There is no fundamental conflict between science and religion

They are, as Nicholas Spencer’s new book ‘Magisteria’ brilliantly demonstrates, inextricably wound together
March 1, 2023

One of the glories of the historian’s task is that it enables them to comment on the past in order to undermine the stupidities of the present—for the benefit of that cheeringly numerous band of thoughtful general readers beyond their own specialist profession. With his new book, Magisteria, Nicholas Spencer has done tremendous work in this direction. 

Sometimes bad history is poisonous enough to kill people, as is the case with the nationalist nonsense spouted by Putin to justify his campaign against Ukrainian identity. Even when it’s not that poisonous, bad history still endangers our capacity to think straight. At a lower level of toxicity than Putin’s perversion of Russkiy mir, but depressingly widespread out there, is the idea of a fundamental conflict between science and religion, with such subsidiary narratives as “science has disproved religion” or “science proves the truths of Holy Scripture”—mutually contradictory fruits of a misleading and comparatively recent notion.

Christians, Muslims, agnostics and atheists are all equally prone to misuse this cliché, as Spencer observes. Stop-offs on his journey of analytical storytelling are such oft-misunderstood and oft-simplified episodes as the early 17th-century harassment of Galileo by the Roman Inquisition, the confrontation between Thomas Henry Huxley and the bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford in 1860, and the “Monkey Trial” of the teacher John T Scopes in 1925. Spencer enjoyably complicates all these stories, and much more. 

His survey of more than two millennia to the present day is consistently well-informed, witty and merciless to those wanting easy headlines. Every journalist would benefit from reading this substantial but very useful text, but all its readers will emerge better informed—and perhaps even saner.