The man who never alters his opinion
is like standing water,
and breeds reptiles of the mind.
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven
Most of the important battles in which religion attacked science
were lost centuries ago, but one in particular dominated the
nineteenth century, and skirmishes have continued into the twenty-first
Churchmen who were still unwilling to adopt to the findings
of science were already becoming figures of ridicule in the
late nineteenth centure, and would become an increasing embarrasment
to more progressive clerics.
Below is a centrefold cartoon published in Punch in January
1890, entitled Puck Presents Archdeacon Farrar's New Year's
Hint - A Needed Course of Instruction For Our Religious Instructors.
A figure resembling Hypatia
but sized like a classical goddess, representing Science, is
bathed in light and surrounded by scientific instruments. She
explains the living truth of nature to Catholic, Greek Orthodox
and Anglican bishops and priests, as well as to Presbyterian,
Methodist, Universalist and Dutch Reformed Church leaders, and
a Rabi. The text on the wall on the left quotes Frederic Farrar,
Archdeacon of Westminster Abbey, whose views were clearly controversial:
"No one who is acquainted with the history of science,
and has sufficient honesty to accept facts, can possibly deny
that scarcely a single truth of capital importance in science
has ever been enunciated without having to struggle for life
against the fury of theological dogmatists."
"When, as is too often the case, a preacher poses as
"Sir Oracle" against some scientific theory, while
he is as conspicuously ignorant of science as he is of most
other subjects, he presents a spectacle which is ridiculous
alike to gods and men.
Cartoon in Punch in January 1890, entitled
Puck Presents Archdeacon Farrar's New Year's Hint -
A Needed Course of Instruction For Our Religious Instructors.
(see explanation above)
Evolution and Genetics
Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science
as the strangled snakes beside the cradle of Hercules.
T. H. Huxley
During the first half of the nineteenth century new discoveries
continued to chip away at theological certainties. By the 1830s
the geologist Charles Lyell had realised that for geology to
become a respectable science it was necessary to accept that
the forces that had sculpted Earth's surface in the past were
just the same as those that operate now. The problem was that
this implied hugely extended timescales. Lyell doubted the story
of Noah's flood and felt obliged to resign his chair at King's
College London in 1833. There were biological problems too.
If species were immutable then the intestinal worm must have
existed since the creation. Yet Adam and Eve lived in perfection
until their fruity disobedience. So how did the intestinal worm
survive between the creation and the expulsion from the Garden
of Eden? This question presented a serious problem for the theologians.
They eventually deduced that worm eggs must have existed before
the fall, but were not hatched until after it.
In England at least, the questions of Natural History were
answered by Natural Theology, as developed in the work of William
Paley, a fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge. Arguments were
brought to bear to prove that various aspects of nature provided
proof of the conscious work of a benign God. How thoughtful
he had been to provide stomach linings to protect us from our
own stomach acids. How clever to provide lions with big teeth.
How wise to place polar bears in the Arctic instead of Sun-dried
deserts. How considerate to provide rabbits with conspicuous
white tails, so that they would be easier to shoot. How imaginative
to provide so many harmful creatures to chastise us and so remind
us of our sinfulness. Such explanations convinced many, but
evidence continued to accumulate to show that species were not
immutable. And there were other problems too. Why had God omitted
to mention Australasian marsupials in his infallible book of
all world knowledge?
The whole question of the mutability of species was resolved
by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. Darwin had originally
been destined for the Church, and had attended Paley's old college
at Cambridge. In the 1830s he sailed on board the Beagle
as ship's naturalist. He was an outstanding observer, and
widely read. Amongst other works he had read Malthus on population
growth, and he took Lyell's Principles of Geology with
him on the Beagle. He had also been exposed to some
revolutionary ideas. His own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had
speculated about evolution. When Charles came to prepare his
journal for publication after his voyage he started to question
his belief in the permanence of species. As one authority says:
Darwin was struck by a number of facts observed during his
voyage which seemed at odds with the view that each species
had been individually created. The organic life and fossils
he studied so intensively and collected with such assiduity
seemed littered with clues, odd similarities, and juxtapositions.
Why did closely allied animals replace one another as one
travelled southwards? Why did extinct fossil species show
such close structural relation to living animals? Above all,
why, in the Galapagos Islands did the finches and the giant
tortoises show slight variations from island to island, so
that the local inhabitants could always tell from which island
a tortoise had come? The more closely different species resembled
each other in adjacent areas or in different epochs in the
same area, the more likely did it seem that those species
might share a common ancestor, and the less plausible seemed
the hypothesis of a separate creation of each separate species*.
The horror was that Darwin and Wallace proposed a mechanism
(natural selection) by which new animal species could have come
into existence. Worse still, it explained how complex organs
like eyes could have come about without the need
for divine assistance. This was a severe blow to the Church
because, for the first time, there was a credible alternative
explanation for the existence of mankind, although Darwin himself
was careful to play this down.
Clergymen in nineteenth century England were often keen naturalists.
Country parsons studied flora and fauna, and found in their
studies repeated confirmation of God's creation. They knew the
ways of nature, its complexity, its intricacy, its interrelationships
and its curiosities. It had all been seen as evidence of a great
design. But now Darwin and Wallace had blown a great hole in
this bastion of certainty. Darwin himself, once a prospective
candidate for the clergy, lost his Christian faith and in time
came to regard Christian teaching as a "damnable doctrine"*.
As he said: "The old argument of design in Nature, as given
by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails,
now that the law of natural selection has been discovered"*.
Those country parsons knew too much about natural history to
dismiss Darwin's theory, as uneducated fundamentalists could.
As amateur naturalists they might themselves have wondered why
God should have created the upland goose with webbed feet if
it had never needed to swim. Why did vestigial organs exist?
Why had God given to the bee a less than ideal defence
a sting that killed the bee itself if it was ever used? Why
were there apparent family resemblances between horse and donkey,
dog and wolf, rabbit and hare, sheep and goat, and so on? Like
Darwin, amateur naturalists may well also have been horrified
to think that their all-merciful God could have created something
like the ichneumon wasps, whose parasitic larvae feed upon caterpillars
from within their living bodies. As Darwin put it "What
a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful,
blundering, low, and horridly cruel works of nature!"*.
the ignorant could ignore Darwin's discovery. His work was a
bombshell that shook the Church of England and all other mainstream
Churches to their foundations. Some clergymen left the Church.
Others fought a rearguard action and tried to refute the theory.
Some possible fronts had been foreseen by Darwin himself. For
example, he had noted that any animal feature that existed for
the benefit of another species, but did not confer any benefit
on its own, would be fatal for his theory. Churchmen looked
for such features, and some are still looking. No such feature
has so far been found. Another possibility was to find an example
of some feature that could not possibly be explained by evolution.
This seemed a promising area, since many features had always
been assumed to have been created by God purely for the delight
of mankind. In Darwin's time there were quite a few possibilities,
but they provided perfect scope for further research. (In investigating
apparent anomalies scientists were to refine their understanding
of evolution, for example identifying the gene and not the organism
as the primary driver of evolution*,
and understanding the role of sexual selection, competitive
evolutionary races, and parasitism*.)
Another argument used was that Darwin's theory failed to explain
the development of complex organs, the classic example being
the eye. As it turned out the eye provides a good case study
showing how complex organs can evolve, since eyes have evolved
many times over and there are living examples to illustrate
each major stage of development*.
June 1860 Thomas Huxley faced Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in a
public debate at Oxford. This is generally held to mark a turning
point in the influence of the Church in England, but it would
take a long time for its power to wane significantly. In 1864
it was still possible to muster almost 11,000 clergymen to sign
a declaration that the whole of the Bible was the word of God.
Academics who accepted the new ideas had to be careful if they
wanted to keep their jobs. Inconvenient fossils were now explained
away as tests of faith planted deliberately by God. The idea
was that the discoveries concerning fossils would affect only
those with inadequate faith and thus weed them out from true
believers. Alternatively, perhaps some species had become extinct
after all, but all this meant was that God had made a few "providential
adjustments" for his own reasons to his perfect creation.
Or perhaps there had been several separate creations. Perhaps
the present one was only the last in a series of them, and only
this one was described in the Bible.
Professors who spoke out for science put their chairs at risk,
as Lyell had done. In America the geologist Alexander Winchell
lost his position at Vanderbilt University in 1878 for informing
his students that they were descended from organisms that lived
before the time of Adam. Such sackings continue
even now, where the Church still exercises power. For example
George Coyne was removed from his position as Director of the
Vatican Observatory by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, apparently
for voicing his scientific views on evolution and doubting the
so-called “intelligent design” hypothesis favoured
by His Holiness*. Even
so there are signs of movement. Well into the twentieth century
the Roman Church held to the line that the creation story in
Genesis was strictly historical but they and most other mainstream
Churches have gone quiet on this question. Those chronologies
of events alongside the text of Bibles could still be found
into the twentieth century, but have now been abandoned.
Cartoon from the Moody Bible Institute,
by Urban Sereno Abell, March 1922.
Abell's favourite targets were Modernism and evolutionary
As Darwin and Wallace were developing their ideas, the science
of genetics was independently being pioneered by Gregor Mendel,
an Augustinian monk, later Abbot of his monastery in Moravia.
His work, published in 1866, was frowned upon by his superiors,
even though its implications were not foreseen at the time.
The significance of his work, and its relationship to that of
Darwin, was not appreciated until the twentieth century. Nevertheless
Mendel was consistently discouraged from pursuing his researches.
In spite of this he made some of the most important biological
breakthroughs of his age, although the full scope of his discoveries
will never be known. The abbot who succeeded him was a conventional
churchman with traditional Christian views of science, and so
caused Mendel's scientific papers to be burned. Fortunately
Mendel had already had some papers published. His work was rediscovered
in the twentieth century, and provided a key step in unravelling
the physical mechanism by which heredity and evolution operate.
Mendel's discoveries were synthesised with Darwin's only in
the 1930s , setting the scene for the discovery of the structure
of DNA in 1953.
Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when you have only
Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier) (1868-1951), Propos
sur la religion (1938), no. 74
After a long series of defeats, mainstream Christians have
given up the battle over evolution and retreated to more ethereal
territory, whose existence is unknown to science. Relatively
few crusaders are still prepared to sally forth to attack infidel
scientists on solid ground, but some do. Skirmishes are still
taking place, and Christian books are still being published
that purport to disprove the theory of evolution.
Most Christians in developed countries now accept the Theory
of Evolution as being as much a fact as the Theory
of Gravitation or the Germ Theory of Disease.
More liberal denominations have accepted it as a fact since
the 1870s, and others have gradually been catching up. In 1996
Pope John Paul II recognised that evolution was “more
than a hypothesis”*.
On the other hand his successor seems to favour so-called “intelligent
design”. Some 65% of people in the USA still believe that
human beings were created directly by God, and that apparently
does not include those who believe in “intelligent design”*.
Anglican churchmen embrace Darwin's theory with enthusiasm,
claiming that it demonstrates the glory of God. This position
was more credible when it was widely thought that mankind stood
at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree, for it could then
be claimed that evolution had been God's vehicle for creating
a being worthy to worship its creator. Unfortunately no evolutionary
scientist now believes mankind to hold a special place in evolution.
There is no pinnacle of evolution. We are at the end of one
branch and there is nothing at all special about that branch.
Furthermore like all other living branches, the one we occupy
is still developing. We have not reached perfection, nor are
we even evolving towards perfection. Like all living creatures
on Earth we are evolving to best fit our changing environment.
Another shock to those who sought to place humanity high aloft
at the pinnacle of creation came when it was discovered that
more than 98.5 per cent of human DNA is shared with chimpanzees,
and over 50% with bananas.
One reaction to such facts is simple denial. Fundamentalist
Christians can still be found who deny a wide range of scientific
discoveries, including the evidence that Earth is more than
6,000 years old. To do this it is necessary to reject the validity
of carbon dating and similar techniques with other isotopes.
They deny the reality of genetic mutation despite the fact that
certain viruses (like the influenza virus) are known to mutate
every year. They deny the power of selection, despite the power
of artificial selection, as demonstrated, for example, by the
wide variation in breeds of cats and dogs (which are attributable
to selection by humans). They deny the significance of common
skeletal forms and shared DNA patterns. They also refuse to
accept that since the nineteenth century extensive fossil series
have been discovered showing the development of a number of
species. They dismiss the parallel taxonomies obtained by physical
and genetic analysis. They find excuses for inconvenient bits
of anatomy like the human coccyx. They also ignore the correspondence
between embryonic development (ontogeny) and the evolution of
the species (phylogeny), such as the gills developed by the
human foetus in its early stages of development, a reminder
of those of our ancient aquatic ancestors. Why do human foetuses
grow a coat of hair and then lose it again at five months? Why
do baleen whale foetuses grow sets of teeth that are later reabsorbed
into the body? For most of us it is because ontology recapitulates
phylogeny but for biblical literalists it is yet another great
mystery, to set beside the mystery of why God arranged for around
99% of all species that he ever created to die out.
Some apologists repeat old arguments that have long been refuted.
For example, the argument that evolution fails to explain the
development of complex organs, such as the eye. This argument
is still used by fundamentalists who ignore its repeated refutation.
Since there is no evidence to reject evolutionary theory, fundamentalist
authors are often obliged to fall back on falsehoods and half-truths*.
Apparently unaware of the state of modern science, even mainstream
churchmen are still using arguments that display ignorance of
the subject. The Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore, has
employed what has been called the Argument from Personal Incredulity.
It may be summarised as follows: I can"t think of a reason
why X should evolve, therefore there is no evolutionary reason.
Consequently God must be responsible for it. To take a specific
example: I can"t think of a reason why polar bears should
evolve with white fur, therefore there is no evolutionary reason.
Consequently God must be responsible for it. Apart from the
obvious flaw in the argument, the bishop was apparently unaware
that evolutionary scientists have a perfectly good explanation
for the polar bear's white fur*.
of the main arguments against evolution put forward by creationists
is Paley's long discredited argument that the world is too complex
to have occurred "by chance" and so must have been
designed by an intelligent entity. This argument betrays a misunderstanding
of how evolution by natural selection operates. Although randomly-occurring
genetic mutations play a part in evolution, the primary driver
of the whole mechanism, natural selection, is the antithesis
of a random or chance process: it is by definition selective
i.e. non-random, non-chance. To continue trying to use Paly's
argument therefore betrays not just a misunderstanding of evolution,
but a wilful insistence on misunderstanding evolution.
Elsewhere, even stranger ideas survived. In 1980 a judge in
Georgia stated that the teaching of evolution was a direct cause
of adultery and incest. In the next decade fundamentalists in
the USA enjoyed a resurgence. Taking the word theory
to mean what it does colloquially (a guess) rather than what
it does scientifically (a rigorously tested hypothesis), they
concluded that evolutionary theory was no more reliable than
their creationist theory. Here was another example of the linguistic
deceit in action, for the whole point about scientific theories
is that they can be rationally tested, and a prime characteristic
of religious beliefs is that they cannot. Despite this the ploy
was partially successful. Proponents put forward the claim that
creationism deserves equal scientific status, and equal time
in school curriculae. In Texas, guidelines were issued stating
that evolution should be presented as only a theory.
were made to dress creationist arguments in secular clothes.
Creationism, now presented as “intelligent design”
was acclaimed by fundamentalist Christians as an alternative
scientific theory, deserving of equal respect. In Kansas the
School Board passed a resolution that alternative theories (“intelligent
design” and evolution) should be given equal time on the
scientific curriculum. This position became untenable when a
third theory, that of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,
was introduced to the fray with a similar request for equal
attracted the derision of the entire Western world, the fundamentalist
Christian members of the board were roundly defeated in the
next election and this line of purporting to give equal time
to all “theories” was abandoned.
The Flying Speghitti Monster has since become a standard tool
for combatting any proposed legislation that favours particular
religious groups in the US, as for example on the right.
I sometimes think that God, in creating man, overestimated
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
The failure of science to explain the diversity of life can
no longer be adduced as evidence for divine creation. But the
origin of life was another matter. The failure of science to
explain the origin of life could still be cited as evidence
for divine creation. For the argument to work it was necessary
to find something special about life, something that could be
explained only by recourse to God.
By the end of the eighteenth century the argument took the
form that only living organisms could generate organic chemicals,
and they did so because of some mysterious life force. Scientists
could try to synthesise organic chemicals, but they would always
fail because only God could do it. This doctrine was called
vitalism. It was abandoned after Friedrich Wöhler
showed how to synthesise an organic compound, urea, from ammonia
and cyanic acid in 1828.
After regrouping, the next theological offensive was to claim
that, even though scientists could synthesise organic chemicals,
they could not explain how the building blocks of life could
have come into being. In 1952-3, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey
demonstrated that an electric charge passed through an atmosphere
of simple inorganic gases could produce amino acids and nitrogenous
bases. It was now clear that complex organic compounds, the
building blocks of life, could be made under natural conditions
from a mixture of naturally occurring gases such as ammonia,
nitrogen, methane, oxides of carbon and water vapour. Another
line was looking untenable, so an alternative was required.
The best alternative argument was that, however clever scientists
were, they could not explain how Mendelian inheritance worked.
The mechanisms were a divine secret. But not for long. Crick
and Watson discovered the structure of DNA within months of
Miller and Urey's experiments. Now the work of Darwin and Mendel
fitted even more firmly into place.
The next line was that however clever scientists were, they
could not create life itself. The giving of life was the province
of God alone, and he would not permit mere humans to usurp his
prerogatives. But then scientists started to do exactly that.
Complex self-replicating molecules have been developed in a
number of laboratories*,
and even if these discoveries are discounted (on the grounds
that the environment is artificial, or life is more than molecular
replication) there are other ways of creating life. Animals
were cloned, hybrids created artificially, and human babies
fertilised in a test tube. The human genome has been deciphered
so that the only remaining constraints on creating human life
are ethical ones. The Churches no longer assert that scientists
will never be able to create life. On the contrary, many complain
that they already can and do. Ardent Christians in various countries
now campaign for ever tighter laws to stop them.
When enough people share a delusion, it loses its status
as a psychosis and gets a religious tax exemption instead.
For traditional Christianity, science was sinful. The Bible
contained the answers to all questions. Consequently almost
no progress in human knowledge occurred while the Church controlled
learning. It impeded and regressed progress in all fields, except
scientific warfare, for hundreds of years. It tried to extinguish
the learning of the ancient world, and persecuted proto-scientists
within its own dominions herbalists, midwives, alchemists
and others. Only in the late Middle Ages did people start to
realise how much they had lost, and were then obliged to comb
the known world for items of ancient knowledge that their Christian
forbears had failed to destroy. When Europeans began to explore
the world in the fifteenth century, they had to re-learn the
arts of map-making and navigation from Ptolemy's Almegast,
a compendium of Alexandrian learning dating from around AD 150
, shortly before Christians took over power in the Roman Empire.
If Christians had encouraged the sort of theoretical enquiry
permitted in ancient times, our knowledge today would certainly
be much greater than it is. Without the restraints on free thought
and suppression of contrary opinions, the theory of evolution
might have been proposed centuries earlier than it was. If genuine
rational enquiry had been encouraged, there is no other reason
why technology should not have developed much earlier. Hypatia,
or someone like her, might have developed advanced scientific
methods. Electricity and magnetism might have been harnessed
during the Dark Ages. Non-Euclidean geometry, the theory of
relativity, non-standard algebras, atomic physics, modern technologies,
and a host of other developments could have taken place 1,000
years ago. People then were essentially no different from people
now. Their mental abilities were the same. The only difference
was the influence of the Church.
one of the greatest crimes of the Church was to divert great
minds into vapid speculation when those minds might have helped
mankind in medical research or in a thousand other useful ways.
Men like Aquinas and Duns Scotus spent their time speculating
about the location of Hell; the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher spent
his time working out how Noah's ark was constructed. Kircher
was one of the greatest ever minds of conventional Christendom.
As a scientist he might have made important contributions to
the world. As it is he is remembered by a few for his religiosity,
his “vomiting machine”, his eaves-dropping statues,
his cabalistic studies and a sort of musical instrument powered
by screeching cats. Such men (and countless unknown women) might
have rivalled Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo if the Church had
not trammelled their minds.
Even scientific giants like Leonardo and Galileo were held
back by religious ideas. Who knows how far society might have
advanced if Galileo if had not been constrained by the orthodox
view that planetary orbits must be circular, or Kepler by the
view that angels kept the planets moving? How much more might
Newton have achieved if he had not spent so much time attempting
to decipher the Bible's hidden secrets, or Darwin as a young
putative clergyman if he had spent less time puzzling over bogus
prophecies in the book of Daniel ?
has always made an enemy of science, although science has only
ever made an enemy of ignorance. The Church declared war on
science, and used every weapon it had: coercion, censorship,
suppression, persecution, torture, imprisonment and the stake.
The Church had God on its side in every battle, yet it lost
every one, generally to a handful of independent and often self-financing
freethinking eccentrics always after a prolonged struggle.
Christianity's book of all world knowledge, the Bible, was shown
to be badly flawed in many ways. The Christian Churches, depending
upon it, were consistently wrong. They were wrong about the
age of the cosmos and of Earth. They were wrong about the length
of time mankind had existed. They were wrong about geographic
and climatic stability. They were wrong about the immutability
of species and the occurrence of mass extinctions. Christians
thought that they were right beyond all doubt and asserted that
they were voicing God's eternal truths, as God himself confirmed
to them from time to time, yet they were consistently and comprehensively
As they retreated the Church fought rearguard actions. As it
withdrew it was left with ever-smaller patches of territory.
The God who once ruled everywhere became the God of the Gaps,
as Einstein called him. Christianity now occupied gaps in scientific
knowledge where science had not yet advanced. The God of the
Gaps became ever less credible as the gaps became smaller and
fewer. Protestants have learned to retreat ever more gracefully,
and now rarely pick new fights. Roman Catholics generally hold
out until faced with mass desertions by the faithful, then abandon
territory as quietly as possible, and then claim that they never
held that particular territory anyway. Fundamentalists imagine
that they still hold territory that everyone else agrees was
lost many years ago. At the other extreme liberal theologians
are careful not to claim any territory at all that they might
conceivably have to relinquish at any stage in the future and,
to make doubly sure, have developed their own language comprehensible
only to themselves and impenetrable to everyone else.
Now the areas of conflict arise for different reasons, for
example because academic disciplines have taken an interest
in Christianity and its belief system. Archaeologists have uncovered
acts of vandalism; chemists have revealed the frequency with
which documents were forged; biologists and physicists have
exposed miracle-working relics as frauds; historians have shown
where and when doctrines originated; psychologists have identified
factors that predispose people to religious belief; psychiatrists
have revealed the nature of sadomasochistic and other sexual
fantasies so popular in traditional Christianity; anthropologists
have shown Christianity to be much the same as other religions
in function and development; philosophers have discredited Christianity's
"proofs" of God's existence, and indeed the whole
of scholastic philosophy, just as astronomers comprehensively
discredited the Church's cosmology. Scientific revelations are
sometimes seen by the devout as unfair, and sometimes even as
fabrications as though scientists were attacking Christian
belief, rather than exposing the truth.
Not all religions take the Christian
view of their relationship to science
Christians are still generally antipathetic to scientific endeavour.
Studies during the twentieth century revealed for example that
Christians are vastly under-represented among American scientists.
In one study Roman Catholics accounted for less than 1 per cent
of the scientists surveyed, although they accounted for over
26 per cent of the population at large. Non-Christians on the
other hand were vastly over-represented. Some 77 per cent of
scientists were neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic, yet only
7 per cent of the population fell into this category*.
Christian graduates saw a serious conflict between science and
Church teachings*. A
study concentrating on differences between academic disciplines
revealed that fewer than 14 per cent of distinguished psychologists
believed in God. No figures were available for philosophers,
apparently because they found the concept meaningless, or at
least inadequately defined*.
Other studies revealed that the more eminent scientists were,
the less likely they were to believe in God*,
and another that the strength of religious belief is inversely
related to scientific productivity*.
Another study showed that the strength of religious belief is
related to authoritarianism and inversely related to creativity*.
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