Category Archives: Asa Gray

The War that never was. Evolution and Christian Theology

We are often told of the how the church opposed Galileo, Darwin, early geologists and almost every advance of science. There is a merest smidgeon of truth in it, but mostly they are stories invented to discredit Christianity. Much originated with Draper and White in the 19th century. Dawkins has fallen for it, among others. Over the lasty fifty years the idea of conflict between science and Christianity has been discredited.

World of Books - Science | A History of the Warfare of Science the Theology - War College Series By Andrew Dickson White

Recently there have been a spate of books on the conflict thesis of science and religion. Here is one coming to it from a catholic angle.

The War That Never Was: Evolution and Christian Theology Paperback – Illustrated, May 29, 2020

Kenneth W. Kemp is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the co-translator of Archbishop Jozef Zycinski’s God and Evolution: Fundamental Questions of Christian Evolutionism.

The blurb

One of the prevailing myths of modern intellectual and cultural history is that there has been a long-running war between science and religion, particularly over evolution. This book argues that what is mistaken as a war between science and religion is actually a pair of wars between other belligerents—one between evolutionists and anti-evolutionists and another between atheists and Christians. In neither of those wars can one align science with one side and religion or theology with the other. This book includes a review of the encounter of Christian theology with the pre-Darwinian rise of historical geology, an account of the origins of the warfare myth, and a careful discussion of the salient historical events on which the myth-makers rely—the Huxley-Wilberforce exchange, the Scopes Trial and the larger anti-evolutionist campaign in which it was embedded, and the more recent curriculum wars precipitated by the proponents of Creation Science and of Intelligent-Design Theory.

My review

As I read this book, I kept thinking of the Second World War hoax made into the film The man who never was

The Man Who Never Was By Ewen Montagu

A convenient corpse with a briefcase attached was allowed to wash up in Spain so Germans would read the documents giving false information about allied plans. The argument of Kemp’s book is that there was no war between Christianity and Evolution. The conflict thesis of religion and science has taken a battering during the last fifty years but many still believe it. Much will be familiar to some, but Kemp has re-packaged it in a different way as he leads from the ‘War’ started by Draper and White, through the Scopes trial to the various Creationism and ID trials of the last 40 years.   His emphasis is transatlantic, but the issues are worldwide. With the author being a Catholic philosopher he gives a new perspective The author says the book is a partial account focussing on the paleaetiological sciences (2, 3) i.e geology, palaeontology and evolution.  . That would be fair enough but it omits so much of those sciences and does not put geology into a full perspective – which can be done briefly, though he claims to leave it for another book. It is an odd claim to say that Lyell was the founder of geology.

180px-charles_lyell anning

Llyell (left) and his geology teacher Buckland looking at glacial striae at Rhyd Ddu in North Wales, 1841

The heart of the book gives a historical account of particular conflicts of evolution and Christianity, mostly of the more extreme kind. There is little on more atheistic questions but almost only on Christian opposition to evolution of the more extreme kind.  More on genuine wrestling by Christian thinkers would have been helpful as for example Adam Sedgwick,


Princeton theologians and Bernard Ramm. The introduction is a philosophical reflection with a succinct discussion of theology and naturalism. He concludes with recommending a ‘modest methodological naturalism’ for our theology and science and criticises Johnson’s appeal to ‘immediate divine action’. A good and nuanced account of the conflict thesis as it began in the 19th century follows, concluding with ways of assessing the various arguments.

Despite many who claim there was conflict over Genesis and geology, the author is right to say there was none, beyond the peripheral early 19th century Scriptural geologists. A sharper trajectory on how geology developed from Steno in the 1660s, would have shown the gradual dawning of the realisation of Deep Time and its relation to Christianity over the next 150 years. The presentation, which tends to flip backwards and forwards, makes it difficult to follow, if one does not have familiarity with the subject matter.

Charles DarwinSH16DARWIN2
Darwin and how some see him (statue in Shrewsbury)

The chapter on the aftermath of 1859 devotes much space to the Huxley-Wilberforce episode but sheds little new light.


Wilberforce and Huxley, who got on quite well!!

It stresses its iconic position in the conflict thesis. Rather than consider the variety of Christian responses – Asa Gray is hardly mentioned, we are given four vignettes of evolutionists losing their university positions, hardly a large number

Chapter 5 is on the first Curriculum war of the Scopes era.


The author first gives an account of events, which almost seem farcical. This undoes some of the myths surrounding Scopes. More importantly the Scopes trial is not seen as purely an anti-evolution crusade but wider than that.


Andrea at the Dayton Courthouse and myself in the dock

There was a moral side and, in a sense, Bryan and others occupied the high moral ground despite their poor science. Part goes back to Kellogg’s visit to the German trenches in 1915, where German militarism was (wrongly?) traced back to Darwin. Bryan’s concern was more moral, which is why he could not accept evolution for humans. Kemp does not mention the anti-evolutionists opposition to eugenics in contrast to many biologists and modernist churchmen. Kemp regards the Scopes affair as not a battle between science and religion but rather between conservative Christians and also sees it as a three-way conflict between fundamentalism, modernism and scepticism (139). This spoils the cardboard cut-outs of Inherit the Wind, but brings out the complexities of Interwar American society. Anti-evolution was only part of it.

Chapter 6 deals with Creationism and ID in the last sixty years, termed the second curriculum war. Much is historical and familiar from Numbers The Creationists. Little is given on the renaissance of Creationism and more on legal aspects on the teaching of evolution as with the repeal of Scopes Laws and the Arkansas judgement of 1982.  The narrative moves on to Intelligent Design, which is wrongly seen as going back to Paley. The presentation is very last century with the focus on Johnson, Behe and Dembski. There’s a nod to the Dover trial of 2005, In a long section ofn the development of anti-evolutionist thought the difference between Creation ascience and ID is clarified but on ID focues on Johnson, Behe and Dembski in the 90s and omits later developments and thus gives little on how both Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design has evolved in the last fifteen years. Thus little is provided to understand anti-evolution in the twenties.

Image result for ken ham image

Ken Ham, possibly the most significant Creationist of the 2020s, gets no mention

In conclusion Kemp emphasises that Scopes was over human evolution, whereas both creationism and ID challenge almost all of evolution and geology as well. He rightly says that the (187) NABT and new Atheists add to confusion by not distinguishing between methodological and metaphysical naturalism. He concludes this ‘war’ is doing damage to religion, as many readers must have discovered

The conclusion begins with a quote from Pope John Paul II on the Galileo myth, which is almost as pervasive. As with Galileo the Warfare Thesis fails on three grounds; it presupposes a clear demarcation between science and religion, assumes that scientists and Christians are neatly arrayed on opposite sides and. Finally, theologians were always opposed to new ideas.


With such distortion the Warfare Thesis is not a good lens to understand the relation of science and religion. ‘The war that never was’ re-surfaces the whole time – whether  in churches or without. It thus needs wise engagement rather than dismissal.

As an Anglican priest I am frequently asked by those within and without the church how can I be a geologist and a Christian? Such is the indelibility of this myth.

This is not the easiest book to read, as rather than just give a narrative the author goes beyond a simple science versus religion explanation, and attempts to tease out various factors. As a result, this will help to give a better understanding of The War that never was and why there has been conflict over some aspects of science and some aspects of religion.


Darwin’s doubts about design and his retriever, Asa Gray

161 years ago today Darwin published The Origin of Species. As all know it had a mixed reaction but many don’t know that Christians were more welcoming than physicists, but that is another story.


Also today we heard the sad news that some of Darwin’s notebooks from 1837-40 had gone missing from Cambridge library, presumably stolen. and so the iconic evolutionary tree of life sketch has been lost.

Charles Darwin, tree-of-Life sketch from notebook B, 1837. Reproduced... |  Download Scientific Diagram

Most consider Darwin’s work as on evolution, but it needs to be considered on design as well. To understand Darwin’s idea we must start with his rooms in Christ’s College, Cambridge, which he entered in 1828.


He had the same rooms as William Paley did many decades before. He was famous for his design argument put forward in his Natural Theology of 1804

William Paley - Wikipedia

He began with a rhetorical argument for design;

IN crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e. g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. To reckon up a few of the plainest of these parts, and of their offices, all tending to one result:– We see a cylindrical box containing a coiled elastic spring, which, by its endeavour to relax itself, turns round the box. We next observe a flexible chain (artificially wrought for the sake of flexure), communicating the action of the spring from the box to the fusee. We then find a series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in, and apply to, each other, conducting the motion from the fusee to the balance, and from the balance to the pointer; and at the same time, by the size and shape of those wheels, so regulating that motion, as to terminate in causing an index, by an equable and measured progression, to pass over a given space in a given time. We take notice that the wheels are made of brass in order to keep them from rust; the springs of steel, no other metal being so elastic; that over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work, but in the room of which, if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not be seen without opening the case. This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood), the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

And thus the design one was so powerful and popular in England for the next fifty years. The greatest exponent was William Buckland, and it comes out in his Bridgewater Treatise of 1836 and a lecture on megatherium in 1832.


Many think that the Intelligent Design of today is a continuation of Paley. It is not. It is an argument from ignorance. “Wow! We can’t explain it thus Goddidit and designed it.”

Here I contrast the design of Paley and Buckland with that of ID in the person of Michael Behe. Give me Buckland and Paley any day!

Well, back to Darwin. He rejected Paley standing him on his head BUT   always looked for functions in any organism in a way reminiscent of Paley and Buckland.

And so the Origin was published in 1859. Asa Gray, the great Harvard botanist and a Christian got it published in the USA

Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin: Dupree, A.  Hunter: 9780801837418: Books

and the correspondence between Gray and Darwin in 1860 is illuminating. It forms the heart of my paper in Science and Christian Belief in 1997;

Darwin’s Doubts About Design—the Darwin-Gray Correspondence of 1860

Michael B. Roberts; S & CB 9 (2); October 1997


Darwin is credited with overturning Paley’s ideas of design. However, Darwin’s prob!ems with design are more complex, and are often misunderstood by neither grasping Paley’s ideas of design, nor those of his successors, who were beginning to replace arguments leading from design to God by arguments to design from God. Darwin’s doubts about design arose from three main sources: first, he used the argument from design, in contrast to Gray’s argument to design; second, the issue of chance and determinism; and, third, his doubts that a ‘Beneficent God’ could design a world with so much pain. The correspondence between Darwin and Gray and Gray’s articles on Darwin show how Gray sought to be Darwin’s retriever. Hodge’s challenge in What is Darwinism? was centred on chance, and as natural selection depended on chance Darwinism had to be atheistic, even if Darwin himself was not. In conclusion Darwin’s doubts about design stemmed directly from his doubts about God, and especially suffering.

The letters are fascinating and raise issues of suffering as well.

For good measure I discussed the theologian Charles Hodge’s

Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy: Gutjahr, Paul  C.: 9780199895526: Books

What is Darwinism  of 1874 , which must be the best book against Darwin and evolution ever written. He showed the draft to Gray who disagreed but could find no “errors”. Hodge was pleased. Like Gray I disagree with Hodge but cannot fault his scholarly approach. I cannot say that about any Creationist of ID proponent today.

That’s enough, so try my paper.

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Link to paper