By David Hutchings & James Ungureanu; Oxford University Press, 2022 (263 pages)

Accessibility rating 4 (out of 5)

Recommendation rating 5 (out of 5)

Of Popes and Unicorns, a 2022 offering written by science educator David Hutchings and Humanities Professor James Ungureanu, takes the reader on a brief yet impressively comprehensive tour of the history of the so-called “conflict thesis,” the widely accepted claim that there exists a long-standing and fundamental antagonism between religious thought, notably Christian thought, and the goals and efforts of modern science.

In the book, the authors tackle two issues. The first is a careful exploration of the history and merit of the conflict thesis, and the second is an investigation into how and why something so powerful and unquestioned, yet so wrong, came about in the first place and persists to this day. The second issue naturally emerges from the resolution of the first.

Perhaps the first descriptor to note is the relaxed and casual writing style. In stride with the book’s peculiar title, the form of prose used by the authors is conversational in tone, a bit unorthodox for academic writings. This approach, however, draws the reader in, offering them an insider’s perspective to the unfolding of a mystery. It has a sleuthy, detective feel to it, but the problem to be solved is about how something came to life as opposed to how something died. Although this approach may be off-putting to some highbrow readers, the “sit-back-with-a-cup-of-coffee” style serves to open-up what is, truthfully, a rather complex and nuanced subject matter in a way that is easy to follow, even for those unfamiliar with the history of science.  And, given the importance of the science-religion conversation to the larger meta-narratives of our modern, western culture, this welcoming and unintimidating approach is a key strength of the book. It is streamlined and engaging, but not dumbed down.

Chapters are often started with a well written description of a curious real-life event occurring within the world of science; these stories then serve to underscore the importance of the key issue wrestled with in the pages that follow. For instance, in the first chapter the authors use the story of Bill Kaysing, an employee of  NASA during the era of the Apollo missions, who argued that the moon landings were faked for political and public-relations purposes. Kaysing’s case dissolves, in part, because of the absurd scale of the conspiracy that would have had to have taken place to pull off the ruse. This story highlights the impracticality of large-spread conspiracy claims, noting it would require the cooperation of hundreds of people across numerous departments and large stretches of time to create and sustain such a false narrative.  So, their argument goes, how could something like the conflict thesis, if it be false, be given such long life within the world of scientific self-critique? How could such a massive misunderstanding have taken place across vast communities of professionals for decades upon decades? Therefore, surely the claim of conflict must be true. These chapter-opening stories serve as a clever way to bring the reader to feel the full weightiness of the topic under consideration.

Much of the first half of the book is devoted to a systematic inspection at the various lines of evidence of conflict. In each case, the authors first present the claim of conflict as commonly understood and in full force. Then, they systematically go back through the mediating sources responsible for the current framing, all the way to the primary sources themselves. The falseness, in most cases, or the ambiguity, complexity, and misleading nature in others, is located and clearly presented to the reader. With every example, the authors convincingly show how the claims of conflict simply do not withstand scrutiny. (All along, rumbling in the background, is the second issue to be taken up by the authors, how did such a misunderstanding come to life in the first place and become so unquestioned?)

Some of the topics covered in the book include:

  • Christians insisting on a flat earth,
  • Christians holding taboos against dissection, vaccines, and anesthetics; in fact, taboos against medicine in general,
  • Christians being susceptible to credulous thinking (e.g., a superficial analysis is all that is needed; for example, walnuts look like little brains with their hard shell and soft convoluted inner matter, ergo, eating them must be good for brains),
  • Christians being responsible for the burning of libraries and creating the “Dark Ages,”
  • The Bible’s claim for the existence of unicorns and other fanciful creations,
  • Christians being responsible for the harassment and even murder of some proto-scientists in early Middle Ages, and
  • Christians adamantly protecting Geo-centrism; Bruno, Copernicus, and Galileo are each covered.
David Hutchings & James Ungureanu

“All these grand and saddening assertions have three things in common. Firstly, they form the backbone of the Draper-White narrative. Secondly, they have since become common knowledge, and are repeated in casual conversation, newspaper articles, popular science and history, plays, documentaries, and even academic treatises. Thirdly, we now know that none of them – not a single one – is actually true.” (pg 15)

Hutchings & Ungureanu, 2022 (p. 15)

To address the second issue, the authors introduce an impressive list of historical events, people, and movements. To the book’s credit, it often works backwards in time, as if to unwind for the reader the tangled nest of motives, cherry-picked observations, and imagined narratives. Early on in this unweaving process, the authors look at the lives and arguments of the authors of the two pivotal books written in the 19th century which most forcefully gave rise and voice to the conflict thesis; that is, James Draper and his History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White and his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. The similarities and differences – in personal history, motivations for writing (for one, a return to a purer faith, for the other, a movement beyond foolish Catholicism), and writing style (one is brief and popular, the other is lengthy and detailed) are presented as complementing each other in important ways that facilitate the effectiveness and ultimate adoption of their shared message. Taken together, their books tell a story of perennial tension between obedience to (religious) power and the noble curiosity of a courageous few to discover truth for themselves. Both books argue that we need to move out of darkness and into the light; science must lead the way.

Each of the events, people, and movements covered feature a religion versus science component that is pulled out and illuminated for the reader. Some of the topics addressed include the French Revolution, the Inquisition, Tyndall’s claims about science in Ancient Greece, Huxley’s fight against religious dogma, and the X Club’s strategized influence over England’s Royal Society. Each event is woven into the developing conflict storyline, collectively portraying how the idea of warfare arose in almost parallel fashion with the emergence and divergence of the modern notions of science and religion themselves. The reader learns that the idea of conflict was one of the animating spirits that gave rise to the intellectual zeitgeist of the 18th and 19th century. And yet, it was Draper and White who collected and organized the various mythical accounts and presented them in meta-narrative form. 

To its credit, Of Popes & Unicorns also pans out wider to the broader intellectual landscape of the enlightenment by noting the work of several German philosophers, like Lessing, Schleiermacher, and Nietzsche, the grand materialistic narratives of Comte’s positivism and Spencer’s synthetic philosophy, and the desired cultural authority of a professional scientific class dreamt of by Huxley and Galton. Importantly, space is also given to the first historian of science, George Sarton, who, as it turns out, was a huge fan of Comte’s positivism as well as Andrew Dickson White’s conflict thesis. Even though the book is well suited for general consumption, its comprehensiveness as well as its ability to avoid distraction and maintain continued focus on the development of the conflict thesis is truly impressive.

What does the book accomplish? If convincingly shows:

  • That the conflict thesis is pure myth. This conclusion is now widely held by contemporary historians of science. The presumption of conflict that persists to this day remains magically suspended in mid-air, tethered to nothing but historical inertia.
  • The power of a desired narrative to overwhelm a knowable but inconvenient history.
  • That the the false narrative of conflict obscures the more accurate narrative that Christian thought was unquestionably one of the motors that propelled modern science forward. Although this claim is not an expressed purpose of the book, as some stories are deconstructed, others naturally become more easily seen. Specifically, the narrative of an intimate relationship between many of the key theological principles of Christianity (e.g., the nature of a single yet triune God; humans as divine image-bearers and stewards of creation) and the jump-starting of modern science moves to the front and center of the reconstructed landscape.

In terms of critique, the most substantial comments are reserved not for what the book contains, but rather for what it left out. Below are three observations.

  • The book does not acknowledge that those on both sides of the religion-science divide who work to push the conflict thesis sense an inconsistency; namely, that there is a conflict at the level of underlying assumptions about the nature of nature. Does it point beyond itself or is it self-explanatory? The book misses an opportunity to explain why we are still constantly confronted with this wrong-headed idea, even as it sits resting on nothing but thin air. The mystery begins to lift when we identify and highlight what philosopher Alvin Plantinga has described as, “Where the Conflict Really Lies.[1]
  • For as comprehensive as the book is, it was missing some terms and words that are particularly important to the history and current practice of science; namely, philosophical naturalism – how this prerequisite unnecessarily limits ones frame of reference; information – how an acknowledgment of that property of nature destroys materialism; and design – how it might be detectable and how its detection should open up the scientists’ toolbox to allow for inferences to intelligence in biology (which are already accepted inferences in areas like forensics, signal-detection, and archeology).
  • The contemporary examples given to show scientists acting religiously (or religious people acting scientifically, as the case may be) were almost entirely comprised of individuals who do not acknowledge the value of the two preceding critical observations. Yes, there are religiously minded scientists who accept the current strictures and conventions of materialistic science, but there are also a growing number of scientists who are pointing out the absurdity of science being defined as a dispassionate search for truth and yet arbitrarily (and only partially) prohibiting the ability to make inferences to design. The book misses an opportunity to point out a few of these courageous and important scientists.

In closing, if you are unfamiliar with the history of the conflict thesis or know of people who are curious about the ongoing religion/science discussion, this book is surprisingly brief (225 pgs) and wonderfully accessible, even to the interested undergrad or non-scientist. It is unquestionably an important book and one that deserves to be widely read.

[1] Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Oxford University Press; Oxford.