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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Sunday, October 12, 2003

"You don't easily give up your best illustration of a deeply held belief"

Two popular secular myths long debunked still doing the rounds as "facts".


David Lindberg, Hilldale Professor Emeritus of the History of Science and currently director of the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin debunks two common myths beloved of atheists, secularists, freethinkers and anti Christians - who continue to post both myths as facts on websites all over the Net.

And he should know. Lindberg specializes in the history of medieval and early modern science, especially the interaction between science and religion. His Beginnings of Western Science (University of Chicago Press, 1992) is a standard in the field. He is also currently the general co-editor of the forthcoming eight-volume Cambridge History of Science.

In an earlier blog - The myth of the flat earth I dealt with both these myths and gave actual links to numerous atheist, skeptical, "freethinker" and anti- Christian sites on the Net that use them in order to bludgeon Christians and creationists as part of their "war on God". Even then I gave many examples of how both myths were debunked by reputable scholars in the fields - regardless of their personal ideologies. But both arguments still get a major workout among many of the self-described defenders of reason, logic, science and intelligence who "rant" and "rave" [their terms] against God, the Bible, and Christians on the Net.

The interview with Professor Lindberg is found here.

Many people today have a sense that the church has always tried to quash science. Is this, indeed, the case?

This view is known as the "warfare thesis." It originated in the seventeenth century, but it came into its own with certain radical thinkers of the French Enlightenment. These people were eager to condemn the Catholic Church and went on the attack against it. So, for example, the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), a mathematician and philosopher, assured his readers that Christianity's ascension during the Middle Ages resulted in "the complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences."

So how did this myth get from eighteenth-century France to twenty-first-century North America?

The men mostly responsible are John William Draper (1811-1882) and Andrew Dixon White (1832-1918). The more influential of the two was White, first president of Cornell University, who evoked strong opposition from religious critics for the secular curriculum (emphasizing the natural sciences) that he established at Cornell.

White responded with bitter attacks on his critics, culminating in his two-volume History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion (1874). White's book, still in print, continues to be powerfully influential.

What other myths about science and Christianity are commonly accepted today?

One obvious one maintains that before Columbus, Europeans believed nearly unanimously in a flat earth—a belief allegedly drawn from certain biblical statements and enforced by the medieval church.

This myth seems to have had an eighteenth-century origin, elaborated and popularized by Washington Irving, who flagrantly fabricated evidence for it in his four-volume history of Columbus. The myth was then picked up by White and others.

The truth is that it's almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle (d. 322 b.c.) who doubts that the earth is a sphere. In the Middle Ages, you couldn't emerge from any kind of education, cathedral school or university, without being perfectly clear about the earth's sphericity and even its approximate circumference.

Why does the myth live on?

Because it is a great illustration of other myths people fervently believe in, such as the barbaric ignorance of medieval people and the warfare thesis. You don't easily give up your best illustration of a deeply held belief.

Yes, Virginia, atheists, like the rest of us, do have deeply-held beliefs that have no more scientific and empirical support than that the moon is made of green cheese...

12:33:00 am