Post Author: Bill Pratt
Another favorite story told by those who want to argue that religion and science are at complete enmity is the Huxley-Wilberforce debate of 1860. The debate was between T. H. Huxley (a Darwin supporter) and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, and was to be about Darwin’s The Origin of Species which had been published 7 months prior. Philosopher John Lennox recounts the circumstances of this debate in his book God’s Undertaker, so we will rely on his synopsis.
Lennox starts by reminding us that “this encounter is often portrayed as a simple clash between science and religion, where the competent scientist convincingly triumphed over the ignorant churchman.” Lennox says that historians have shown that “this account is also very far from the truth.”
First, Wilberforce was a learned scholar, not an ignoramus. Wilberforce published a critique of Darwin’s work which Darwin himself regarded as “uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties. It quizzes me most splendidly.”
Second, Wilberforce was adamant that the debate over Darwin’s theories be scientific. In his summary of the critique which Darwin commended, Wilberforce wrote the following:
We have objected to the views with which we are dealing, solely on scientific grounds. We have done so from the fixed conviction that it is thus that the truth or falsehood of such arguments should be tried. We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by revelation. We think that all such objections savour of a timidity which is really inconsistent with a firm and well-intrusted faith.
Third, there were objections to Darwin’s theory which did not come from the church. Lennox notes that “Sir Richard Owen, the leading anatomist of the day . . . was opposed to Darwin’s theory; as was the eminent scientist Lord Kelvin.”
Fourth, at the time of the debate, opinions on how the two debaters fared were mixed; there was not a consensus that Huxley defeated Wilberforce. According to Lennox, “The botanist Joseph Hooker grumbled that Huxley didn’t ‘put the matter in a form or way that carried the audience’ so he had to do it himself.” Lennox also records that “The Athenaeum‘s report gives the impression that honours were about even, saying that Huxley and Wilberforce ‘have each found foemen worthy of their steel.’”
As with the Galileo affair, the Huxley-Wilberforce debate fails to live up to its hype. The debate was not emblematic of the imaginary war on science waged by Christianity. Historian of science Colin Russell has come to the following conclusion about the alleged war between religion and science in the west:
The common belief that . . . the actual relations between religion and science over the last few centuries have been marked by deep and enduring hostility . . . is not only historically inaccurate, but actually a caricature so grotesque that what needs to be explained is how it could have possibly achieved any degree of respectability.