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Inheriting wind — false accounts of the supposed war between science, religion

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“It isn't what we know that gives us trouble,” said Will Rogers (and apparently Artemus Ward before him), “it's what we know that ain't so.”

This is certainly true with respect to the alleged war between science and religion.

Consider, for example, Tennessee’s famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. According to the famous play and film “Inherit the Wind,” this was a plain case of religious obscurantism attempting to thwart scientific progress. But Edward Larson’s remarkable 2006 book “Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion” demonstrates that simplistic storyline to be deeply misleading.

Consider, too, the geocentric (or “earth-centered”) model of our solar system. Three times within the past 36 hours, religious skeptics have offered geocentrism to me as a prime example of the way in which religion imposed scientific error on the world. Geocentrism, says one, is “a religious position.” It “emerged from theological assumptions,” declares another.

But this claim is simply false. It’s historically insupportable.

The geocentric model of the cosmos emerged from the obvious fact that the Earth on which we stand appears to be motionless while sun, moon, planets and stars move predictably across the sky above, not just passing by but seemingly moving around us. Further support came from observing objects falling toward the Earth and not away from it. Geocentrism requires no “theological assumptions.” It’s common sense. The best pre-modern astronomy assumed it, and children must be educated out of it.

The ancient Egyptians, the sixth century B.C. pre-Socratic thinker Anaximander, and the great fourth-century B.C. Greek philosopher-scientist Aristotle all taught a geocentric cosmos. Indeed, the Earth-centered model set forth in the “Almagest” of the A.D. second-century Greek astronomer Ptolemy dominated astronomy for nearly 1,500 years.

Only in 1543, when the cathedral canon Nicholas Copernicus published his book “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” (which he dedicated to Pope Paul III) did the geocentric model begin to lose its grip. (Pope Clement VII and a number of Catholic cardinals had been fascinated by Copernicus’s theory even before its publication.)

Still, the Copernican heliocentric (sun-centered) model faced opposition — mostly from scientists, not theologians. (Chinese astronomers preferred a geocentric model into the early 19th century.) Since, for example, Copernicus mistakenly assumed that planets revolve in perfectly circular orbits around the sun, his model didn’t actually fit the data as accurately as Ptolemy’s geocentric system — which is one of the scientific reasons that the Dane Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the greatest observational astronomer of contemporary Europe, rejected it. (Johannes Kepler’s proposal of elliptical orbits fixed the Copernican problem only in the early 17th century.)

Oversimplified propaganda about “religion versus science” simply doesn’t fit the case of Copernicus.

Timothy Dwight (d. 1817), a once-important Christian writer, was an early president of Yale. The late Christopher Hitchens loved to cite Dwight’s opposition to smallpox vaccination as another example of Christian opposition to science. But Hitchens never mentioned the fact that the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards, third president of Princeton, was a passionate advocate of science in general and of smallpox vaccination in particular. In fact, hoping to convince the students at Princeton of its safety, he received the vaccine himself in 1758. Unfortunately, already in ill health, he died of the inoculation at just 54 years old.

Nor does Hitchens cite the atheist playwright George Bernard Shaw (d. 1950), who opposed smallpox vaccination in the 1930s — i.e., in the 20th century — as a “delusion” and a “filthy piece of witchcraft,” dismissing its advocates (including Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur) as scientifically ignorant charlatans.

Another false story circulating among some anti-theists regards the early use of chloroform. They incorrectly claim that the Scottish Calvinist church denounced chloroform as a “Satanic invention” that would frustrate the Lord’s plan that women suffer pain in childbirth. But, in fact, most opposition to childbed anesthesia arose from medical concerns about its possible effects on both mothers and babies.

My discussion of smallpox vaccinations and chloroform draw on Alister McGrath’s “The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking about Science, Faith and God” (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

A former atheist about whom I’ve written previously in this column (see "Finding God through the history, philosophy of science" published Nov. 2, 2013, at www.deseretnews.com), McGrath earned an Oxford doctorate in molecular biophysics before being ordained an Anglican priest and earning two more Oxford doctorates (in divinity and intellectual history). He correctly brands claims of a perpetual warfare between science and religion “stale, outdated and largely discredited,” “tired and increasingly implausible.”