Science in Christian Perspective





From: JASA 18 (March 1966): 5-7.

The estrangement of Christianity and science, generally held to begin with Copernicus or before, developed much later. The real battle came after the publication of Darwin's The Origin Of Species. The crucial event was the debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, behind whom stood Sir Richard Owen. The development leading to this event is traced.

In a previous article (JASA, 16:12-15, March,-1964), I noted that Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler were not persecuted for their scientific discoveries. There was fundamentally no official distrust of science or of scientists. More recently there has been great mistrust of religion by scientists and suspicion of science by Christians. How did the official encouragement of Copernicus and Galileo by the church turn into distrust?

To be sure, the action of the Inquisition in trying Galileo was taken by Descartes as an attack on scientific conclusions rather than as a personal vendetta. He wrote to his friend Mersenne:1

You doubtless know that Galileo was recently arrested by the Inquisitors of the faith, and his opinion about the movement of the earth was condemned as heretical ... I well know that one can say that all that the Inquisitors at Rome decided Is not an article of faith, and that it Is first necessary that a council pass them; but I am not so much in love with my thoughts as to want to take advantage of such exceptions in order to maintain them; and I desire to live in peace and continue the life I have begun in taking for my motto "bene vixit qui bene latuit."*

Other Catholics such as Gassendi, the noted philosopher and physicist, felt that there was no restriction on science as a result of Galileo's condemnation. However, in the decades following, the anti-scientific feeling increased. For example, in 1693, when Viviani wanted to publish a corrected edition of Galileo's Dia, logue, he was told:2

There is a general movement here in Rome against the physicists.... there is talk of a general prohibition against all authors of the new physics, including Gassendi, Galileo and Descartes.

However, this anti-scientific attitude generally died down. For example, Niels Steensen (Nicolaus Steno), called "the Father of Modem Geology," made his contributions to geological science after his conversion to Catholicism in 1667, yet rose to become a bishop.

This disapprobation of science was not a problem outside of Catholic countries. No conflict between science and the Reformed or Lutheran faith was recognized. Francis Bacon, for example, presents a thoroughly Reformed view of nature in his urging of scientific research. He says that science is "for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man's estate.'14 And the work of the Royal Society is "for the Glory of God.1'5 Newton wrote more theological treatises than scientific ones. He may have been heterodox, but not in his exaltation of Scripture.6 Other leaders in science were clergymen, such as Adam Sedgwick and William Buckland, geologists, and Joseph Priestly, the chemist. There were devout Christians, such as Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, noted physicists; Louis Pasteur, bacteriologist and chemist; Carl von Linne and John Ray, biologists; William Whewell, mineralogist. Such devout men were in the forefront of science, something that

*David F. Siemens, Jr., is at Riverside City College, Riverside, California. Paper prepared for the 19th Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, August 1964, at John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Arkansas.

has not been true for most of the last century. Indeed, it was just over a century ago that the battle really began, with encounters between Protestants and scientists. It is notable that the Catholics were not so seriously affected.

By the start of the battle I am not referring to the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859. The start of the battle came the evening of June 30, 1860, at Oxford. The first skirmish was fought between Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley. Up to this time, there had been no sharp division between the views of scientists and theologians: there had been discussion of the theory of evolution, but scientists and theologians had been together in both opposition and acceptance. But after the debate, scientists became more and more mobilized against the Bible. Why? Because Wilberforce represented himself as the defender of orthodoxy, and his claim was believed. But Wilberforce did not know the scientific aspects of the matter. So he filled in with guesses, misinformation and, most important, sarcasm. This so alienated the scientists that they turned against religion almost in a body. Even today, Christians face special problems relative to science. It is not usual to find the clear faith of a Galileo, that the Word and the world agree.7 The members of the American Scientific Affiliation are a notable exception to the isolation of Christianity from science. To understand the occasion of the estrangement, we need to go back before that June evening, to become better acquainted with the participants in the debate.

Huxley was, at the time of the debate, thirty-six years old, a professor of natural history and paleontology at the Government School of Mines in London, a wellknown lecturer-both in popularizations and on the technical level, an investigator and author. He had begun his career as a naval surgeon on the frigate Rattlesnake, which, during a three-year period, mapped the waters of northeastern Australia. He published two papers during this period, and gathered additional material to write up. His researches were so notable that he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the Royal Medal. It was during this period that Richard Owen, the most famous English biologist of the time, had helped him. Owen, the British Cuvier, had helped a number of promising young scientists. But he had two major flaws: First, he adopted the unfortunate idealistic theories of Oken and maintained them in defiance of fact. Second, he became very jealous when his prot6g6s showed too much promise. Indeed, shortly after Owen had helped him the first time, and about the time he was writing an excellent letter of recommendation for Huxley, the latter noted that he had better keep a new paper out of Owen!s hands to avoid its being delayed.8 But even more, Owen was offended when Huxley vigorously attacked Cuvier, the patron saint of comparative anatomists.

Owen thought he had a chance to trim Huxley down to size when, in 1856, Owen was given permission to lecture at the School of Mines, where Huxley was professor. Owen deliberately took the title Professor of Paleontology, which belonged to Huxley. This was challenged by the school, which asked for an explanation. This Owen could not give. This impertinence completed the alienation of Huxley, who was the wrong man to alientate, for he was an accomplished scientist, one who made valuable contributions in anatomy, anthropology, comparative anatomy, embryology, paleontology and taxonomy. Now he felt completely free of any debt, ready to tackle Owen's ideas without any qualms.

Owen opened himself to attack in a paper read to the Linnean Society in 1857. He declared that there were areas of bone in the human skull which are not homologs of primate bones, while at the same time declaring that man and monkey are homologous down to the last metatarsal.9 Huxley, in a series of papers, began to point out the inconsistencies in Owen's views. Then, in 1858, he launched a devastating attack in the Croonian Lecture before the Royal Society. With pointed cruelty, the lecture was delivered on an evening when Owen was chairman.

Owen wanted to retaliate, but he knew he would have to be careful. He, the most noted scientist in England, had been humiliated by a relative upstart. When Huxley espoused the cause of Darwin's Origin, Owen attacked the book in a bitterly critical review, but anonymously. He also thought he had found a way to squash Huxley: he would sic the finest debater in England on him.

Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, was a brilliant man, an exceedingly hard worker. But he also had a way of getting into trouble. He later got the nickname "Soapy Sam," which he explained with, "I am always in hot water and always come out with clean hands." While Wilberforce was noted for his work for the church, he was equally noted for his strenuous efforts to help himself. And this was a time when he needed to be advanced. Two brothers and a brother-in-law had left the Church of England for the Church of Rome, and people were wondering if Samuel would do the same. They might well wonder, for his daughter and son-in-law and another brother would also become Roman Catholic. Further, he had just mishandled a controversial situation involving the appointment of a man accused of Arianism as a bishop. As a result, Wilberforce's wisdon~ and leadership were being questioned. He needed something to bolster his prestige. A notable success in this debate would build him up again as the champion of orthodoxy. He felt that he could not lose. The debate, at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, would be held at Oxford, where he was very popular among both students and townspeople. Not only would he have a friendly audience, but he would have the coaching of the great Owen-whom he overrated as much as Owen overrated himself. Wilberforce felt he could not lose.

Wilberforce had a quick and retentive memory, but a few hours cannot give a man a thorough enough scientific background for debate with a brilliant scientist. The closest Wilberforce could come to scientific training was an honors degree in mathematics, nearly as old as Huxley. As a result, Wilberforce made some erroneous statements in the debate-matters which were not lost on the scientists in the audience, and which were pointed out by Huxley for the benefit of the lay audience. When Wilberforce, in his conclusion, descended to asking whether Huxley claimed descent from monkeys on his mother's side, trying to appeal to the Victorian prejudice that made women angels, Huxley had him.

Huxley's reply, "I would rather be descended from a poor chaffering ape than from a man of great talents who would appeal to prejudice rather than to truth," was devastating.10 Wilberforce was finished, and so was any possibility of presenting Biblical Christianity to the scientists, for Wilberforce's claim to speak for orthodoxy was believed. Hence orthodoxy was associated with shallowness, prejudice, ignorance, error, egotism and opposition to science. This association has hardly been lived down today. Anyway, the first books on the battle between religion and science appeared in 1874 and 1895.11 They read the then current situation back into the earlier period.

Some have wondered whether this analysis does not place too great blame on Wilberforce. Would not the same results have been reached eventually? It is always a problem to second-guess history. However, it may be noted that it would be difficult to find another man who would, before the world, be so definitely a representative of orthodoxy.12 Disraeli and Gladstone, as laymen, did not have this identification. And, had the battle not been engaged, it is doubtful that William Jennings Bryan would have been recognized as the knight-errant of orthodoxy at the Scopes' Trial in 1925. It seems rather that the communication of scientists and theologians would have continued.13

This would not have solved all the problems. But, where there is communication, there is at least a chance for finding solutions. And, further, the continuation of communication would have helped to keep the problems in proper perspective: the battle is not the study of the universe and the creatures in it versus the study of God's self-revelation. It is the philosophy that denies God or tries to reduce the Deity to mans petty standard versus the acknowledgement and worship of the Almighty. But whenever ignorant, self-seeking men intrude, the picture changes. Confusion is introduced. And, always, the cause of the Christian, who worships the Source of all truth, suffers; for God cannot be honored nor His kingdom advanced by falsehood, egotism, ignorance and prejudice. May He deliver us from such.


On January
10, 1634. Quoted by Glorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (Chicago: The Universliy of Chicago Press, 1955 P 319f, n. 21. Authors's translation.

2. De Santillana, op. cit., p. 197, n. 5.

3. Niels Hansen, "Steno, Nicolaus," Catholic Encyclopedia, 14:286.

4. Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning, B k. 1, v, par. 11. In Great Books of the Western World, 30:16.

5. Cited by Edgar Zilsel, "Genesis of the Idea of Modern Progress," Journal of the History of Ideas, 6:348 (1945).

6. Note, for example, his studies of prophecy, published posthumously. His Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture indicates a high regard for the exact word of Scripture. This work has been made grounds for attributing Socinian views to Newton, but this interpretation is questioned in the Dictionary of National Biography, 14 :391.

7. Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, in Stillman Drake, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), p. la2f.

8. The original published letter omits the name. See Leonard Huxley, The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1900), 1:105f. But see Cyril Bibby, T. H. Huxley, Scientist, Humanist and Educator (Lon don: Watts, 1959), p. 72, and William Irvine, Apes, Angels and Victorians (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1955), P. 39.

9. Irvine, op. cit., p. 40.

10. There Is no exact record of Huxley's extempore remarks, and so there is no agreement as to the exact words he used. But this is accurate enough. The matter Is discussed at length in Huxley, op. cit., 1:192-204. Reference is made in Charles E. Raven, Science, Religion and the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957) and David Lack, Evolutionary Theory and Christian Belief: The Unresolved Conflict (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1957), which may be consulted for information on the period, along with the biographies of the participants. See also Edward Leroy Long, Jr., Science and Christian Faith: A Study in Partnership (New York: Association Press, 1950).

11. John William Draper, A History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874). An abridgement by Charles T. Sprading was published in 1926.

Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1895 ). It was republished as recently as 1960.

12. This is the studied opinion of Raven, op. cit., pp. 35f, 41, and Long, op. cit., p. 25f. It Is denied by Lack, op. cit., p. 12f.

13. See Raven, op. cit., pp. 35f, 46f.

* A misquotation from Ovid, Tristia, Bk. III, eleg. 4, line 25: "Bene q ui latuit, bene vixit," who has hidden well, I.e, lived obscurely, has lived well.