Agloe, and How to Get Rid of It


I Helped Make It Real • A Medium of Speech That I Can Control • The Father of the History of Science • Light Entertainment at Best • He Too Makes No Historical Case • Rejected Outside the Door • Legitimate Members of the Scientific Community • Whose Fault Is It Anyway? • A Sense of the Real Difficulty • Amen! • Adding Something to the Party • Forgotten Figureheads • The Reconcilers • Goodbye, Agloe

Nearly a hundred years ago, Otto G. Lindberg and his assistant Ernie Alpers rearranged their initials to form an entirely new word—and, just like that, Agloe came into the world.

The duo then wrote their concocted name onto a map they were making of New York State—placing it, quite deliberately, at a rural intersection where nothing of any note whatsoever could be found. Having done this, they published their beautiful, highly accurate, and soon-to-be widely distributed map—a map which showed Agloe as a real town when, in reality, it wasn’t.


Well, because this was the 1930s—and real, first-time mapping on the ground was a rather slow and expensive business. For those who wanted to cut those time-and-money corners, there was a cheaper and easier option: let a rival do all the hard work, and then copy their product—ensuring, of course, that there were enough minor stylistic changes to claim originality.

Agloe, then, was Lindberg’s protection: if it ever turned up on someone else’s design, he had proof that they had stolen his intellectual property. Sure enough, a couple of decades later, Rand McNally tried to sell such a document, and so Lindberg’s company threatened to sue. Rand McNally, though, came up with an unlikely defense: that Agloe, despite what anyone might claim, was real.

Remarkably, they were right—for some bright spark had seen the town on the earlier map, decided it might need a store, and set one up at the intersection. Unsurprisingly, given its non-setting, this shop had gone bust—but, because it had called itself Agloe General Store, the lawyers deemed that the town officially existed, even though it didn’t.

And so, as bizarre as it all might seem, Agloe has persisted on New York’s maps ever since. What’s more, the novelist John Green used it as a key location in his smash hit Paper Towns, which was later made into a movie—and Agloe, despite not actually being there, has now become a tourist destination. Krystie Lee Yandoli, a writer for the popular website Buzzfeed, journaled in 2015 that:

Agloe is an important reminder that we get to decide what’s important, what exists, and what takes up space in our world. There’s so much power in that, and it was a power I felt on that October afternoon. By standing around, asking someone to take my picture in front of the general store sign [the store itself is long gone], observing my surroundings, and stopping to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a tree trunk across the street from this paper town landmark, I helped make it real. I contributed to making it a reality.1

This is, to put it mildly, a rather odd story. Agloe was invented by two long-forgotten men, for an ultimately failed purpose, several generations ago. Their invention inspired others to act upon it—some deviously, some unwittingly, some creatively. One way or another, over the years, these others have conspired to give Agloe an entirely new life of its own—they have “contributed to making it a reality.” Agloe may not have been real when it was first drawn up, but now, somehow, it is.

Just like the conflict thesis.

A Medium of Speech That I Can Control

Who, then, are the people that helped make the conflict thesis real? Who are the Rand McNallys, or the John Greens, or the Krystie Lee Yandolis of the science-versus-God storyline? How did Draper’s and White’s wrongheaded ideas and fake news come to such prominence that most folk—even some of those considered to be experts—now think that they are wholly undeniable?

Well, as with all good whodunnits, our picture will gradually become clearer as we examine the key characters involved in the plot. So, let’s begin our inquiries by meeting a mightily motivated man on a mission: a certain Edward Livingston Youmans.

Youmans was born in New York in 1821, and his parents hoped that he would one day be a Protestant minister. The youngster, however, had different ideas—as the famed Harvard lawyer Charles M. Haar explains:

Concern with “saving people” manifested itself in Youmans as an urge to popularize science. He often assured his mother that the diffusion of science was the most important work in the world, and that, in his own fashion, he was accomplishing moral good. (His devout mother, of course, was never completely convinced.)2

The grown-up Youmans stayed true to his dreams—he remained determined to communicate the remarkable recent advances in the sciences to the masses. A chance encounter with the publisher William Henry Appleton (1814–1899) led to a lifelong partnership between the two, and Appleton eventually decided to let Youmans run his own titles. This led to Popular Science Monthly and The International Scientific Series—both of which were founded in the early 1870s.3

Youmans was delighted. Up until now, he had been concerned that science was being dumbed down or compromised before it was introduced to the public at large—the fiction of Jules Verne, for example, mixed genuine discoveries with fantasy—and the New Yorker was frustrated that the great work of his heroes was often presented inaccurately or incompletely, or as a form of tacky entertainment.

His new publications would be different: they would be written by the scientists themselves, and they would be informative, rigorous, and cutting-edge—he would get real science out to the public. “I have long wanted a medium of speech that I can control,” he wrote to a friend, “and now I shall have it.”4

This friend, as it happens, was X-Club founding member, Herbert Spencer—the staggeringly influential philosopher that we first met in Chapter 2. Youmans immediately recruited Spencer as a writer, along with his clubmates John Tyndall and Thomas Huxley. Tyndall—the deliverer of the infamous Belfast address in which he had called for science to replace theology—wrote the first ever International Scientific Series title. Spencer—who had called the traditional understanding of Scripture “absurd”—wrote the fifth installment (and, in doing so, invented the phrase “survival of the fittest”). The whole thing was an unmitigated success, with sales in the United States, the United Kingdom, and plenty of other countries going through the roof. This new format was clearly a winner.

Youmans, for his part, was not merely tolerant of Spencer’s and Tyndall’s disdain for orthodox Christianity; instead, he was a fan of it. He himself was one of the leaders of the controversial Free Religious Association, which had been founded in 1867 to rid humanity of all “dogmatic traditions.” This dynamic is crucial to our tale, for it means that the first truly global popularizer of science was also an active promoter of the conflict thesis. The two, therefore, came as a package—right from the very beginning.

In fact, as far as Youmans was concerned, disseminating the latest scientific discoveries and eliminating the firmest religious doctrines were, essentially, two sides of the same coin—and so he was always on the lookout for outspoken writers who were happy to combine the promotion of science with a decent sideswipe at religion.

Does anyone spring to mind?

Fatefully, in 1874, Youmans asked Draper to write the twelfth iteration of the now highly successful International Scientific Series. Draper, naturally, agreed—and promptly penned Conflict. Then, in 1885, White started writing for Youmans too—indeed, he did so for a decade, producing a series of articles in the Popular Science Monthly under the banner “New Chapters in the Warfare of Science.” In 1896, these were edited and compiled into a single volume: Warfare.

Our two books, then—the two beating hearts of the conflict thesis—were commissioned, published, and sold by Edward Livingston Youmans, a man who was wholly committed to the abandonment of traditional religion and the elevation of naturalistic science. He set Conflict and Warfare alongside the work of some of the greatest scientists of the age, and delivered them straight into the households of thousands and thousands of interested layfolk across the planet. Draper’s International Scientific Series contribution, for instance, went through fifty printings in the US and twenty-four in England; it was translated into ten languages, including French, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Polish, Japanese, Russian, and Portuguese. The God-versus-science narrative—despite all its many faults—was going big.

Still, it’s one thing to win over the layfolk—it’s quite another to persuade the professionals. Surely the conflict thesis would fizzle out as soon as those in the know got involved—wouldn’t it?

The Father of the History of Science

Before the turn of the twentieth century, there was not really a formal discipline known as the “history of science”—folk had written about it, of course, but there were no university departments of that name, and no one would have called themselves a “historian of science.” All that was soon to change, however; and it was to be thanks, almost entirely, to a single individual—George Alfred Leon Sarton.

Belgian-born Sarton, who lived from 1884 to 1956, achieved an extraordinary amount during his academic life. He wrote the mammoth foundational text for his field, An Introduction to the History of Science, taking twenty-one years (1927–1948) and five volumes to do so. He founded and was then editor-in-chief of two groundbreaking journals on the subject, Isis and Osiris, both of which thrive to this day. He established its top professional body, the History of Science Society, in 1924. It’s quite the CV.

To this day, the History of Science Society’s biggest prize (the winners of which read like a who’s who of the very, very, best) is the George Sarton Medal—first presented to Sarton himself by his colleagues in 1955. The medal rewards someone who has made a lifetime contribution in the area, and Sarton was indeed more than deserving of it. He had served innovatively and faithfully, for more than forty years, at Harvard; he put his department and beloved subject squarely onto the world’s academic map. Rarely, if ever, has one discipline owed so much to one person. Here, for example, in the very first article in the very first issue of Isis, Sarton proclaimed:

While numberless books, many of them excellent, are published every year on the history of literature, of art, of religions, how is it that there is not yet a single history of science that can be compared with the best of them? When so many institutions, libraries, lectureships have been dedicated to the history of everything, how is it that the history of science has been so much neglected?5

It is, to put it simply, impossible to separate George Sarton from the history of the history of science.

What the Belgian thought, therefore—and especially what he wrote and said—really mattered. He was the man setting the terms of the debate; it was he who drew up the history of science landscape. And, crucially for us, he didn’t think all that much of religion.

To be more exact, he didn’t think much of traditional dogma; nor of the supernatural. Instead, he was a big fan of positivism—the post-revolution, post-Christian worldview of Auguste Comte (see Chapter 2). Although Sarton was not in total agreement with the Frenchman, he did approve of Comte’s assertion that we, as a species, need to worship—and that we should, in the absence of God, worship ourselves. Interestingly, the Harvard man even preached as much, at a Church of Humanity in London.6

Sarton called Comte the true “founder of the history of science,” and broadly agreed with his overall thesis: that men and women, as they develop intellectually, will move away from superstitious nonsense and head instead toward scientific truth (the positive stage).

But he didn’t stop there.

If we return to that first ever Isis article, we find this:

The interactions between science and religion have often had an aggressive character. There has been most of the time a real warfare. But as a matter of fact it is not a warfare between science and religion—there can be no warfare between them—but between science and theology . . . theologians . . . have not ceased from aggravating these misunderstandings.7

This sounds rather familiar. And, sure enough, here it comes:

An excellent proof of this has been given in this country. One of the great men of these United States, Andrew Dickson White, has published a splendid book on The Warfare Between Science and Theology.8

Yes, that’s right—Sarton, the doyen of the history of science, was a committed disciple of White.

He liked Draper, too. In 1952, at the end his career, Sarton sought to pass on the torch to the next band of researchers, and published A Guide to the History of Science. This giant tome included a reading list—an elite selection of helpful documents that the great man believed could continue to take the discipline forward. One of his chosen titles was Conflict. Explaining the recommendation, he lauded Draper as a “man of science, historian, educator.”9

And, before we move on from Sarton to look at more recent times, there remains one last point worth noting. For, as it turns out, the launch of his beloved Isis had been partially dependent on the support of several prominent scientists who did not believe in God—including Svante Arrhenius, Jacques Loeb, Henri Poincaré, and Wilhelm Ostwald—some of whom were very happy to be outspoken opponents of traditional religious beliefs.10

In short, the new academic field of the history of science and the dramatic narrative of the conflict thesis had arrived at Sarton’s party hand in hand—and, quite clearly, they planned on sticking around for the slow dances.

By the time, then, that televisions and computers were first getting primed to launch us into the information age, the message of Conflict and Warfare had taken over. The first true popularizer of science, Edward Youmans, had introduced it to the general populace, and the first true historian of science, George Sarton, had introduced it to the academy. The conflict thesis could claim to be the default position for pretty much everyone. And, since then—thanks to a heady combination of improved technology, greater demand for entertainment, the celebrity scientist phenomenon, rushed-out or poorly researched textbooks, unchecked social media, and increasingly partisan mentalities—it has hardly looked back.

As we shall now see.

Light Entertainment at Best

As recently as the summer of 2018, the conflict thesis held top spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Dan Brown’s sci-fi mystery Origin—think Conflict and Warfare plus sentient computers, Catholic assassins, helicopter chases, and not-so-sizzling romance—took the God-versus-science main theme and turned the dial up to eleven. The initial print run was a remarkable two million copies; the first edition was released in over forty different languages. At regular intervals, the reader is reminded by Brown’s enlightened (and extraordinarily attractive) heroes about which side they are supposed to be on:

The Church’s systematic murder, imprisonment, and denunciation of some of history’s brightest minds delayed human progress by at least a century.11

These conflicts I have described—those in which religious superstition has trumped reason—are merely skirmishes in an ongoing war.12

For centuries, most of the devout had looked past vast amounts of scientific data and rational logic in defense of their faith.13

Origin, in the clear light of day, is really just a good-guys-against-bad-guys fairy tale—but it is one in which the good guys tend to be highly rational, evidence-chasing science-lovers, and the bad guys tend to be dogmatic, evidence-ignoring religious folk. The public, judging by sales at least, have lapped it up—just as they did with its similarly themed predecessors. Brown, it would seem, has struck on a winning formula.

Without Draper and White, or Youmans, or Sarton, however, Origin might never have come into being. While its over-the-top action sequences might require some significant suspension of disbelief, the ever-present reason-versus-dogma subtext is much easier to swallow. Why? Because Brown is simply making use of an idea that most of his readers—thanks to his predecessors—probably already “know.”

We should keep in mind, of course, that Origin and its stablemates are only light entertainment at best. Yes, it would be nice if they did not propagate God-versus-science mythology or breathe yet more life into old lies, but they are fiction first and foremost—so they can, perhaps, be forgiven for frivolously fomenting falsehoods.

What really should bother us, though, is that there is no carefully corrective instruction coming from the world’s top non-fiction writers or public scientists about the conflict thesis—there is no calming of the sheep like we find there is with arguments about vaccines, or climate change, or 5G communication towers. Instead, the world’s most famous crossover educators—the ones who could, perhaps, help to protect the minds of the general populace for the greater good of us all—often manage to stir up even more trouble and division than there was to begin with. How so?

He Too Makes No Historical Case

The New Atheist movement—the key members of which are usually named as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—have, since the turn of the millennium or thereabouts, taken great pride in their assumed roles as instructors of the general public. These thinkers dream of a future dictated by reason alone—if only, they claim, we could overrule our irrational tendencies, then we would enjoy much better lives. They may well be right to think this, of course—but, given the general state of humanity both now and in the past, one suspects that we might never find out.

So, as self-appointed bastions of the truth, have the New Atheists worked hard to set the record straight on science and religion? Have they sought to point out that Draper and White inadvertently led us down the wrong path when it comes to relations between the two? Have they explained the key role that dogma played in developing science? Have they tried to settle matters down, redress the uneven balance, bring us all back together again, and usher in the religious and rational harmony that was longed for by the likes of Bacon, and Newton, and Boyle, and Descartes?

These are precisely the questions that historian of science Ronald L. Numbers and cellular biologist Jeff Hardin decided to drill down on for a study published in 2018.14 Their findings make rather depressing reading. Dawkins, they discovered, almost entirely ignores the historical relationship between science and religion, focusing instead on his own personal feelings on why faith is always nonsense, no matter who happens to think what, or why, or how.

Dennett comes out only slightly better—he does discuss some sort of “clash” between reason and religion, but Numbers and Hardin complain that he, like Dawkins, is “lacking a historical dimension.” Harris, in an apparent attempt to look back a bit further than these other two, confidently asserts that the “maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science”—and yet, as our authors point out, “he too makes no historical case.” They consider the best of the so-called four horsemen to be Hitchens; but even he makes his claims without documentation, they say, and gets basic history wrong.

In a quest to find some New Atheists actually prepared to offer evidence for their view—the claim that “religious dogma always comes at the expense of science”—Numbers and Hardin expand their survey beyond the initial foursome. After working their way through questionable treatises from biologists Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers, they arrive at physicist Victor Stenger—who wrote in yet another New York Times bestseller that “The totality of evidence indicates that, on the whole, over the millennia the Christian religion was more of a hindrance than a help to the development of science.”15

This, as we now know, is simply not true. And so, growing increasingly frustrated that not one of the communicators they have analyzed seems to have done any proper historical research whatsoever, our investigators throw the net still wider—hoping, perhaps, to catch some better-informed fish from the right sort of disciplines. They are out of luck: “It might be asked, given the ahistorical accounts of science and religion found in most New Atheist books, whether any historians of science count themselves as members of the group. The answer seems to be no.”16


Perhaps Peter Harrison, former Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University—who really has done the hard yards—was onto something when he wrote that “The myth of a perennial conflict between science and religion is one to which no historian of science would subscribe.”17

And perhaps Alister McGrath, the current Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, was onto something when he wrote that “The idea that the natural sciences and religion have been permanently at war with each other is now no longer taken seriously by any historian of science.”18

And yet here, of course, we hit a great irony: while a “perennial conflict between science and religion” may not ever have existed in the past—regardless of how much Draper, or White, or Youmans, or Sarton, or Brown, or Harris, or Coyne, or Stenger, or any others might imply or insist that it did—there is, most certainly, a conflict between the two now.

Rejected Outside the Door

On January 5, 2016, a paper was published in the high-profile internet science journal PLOS ONE. Entitled “Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living,” it was clearly written by authors for whom English was at best a second language. Here is a section from the abstract:

Drawing a clear functional link between biomechanical architecture and hand coordination is challenging. . . . To explore this link, we first inspected the characteristics of hand coordination during daily tasks through a statistical analysis of the kinematic data. . . . Then, the functional link between biomechanical architecture and hand coordination was drawn.19

Two months later, it all kicked off. Danilo Russo, an editor at the journal, posted the following: “I feel my scientific reputation to be put at risk by this incredible mistake, so should this paper not be retracted as soon as possible I will be compelled to resign.”20

Russo was not the only one outraged. James McInerney, a prominent microbiologist, tweeted that PLOS ONE “is now a joke.” Enrico Petretto, a geneticist, agreed: “if the paper isn’t retracted, my students, collaborators and I will have no choice but to refrain from considering (i.e., reading, reviewing and citing) papers published in PLOS ONE.”21

Sure enough, the journal took swift action. The anonymous academic editor who had approved the paper was tracked down and promptly removed from his or her post.22 The paper itself was pulled—it now has a big red box sitting over the top of it marked “Retraction.” The explanation given includes the following: “The PLOS ONE editors consider that the work cannot be relied upon and retract this publication. The editors apologize to readers for the inappropriate language in the article.”23

Embarrassed and upset, one of the paper’s authors felt the need to make peace with the scientific community. Mingjin Liu, a Chinese biomechanical engineer, begged for forgiveness and for acceptance:

Your pressure to PLOS ONE to retract my paper, which is only due to the misunderstanding of the word, has hurt deeply my academic career. I am just a young scientist. I hope to have a chance to correct my mistake, not to be rejected outside the door.24

What, then, was “the word” that caused such a storm? To find out, we can head back to that awkwardly written abstract:

The explicit functional link indicates that the biomechanical characteristic of tendinous connective architecture between muscles and articulations is the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way.25

And there it is: “Creator.” The same “Creator” that Isaac Newton wrote about in Principia, that James Clerk Maxwell credited his electromagnetic success to, and that Rosalind Picard relies upon for her computer science today. The problem? Well, this was a scientific paper in a scientific journal—and, as everyone post-Youmans and post-Sarton knows, science and religion are at war.

So strong was the feeling—a whole battalion of scientists tweeted their anger en masse26that it didn’t even matter when the authors all came out and explained that they weren’t creationists, that they hadn’t intended to reference God in the first place, that the word they had in mind was a Chinese one for Nature, and that they would happily have changed the phrasing had they been given the opportunity. It also didn’t seem to matter what the actual method, results, or conclusions of the study were, for the retraction notice does not mention any of these as a problem. Even the aforementioned New Atheist thinker P. Z. Myers admitted that “there’s nothing wrong with the data that I can see.”27

Mingjin Liu and his collaborators, we must conclude, were simply collateral damage—they wrote the wrong word at the wrong time in the wrong place, and paid a high price for it. Their story is a rather sad one. The intellectual blast cloud first sent up by the explosive writings of Draper and White more than a century ago is still, to this day, depositing its toxic contents all over the place. And, like most toxic clouds, it is causing a fair bit of misery.

Legitimate Members of the Scientific Community

Perhaps the best solution to all this is to calm down a little bit, and lock the science and religion debate up in the nearest ivory tower. After all, isn’t that where it belongs? Isn’t it the domain of professors with tenure taking breaks from their fireside naps to write snooty, port-stained papers at one another? Why should anyone in the real world care in the slightest about John William Draper, or about Andrew Dickson White, or about what the two of them wrote, or about who read their work—or even about anything that has happened because of them since?

Well, because there has been an impact in the real world, that’s why—and it hasn’t been a good one.

We have already seen how some people have fallen victim to the conflict thesis. Michael Reiss lost his job, as did that nameless PLOS ONE editor. Tom McLeish, according to Jerry Coyne, should not have been given his role at the Royal Society. Mingjin Liu and co. had their paper retracted for no apparent scientific reason. And these, rather depressingly, are hardly isolated cases.

When Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, was appointed as the new director of the National Institutes of Health by President Barack Obama in 2009, he faced immediate opposition. The New Yorker magazine reported that:

Many of his colleagues in the scientific community believed that he suffered from “dementia.” Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, questioned the appointment on the ground that Collins was “an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.” P.Z. Myers . . . complained “I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.” Collins’s detractors did not question his professional achievements, which long ago secured his place in the first rank of international scientists.28

Collins’s “dementia” here appears to be another name for his supposedly “anti-scientific” Christian beliefs. These are, we should not forget, the same beliefs that drove Kepler and Descartes and Hooke and Faraday toward their scientific breakthroughs—and the same beliefs that underpin the methodology that Pinker and Myers still use to this day.

If such bullying and name-calling can comfortably exist at the most visible of public levels, one wonders what things might be like down at the coalface. The answer is that they aren’t always great. The eminent sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund analyzed the experiences and views of more than ten thousand scientists around the world—a huge grouping across eight countries, and one which included representatives of almost every conceivable worldview. She found that those with religious beliefs often felt themselves under pressure in the workplace; in her 2019 book, Science and Secularity, she writes:

Discrimination can take many forms, such as denying access to opportunities like jobs or using derogatory and abusive language. . . . Religious scientists in the United States also noted occurrences of “unnecessarily vocal Christian bashing” and stated that religious scientists “have to have a thick skin in order to be in the science realm.” . . . A female graduate student in physics explained to us that being religious “opens you up to be not taken seriously.”29

Ecklund is distinctly unimpressed by this, and doesn’t pull her punches: “Nonreligious scientists use mockery to classify themselves as legitimate members of the scientific community while religious scientists are not.”30

The largest religious grouping in Ecklund’s study were Protestant Christians—and 40% of them (in the United States) claimed to experience some form of discrimination while carrying out their scientific roles. Given the huge part that Protestant theology played in the development of modern science, this is an extraordinary cultural change. The idea that an orthodox believer might one day be overlooked for a promotion, or called to resign, or have papers pulled, or be subjected to open hostility would have been wholly unimaginable to many previous generations of scientific greats. Here we are, though, and it is really happening.

But what if the root of the problem lies not with bullying biologists, or with caustic chemists?

What if it actually lies with the Christians themselves?

Whose Fault Is It Anyway?

When Jerry Coyne was invited to give a speech at the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s annual convention in 2016, he issued a heartfelt cry:

You write a book on evolution with the indubitable facts showing that it has to be true, as true as the existence of gravity or neutrons, and then you realize that half of America is not going to buy it no matter what you say. Their minds cannot be changed. . . . So you start realizing that religion is perverting what you’re trying to do with science by making statements about the world, but then supporting them with various cockamamie methods. And so you become an atheist.31

Coyne, like many others, despairs at the agenda he sees and feels around him—these Christians, he says, are constantly attacking science, constantly undermining science, and holding everyone back with their divinely inspired nonsense. Even those who claim to be pro-science aren’t, he laments: “They say intelligent design, but what they really mean is Jesus.”32

It is hard not to sympathize with Coyne here—he has committed his life to the careful study of data and evidence; he has tried to share the resulting excitement and joy with the world; he has met with obfuscation, skepticism, and anger; he has found it impossible to change his opponents’ minds, even when they are presented with a plethora of “indubitable facts.”

Coyne’s complaints are hardly rare. In his multi-million-selling The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins voices them too: “If this book works as intended, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. What presumptuous optimism! Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument.”33

The real hot potato here, it must be said, is evolution. The evolution-versus-creation debate seems to be where it all (currently, at least) comes to a head; it is where we find the assorted combatants getting the most wound up; it is where we stumble across the nastiest insults; it is where we find much of the conflict thesis ink being spilled—by writers, incidentally, on both sides of the divide.

In America in particular, the polarization can be quite extreme. Arguments about the teaching of evolution and of creation in schools have been played out in the courts on a number of occasions, with the gavel coming down in favor of evolution each time. Despite this, a reasonable proportion of science teachers choose either to avoid mentioning the topic or, sometimes, to actively speak against it. In 2013, The American Biology Teacher journal felt the need to remind the nation’s staff about the legal requirements of their role:

Teachers who advocate alternatives to evolution are not teaching within the confines of the law . . . avoiding evolution may be unlawful if teachers appear to be doing so for religious reasons. Even if teachers are avoiding evolution without the perception of doing so for religious beliefs, they can be ordered to do so to ensure that state and national standards are addressed.34

This is not the kind of instruction that would show up in a happy, harmonious environment. And, while evolution grabs most of the attention, there seem to be other pinch points too. Here is Dawkins again, this time on his website:

Vocal anti-vaccine propagandists have already fostered outbreaks in the US and UK, as gullible parents choose to leave their children unprotected. Religious dogmatists have long been among those leading the charge against the advancements of science and medicine, hiding behind the “right” to practice their faith.35

And then there’s climate change. In 2016 Worldviews journal ran an in-depth study of attitudes commonly held by those who assent to traditional doctrines. Here is a typical finding:

Catholic Answers Forum (CAF) is a popular site for Catholics, with nearly half a million members . . . skeptics start most of the [climate change] threads and write most of the posts. Some of these threads include: “Nature’s Wrath? Most Say Cycles, Not Climate Change to Blame” . . . and “New Documentary Shows How Leftists Use Fake Science to Enslave Us via Climate Change Fraud.”36

The conflict thesis, it would appear, has done an Agloe: it wasn’t real in the past, but it has become real today. And perhaps, rather than Draper or White (or Youmans, or Sarton, or Sagan, or Dawkins) being to blame, this development might even be the fault of modern Christendom itself—for it seems to be railing against science.

What can we say, then? If Christian scientists really are missing out on the top jobs, or if they are being laughed at in the workplace, or if they are often treated with rampant suspicion by their atheist or agnostic colleagues, should they honestly be all that surprised? After all, their lived experience—as difficult or upsetting as it might well be—seems to be a mess entirely of their church’s own making.

Perhaps Draper, despite all his other errors and inaccuracies, was actually correct in his assessment of rational science and dogmatic religion: “One must yield to the other; mankind must make its choice—it cannot have both.”

So is that it, then? Are we done?

No, not quite.

A Sense of the Real Difficulty

Clearly, there are plenty of folk out there, from both sides, actively pushing the conflict thesis. What’s more, they seem to bring out the worst in each other—it feels like we are a long, long way from the science-and-religion harmony of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. Perhaps, though, we can still end up there; perhaps all it would take is a tweak of the rudder.

When Coyne was giving his speech to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, he made the following declaration: “The fact of evolution is not only inherently atheistic, it is inherently anti-theistic. It goes against the notion that there is a God.”37

This, by the way, is false—evolution, being a strictly scientific theory, is unable to comment on what its own ultimate driving force is. In the same way that Kepler considered God to be the reason behind the orbits he derived, many current biologists—including, incidentally, Francis Collins—believe that God is behind evolution. Indeed, the evolutionary model is the favored position of the Catholic Church today; it has been since the 1950s.38 And the Catholic Church, despite what Coyne might say, tends to accept “the notion that there is a God.”

Still, his overall message has clearly got through, as M. Elizabeth Barnes has recently demonstrated. Barnes is well placed to comment: she is a biologist, a historian of science, and a philosopher of science. Indeed, her specialism just happens to be the various attitudes that exist toward evolution within education. In 2019, she and her team of co-authors found that more than half of the two thousand or so college students they asked believed that evolution was necessarily atheistic. One of the group’s conclusions is particularly enlightening: “Highly religious students who thought evolution is atheistic were less accepting of evolution by all measures compared with highly religious students who thought evolution is agnostic.”39

Well, this is interesting—it seems that Coyne and co. might actually be shooting themselves in the foot. Maybe, if they really want religious people to accept evolution, they should stop insisting that evolution is irreligious. If anything, this seems to be a rather obvious point—and it is not the first time that it has been made. Here is theologian Thomas McCall:

It is a widespread truism that “religion and science are in conflict,” and, for many people, evolution and traditional Christian belief are locked in a death match. Accordingly, given these options, many traditional Christians reject evolution as a viable option.40

So why, given this observation, doesn’t Coyne change his pitch? Is it, perhaps, that he doesn’t really want to—and that he is every bit as stubborn and inflexible as the “half of America” that he is frustrated with? One could be forgiven, at this point, for siding with Andrew Dickson White: “Then it was that there was borne in upon me a sense of the real difficulty—the antagonism between the theological and scientific view of the universe.”41

Antagonism indeed. Each group seems to be pushing the other further and further away—and, as they do so, they are making the prospect of a shared understanding look more and more like a pipe dream.

In fact, right now, instead of a shared understanding, we have papers retracted for accidentally mentioning a creator; we have enforced resignations; we have accusations of “dementia”; we have discrimination in the workplace. We have our intellectual guardians loudly promulgating wrong ideas; we have a majority of school students declaring, incorrectly, that “the scientific view is that God does not exist.”42 We have evolutionary theory hauled out, by both sides, as a shibboleth—and anyone who gets the answer wrong is considered as good as dead to their community. In short, we have conflict. We have warfare.

But does it really have to be like this?

Well, in 2014, Google removed Agloe from their maps—having discovered, presumably, that there was no such town in the first place.

So maybe—just maybe—there is hope.


“The aim of the physicist is to explain all,” writes our author. “Although much remains to be done . . . there seems to be no reason to doubt that in principle the scientific picture can be complete.”43

These are bold words. And there are more:

Early scientists would invoke God as the explanation of phenomena their science could not explain . . . [since then] the need to account for the unexplained in terms of God has continued to recede. . . . Now everything seems at least in principle amenable to scientific investigation.44

“Amen!,” as Neil deGrasse Tyson wouldn’t say.

The person who wrote these words was the recently deceased Sir John Houghton (1931–2020). A pioneering physicist, Houghton headed up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 1988 until 2002, saying of its first report in 1990—which he was the editor of—that “it became very clear to us that there was some real danger ahead.”45

When the global response didn’t kick in as he felt it should, Houghton pushed harder. In 2003, he accused the US government of “an abdication of leadership of epic proportions” and of “refusing to take the problem seriously.”46

Then, in 2007, with the world beginning to wake up to the problem, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his work—and, two years later, he was awarded the Albert Einstein World Award of Science, which “takes into special consideration research which has brought true benefit and wellbeing to mankind.”47 He died—of coronavirus—as a scientific hero; his legacy is a welcome reminder of science’s profound value to us all.

Houghton has a soulmate in Katharine Hayhoe—who, like him, is a physicist-turned-climate scientist. Named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014, her TED talk on climate change has been watched more than four million times, and she has the ear of the brightest and best all over the planet. On her personal website, she adds her voice to Houghton’s by urging the world’s leaders—as well as the rest of us—to take action:

I don’t accept global warming on faith: I crunch the data, I analyze the models . . .

The data tells us the planet is warming; the science is clear that humans are responsible; the impacts we’re seeing today are already serious; and our future is in our hands.48

However, had Harry Kroto had his way, then Houghton and Hayhoe might never have seen the inside of a laboratory, let alone end up with a big scientific job. For both of them, as it happens, are fully paid-up, Bible-believing, faith-promoting, God-squadders.

Adding Something to the Party

Hang on a second—isn’t this just cheap point-scoring? Why does it matter that two important climate scientists also have personal beliefs in God, and in water turning into wine, and in the resurrection, and in an eternal life to come? What difference does that make to our conflict thesis discussion?

Well, it does seem that there are several points worth dwelling on. Firstly, it is clear that Houghton’s and Hayhoe’s faith did not hold them back from doing proper science. Secondly, if there is a concern that some Christian groups are too quick to be suspicious about climate change, then surely it is a good thing to have active and committed believers ready to engage with them on some sort of common ground—is it not? And, thirdly, both of them explicitly link their beliefs to their work. Here’s Houghton:

What we’re doing as Christians is exploring our relationship with the person who is the creator of the universe. Now that’s something that is absolutely wonderful. . . . I’m very concerned about the people in the much poorer countries of the world who are very disadvantaged by [climate change]. . . . As a Christian I feel we have a responsibility to love our neighbours and that doesn’t just mean our neighbours next door.49

And now Hayhoe:

Climate change disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world . . . how can I truly be loving my neighbour if I close my eyes to this issue? The reason I couldn’t was because of my faith. So that’s why I do what I do, and that’s why I am who I am. The reason why I am a climate scientist is because I’m a Christian, not in spite of it.50

Do we really want to kick people like this out of science? Surely not. In fact, it is hard not to conclude that Houghton and Hayhoe are adding something to the party—not subtracting from it.

Is there some sort of way, then, that we can have both? Can we embrace the best of religion and the best of science, in unison? Can we fight against alienation and separation, and have unity in its stead?

Can we, after all these generations, finally get rid of Agloe?

Yes. Sure we can.

Forgotten Figureheads

Before we approach that endgame, however, it is probably worth reminding ourselves about what we have learned so far. We have been on quite the tour through the varied landscapes of the history of science and religion—and we would do well, now, to remember some of the highlights.

Firstly, at the beginning of our adventure, we came across two nineteenth-century gentlemen who had, somehow, managed to fool much of the world—many experts included—right up to the present day. We have gradually come to know John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White as people, and we have also developed a feeling for their two deeply flawed manuscripts: A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Our duo, we discovered, did not work in isolation, for many others were having the same conversations—but, one way or another, their twin totemic texts ended up being the most virulent vectors of the argument.

Conflict and Warfare spun cautionary tales of flat Earths, banned autopsies, Dark Ages, persecuted scientists, burned books, dangerous dogmas, abandoned classics, excommunicated comets, imprudent popes, and unlikely unicorns—in short, of a never-ending battle between science and religion.

But, bit by bit, we have seen that these tales were either manufactured, or mistold, or misleading, or malicious. Dogma and science have enjoyed a peaceful relationship much of the time–indeed, Christian doctrine helped to provide both the presuppositions and the motivations that got modern science going in earnest.

And, in an unexpected twist, we learned that both Draper and White were actually trying to do religion a favor, rather than bash it. Their projects, both men confidently announced, would eventually reconcile faith to science. In fact, drawing deep on their liberal Protestant capital, each man proposed his own highly compromised, science-friendly, pseudo-Christianity—Draper’s governed robotically by his head, and White’s guided gently by his heart.

Yet such woolly ideas were doomed from the beginning: a Christian gospel without a divine Christ, or a reliable Bible, or a real resurrection is a gospel drained of both its identity and its power and, as such, is no good to anyone. Plenty of their readers spotted this. Traditional thinkers wrote the books off as unholy nonsense; progressive thinkers skipped over them, like stepping stones, on their way to agnosticism or, more often than not, atheism.

Then, in this final chapter, we have followed what has happened ever since. Thanks largely to a driven publisher of popular science—Youmans—and a driven professor of the history of science—Sarton—the myths and the errors of Draper and White began to take over like an invasive species. During the course of the twentieth century, and then into our own, they were promoted again, and again, and again—so much so, that the once fictional conflict actually managed to turn itself into a reality.

And so now, there are scientists wary of religion. Now, there are believers wary of science. Every time one of the falsehoods from Conflict or Warfare is carelessly repeated—as frequently happens in both bestselling fiction and non-fiction, often from folk who should know better—this wariness increases yet further.

The results of all this are non-trivial: job losses, bullying, and discrimination; vaccination conspiracies; climate change controversy. Draper and White have won the battle for our minds—but it is an unholy victory that they neither intended nor foresaw. They are now forgotten figureheads ruling anonymously over a divided empire that they never would have wanted.

If the tour ended here, on that rather glum note, we may well feel bereft of all hope. Happily, though, it doesn’t—for it is now time to consider the future. Is there, perhaps, a different way forward for us altogether?

In fact, let’s rephrase that last question: is there a different way forward for us, all together?

The Reconcilers

We must guard, of course, against blind optimism here. After all, the conflict thesis is everywhere—Draper and White have taken over the world. And yet, if we allow ourselves a closer look, there are indeed some reasons to be positive. Out there, at work in our universities, schools, laboratories, and faith communities, are a whole cohort of anti-Drapers and anti-Whites pulling together a library of anti-Conflicts and anti-Warfares.

So, who are these reconcilers? And what, exactly, are they up to?

Well, two of them are the aforementioned Francis Collins and his colleague Deborah Haarsma. In 2007, Collins founded BioLogos—an organization committed to healing some of the damage meted out by the prevalence of the conflict thesis. BioLogos communicates cutting-edge science to the Christian community, encouraging them to embrace it rather than fear it. Haarsma, an astrophysicist, is its current president. A few years ago, she spoke at Bethel University—an American Evangelical institution—about her astronomy:

To me as a Christian, those orderly laws that I fell in love with . . . are a display of God’s faithful governance. In Jeremiah, God points to the fixed laws of heaven and earth as a testimony that he will faithfully keep his covenant with Israel (Jer. 33:19–26) . . . when I sit down at the computer to analyze data, in no way am I setting aside my faith. In fact, my faith calls me to study those natural laws as a way of celebrating the faithfulness of God.51

Here, then, is a Christian in full-blown evangelism mode, seeking to win back the lost—but, in this particular case, to win them back to science. Haarsma hopes for reconciliation. In fact, BioLogos gives its mission statement as inviting “the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith.”52

Similarly, the Scientists in Congregations (SiC) group in the United Kingdom has sought to bring the joy of science to its religious community.53 Reverend Professor David Wilkinson—astrophysicist and priest—gives a heartening example of their activities:

A former President of the Baptist Union started to introduce science experiments into his local church’s children’s work. This was a strong message to children and adults: it affirmed the role that scientists play, and broke down the impression that science is a threat. SiC teaches that science is a vocation.54

Lizzie Henderson and Steph Bryant, two biologists working for Cambridge’s Faraday Institute, spend time in schools talking about science and faith with young people. Aware of the nervousness or suspicion that can be present, Bryant remarks that she and her colleagues look to create environments in which students “feel safe to voice their biggest, most vulnerable questions and doubts” and are able to “explore what the different human ways of searching for truth—from science, to philosophy, to faith—can bring to the overall big picture.”55

There are many more initiatives like these rising up, all over the world, and they are not hard to find. Recently, one which has been making a few headlines is Peaceful Science—a community partially overseen by Joshua S. Swamidass, a computational biologist at Washington University. In 2017, Swamidass made waves by publishing new research which allows room for both the current consensus understanding of evolution and also the traditional view of Adam and Eve: a human pairing, without parents, created in the Middle East less than 10,000 years ago—and from whom we all would truly descend.56

Hmmm. This sounds rather like dodgy Christian apologetics dressed up in an ill-fitting lab coat—and that is certainly a common occurrence—but Swamidass’s breakthrough is different. Prominent atheist biologist and science communicator Nathan H. Lents explains why:

Swamidass is not peddling pseudoscience. Indeed, earlier this year, he and I teamed up on the pages of Science to rebut claims by evolution critics. [His work] went through a rigorous process of open peer review, involving scholars from many diverse disciplines and even some secular scientists, including myself and Alan Templeton, a giant in the field of human population genetics. Invited to find fault in his analysis, we couldn’t.57

Of course, it is very early in the game for us to predict where Swamidass’s research will end up taking everyone—but what is so interesting about this is that he and Lents have become friends, and that they are treating this as an opportunity to bring about togetherness in their shared world. Indeed, Lents is on the advisory board for Peaceful Science, which says it aspires toward “humility, tolerance, and patience.”58 Swamidass himself says:

Students, pastors, and scientists contact me to explain how much my work has helped them. It relieves a major point of tension that many have struggled with for a long time. What’s more, it leaves us with a grand opportunity to explore how sacred and natural history can be understood together. In place of the conflict, this is the hopeful conversation that is reinvigorated now, with invitation to us all.59

It is not just today’s scientists, by the way, who are directly taking on the conflict thesis—for the historians of science are continuing, almost daily, to pick it into ever smaller pieces. Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingstone—both of whom were part of the first post-Sarton wave—wrote in 2018 that there are now “numberless scholars who seek a better way.”60

Within a generation, it will be this new breed of academics who are leading history of science departments the world over. Having had their eyes opened by the likes of Margaret Osler, Ronald Numbers, Peter Harrison, and more, they will be able to teach their own students about how Sagan and Coyne and the New Atheists had merely been led down Draper’s and White’s garden path. Such a change is highly significant—and, hopefully, it will begin to percolate down through the system. Perhaps textbooks, at least, will begin to sort out their acts.

One of those who seek this “better way” is Londoner Nathan “Bassicks” Bossoh. A former music student—hence his nickname—Bossoh has switched disciplines to the history and philosophy of science, and found it to be a very happy home. The current object of his research is George Campbell (1823–1900), the eighth duke of Argyll, and a contemporary of Draper and White. Argyll made progress in aeronautics, ornithology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, geology, geography, theology, and education—all while actively pursuing his Christian faith. Reflecting on this, Bossoh sees reasons to be positive about the future:

There is certainly no inherent reason as to why the Conflict Thesis cannot be overturned. The literature has already largely dismantled it, but now younger scholars are increasingly working to push this beyond the academic sphere by utilizing the new tools of the internet age. Thomas Huxley trained up his succeeding generation to perceive conflict between science and theology; today we can train our succeeding generations to understand that the relationship is far more positive than that.61

The “tools of the internet age” that Bossoh describes include blogs—such as Tim O’Neill’s History for Atheists site. O’Neill is an atheist himself, and had become so fed up with seeing fellow non-believers consistently churn out Draper-and-Whiteisms that he started setting the record straight online. O’Neill is both amusing and acerbic in his analysis, and has won the respect of many for his no-nonsense approach. Cambridge classicist Tim Whitmarsh puts it this way:

Getting history right is crucial, and no one—neither the religious nor the irreligious—should get a free ride when it comes to instrumentalising the past. Tim O’Neill’s forthright blog does a valuable job in keeping us all honest.62

And, on the topic of keeping us all honest, Ecklund’s data turns out to be extremely useful. For, across all of her thousands of scientists, and across all eight countries, only a quarter of the respondents said they believed there was conflict between science and religion. By contrast, a whopping 68% felt that there was not.63 The professionals themselves, it would seem, do not agree with Coyne, or Dawkins, or Kroto.

Perhaps, then, there are indeed reasons to be hopeful. The conflict thesis might not stick around forever—not if these reconcilers have anything to do with it. The likes of Haarsma, Swamidass, Lents, Bryant, Bossoh, O’Neill, and Ecklund are actively challenging it on a daily basis—and they are being joined by new and imaginative allies all the time.

But can they win? Can they actually unfool the world?

Goodbye, Agloe

Well, it will be tough. The big problem—in fact, the biggest problem—with undoing the work of Draper and White is the sheer scale of the task. And, by scale, we are really talking exposure. The combined audience of the conflict thesis acolytes utterly dwarfs that of the reconcilers mentioned above—and the disparity is really quite extraordinary.

The New Atheists’ collusion of texts, for instance, outsell the BioLogos team’s efforts by several orders of magnitude. Sagan’s Cosmos had 500 million viewers in the 1980s; Tim O’Neill gets a few thousand on YouTube today. Dan Brown’s sales figures, for title after title, are astronomical—yet how many men or women on the street could even name a novel in which science and religion are friends?

Still, despite the immensity of the task, it is undoubtedly worth the effort. For this is about bringing people together and, ultimately, it is also about the truth. Our world does not need more conflict—especially false and manufactured conflict. It does not need more separation, or more wariness, or more division, or more suspicion. Here is Bossoh again, passionately explaining how the ongoing fight to debunk Draper and White is about more than just academic squabbles or being technically right:

Having grown up in an African church, I have seen that one of the problems with the Conflict Thesis is that it has implicitly (and explicitly) hindered black Christians from engaging with science in various ways—because there is an inherent notion that science is against their faith. This was certainly the case for me for a long time. Dismantling the Conflict Thesis would, I think, help black Churches (and individuals) to engage more positively with science in relation to their beliefs.64

Theologian Rebecca McLaughlin concurs. After poring over Ecklund’s vast sea of data, she applies the findings to her own field: “The narrative that presents science as antithetical to Christianity is part of what is keeping underrepresented groups (African Americans, Latino Americans, and women) out of the sciences.”65

Well, then. Here we are, with a known lie that is now well into its second century and still going strong. This lie is the cause of open discrimination in the workplace. It has misled generation after generation of school students, and continues to push potentially gifted scientists away from the subject before they have time to discover a love for it. It separates and divides; it upsets and worries.

And yet the corrected version of Draper and White, by contrast, includes and inspires. We have Church Fathers performing controlled, long-term experiments on peacock meat all the way back in AD 400. We have bishops writing river-crossing puzzles more than a thousand years ago. We have medieval monks quietly committed to keeping ancient Greek brilliance alive.

We have clergymen refusing to limit God, and opening the world’s eyes to an infinite set of possibilities in the process. We have grand and utopian visions of scientific islands in the 1600s—all driven by a commitment to the Bible. We have leading logicians inventing invaluable new ways of thinking rationally—and promptly using these novel techniques to write down proofs of the goodness of God.

Even in its own right—even if there was nothing else to be gained other than the theater of it all—it is already a story worth telling. Yet there is more to be gained. For, where the conflict thesis divides us, the truth can draw us together. Where the conflict thesis worries us, the truth can bring us peace. Where the conflict thesis restricts us, the truth can set us free.

So, isn’t it time we took Agloe off all of our maps?

After all, it isn’t real.

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