The Warfare Between Science and Religion

The Idea That Wouldn't Die

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Jeff Hardin, Ronald L. Numbers, Ronald A. Binzley
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , October
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Is there a war between science and religion? Wellcome Global Monitor 2018, a massive global survey conducted in 2018, asked more than 140,000 people in more than 140 countries whether science has ever disagreed with the teachings of their religion. Only 29 percent of respondents globally answered in the affirmative. In the United States, however, a majority of respondents—59 percent—answered in the affirmative. Were the American respondents particularly informed or insightful about science and religion? Or were they influenced by the history of science and religion interactions in American life in particular—including the view, conspicuous in the United States since the 1870s onward, that science and religion are essentially at loggerheads?

In the history of science, the warfare thesis is the idea that science and religion are intractably opposed and therefore tend to be in irreconcilable conflict throughout their history. Serious historians of science by and large reject the warfare thesis—not because they are unaware of or unwilling to admit the existence of conflict, but because they are suspicious of the totalizing and absolutizing terms of the thesis, preferring to understand such conflicts in terms of their complex, contextual, and contingent causes and effects. The Warfare between Science and Religion, edited by Jeff Hardin, Ronald L. Numbers, and Ronald A. Binzley, aims to provide a similar understanding of the warfare thesis itself, asking such questions as, Who advanced warfare theses, and why? How, over time, have such theses been received, revised, rehearsed, rejected, and revived?

The first five chapters of The Warfare between Science and Religion set the stage, albeit in a bit of a chronological jumble. Lawrence M. Principe begins with a useful discussion of the origins of the warfare thesis in two canonical 19th-century works: 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). Despite the difference in publication date of their books, Draper and White formulated their views in the same interval, 1869 through 1873—in the wake of the American Civil War. Although they are often paired as the architects of the warfare thesis, Principe reveals that Draper and White differ in important ways.

In the following pair of chapters, which might usefully have preceded Principe’s chapter, Maurice A. Finocchiaro addresses the Galileo affair and its representation by proponents of the warfare thesis, and Monte Hampton describes the view of the relationship between science and religion prevalent in the United States before 1869, the year that White delivered his speech “The Battle-Fields of Science.” Returning to a chronological order, Bernard Lightman discusses the version of the warfare thesis propounded by the Anglo-Irish physicist John Tyndall in his Belfast Address of 1874, which he compares to Draper’s less extreme version, and Frederick Gregory traces the warfare thesis in a less familiar venue—continental Europe, mainly Germany—from the 1840s onward.

Half a dozen chapters then discuss the historical reception of the warfare thesis in various religious traditions. It is a limitation, if not a failing, that only Abrahamic religious traditions—Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, liberal Protestantism, evangelical Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam—are discussed; similarly, except for the chapters on Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam, the geographical focus is tightly on the United States and Great Britain. A general theme is that of opportunism: unsurprisingly in light of the burgeoning cultural authority of science, there was a tendency for believers to reject the warfare thesis in part—boasting that their own religion is not hostile to, and even harmonious with, science (or true science)—but to accept it for the purpose of impugning the competition.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the current situation, beginning with the thoroughgoing version of the warfare thesis espoused by the so-called New Atheists. Ronald L. Numbers and Jeff Hardin express surprise that the New Atheists do not appeal to history to support the warfare thesis, but they overlook the most obvious explanation: that the New Atheists assume that the warfare thesis follows from general epistemological principles and thus requires no historical support. In contrast to the New Atheists are the writers dubbed the Neo-Harmonists by Peter Harrison—the sociologist Rodney Stark, the molecular biologist Denis Alexander, and the geneticist Francis Collins—who reject the warfare thesis both as a descriptive account and as a normative model.

The final four chapters assess the current reception of the warfare thesis among historians, scientists, social scientists, and the public. They proceed in different ways. John Hedley Brooke’s chapter on “Historians” discusses a series of historical studies on science and religion over the past fifty years, while Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle’s chapter on “Scientists” and John H. Evans’s chapter on “The View on the Street” examine relevant survey data, and Thomas H. Aechtner’s chapter on “Social Scientists” evaluates the presentation of the relationship between science and religion in introductory anthropology and sociology material at the college level. A similar chapter on journalists would have been welcome here.

The Warfare between Science and Religion is amply successful in its project of providing a historical understanding of the warfare thesis—or, better, of the warfare theses—over a broad historical and ideological range, through a series of accessible and interesting chapters. And it is a vitally important project, considering the persistence of conflicts involving science and religion in the United States. A majority (60 percent) of the 59 percent of Americans who acknowledge a conflict between their religion and science in the Wellcome survey said that they would side with their religion in the event of such a conflict. These conflicts are difficult enough to resolve without the belief that they result from a predestined opposition between science and religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education.


Date of Review: 
March 4, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeff Hardin is the Raymond E. Keller Professor and chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin.

Ronald L. Numbers is the Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the editor of Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.

Ronald A. Binzley, who holds a doctorate in American religious history, is an environmental engineer at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.


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.