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.