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The uncharted history of science and religion

20 June 2019

Researching for a new Radio 4 series prompted Nick Spencer to question some popular perceptions

THE last interview was the best. We had nearly finished recording for a new three-part Radio 4 series on the history of science and religion, the first episode of which is aired today. The series explains how the popular perception of the history of science and religion — of more or less constant “warfare” — is, in fact, a late-Victorian invention; how it is so misleading as to be essentially wrong; and how the work of various scholars around the world, many of whom I had had the pleasure of interviewing, had totally revised our understanding of the field over the past 30 years.

The last interview was with Professor John Holmes, of Birmingham University. We were planning to retell the story of the famous Oxford debate between Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Huxley in 1860, in which Wilberforce is alleged to have asked something disparaging about Huxley’s ancestry. Standing in the exact spot where it took place, Professor Holmes asked, before we started, whether I had read “the new source”. I hadn’t.

The new source, it emerges, was the Oxford Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette, and was only “discovered” while being digitised, in 2017. It recorded the much-mythologised encounter in vastly more detail than any other extant source. And it shows that what Wilberforce actually said to Huxley was considerably more scurrilous than what he is alleged to have said (you’ll have to listen to the programme to find out what it was). No wonder the rather Establishment journal the Athenaeum redacted its account. You couldn’t have a bishop say that kind of thing in public.

IN REVEALING Wilberforce’s question in all its glorious multi-colours, the Gazette’s account not only settled a longstanding debate over what was actually said, but also helpfully crystallised the three key messages of our new history.

First, the nature of the “conflict”. For more than 100 years now, the popular narrative has been that religion has always opposed science: think medieval Church, heliocentrism, Galileo, Darwin, Scopes, etc. Wilberforce’s taunting, according to this viewpoint, was just another example of religious idiocy.

The reality is different. For all his misplaced wit, Wilberforce’s opposition was based on “the principles of inductive science, philosophy, or logic”, as the Gazette put it — and, as Darwin himself knew; for he called the Bishop’s review of On the Origin of Species “uncommonly clever”. This is more typical of the periodic clashes between “science” and “religion” than the Young Earth creationist parody of our day. Not only were such conflicts rarer than popularly imagined, they were usually much more sophisticated and more scientific than we think. It wasn’t simply a case of “but the Bible says . . .”

Second, the context of the conflict. Huxley was a newfangled “scientist”; Wilberforce was an old-school “clerical naturalist”. What happened at Oxford was as much about the former shouldering the latter aside in the social hierarchy of Victorian England as it was a debate about Darwinism. “What [Huxley] has deprecated”, as the Gazette put it, “was authority like the Bishop’s, authority derived from a reputation acquired in another sphere.”

The history of science and religion, like any history of ideas, is coloured by the political, social, and cultural worlds of the time, from the nervous post-Reformation context of Galileo to the sinister eugenic context of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The Wilberforce-Huxley debate was no different. We ignore such context at the cost of historical subtlety.

FINALLY, the heart of the conflict. For most of their history, science and religion have been mutually complementary. It was only when science began to suggest that humans were essentially no different from any other species that things degenerated. In the words of the Gazette, Wilberforce considered it “a most degrading assumption that man, who, in many respects, partook of the highest attributes of God, was a mere development of the lowest forms of creation”.

Whether through the mechanisation of the human body and mind in the 18th century, phrenology and biology in the 19th, or Freudianism, behaviourism, and neuroscience in the 20th, it was when science claimed that humans were “nothing but. . .” (fill in the gap with “machines”, “monkeys”, “impulses”, etc.) that science and religion fell into conflict.

Wilberforce was, at least in Oxford in 1860, clearly on the wrong side of history. But, as soon as we read history simply as a story of winning and losing sides, we end up being the losers ourselves, and we miss out on the nuance, complexity, and sheer intellectual excitement of the long history of science and religion.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.

The Secret History of Science and Religion is broadcast on Radio 4 today at 11 a.m., and on 28 June and 5 July. Each episode will be available on the BBC Sounds app after broadcast. 

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