Mythology in the Making

Bookmark and Share

March 1, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Mythology in the Making

Last week on the Fox News business program “Bulls and Bears,” one of the commentators, making what he thought was a helpful analogy to the challenges faced by new ideas, referred to the “Catholic Church making Galileo take arsenic because he thought the earth was flat.”

As a college professor who has been reading student comments for a quarter century I have seen many hilariously wrong statements, but this one takes the cake. It is the most confused allusion to history I have ever heard. Galileo was not poisoned by the Church, or physically abused in any way. And the church never had any controversy about the earth being flat. In fact, we know of absolutely nobody in Galileo’s century who thought the earth was flat. And, as for the “arsenic,” our muddled commentator was probably thinking about Socrates who, 2000 years before Galileo, drank poison hemlock as he voluntarily accepted his capital punishment for being subversive. We can hardly blame the Catholic Church for events that occurred centuries before Christ!

Casual communications like this provide windows into how our view of the past shapes the present. Our muddled Fox News commentator probably has a caricatured view of the tensions between science and religion, perhaps laced with a dose of anti-Catholicism. And many people are confused about the history of the flat earth, mistakenly believing that Columbus was warned not to sail off into the sunset, lest he sail off the edge of the earth into whatever abyss was “down” there. The great writer, Washington Irving, the Dan Brown of the 19th century—albeit more literary— invented this engaging fictional gem to spice up his history of Spanish exploration. But my hat goes off to our muddled commentator who somehow managed to get all these confusions into the same anecdote.

Such blunders reveal the way that mythological notions about the past continue to inform our ideas about the present. If we believe that science and religion have always been at war, with the church believing in a flat earth and poisoning scientists, then we are all too ready to misinterpret the present.

Take the recent Dover Trial over the teaching of evolution. Or the current controversy in Texas about evolution in the high school textbooks. If we believe that science and religion are profoundly incompatible and that history has seen a thousand similar confrontations, then incidents like these will provide confirmation of what we already believe to be true. This relieves us of the burden of trying to figure out what actually happened. We already know, since it has happened many times before.

Unfortunately, the mythology about Darwin and the implications of evolution creates the same sort of confusion, and muddled commentators continue to perpetuate misunderstandings from the past.

The recent Darwin film Creation, while reasonably faithful to it its subject matter, veered off the historical path at one point regarding Thomas Huxley (pictured above). In a memorable scene from the movie, Huxley comes to visit Charles Darwin at his home. He waxes eloquent about Darwin’s revolutionary new theory and how it will help science triumph over religion: “You’ve killed God, sir” says an ebullient Huxley, “and I say good riddance to the vindictive old bugger.” He goes on to state, in the clearest terms, “Science is at war with religion.”

This fictionalized incident, with its stark repetition of the standard warfare motif for understanding science and religion, was the only clip from the film played by Ken Ham in his recent “State of the Country” address about the evils of evolution. Ham was making his familiar point that there is a “war” between creation and evolution and that Christians need to be on the right side in that war. Hearing Darwin’s theory described by his celebrated disciple Huxley as having “killed God” should help Christians decide which side they should be on.

When Ham pulls this incident out of the film and gives it a larger hearing to a different audience, the warfare mythology is strengthened and Christians grow even more fearful about the encroachment of science on their faith.

There is a problem, however. To make the script as exciting as possible, Creation simplifies and caricatures the relationship between science and religion in Victorian England. Huxley was, to be sure, a crusader. He crusaded for Darwin’s theory; he crusaded against the cultural power of the Anglican clergy to set the intellectual agenda of the day and define its parameters. But he did not crusade for atheism. In fact, he invented the word agnostic to describe his own views, even though atheism was an increasingly popular label that was available to him. Huxley felt that atheists, like the Anglican clerics he resented, claimed to know way more than they should. He described his own campaign as “Science versus Parsonism”—not science versus religion.

The tensions in the 19th century were far more subtle than “Science versus Religion.” Victorian England was emerging from a long period where Anglican clerics, who often knew little about science, had far too much control over the emerging scientific conversation. When science was done by “country parsons,” of the sort that the young Charles Darwin aspired to be, there was no such thing as “Science versus Parsonism.” But science disengaged from religion over the course of the 19th century until it gradually needed its own separate conversation—one controlled by scientists who wanted to talk about science and not clergy with a passing knowledge of science and a vested interest in preserving Anglican influence. It is worth noting that the philosopher William Whewell invented the term “scientist” in 1833, while Darwin was traveling on the Beagle.

Huxley’s famous verbal spat with Bishop Wilberforce occurred in 1860, a year after the publication of The Origin of Species, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. During Wilberforce’s extended diatribe against Darwin’s theory there was generous applause from the large contingent of Anglican clerics at the meeting.

But think about this for a minute.

Why would the audience at a science meeting be dominated by clerics? I teach science at a Christian College but pastors do not attend our science division meetings. Scientific meetings today, no matter what the topic, are not attended by clergy. Theologians do not publish in scientific journals. I think most of us would agree with Huxley that the “parsons” should stay out of science unless, of course, they were also scientists.

The 19th century conflict between entrenched ecclesial structures and a secular science struggling to be born was subtle, and far too nuanced to be handled in a film like Creation. It is much easier to simply say that Darwin had “killed God.”

But it’s not true.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

Learn More


Share your thoughts

Have a comment or question for the author? We'd love to hear from you.

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...
Page 2 of 2   « 1 2
Gregory Arago - #5779

March 3rd 2010

Let me not pretend to speak for others in reference to ‘you guys,’ but perhaps an answer is to speak of two types of theology/knowledge: kataphatic (positive) and apophatic (negative).

There are some ‘scientists’ who claim to have secure (‘positive’) knowledge of the universe that others don’t possess. They don’t like to admit that they have ‘faith’ in anything because to them faith = lack of evidence. This is a definition of faith, however, that only a novice in theology or someone entirely ignorant of it could hold.

On the other hand, some ‘scientists’ claim that there are many things they don’t know (‘negative’) and that where their knowledge ends, the knowledges of other people become relevant. Newton’s boy on the seashore is a classic example.

Why can’t you both have faith (cf. religion) *and* be a scientist, Charlie? Francis Collins is a fine role model for this and I doubt you reject his science simply b/c he is religious too.


John VanZwieten - #5798

March 4th 2010

Charlie,

The first two definitions from dictionary.com do ok:
1.confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability.
2.belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.

It’s interesting that both of these definitions could be equally applied to science as to religion.

Do you have a different definition of faith?


John VanZwieten - #5800

March 4th 2010

With re: to natural v. divine intervention, I don’t feel a necessity to categorize every occurance as either natural or supernatural.  Since God both created and sustains the natural world, even the most natural of occurences becomes a wonder. 

Are you not amazed at all that a person’s body would initiate self-healing mechanisms when it simply believes it is being helped?  I couldn’t access the full article you pointed to, but another article on placebo effect referenced a case of someones tumors being reduced 50% due to placebo affect. 

But don’t you wonder at all why my friend’s “placebo effect” didn’t kick in when he saw doctors and specialists and had treatments and took pills?  Then he comes to the church for prayer and such a powerful effect kicks in that it lasts 1.5 years and counting?


Charlie - #5817

March 4th 2010

John

For belief that is not based on truth as a definition of faith, it is not applied to science.  Science is actually the exact opposite of that definition.  This is why the scientific and theological processes of determining truth are different.  Religious scientists use science to figure out the unknown, but until it’s figured out, many then go to faith for explanations.  This faith is not based on evidence.  As far as the first definition of faith goes, faith in another’s ability can be based off of evidence or not, but this is off scope for seeking truth.

You said “Are you not amazed at all that a person’s body would initiate self-healing mechanisms when it simply believes it is being helped?” yes it’s amazing.  That doesn’t mean there is not a scientific explanation for it.

As far as your firend goes, it’s possible he went to the doctor expecting not to be helped and expected to be helped by the church.  This is how the placebo effect would apply to your friend.


Charlie - #5818

March 4th 2010

Correction : belief that is not based on proof for the first definition


John VanZwieten - #5826

March 4th 2010

Charlie:

By “religious scientists” above, you are perhaps describing one type of “religious science” which attributes to God whatever gaps currently exist in scientific knowlege.  So some physical attributes could evolve, while others are “irreducibly complex” and therefor must have been specially created intact. 

Those at BioLogos specifically argue against this “God of the Gaps” approach.  Rather they argue that God is creator and sustainer of all that is, so researching things scientifically is one great way of better understanding how God goes about what He has and still does.

As I said in the post where I introduced my friend, while I wouldn’t presume to prove scientifically that his cure came from his faith, it is nevertheless _evidence_ (something happened, I can see the results) that supports Christian teaching about prayer and a God who heals. 

You can chose to explain the evidence from a materialistic-only perspective, but to say that there is no evidence that supports my faith is simply untrue.


Gregory Arago - #5829

March 4th 2010

It’s unfortunate to say, John, that Charlie seems to have created an unnecessary artificial dichotomy which disallows ‘faith’ and ‘evidence’ to exist in the same sentence. So it will simply be impossible for him to accept the seemingly legitimate points that you are making. Ironically, with post-modernism a new possibility of accepting faith and theology as ‘types of knowledge,’ alongside of ‘science,’ is now opened for even natural-physical scientists to consider. Does Charlie think that the goal of *any* honest human being should be to become a ‘scientist’? Heaven forbid (to each their own talent and calling)! If not, would he consider other knowledges, and perhaps even wisdom as things to reflect upon in his personal journey of faith?


Gregory Arago - #5830

March 4th 2010

Note: the term ‘cooperatively’ should be added after ‘exist’ in #5829


Charlie - #5863

March 5th 2010

I understand one can acquire knowledge through religion.  It can lead to morals and guidance as to how one should live a harmonious and fulfilling life; however, when seeking out answers to questions like is there a God or how did the universe and life as we know it come to be, religion answers these without evidence (what I call faith but you can call it whatever you want).  If you think I’m wrong tell me the evidence.  I understand some say the Bible is evidence, and if you agree with this, how is this evidence and not the Koran, or even Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park?  Just because someone wrote it makes it evidence?

Conversely, science can only make a valid conclusion with evidence and this is how science and religion differ (and how faith, according to dictionary.com’s definition of faith, and evidence cannot exist together).


Charlie - #5864

March 5th 2010

John VanZwieten,

As far as your evidence for your friend, if a man were to have a heart attack in a church, would that be evidence for God punishing that individual?  If not, how is this not evidence and your friend’s situation is?


John VanZwieten - #6070

March 7th 2010

Gregory,

Charlie didn’t create the dichotomy between faith and evidence—it was taught to him and he believed it.  As long as he holds to that teaching, it will be hard to accept some of my points, but he seems open to discussing it, so I’m cool with that.

Charlie,

Certainly I would suggest that since Jurassic Park does not claim divine origin for itself, it can be put in a separate class from the Bible and Koran.  I would say both the Bible and Koran are evidence worthy of a closer look, since they inform the faith of so many people and for such a long time.  You’d have to gain understanding about what those books claim about themselves, and weigh their completing (and complementary) claims.

Dictionary.com’s definitions do not separate evidence from faith, just proof.  If there is proof for something, faith is no longer required.

A heart attack in church could be given as evidence if the details of that occurance matched up with a biblical doctrine.  The bible does relate a husband & wife who died at the feet of the apostles because they lied to God and the church about their giving.  But Jesus also teaches clearly that not all calamities in a persons life are punishment from God.


Charlie - #6178

March 8th 2010

What is proof to you?  It seems most of our disagreements come from interpreting a definition differently.


John VanZwieten - #6345

March 9th 2010

Going back to dictionary.com, proof is enough evidence to establish the truth of a matter. 

Different occasions have different standards of how much evidence is needed for proof.  In a criminal trial, “beyond resonable doubt” is the standard; in a civil trial it’s “preponderance of the evidence.”  In mathematics the standard is a logical progression of agreed-upon theorems.

Here is perhaps a better example of the relationship between faith, evidence, and proof:

I have faith in my wife’s love for me.  I could point to quite a number of things as evidence that help me believe in that love, but at the end of the day, it’s not really a question science can prove.  (Sure, you could measure her heartrate when I enter the room, or dig into the neurological pathways in her mind that indicate bonding, but are those things really “love” or merely more of the already-mentioned “evidences” for love?)


Peter Migner - #6398

March 10th 2010

Karl,

In all due respect to your comments like this below:

( Why would the audience at a science meeting be dominated by clerics? I teach science at a Christian College but pastors do not attend our science division meetings. Scientific meetings today, no matter what the topic, are not attended by clergy. Theologians do not publish in scientific journals. I think most of us would agree with Huxley that the “parsons” should stay out of science unless, of course, they were also scientists.)

How many clergy have been invited to attend and with today’s technology I did attend Ken Ham’s lecture invitation from over 1000 miles away from my living room on a week night by way of a live webcast. Do you offer clergy the same way to attend your lectures?

And as well,  how is it that scientist can enter the field of theology, yet “parsons” should stay out of Science?

I disagree with your comments here. The vast difference between a lot of scientist ( and I presume you being one)  as well is that the scriptures take second place as a voice of authority in discovery whereas for most “parsons” the discoveries of man take second place to the authority of the Word of God.

Webcast your science lectures and I will attend.


Charlie - #6682

March 12th 2010

John,

You said : “you could measure her heartrate when I enter the room, or dig into the neurological pathways in her mind that indicate bonding, but are those things really “love” or merely more of the already-mentioned “evidences” for love?”  Perfect!  You know that science does not understand everything and yet there are possible scientific explanations for it.  You also agree with me that the more evidence, the more likely it is fact (even though it’s just a theory).  So for you and your definition of faith, I guess you have faith in everything, including faith that you are human, the sky is blue, and the earth goes around the sun.  Your definition of faith is just different than the dictionary’s which is belief that is not based on proof (proof needing a certain amount of evidence to determine truth).  Your faith includes evidence.


John VanZwieten - #6856

March 15th 2010

Charlie,

I recommend a look at Wikipedia’s entries for epistemology and faith.

You seem to hold the “rationalist” understanding of faith:
Rationalists criticize religious faith arguing its irrationality, and see faith as ignorance of reality: a strong belief in something with no evidence and sometimes a strong belief in something even with evidence against it. Bertrand Russell noted, “Where there is evidence, no one speaks of ‘faith’. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.”


John VanZwieten - #6857

March 15th 2010

Meanwhile, I hold a Christian understanding of faith:
Michael Green states that the idea of faith being “belief not based on evidence” is one of the myths about Christianity. Faith is to commit oneself to act based on sufficient experience to warrant belief, but without absolute proof. To have faith involves an act of will. For example, many people saw Blondin walk across the gorge below Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and believed (on the basis of the evidence of their own eyes) that he was capable of carrying a man on his back safely across. But only his manager Harry Colcord had enough faith to allow himself to be carried.

So I suppose we can continue to talk past each other forever.  It has at least been stimulating


Page 2 of 2   « 1 2