Book Review: Of Popes and Unicorns by Dave Hutchings and James C. Ungureanu

Of Popes and Unicorns: Science, Christianity, and How the Conflict Thesis Fooled the World

As someone who has spent his career working in science and has been a Christian all his adult life, I have never really understood people who think that there is a conflict between science and religious belief.  If I did feel the strength of what is commonly called ‘the conflict thesis’ I should presumably have spent most of the last 35 years wrecked by existential angst about my inability to link up two irreconcilable halves of my life.

Of course, it is wholly possible that I am so dim-witted that I can’t actually perceive the conflict which is so obvious to everyone else. But at the risk of sounding pompous I’ve always rather doubted that. I am widely regarded as being dim-witted, but not quite so dim-witted as that.

At the foundation of the modern conflict thesis sits two books. John William Draper’s 1874  A History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s two volume 1896 A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. When published these books were influential, widely read, and are the root of a number of commonly held beliefs about the interaction between science and religion. In Of Popes and Unicorns David Hutching and James Ungureanu give us brief biographies of Draper and White before diving into their books to test their assertions. They do a thorough, readable, and at times very witty, job of dismantling the conflict thesis, showing that many of Draper and White’s historical arguments are not just muddle headed or over-simplifications but rather are based on falsehoods and evidence that simply isn’t there.

The problem, as Hutching and Ungureanu make clear, is that some of Draper and White’s lame nineteenth century arguments are still alive and kicking in the twenty-first. And this despite the best efforts of modern historians of science to set the record straight.

To give just one example of this, in chapter 4 entitled Walnuts for Brains, the authors note that Andrew White asserts that from the twelve hundreds the church banned human dissection. This was because of the thirteenth century ecclesiastical maxim ‘the Church abhors the shedding of blood’. Pope Boniface VIII banned the separation of flesh from the bones of the dead which rapidly became interpreted as a ban on dissection or surgery of any kind.

If it were true, it would be a terrible example of how the church held back progress by power and nonsense. Unfortunately for ‘the conflict thesis’ it isn’t true. There is no earlier source of the ‘the Church abhors the shedding of blood’ than the eighteenth century and while it seems that there were what Hutchings and Ungureanu describe as ‘a small number of folk’ (p.89) who did indeed read Boniface’s ban on the separation of flesh and bones as applying to human dissection, there is no record of the church preventing dissections.

They quote the contemporary historian of medicine Andrew Cunningham to seal the point: ‘As a life-long evangelical atheist I certainly hold no brief for the Catholic Church. Nevertheless the fact is that the Catholic Church has never been opposed to the practise of anatomy, whether for post-mortem demonstrating teaching or research purposes. Never, ever, anywhere’ (p.89).

Alas, despite the categorical ‘never, ever, anywhere’ the myth of opposition propagated by White is still alive and well, with Hutching and Ungureanu quoting, amongst other examples, a BBC Bitesize  GCSE History webpage which stated ‘Causes of medical stagnation in the Middle Ages included the forbidding of the Church of dissection and its encouragement of prayer (and superstition).’ Thankfully it has since been corrected, but it is pointed example of how historical fiction manages to persist.

Of Popes and Unicorns is well stocked with similar (if you will forgive the word) dissections of Draper and White’s alleged conflicts. The stories that Christendom held back scientific progress for a thousand years during the ‘dark ages’; or that the pope excommunicated a comet; or that Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burned at the stake for his scientific views; or that the church taught that the earth was flat, are all considered.

In some cases there are grains of truth in the myths. For example, Bruno was indeed burned at the stake, though for theological rather than scientific heresy. Admittedly burning people at the stake for theological reasons doesn’t reflect that well on the sixteenth century church anymore than burning people at the stake for scientific reasons, but at least we should get the reasons right. On the flat earth ‘conflict’, there were indeed a grand total of two theologians, Lactantius in the third century, and Cosmas in the sixth, who thought that the earth was flat. But pretty much no one took them seriously in their own lifetimes, or since, making it a little bit difficult to build a case that lots of people, never mind the entire church, thought, or taught, that the earth was flat.

The ‘conflict thesis’ has long been discarded as inadequate scholarship. In some historical instances it is just plain false, in others it does not do justice to the complexity of the history involved. This is all well known among academic historians of science, but David Hutchings and James Ungureanu have done a very good job of making the facts page-turningly-accessible to a wider audience.

Mark McCartney teaches mathematics at Ulster University

Of Popes and Unicorns: Science, Christianity, and How the Conflict Thesis Fooled the World, by David Hutchings & James C. Ungureanu, OUP, 2022, 263 pages. Is available here.