Book Review: Of Popes and Unicorns by David Hutchings and James Ungureanu

Book Review: Of Popes and Unicorns by David Hutchings and James Ungureanu

Of Popes and Unicorns: Science, Christianity, and How the Conflict Thesis Fooled the World by David Hutchings and James C. Ungureanu is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read.

Hutchings and Ungureanu introduce Draper and White

In it, Hutchings and Ungureanu explain the story of how John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White jointly invented the conflict thesis of religion and science in their respective books History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874) and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Even greater than the satisfaction that I felt seeing the record set straight on events like the murder of Hypatia and the extermination of the “Library of Alexandria” was the fact that this book was fun.

Even though I know a good amount of the information presented after reading James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers and perusing the History for Atheists blog while researching my post refuting Carl Sagan’s historical claims in Cosmos, Of Popes and Unicorns was a well-written, easy-to-follow story of why the myths that people like Sagan propagate became so popular in the first place.

Chapter by chapter, Hutchings and Ungureanu go through:

  • Earlier figures who contributed to the conflict thesis, such as Thomas Henry Huxley
  • The false claim that everyone thought the Earth was flat in the Middle Ages
  • The false claim that the medieval church banned dissection
  • The ubiquitous tale of Hypatia’s martyrdom and the burning of the Serapeum of Alexandria
  • Correcting the myths surrounding Giordano Bruno, Galileo, and Copernicus
  • and more!

Especially if you aren’t familiar with Draper and White, the conflict thesis, or any of the myths listed above, I highly recommend it… with some conditions that I will now explain. (The book is a bit expensive, but if you want to save money and not use Amazon, this page contains a promo code. I did get mine from Amazon, but it resulted in this extremely cute video.)

Christian propaganda

I hope you enjoyed the cat video, because after the aforementioned seven chapters, the book took a turn.

Like, a bad turn.

Like, Christian propaganda bad. And I walked right into it.

I wasn’t surprised while reading Of Popes and Unicorns to know that Hutchings and Ungureanu don’t believe that there is a conflict between science and religion. They gave historical examples of the Church actually subsidizing scientific research, of religious scientists citing their faith as a motivation for their work, and of course, of secular scientists and historians allowing personal vendettas to influence the “facts” that they invented.

In the past, I fell for those invented “facts”, primarily because Carl Sagan and pretty much the entire atheist community treated them as true. I had no reason not to trust them, just like I had no reason not to trust Hutchings and Ungureanu now. At least this time, my trust in Hutchings and Ungureanu was backed by the fact that I already know that what they are saying is true, because I’ve already learned it from several other sources which all clearly stated their own sources.

Going too far in the opposite direction

If someone is correcting the bad history that atheists are guilty of constantly promulgating, it wouldn’t be surprising or wrong if that person is a Christian. However, it is both surprising and wrong, and a betrayal of trust, for that person to follow seven chapters of historical facts supporting the argument that Christianity is not the lifelong enemy of science, with a dramatic shift in tone for a sudden Christian persecution complex-ridden argument that science cannot function without a Christian worldview.

Yes, that really happened. And not once in the entire book did the authors disclose that they are both Christian. Well, I haven’t been able to pinpoint a place where Ungureanu has said, “I am a Christian,” but I understand it to be true based on context clues. A quick Google search of Hutchings will show that he is much more open about being a Christian, and a bit of an evangelist at that.

An author doesn’t need to reveal their own personal beliefs in order to write an honest book. (James Risen and Judy Thomas’s Wrath of Angels comes to mind.) But when Of Popes and Unicorns went in the direction that it did, it felt very misleading for Hutchings and Ungureanu to make so many Christian arguments and present them as objective facts without revealing that they themselves were speaking from a Christian worldview.

Red flags of Christian apologetics

Hutchings and Ungureanu end Chapter 7 with a bit of foreshadowing that things were about to enter a territory that was both unnecessary and inappropriate for the argument the book sought to make:

[Draper and White] had wanted reconciliation—instead, they birthed the conflict thesis.

And yet, as impossible as it might seem, both Conflict and Warfare are plagued by an even greater irony than that. It turns out that when they went after Christian doctrine for being the ultimate enemy of science, they were engaging in friendly fire. For, in actual fact, no other body of thought has ever been of greater benefit to scientific thinking than the central tenets of traditional Christianity have—in the whole of human history.

As we are about to find out.

David Hutchings and James C. Ungureanu, Of Popes and Unicorns, p. 179

Immediately after this paragraph, Chapter 8 opened with a three-page long romantic introduction to the Christian story: creation, fall, redemption, and all. The chapter then begins to take the shape of a typical Christian apologetics book, including a story of how a Christian man was fired from his job as a scientist, and cherrypicked quotes that show that even the most hardened atheists agree with the authors’ conclusion.

Hutchings and Ungureanu then take a turn into a place I never expected, have never seen before, and can’t believe someone would actually say.

We shall begin with a simple and central claim of Christianity: that there is only one God. This core belief—monotheism—may appear to have nothing to do with science, but it does. In fact, it might just be a vital ingredient of it. How so?

Well, a monotheistic worldview—in the vast majority of studied cases—has led its holders to expect both consistency and regularity in the natural world. This, in turn, has led to them going and looking for them—and, ultimately, to the discovery of laws in nature. But what, precisely, is the underlying cause of this strong monotheism-natural law link?

Here is one theory: societies or individuals who picture the world as governed by many gods can tend to think of their environment as the unpredictable product of supernatural chaos. Such a world is not open to rigorous and methodical investigation by us humans—for it is, instead, entirely subject to the whims and fancies of a host of inconsistent, inscrutable, or even capricious spirits. The true reasons behind a physical event, then, are unclear—and matters could easily play out very differently the next time. Science, in such a scenario, is a non-starter.

David Hutchings and James C. Ungureanu, Of Popes and Unicorns, p. 185

A tangent in the breadcrumb trail

“But Rebekah,” you might be thinking, “they said, ‘in the vast majority of studied cases.’ So your job as a blogger and nonfiction-seeker is to find the studied cases.”

Well, first of all, there’s no citation. The closest thing to a citation is a quote on the next page, echoing their point, from “historian of science Mark Worthing,” which does have a citation.

…that leads nowhere. Fortunately, someone captured it for the Internet Archive before it disappeared from ISCAST, and it can be found here. Much of the content of the paper—and I don’t know what the paper was actually published for—is very similar to points made by Hutchings and Ungureanu and even points I’ve already refuted from another book.

While the link itself leads to a 404 message, it was a good clue leading down a trail of where the authors got this idea from. There is another existing source by Mark Worthing on a PowerPoint presentation called Monotheism and the Origins of Science.

“A PowerPoint presentation?” you ask. “What’s that for?”

It’s probably from a sermon. Because apparently “historian of science” means “pastor.” Mark Worthing does hold a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science and a doctorate in theology, but his primary job is pastoring at Immanuel Lutheran Church, which he references in his PowerPoint.

A PowerPoint slide which reads:
Those with an active faith in God make good scientists and researchers because …
- They reject superstition
- They believe the world is intelligible
- They believe all knowledge and all things are interconnected in many ways
- They have been formed in an environment of a strong ‘book’ and ideas culture
- They often have a strong appreciation for the tradition of asking hard questions and arguing with established ideas
- They believe that knowledge and ideas matter
- They have a strong ethical and moral foundation
The final slide from the aforementioned PowerPoint

ISCAST, or the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology, is a Christian network whose core values are a commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ and rigorous scientific research, because it “assists believers to fulfil God’s purposes.”

James Ungureanu is an ISCAST fellow.

I know that was a long tangent for a single source, but going down bad-source rabbit trails is one of my favorite activities. And after all, a book is only as good as its worst source.

Does Christian belief actually help science?

My greatest issue with this monotheism argument, though, is how holier-than-though—or more-scientific-than-thou—it is when comparing Christianity to other religions. Other monotheistic religions, most notably Islam, have a long list of scientific accomplishments, but that is, according to the bibliography, conveniently “beyond the scope of that particular volume.” (Where have we seen that before?) Besides, this insult to ancient Indigenous and other polytheistic religions is unfounded and unnecessary.

After this, the authors spend some time discussing the Condemnations of 1277 which I’ve talked about before, and proving that Christians make good scientists using the examples of René Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton.

In a section on the Fall in the Garden of Eden, Hutchings and Ungureanu write,

The Christian dogma that the likes of Bacon and Hooke assented to included the belief that our rational minds had fallen along with our moral selves—and so we could not, therefore, trust our intuition alone. Logic and reason were still useful, of course, but they were marred; they offered no guarantee of the truth on their own. The Fall had impaired us—we could be mistaken in our deductions.

The solution to this problem was experimental science. A physical trial or demonstration could act as a secondary source of information, or as a safety net underneath a theory, or simply as pleasing confirmation that one’s scientific suspicions were indeed correct after all. . . .

From the religious dogma of Adam’s and Eve’s fallen minds, then, we get the need for practical science sessions. Who would have thought it? Perhaps Genesis chapter 3—forbidden fruit, talking snakes, cursed ground, and all—should be written out, in full, over laboratory doors worldwide.

David Hutchings and James C. Ungureanu, Of Popes and Unicorns, p. 195 (emphasis mine)

I know it sounds ridiculous, but remember you hadn’t read the whole book up to this point to gain context.

I did, and it’s still ridiculous. It does not make any sense. It does not logically follow.

Christian persecution fuel

Chapter 9 is a bit better than Chapter 8, but not much.

One of the worst bits is when the authors share a story of a scientific paper in the journal PLOS ONE being ridiculed for entirely unfair reasons. They are clear that it was just a run-of-the-mill paper on a study that was conducted well and had solid conclusions about the relationship between “biomechanical architecture and hand coordination.” It had been pulled from the journal and the editor had been fired—but for what?

It has nothing to do with the paper’s findings and everything to do with the wording of part of the 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.

I’m admittedly not familiar with the situation, and it turns out that the authors spoke Chinese as their first language and didn’t intend to come off as creationist in any way; in fact, their use of “Creator” was supposed to reference a Chinese word for Nature. I agree that the authors shouldn’t have had their careers ruined over this (and hopefully they weren’t), but as an evolution-loving atheist, of course, I also see the other side.

Hutchings and Ungureanu are trying their best to show how “the problem” that caused an “intellectual blast cloud” was that “science and religion are at war,” pointing to how, for example, Isaac Newton wrote about a “Creator” in his Principia. But Newton was Christian because everyone—especially a scholar—in his time and place was Christian. And referencing body parts being designed properly by a creator has a wholly different connotation today; it sounds like a plain denial of evolution. In a scientific journal, I think it is justified to reject work that promotes creationism, even if they should have given the non-native English speakers another chance.

The evolution shibboleth

Of course, I imagine that Hutchings and Ungureanu would then call me a dogmatic accepter of evolution as gospel truth. The quote I am about to share from a few pages later is a great example of the tone the authors take regarding the modern-day clash between science and religion. Their disdain for the teaching of evolution and not creationism in schools is thinly veiled, but still veiled enough that I certainly raised my eyebrows about their motives for writing about it:

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.

David Hutchings and James C. Ungureanu, Of Popes and Unicorns, p. 212

The mention of creationism makes a great segue for the authors to confront the ways that religion is hindering scientific advancement in today’s world, at least in the United States. (This was published in 2022, after all.) The men admit the wrongdoings of the Christian anti-vaccine crowd and climate change deniers, but only in passing.

Their means of addressing these issues is to refute claims by the low-hanging fruit that is Jerry Coyne, who claims that evolution is inherently atheistic, and then praising the late John Houghton and his widow Katharine Hayhoe, two Christian climate scientists. So all atheists are wrong because Jerry Coyne is an idiot, but it’s okay that the religious right denies climate change because two climate scientists are Christian and motivated by faith. Are we still saying “checkmate, atheists” in 2022?

Bending over backwards

With Hutching’s and Ungureanu’s wrap-up of listing theistic evolutionists and other Christian scientists comes the final bit of, in their own words, “dodgy Christian apologetics dressed up in an ill-fitting lab coat” that they hope readers will accept.

Recently, one [initiative] which has been making a few headlines is Peaceful Science—a community partially overseen by Joshua S. Swamidass [sic], 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—from whom we would all truly descend.

David Hutchings and James C. Ungureanu, Of Popes and Unicorns, p. 212
Book cover: The Genealogical Adam And Eve: The Surprising Science Of Universal Ancestry by S. Joshua Swamidass

I won’t comment on Swamidass’s work since I haven’t yet read it, but you can be sure I will once I do. Suffice to say, however, that I am suspicious of his conclusion and infinitely more suspicious of his motives. I am supposed to rest assured that his findings are “not pseudoscience” because one “prominent atheist biologist and science communicator” (who barely has more Twitter followers than I do) admits as much. However, on his own blog, said science communicator reveals that he “certainly [does] not believe in the Adam and Eve story,” and that

What Josh Swamidass has done in his new book on Adam and Eve is provide a way for people to reconcile dearly held Bible beliefs with what evolutionary biology has shown us unequivocally, that humans are descended from a long line of evolutionary ancestry going back billions of years. This effort has already sent ripples through the evangelical community. Theologians as prominent as William Lane Craig are watching closely. I see a real chance that we could be on the cusp of a cultural cease-fire on the matter of evolution, with science being the ultimate winner. . . .

For now, the threat that science denial poses to our shared existence is too great to be idealogical rigid. I feel that we should do everything we can, an all-of-the-above approach, to bring people together in support of science. That’s what the Genealogical Adam and Eve is all about. I support it because I’ve already seen it work in a community called Peaceful Science where former Young Earth Creationists are making peace with modern science. . . .

Nathan H. Lents, A Skeptic Encounters Adam and Eve, The Human Evolution Blog, 10/4/19

I appreciate Lents’ idea, I really do. But science is not acting as science when it bends over backwards to fit into the tiny box that Bible-believing Christians insist it has to fit in in order to be true. I’m interested in seeing how Swamidass came to his conclusion, so stay tuned.


The last two chapters of Of Popes and Unicorns were extremely disappointing, because I promise you that the rest of the book was really, really good. I literally just included it in a new list I wrote for OnlySky of 10 great secular books, and now I’ll have to go back and remove it. That will teach me not to recommend a book before I finish it! If you don’t know about the conflict thesis, Chapters 1-7 make for a fascinating tale as long as you’re prepared for what comes at the end.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Of Popes and Unicorns by David Hutchings and James Ungureanu

  • August 29, 2022 at 3:35 am

    One shouldn’t pass science through a religious filter, but religion through a scientifically filter.


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