Nick Spencer introduces his new book ‘Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion’


John William Draper was an eminent American chemist who also fancied himself as an intellectual historian. Son of a Methodist convert, he left Britain aged twenty, though took his father’s views of Rome with him. Having achieved scientific eminence, he turned to writing. His 1874 book History of the Conflict between Religion and Science compressed the story of two allegedly clearly-defined and self-evident entities into a simple narrative of relentless argument. In actual fact, Draper focused his aim on the Catholic church – he more or less excused Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam from his critique – in a way that resonated powerfully with his largely Protestant audience, many of whom were worried about the Vatican’s authoritarianism. Draper’s History, combined with another large polemic written by Andrew Dixon White twenty years later, and the boundless energies of the publisher Edward Youmans, took the gospel of science and religious warfare to an unprecedentedly wide audience, and embedded the narrative in an anxious Protestant mind.

The academic study of the history of science was still in its infancy at the time and it wasn’t until a generation or so later that scholars began to pick away at Draper and White’s ‘conflict narrative’. An important monograph, written by a young sociologist, Robert Merton, in 1938, argued that Puritanism had made a decisively important contribution to the birth of modern science, but that the narrative only began to unravel half a century later.  From the late 1980s, a growing band of historians (and sociologists) began to undermine the idea that there is a single controlling metaphor for the long history of science and religion, let alone one of relentless warfare. Reality turned out to be much more entangled and much more interesting.

Some of this was down to the ordinary everyday process, and progress, of historical research. Some of this it was a question of historians emerging from the shadows of what was once deemed obvious.ii But some of it was down to entirely new discoveries, a few genuinely ground-breaking. In 2018, Salvatore Ricciano, a postgraduate student from the University of Bergamo, was searching through the Royal Society archives when he stumbled across the original of a crucial but apparently lost letter that Galileo had written, but then retracted and doctored, during his first clash with the Papacy in 1615–16. 

Around the same time, a keen-eyed American scholar noticed a previously unknown and remarkably full account of the 1860 Huxley-Wilberforce debate, published in the Oxford Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette. Up until then, the famous debate had been known only through a handful of brief newspaper accounts and some gossipy letters, which meant that no one had ever really been sure what the two protagonists had said to one another, or how the audience reacted. The new source finally put the uncertainty to rest.

Such new scholarship and fresh discoveries undermined many of the myths that have long disguised themselves as history in the field. For example: 

The science of Christendom was considerably more sophisticated than most people give it credit for; medieval science is not a contradiction in terms after all.iii Nicolaus Copernicus never imagined that his theory was a threat to his religion. Senior Church figures were initially positive about heliocentrism. Almost nobody thought the Copernican decentring of the earth demoted or degraded humans, as Freud later claimed. Giordano Bruno was not made a martyr on account of his science. Galileo’s trial was as much about Aristotle, the Protestant threat and his soured friendship with Pope Urban as it was about heliocentrism. Catholic science did not disappear after Galileo. Early scientific societies, such as London’s Royal Society, were not anti-religious. Newton wrote considerably more about theology, which he judged far more important, than he did about science, and his science did not banish God from the universe (in that respect, Newton was not really a Newtonian). The Enlightenment – or at least the Enlightenment outside France – was the period of closest harmony between science and religion. Much of the early work of geology was conducted by clergymen, most of whom managed to accommodate the newly-extended history of the earth into their faith without too many tears. Darwin did not lose his faith on account of evolution – or not exclusively on account of evolution – and to the end of his life he denied that evolution was incompatible with theism. The Huxley-Wilberforce debate was not about science vs. religion or even narrowly about evolution vs. Genesis. The Scopes trial was as much about eugenics at it was evolution. And so on and so forth. The facts that everyone knew about science and religion turned out not to be facts after all.

Myth-busting is helpful and can be fun but it can still leave a rather negative impression in the mind. Religion wasn’t quite as destructive of science as we have been led to believe. Hallelujah! Rejoice! In actual fact, however, for much of history, religion wasn’t just ‘not at war’ with science, but actively supported it, serving to legitimise, preserve, encourage, and develop scientific ideas and 

So, again, a few examples. There was an Islamic ‘Golden Age’ of science between the eighth and twelfth centuries and although some scholars have claimed that its originality came from the Greek thought that Muslims inherited, the fact is that Islamic scholars did make significant original contributions to their classical inheritance. 

A few centuries later, the first great scientific flourishing in medieval Europe, before the eruption of Aristotle in the thirteenth century, witnessed a small group of Christian scholars – self-designated physici – develop a concept of nature that was rationally-ordered, consistent, quantifiable, comprehensible, and capable of analysis through scepticism and methodological naturalism. 

The longstanding metaphor of God’s two books – of scripture and nature; of his Word and his Works – created a powerful argument for the study of the latter. ‘Science’ was a theologically-sanctioned – indeed theologically-commanded – activity. 

The development of the experimental method in the early seventeenth century, and in particular Francis Bacon’s contribution to early science, was closely linked to the Protestant understanding of the Fall of mankind, in which human cognitive abilities were judged to be as damaged as our moral and spiritual ones. In effect, humans could not be expected to think our way to the truth, but had to feel, to test, to experience, to experiment our way there. 

The early years of ‘modern’ science, as we come to know it, during which time it promised much but achieved little, were lived under the protection of theology. 

There are plenty of other examples peppered through this book but these five underline how, particularly in its formative centuries, religion acted as midwife to science. For much of the time, the relationship of science and religion has not only not been one of relentless conflict but characterised by profitable collaboration.

For much of the time; not, it should be stressed, at all times. There is no merit in demolishing one simplistic and unjustifiable narrative – of constant conflict – only to replace it with an equally simplistic and unjustifiable narrative of constant amity. 

So, one final set of examples: Islamic science did decline after the thirteenth century, and it did so in part for theological reasons. The Church banned the teaching of Aristotle in Paris in 1277 because it was judged a threat to theology. Sixteenth-century Protestants pitted the book of Joshua against Copernicus’ heliocentrism and found the latter wanting. The Catholic Church did threaten Galileo with torture, prohibit his books and ban the teaching of heliocentrism for nearly two hundred years. The church in France, in particular, sought to suppress biological ideas in the eighteenth century for fear of what they did to the idea of God-created life. Geology was judged unbiblical by many in the nineteenth century. Darwin was roundly attacked by many Christian correspondents, including many clerics. The Huxley-Wilberforce debate and the Scopes trial were not only about the theory of evolution but they were still about it. And today, millions upon millions of Protestants reject Darwinism, as do an increasing number of Muslims. Whatever else this is, it is not a picture of unspoiled harmony.

We are left with a bit of a mess. The histories of science and religion have not been dominated by straightforward conflict. But nor have they been tales of uncomplicated concord. Is there any order in all this? Are there any plots to be discerned amidst the chaos of events?

Historians of science and religion have struggled to find or name any. In academic circles, ‘complexity’ rules.iv In writing this book, however, it became clear that, for all its undeniable ‘complexity’, the histories of science and religion do converge, repeatedly, on two issues. Whether we are in the classical Mediterranean world, tenth-century Baghdad, thirteenth-century Paris, seventeenth-century Rome, eighteenth-century France, nineteenth-century Oxford, twentieth century Russia, or twenty-first century Silicon Valley, two particular themes kept on arising from the noise.

The first is the question of authority. Who has the right to pronounce on nature, the cosmos and reality? For much of the time there has been broad agreement on this, but when there has been conflict between science and religion – when the Church Fathers disagreed with the philosophers in the ancient world, rationalist theologians with religious scholars in the Abbasid caliphate, theologians and philosophers in mediaeval Paris, Baconian and Aristotelian scientists in the early modern period, clerical naturalists and scientists in the Victorian age, creationist Protestants and eugenicist Darwinians in the Deep South – it has usually been about this issue. Much of the Galileo affair was about the first great shift in such authority, when scholars like Galileo began to assert their right to judge the way of the natural world. The same can be said of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate, which was about newly-professionalised scientists (like Huxley) knocking old-school natural philosophers (like Wilberforce) off their perch. And a similar point can be made of the Scopes trial, in which Bryan, ‘the great Commoner’, focused the question on what level of authority resided in ‘the people’. The question of authority served as a lightning rod for disagreement – and never more so when combined with second theme.

That is the nature and status of the human. Time and time again, it is the concept of the human – our makeup, origins, purpose, dignity, and uniqueness (or lack thereof) – that that emerges from the debate. Time and again, when it seemed as if people were arguing about the power of the planets, the composition of the body, the order of the cosmos, the design of nature, the origin of life, the age of rocks, or the development of species they were really talking about the nature of the human beast.

On reflection, this makes sense. Only the most obtuse – whether religious or non-religious – believe that science can pronounce authoritatively on the question of whether God exists. Certainly, it may gesture in a particular direction – towards the God of the Abraham, or the God of the Philosophers, or the God who hides himself, or the God who is simply the invention of the anxious human imagination. People do and always will disagree on this. But those who think science can judge definitively on the God question are getting their physics and the metaphysics muddled up.

The nature of the human is different. Human existence is open to scrutiny in a way that God’s is not, and what we think of the human profoundly influences what we think of the divine. If humans are – or more precisely, if they are only – puppets of the stars, or beasts of the field, or ‘man machines’, or accidental primates, or creatures of their desires, or marionettes of their genes – they are not really the kind of creatures envisaged the world’s religions. Most of those religions recognise that humans are material beings – physical, animal, evolved, genetic – but they claim that we are not only or merely such beings. We have some moral or spiritual or eternal or transcendent or divine dimension to us too. Throughout history, when science has claimed that humans are material beings, some religious thinkers have shrugged and some have shrieked. But when it has claimed that humans are only material beings, they have all shrieked. In this way, the messy histories of science and religion have repeatedly converged of the question of the nature of the human beast – or, more precisely, the natures of the beast, because what is at stake is not so much how we understand ourselves as whether there is more than one way of doing so.

What (or who) is the human, and who (or what) gets to say? These two questions run through the histories of science and religion like rivers through a landscape. Not every feature on the landscape we will pass through can be explained by the course of these rivers. Sometimes science and religion has been about the interpretation of empirical evidence or the reading of holy texts. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Moreover, even when these rivers – of the human and of authority – have been in clear view, they have not always been equally important. In the centuries before science and religion assumed anything like their modern form – say up until around 1600 – the question of authority was the more significant feature, if only because few people imagined that science, or natural philosophy, could cast any doubt on human spiritual identity. After that, authority would remain an issue but it would increasingly be the nature(s) of the human beast that would assume significance. 

The two rivers finally met in the later nineteenth century – when science was professionalised and Darwin revealed our evolved history – and that was, not coincidentally, the moment at which the ‘warfare’ narrative was born. But thereafter, even as the professional status and authority of scientists was settled, science’s capacity to redescribe humans and to remake their society and planet, meant that whether in Tennessee, Vienna, Moscow, Arkansas, or Silicon Valley, science and religion would still engage in lively conversation about human beings, our nature and our future.

To repeat, then: the histories of science and religion are many and messy and it would be misleading to cram Hypatia of Alexandria, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, Maimonides, Adelard of Bath, Robert Grosseteste, Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Margaret Cavendish, Boyle, Newton, la Mettrie, David Hartley, William Buckland, Darwin, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, Dixon and White, Faraday and Maxwell, Jennings and Bryan, Einstein and Dirac, Freud, Frazer and Evans-Pritchard, Yuri Gagarin and John Glen, George Price and Richard Dawkins, Alan Turing and Ray Kurzweil into the same neat coherent narrative. We have to see the histories of science and religion in all their heterogeneity and complexity.

But those histories do repeatedly converge on the questions of who we are and who gets to say, and while it is quite possible to enjoy the stories of science and religion without paying attention to these two questions, it is impossible to understand the lie of the land, or the argument of this book, without them.

The late, great American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould claimed, towards the end of his life, that science and religion were ‘non-overlapping magisteria’, distinct fields of human activity that need not – should not – encroach on each other’s territory. It was an intervention borne of good intentions, hoping to bring a ceasefire to an exhausted local conflict between fundamentalists who disbelieved Darwin and fundamentalists who disbelieved anything that wasn’t Darwin. Whatever its merits as a description of how science and religion should interact, Gould’s model patently does not work when it comes to history. The ‘magisteria’ of science and religion are indistinct, sprawling, untidy, and endlessly and fascinatingly entangled.


Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at the thinktank Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014), and host of the podcast Reading Our Times. Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London, and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion. Published by Oneworld, Magisteria is available now.