UNBELIEVABLE: 7 Myths about the History and Future of Science and Religion.
Several years ago, while in Singapore on sabbatical, I needed to hitch a ride to a lecture at one of the local universities; I jumped into the back seat of a car driven by a rather well-known MIT physicist. As we sped off, somehow the conversation in the front seat turned to the "Dark Ages" and how foolish it was that people could believe that "the earth was flat," according to the driver. At the time, I knew that the presumption was off the mark, but I did not have the facts at my fingertips to enter into the conversation. Had I possessed this book, I would have had plenty to say. The truth, of course, is that, as elaborated in chapter 3, it has been pretty universally held from the time of the ancient Greeks that the earth is round. I remember thinking, how can there be such ignorance in the context of criticizing ignorance? In a sense, that is what the book is all about.
Unbelievable, by Michael Newton Keas, is part of a genre which has grown over the past few decades to debunk a number of misconceptions about science and history, not least of which is the claim that science and religion are at "war." (Indeed, in the last chapter, Ron Numbers is quoted as saying, "The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict.") All the myths in the book somehow serve this conflict image, and though they may be propagated in ignorance, the beliefs are often held by those who have an agenda. In contrast to some other books in this genre that have multiple authors, this book has only one, and this gives it a coherence not always achieved elsewhere. The content contains a mixture of original research (e.g., studying historical textbooks going back more than two centuries, with some reference to original texts) and reliance on the work of other historians. In addition to the main historical story, an interesting feature is the side story of how misconceptions have been reported in textbooks over the years, even continuing to the present.
In Part 1, the book focuses on seven "myths" concerning history, science, and Christianity. In order, the myths treated are (1) the medievals thought of the universe as small and that somehow small was inferior; (2) the medieval period is justifiably considered "dark" with regard to knowledge; (3) medievals believed the earth to be flat; (4) Giordano Bruno should be considered a martyr for science; (5) Galileo was imprisoned for his science; (6) a Copernican view constitutes a demotion and humbling of the medieval view because it removes us from the center; and (7) when we meet extraterrestrial beings (ET), the meeting will bring about a kind of scientific enlightenment.
When I first encountered the book, I was not sure why these particular myths were chosen, and why they were ordered in this way. However, upon reading, I found that the myths and their ordering constitute a natural progression, from one to the next. And in a certain sense, these seven myths constitute a suitable representative sample to stand in for the many that could be discussed. As stated later in the book, the first three myths belong to the medieval period, whereas the next three are associated with the early modern period. The last relates to a yet future hypothetical event, one that is talked about with a kind of secular religiosity in passages quoted. In many cases, you can see a progression; once a myth is created, it gets picked up and propagated by those who would like to promote a particular cause. Most of these myths are myths in the usual sense of a false story. But the last falls into another category, as an "imaginative archetypal story that shapes a culture's identity and dominant worldview" (p. 5).
Following Part 1, the second part of the book is devoted, in part, to the question of why the myths continue to be propagated, and, in part, to an elaboration of the misconceptions in order to place them within a fuller context. Much of this second part adds to and enhances the arguments in the first part. For example, in the first chapter, the theme of ET is revisited and tied to a science fiction theme, and the next chapter discusses how science television shows such as Cosmos (both the Sagan version and the Tyson version) propagate the theme that science represents progress, putting it in opposition to the "outmoded" religion of the past. A later chapter reveals one of the more interesting facts. In considering a large number of textbooks used in American education, from the seventeenth century to the present, virtually none of the myths appeared until around the early nineteenth century, suspiciously closely following the so-called "Enlightenment" period. One of the earliest texts discussed is one written by Kepler, which is portrayed as a splendid example of compatibility between science and Christianity.
I have read other books in this general genre, yet I still learned much from this one. Aside from the usual stories of Bruno and Galileo, there are also lesser known stories such as Sagan's use of Hypatia to justify an imagined war between science and Christianity, and Tyson's telling of false historical stories to justify his position, a practice surprisingly endorsed by historian Joseph D. Martin for the "greater good" (p. 152).
Who might be interested in reading the book? I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of science and Christianity in general. In particular, Christians in science can benefit from the broader theme of knowing what the myths are that continue to be propagated, with an eye toward revealing them to others when the subjects come up. If you have not read much on this subject, this book would be a good place to start.
Reviewed by Donald N. Petcher, Professor of Physics, Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA 30750.
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|Title Annotation:||HISTORY OF SCIENCE|
|Author:||Petcher, Donald N.|
|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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