Kenneth Kemp: The War That Never Was

Kenneth W. Kemp (PhD, Notre Dame) is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota. His previous work has included “Science, Theology, & Monogenesis,” “Scientific Method and Appeal to Supernatural Agency,” “The Virtue of Faith in Theology, Natural Science, and Philosophy,” and “Religion & the Science Classroom.” The passages below have been excerpted from his new book, The War That Never Was: Evolution & Christian Theology (Cascade, 2020). He also recently reviewed The Genealogical Adam and Eve from a Catholic perspective.

One of the enduring myths of our age is that Western intellectual history includes a long-running war between science and theology (or sometimes religion generally)—a war in which the fight was once over the sphericity of the earth and its place in relation to the sun, planets, and stars; a war in which the fight is at present not over the structure of the universe but over its origin and history. The purpose of my book is to tell the history of the relationship between the paleoetiological sciences [the science of “ancient causes”] and Christian theology in a way that demonstrates [that the Warfare Thesis is profoundly mistaken]. 

The Warfare Thesis fails for three reasons. 

First, the thesis presupposes that the line between scientific matters and theological matters is fairly clear. In fact, the lines were not clear; they needed to be drawn, and sometimes redrawn in light of new concepts and new knowledge. 

Second, the Warfare Thesis suggests that the controversies (whether over substantive matters or over the exact location of lines of demarcation) saw scientists arrayed on one side of the issue and theologians arrayed on the other. The warfare, when that is the correct term at all, was often driven as much by the clash between new ideas and old ideas as it was by any clash between the defenders of scientific ideas and the defenders of theological ones.

Finally, the thesis suggests that what conflict there was was always due to the unreasoning resistance of theologians to new ideas. In fact, irenicists and polemicists, moderates and over-reachers, can be found among evolutionists and among anti-evolutionists, among scientists and among theologians. Aggressors, when the term is appropriate at all, can never be identified with science or theology generally. At most, the aggressors are particular segments of the scientific or theological community. 

The Warfare Thesis both oversimplifies and distorts the relations between science and theology on questions of the origins of the world, of biological species, and of man. Nevertheless, it would be folly to deny that there have been, and continue to be, tensions over these issues. If one is not to understand these tensions as the product of “the conflict of two contending powers,” how is one to explain them? 

Tension between science and religion generally arises as a result of the necessity of rethinking and adjusting the frontier between science and theology. The attempt to make some kind of synthesis of what we learn from the scientific method and what we learn from revelation (and from philosophical theology) is natural and proper. Sometimes, however, new scientific ideas require a rethinking of a well-established synthesis.

Rethinking is never easy and meets naturally with resistance on the part of those confident in the value of the old synthesis, suspicious of the new, and, often, not much worried about the scientific results that seem to make revision advisable. This is all made particularly difficult by the fact that each of the primary participants in the discussion of whether a new synthesis is necessary and, if so, what it should look like—the scientists and the theologians—will generally have real expertise only in their own field and thus will fail to appreciate the complexities on the other side of the frontier. In addition, there are often differences in (and differences in the assessment of) the risks of being wrong in each direction. Will greater harm be done by false scientific theories or by false religious doctrines? 

Sometimes, to be sure, the source of the problem is the unreflective conservatism of theologians (or other religious believers) who, as their fellow-believers often point out to them, have mistaken theological opinions about the truths of revelation. This unreflective conservatism has sometimes included intemperate attacks, both rhetorical and political, on science. At other times, however, the source of the problem is rather the aggressive scientism, agnosticism, or atheism of scientists (or of science-enthusiasts) who fail to distinguish between the genuine fruit of scientific inquiry and the naturalistic or atheistic philosophy in which they manage to entangle it. This entanglement often leads to scientistic or otherwise uninformed attacks on religious doctrines or even on religion itself. 

The use of the Warfare Thesis as a lens through which to view the relation between science and theology or religion invites its adherents to see as confirmations of the thesis incidents that are not that at all. It does not bring the history of science (or the nature of theology or religion) into focus. Indeed it often distorts each of these subjects. One can only hope that it will soon cease to be a theme in popular intellectual culture. 

Used with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers: The feature image is from Pixabay.

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  1. Question: where does this come from?

    Who has made that claim?

  2. Many, many people have made that mythical claim–and tens of millions of American school children learned it in their social studies text until ca. 2000, when it seems to have become much more scarce in the telling. Both of my daughters were taught that. When I offered (in a conversation with the principal) to do a workshop (gratis) for the teachers about the myth and what’s wrong with it, the offer was ignored.

    This is a case where wikipedia is generally reliable: Myth of the flat Earth - Wikipedia

    Jeff Russell’s book (cited there) is the definitive debunking, but many others have also pointed this out. Wiki accurately cites the book by Thomas Jefferson as containing a version of this–a ridiculous, wholly wrong claim about Galileo and the church, by one of the most learned Americans of his generation. One of my own favorite examples of propagating this “fake news” is this famous painting in the Smithsonian: Columbus before the Queen | Smithsonian American Art Museum. Note the globe on the floor in front of the queen.

  3. John, I think that he’s saying that it’s part of the myth that there was such a fight. People do commonly hold that there was significant contention over the sphericity of the Earth, but as we know that’s a false reading of history.

  4. I note that very little of this is attributed to the church, Jefferson being the major exception.

  5. John William Draper’s enormously influential account, published as “non-fiction” but largely fictitious, blamed a group of clergy/scholars in Columbus’ time for using Scripture against him on the shape of the earth. Draper listed a bunch of names of earlier Christian authors who rejected a round earth; some of them belonged on that list, while others didn’t–but, the notion that any of Columbus’ learned contemporaries actually denied a spherical earth is patently false, and simply ridiculous, given that all university astronomy books from the 15th century teach the earth’s spherical shape. And, most university students would have studied introductory astronomy with one of those texts.

    I grabbed this brief summary of Draper, quoting him about a round earth, from one of my slides: “Its irreligious tendency was pointed out by the Spanish ecclesiastics, and condemned by the council of Salamanca,” and “its orthodoxy was confuted” from passages in Scripture and the church fathers, despite the fact that there had been no such council and some of the fathers he named never criticized a round Earth. (pp. 160-61)

  6. Avatar for Rneely Rneely says:

    I occasionally reread for enjoyment Christine Garwood’s “Flat Earth” which recounts tales of the flamboyant personalities such as Parallax, Shenton, and others. The story of the US city that permitted no globists was instructive. The longer review here Garwood book reviews shows what she covers.

  7. Washington Irving’s very popular biography of Columbus, The History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, also perpetuates this myth and weaves “church dignitaries and learned friars” into the story of those allegedly opposing Columbus for holding that the Earth is round. Cf. “Washington Irving’s Columbus and the Flat Earth”.

  8. If we stick with a literal interpretation, OK, that makes two. What I said was, “John William Draper’s enormously influential account,…” thereby alluding to many other such accounts. I’m not going to list them all here. An earlier account of enormous influence was Washington Irving’s semi-historical 4-volume biography of Columbus.

    Jefferson, Irving, Draper … 20th century social studies textbooks. These all present the mythical story about Christians endorsing a flat earth against the conclusions of reason. For many other examples, see the book by Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth; or, the chapter on this in Michael Newton Keas’ new book, Unbelievable.

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