place in the latter chapter is the legendary 1860 Oxford debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, but Kemp also devotes a modicum of discussion to four relatively obscure incidents from the 1870s and 1880s discussed by White. In all of these cases, the warfare thesis is deemed to fail on the grounds that the combatants in these various conflicts were simply not arrayed in the lines of battle tendentiously delineated by writers such as Draper and White.

Together occupying almost half the book, chapters 5 and 6 are devoted to what Kemp describes as the first curriculum war, surrounding the Scopes trial of 1925, and the second curriculum war, encompassing the birth of creation science and intelligent science, and the spate of related American legislation and litigation from the 1960s to the present. There is a lot of material to cover here, and even though Kemp’s treatment is selective, emphasizing the issues most directly relevant to evaluating the warfare thesis as applied to the incidents under study, the result is that the discussion in these chapters often feels rushed or overpacked. For example, the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial of 2005 over the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design in the public schools, which elicited no fewer than four full-length books, here receives only two paragraphs. As with the pre-Darwinian and Darwinian controversies, the warfare thesis overall is deemed to fail as applied to the curriculum wars: these were conflicts between evolution and its foes, or sometimes between Christianity and its foes, but not, generally, between science and religion. Chapter 7 offers a brief recapitulation of the major themes of the book.

In chapter 6, Kemp decries “the aggressive measures taken by anti-anti-evolutionist organizations such as the ACLU and the National Center for Science Education” (the latter of which is my employer) against evolution disclaimers, such as those read in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, classrooms and affixed to Cobb County, Georgia, textbooks: “The idea that freedom of religion must accommodate religion those organizations do not like is apparently not a principle that the organizations recognize” (154). The claim is implausible, since the ACLU is deservedly famous for defending the constitutional rights of disfavored people and groups—such as the neo-Nazis who sought to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1978—regardless of its views of their beliefs. But it is also premised on a confusion: freedom of religion is simply not a right enjoyed by government entities such as the local school boards that mandated these disclaimers. And, as Justice Fortas wrote in the majority opinion in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), “There is and can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.”

Nevertheless, The War That Never Was is overall a satisfying contribution. The tone is methodical and generally objective, although Kemp acknowledges that he takes a “stand on the substantive issues of the evolution and creation” controversy, describing himself as “a creationist and an evolutionist” (23) like the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. The book is also well-researched, with a twenty-six-page bibliography testifying to the breadth and depth of Kemp’s reading. To be sure, Kemp’s is not the first historical challenge to the warfare thesis. Of particular note, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2009) and similar volumes edited or coedited by the distinguished historian of science Ronald L. Numbers offer brief, accessible, and authoritative treatments of the bulk of the social conflicts that Kemp discusses. But Kemp’s philosophical approach, attempting to isolate the essence of the claims he examines and understand their interrelationships, results in a particularly clear, judicious, and well-structured discussion, eminently suitable for a reader interested in, but without a deep knowledge of, the history and philosophy behind these episodes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.

Date of Review: 
April 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kenneth W. Kemp is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the co-translator of Archbishop Józef Życiński’s God and Evolution: Fundamental Questions of Christian Evolutionism.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.