The warfare thesis is usually identified with a nineteenth century evolutionary movement that cast evolution skepticism as religiously driven. Men such as Darwin confidant Thomas Huxley, chemistry professor John Draper and Cornell University cofounder Andrew White promoted the warfare thesis as a general trend in the relationship between religion and science.
A popular prooftext is the Galileo Affair. But the seventeenth century debate about geocentrism versus heliocentrism, involving Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church, was hardly obvious. Subtleties in both the science and religion make simple stereotypes difficult to come by. Rather than serving as supporting evidence, the Galileo Affair is one of many problems with the warfare thesis.
Of course there are people who oppose strong scientific findings on religious grounds. Geocentrism still has its proponents. But the relationship between science and religion has generally been far more complex than one of simple obstructionism and conflict.
What the warfare thesis did provide, nonetheless, was powerful evolutionary rhetoric. This is exemplified no better than in Jerome Lawrence’s and Robert Lee’s Inherit the Wind. I once debated an evolutionist professor directly following the staging of this fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial. It was like arguing against a war after a propaganda film. I made some powerful scientific points but they were met with empty stares while the professor’s metaphysical mandates for evolution received approving nods all around.
It was yet another example of the complexity of the relationship between science and religion. I, though billed as the “science skeptic,” made scientific arguments whereas the professor, though billed as the “science defender,” made religious arguments.
Historians note that religion has provided ideas for science. Did not Darwin learn about scarce resources from the cleric Thomas Malthus? But evolutionary thought does not merely draw on a few religious ideas for inspiration. Evolution rests on a religious foundation and mandate that dates back long before Darwin and remains crucial today.
In evolutionary thought, the relationship between science and religion is better modeled according to the centuries old adage: Theology is queen of the sciences. This view, of course, badly damages evolution’s claim to be a scientific fact and hence the warfare thesis. How better to handle a liability than to assign it to the opposition? Evolutionists need the warfare thesis, their religion demands it.
The other warfare thesis
But evolutionists are not the only ones who have a warfare thesis. Evolution’s skeptics also have one. While evolutionists blame the skeptics for being religious, the skeptics blame evolutionists for not being religious. Consider the seventeenth century Anglican cleric Thomas Burnet who was accused of atheism by Richard Bentley. Burnet was widely read and had lasting influence. He presented a variety of evidences and arguments that god would only use natural laws and processes to create the world. One may agree or disagree with his ideas, but Burnet certainly was no atheist.
A century later the equally religious James Hutton endured the atheist accusation, and after Darwin it became common for skeptics to equate evolution with atheism or naturalism. Most recently Albert Mohler writes:
The debate over Darwinism rages on, with almost every week bringing a new salvo in the great controversy. The reason for this is simple and straightforward – naturalistic evolution is the great intellectual rival to Christianity in the Western world. It is the creation myth of the secular elites and their intellectual weapon of choice in public debate.
In some sense, this has been true ever since Darwin. …
Darwin’s central defenders today oppose even the idea known as “Intelligent Design.” Their worldview is that of a sterile box filled only with naturalistic precepts.
From the beginning of this conflict, there have been those who have attempted some form of accommodation with Darwinism. In its most common form, this amounts to some version of “theistic evolution” – the idea that the evolutionary process is guided by God in order to accomplish His divine purposes.
But evolutionary thought does not stem from naturalistic precepts. True, evolutionists insist on strict secondary causation in their explanation of origins, but the motivation and justification for this dogma is religious. And just as the evolutionary warfare thesis holds scientific concerns to be inconsequential compared to the supposed religious motivations, so too this warfare thesis holds religious arguments to be inconsequential compared to the supposed atheism or materialism. Such religious arguments are, according to this warfare thesis, nothing but mere accommodationism.
As before, there is much truth to this thesis. Certainly evolution has fueled atheism and materialism. And the growing atheism, in turn, promotes evolution. But evolution also fuels theism. Process theology, for instance, has strong influences from evolution. This is hardly surprising given the religious thought that mandated evolution in the first place. Any atheism to be found is parasitic on the underlying theism. Far from an attempt at accommodation, the theism is the driving force.
Consider, for example, the case of eighteenth century religious skeptic, David Hume. The influential Scottish philosopher promoted evolutionary thought and Darwin was well versed in Hume’s arguments which occasionally even show up in Origins, albeit with the usual Darwinian touch of subtlety.
If ever there was an opportunity to trace the path of atheism’s or naturalism’s influence it would be here. But what we find is exactly the opposite. Hume’s (and Darwin’s) arguments were mostly theological and occasionally philosophical, but never from atheism. Indeed, while Hume was a great rhetoritician and creative in his own right, many of his arguments can be seen in earlier theists.
It is not a large step to move from Malebranche’s and Leibniz’s naturalistic solutions to the problem of evil to Hume’s argument against a divine design of a world so filled with misery. And like any good student of debate, Hume could with equal skill marshal the opposing arguments. Arnauld’s rejection of such theodicies by appeal to the mysteries of the divine can be seen in Hume’s anthropomorphic warning. We must not think we can anywise conceive the perfections of god, so the design inference must be rejected. And Hume’s arguments against miracles came after decades of debate amongst theists.
Hume is by no means an isolated example. Today, for instance, Richard Dawkins argues god would never have designed the blind spot in our retina, and PZ Myers believes god would not have created this universe. And more important than the atheists are the theists who initiated and promoted the many metaphysical arguments that mandate evolution. For centuries they have insisted god would work strictly through secondary causes and be undetectable. This is the foundation of evolutionary thought. It is anything but atheistic.
But while this warfare thesis may not be accurate, it is powerful rhetoric. How better to construct an enemy than to blame it on the secularists or atheists? As with the evolutionist’s warfare thesis, this one is an enduring theme.
And by blaming evolution on the atheists one can avoid the difficult metaphysical and theological issues evolutionists raise. What about Burnet’s and Kant’s greater god argument, and what about Leibniz’s problem of evil? And what about those fossils and design similarities? There is no need to address these evolutionary questions if it can all be dismissed as a secularist agenda. But it isn’t.
In the origins debate each side has its own warfare thesis, and these opposing theses serve many purposes. Unfortunately these theses are misconceptions at best, and self-serving religiously driven fictions at worst.