First, the nature of the “conflict”. For more than 100 years now, the popular narrative has been that religion has always opposed science: think medieval Church, heliocentrism, Galileo, Darwin, Scopes, etc. Wilberforce’s taunting, according to this viewpoint, was just another example of religious idiocy.
The reality is different. For all his misplaced wit, Wilberforce’s opposition was based on “the principles of inductive science, philosophy, or logic”, as the Gazette put it — and, as Darwin himself knew; for he called the Bishop’s review of On the Origin of Species “uncommonly clever”. This is more typical of the periodic clashes between “science” and “religion” than the Young Earth creationist parody of our day. Not only were such conflicts rarer than popularly imagined, they were usually much more sophisticated and more scientific than we think. It wasn’t simply a case of “but the Bible says . . .”
Second, the context of the conflict. Huxley was a newfangled “scientist”; Wilberforce was an old-school “clerical naturalist”. What happened at Oxford was as much about the former shouldering the latter aside in the social hierarchy of Victorian England as it was a debate about Darwinism. “What [Huxley] has deprecated”, as the Gazette put it, “was authority like the Bishop’s, authority derived from a reputation acquired in another sphere.”
The history of science and religion, like any history of ideas, is coloured by the political, social, and cultural worlds of the time, from the nervous post-Reformation context of Galileo to the sinister eugenic context of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The Wilberforce-Huxley debate was no different. We ignore such context at the cost of historical subtlety.
Read it all.