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Mythology in the Making

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March 1, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Mythology in the Making

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

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.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Charlie - #5579

March 1st 2010

Although those remarks on Galileo and the Church are wrong, remember there was significant conflict between the two.  Galileo supported heliocentrism and was put on house arrest while his publications were banned because of it.  So although this was not arsenic, I wouldn’t say science and religion got along back in the day.

RJS - #5589

March 1st 2010


Why don’t you read this :http://biologos.org/resources/galileo-goes-to-jail-and-other-myths-about-science-and-religion/

Or Ch. 2 in “When Science and Christianity Meet” edited by David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers. (http://www.amazon.com/When-Science-Christianity-David-Lindberg/dp/0226482162/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267465007&sr=8-4)

Galileo’s problems were not so much science as tact and tactic.

John VanZwieten - #5592

March 1st 2010

EPIC FAIL in commentating :D


It would be more correct to say that Galileo got into conflict with the Catholic Church because science and religion got along _too well_ back in the day.  It was largely Jesuit scientists (called “natural philosophers” then) who came into conflict with Galileo and instigated procedings against him, perhaps as much because of his Archimedian views on buoyancy.  The Church had connected its theology to the prevailing understanding of the cosmos to that point, and was reluctant to give it up without more proof.

I think the whole episode does illustrate the challenges faced by new ideas; it just doesn’t demonstrate that science and religion were (or should be) at war.

Charlie - #5598

March 1st 2010

Call it conflict or whatever you want, but just looking at the facts, he was on house arrest and his publications were banned because his findings were inconsistent with the church’s views.

Charlie - #5599

March 1st 2010

With respect to current times, I think the whole reason science and religion conflict is not necessaritly specific explanations or findings, but rather it is the different processes of how one determines something to be considered true.  Because science and religion use different methods (one evidence and the other faith) to come to an explanation, many find it difficult to determine when one should use evidence and when one should use faith when coming to a conclusion about something.  Groups such as Biologos seem to agree with conclusions supported by evidence (like evolution) and use faith for answering questions that science has yet to answer (or can’t answer, if you want to make that assumption).

Glen Davidson - #5609

March 1st 2010

Make what you wish of the fictional “You’ve killed God, sir,” there’s little question that Huxley considered the “Science is at war with religion” to be true:

...Huxley discharged his first great verbal
barrages against religion, declaring that “the myths of Paganism are as dead as
Osiris or Zeus … but the coeval imaginations current among the rude inhabitants
of Palestine … have unfortunately not yet shared their fate,” and that
“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as strangled
snakes beside that of Hercules….”

p. 159 of text, p. 165 of the pdf


Yes, he was especially anti-clerical, but he did not separate his anti-clericism from his anti-religion.  Whether he was “anti-god” is quite a different question, and any conclusion would depend upon definitions.

To at least partly defend the dramatization, Huxley represented those who grasped at evolutionary theory to promote secularism (at least), while Darwin winces at the fictional Huxley’s characterization.  Darwin certainly did not publicly endorse those viewpoints.

Glen D

Glen Davidson - #5610

March 1st 2010

There were various problems involved in the Galileo affair, including his lack of tact (putting what was essentially the Pope’s position in the mouth of Simplicius wasn’t the way to make friends with the Pope), the fact that he made a bad argument in his book for helicentrism involving tides, and, of course, the fact that a literal reading of the Bible at the very least tends to go against heliocentrism.  People trying to actually divorce the persecution of Galileo from religion (rather than to simply complicate it via realism) have to bypass the importance of scripture.

...the tribunal found Galileo guilty of ” Suspected heresy,” a term which constituted an actual offense. Galileo was charged with this on account of: “maintaining and believing an erroneous doctrine which contradicts Scripture: that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and that the earth moves and is not the center of the world, and for claiming that this theory may be possible, and for continuing to subscribe to it after it has been declared and defined as conflicting with Scripture”.


Glen Davidson

Glen Davidson - #5612

March 1st 2010

Some, such as Feyerabend, have portrayed the Galileo affair as being primarily an academic dispute—and he questioned whether or not Galileo really had the best arguments.  With the phases of Venus, however, I do think that Galileo at the least had a very good argument, and it hardly does to persecute anyone for incorrect arguments in any event.

Clearly there was a strong theological component to the Galileo affair, with Galileo being found guilty of “suspected heresy.”  Further work on planetary orbits and cosmology took place mostly in Protestant countries for centuries after, due to the chilling effect that the Galileo judgment had on science.  This is somewhat ironic, as it is suspected that the Church came down hard upon Galileo partly in reaction to Protestantism with its Sola Scriptura doctrine (lacking a central authority, however, geocentrism could not be enforced well within Protestantism.

With Pope John Paul II apologizing for the Church’s persecution of Galileo, there really ought to be no question of the religious nature (however much it reflected political and other disputes) of the persecution of Galileo’s endorsement of Copernicanism.

Glen Davidson

John VanZwieten - #5614

March 1st 2010

So it would be more truthful to say that then, as now, _some_ scientists make war on religion, and _some_ religious figures make war on science.


To equate science with evidence and religion with faith goes way too far.  A scientist employs faith when he trusts the results of previous scientists which he doesnt have the time or ability to test himself.  The religious person weighs evidence such as historical documents, personal experience, and reasonableness when reaching conclusions.

I’m pretty sure BioLogos isn’t about pushing “faith” answers to whatever science doesn’t explain now.  Rather, they are about showing how truth derived from science can enhance rather than diminish one’s faith in God.

Kathryn Applegate - #5619

March 1st 2010

Hi Charlie,

I would add to John’s comment that science and theology use similar methods in that they depend on the use of reason and argument from evidence.  In science, the evidence comes from observations/experiments/models; in theology, the evidence comes from history/texts/artifacts.  In contrast, faith is a different way of generating knowledge claims that depends less on evidence and more on authority.  Both scientists and religious believers use both faith and reason.

Charlie - #5652

March 2nd 2010


I agree theology in part comes from history and artifacts, however, big questions like does God exist or the what was the origin of life are not based on history and artifacts.  They are based on faith in the text being correct.  Remember text is not evidence.  I could write anything down and that doesn’t make it correct.

Charlie - #5653

March 2nd 2010


Scientists do not trust results, that’s why you have to publish materials and methods, so anyone has the ability to reproduce your results, which you agreed was a possibility.  Also, science is very cautious to make a claim.  For example, if I think I found out how a pathogen becomes drug resistant, I say this is a potential mechanism of drug resistance, I don’t say it IS a mechanism of drug resistance.  I agree many don’t have time/money to test for themselves but is it faith if it’s been accepted by a journal where the paper has been reviewed?  I think we make assumptions that these scientists aren’t fabricating data but assumptions are made based on evidence (a well established journal accepted the paper) whereas faith is when NO evidence is there to support the belief.

John VanZwieten - #5663

March 2nd 2010


The hallmark of good science is that it does rely on testible/repeatable evidence.  It is a great way of knowing about things that can be subjected to repeated tests.  But there is also evidence that can help us know things in a non-scientific way as well.

For example:  I have a friend who suffered from significant back pain for more than a decade—the last several years of which I watched him experience obvious discomfort from sitting even for an hour at a time.  He had seen various doctors over the years who offered treatment that brought some relief, but never complete.  Then he came to the church for prayer for his back, in order that he might participate in a mission that involved sitting for long periods of time—a prospect that seemed impossible for him.  Within a week he was pain free, not only for the course of the mission, but for a year (and counting) afterwards.

John VanZwieten - #5664

March 2nd 2010

Now, I certainly see EVIDENCE that he was cured (no more discomfort from sitting long periods—even 12 hours on a plane) and I believe he was cured by God.  Yet I can’t prove to you that he experienced a miracle—you could easily object that the pain was psychosomatic all the time, or give many possible naturalistic reasons for the cure.  In fact, I would be very suprised if any experiment could be designed that could scientifically prove or disprove the existence of miracles—they are simply not in the category of things that can be known scientifically.

With regard to textual evidence, any historian or lawyer will tell you that text is evidence.  How pursuasive it is as evidence depends on any number of factors, mostly releted to how credible the author is.

Charlie - #5665

March 2nd 2010


Ever heard of the placebo effect?

#John1453 - #5668

March 2nd 2010

“whereas faith is when NO evidence is there to support the belief.”


That is a very shallow and warped view of faith. One can have faith together with, or without, evidence. In the case of Christianity, there is a great deal of evidence. However, the evidence is not conclusive in the sense that any rational person must be led to only one conclusion. Consequently, there is always room to doubt, but this does not mean that we exercise faith in the absence of evidence.


John VanZwieten - #5671

March 2nd 2010


You mean the effect where people experience healing as a result of their faith in the efficacy of whatever treatement they are given?

Gregory Arago - #5672

March 2nd 2010

Yes, we’ve heard of the ‘placebo effect.’ Is that ‘big science’ to you, Charlie?

“There are only two ways to live your life. One as though nothing is a miracle. The other as though everything is a miracle.” - Albert Einstein

G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” also comes highly recommended on this topic. Especially, and it can be found easily in e-text format, “The Ethics of Elfland.”

Perhaps you’ll appreciate Chesterton’s sharp sense of humour. Enjoy, Charlie!

Charlie - #5748

March 3rd 2010

Is nothing simply unknown to you guys?  It’s either explained through natural processes or it’s a miracle/divine interaction/some other religious explanation?  If you can have both, how do you distinguish them?

Gregory, Einstein is saying one cannot distinguish something natural that is unexplained from a “miracle” in that quote.  Also, I really don’t have time to read your long citations like the 33 paragraph Elfland essay.  Would you mind just stating your point?

John VanZwieten, here’s a review on the placebo effect: http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.psych.59.113006.095941?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori:rid:crossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub=ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

Charlie - #5749

March 3rd 2010

John 1453,

What is your definition of faith?

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