Everyone knows that Columbus proved that the earth was not flat, as the church held.
Everyone knows that Copernicus was persecuted for theorizing that the earth revolves around the Sun, contrary to the Bible.
Everyone knows that Galileo valiantly defended scientific truth against the oppressive obscurantism of a despotic Catholic Church.
Everyone knows that Darwin’s theory of evolution was condemned by Christians, who fought it tooth and nail.
In an important new book, Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes: The Strange Tale of How the Conflict Between Science and Christianity Was Written into History (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2021; xii-359pp), Derrick Peterson demythologizes the “warfare” between science and religion that supposedly exists (and certainly sells popular books!), as a story that never happened. He relies on massive efforts by historians of science over the past half-century, as well as his own research, to tell a radically different story:
“While deconstructing many of the historical misunderstand[ings] that have gone into the thesis and continue to linger in our consciousness does not solve all our problems, or prove Christianity true, or that God is real, it does help us precisely by clearing the decks. While the rhetoric of ‘everything you is know is wrong’ can be quite trying when used as marketing, often in the areas of the history of science and religion one does truly wish we could all start over.” p. 316
This is not a work of apologetic or evangelism. Peterson is clear-eyed about the fact that, if there is no good science-bad Christianity history other than that invented in the 19th century, there is also no substituting some bad science-good Christianity for that myth either. He begins by telling the story of the rediscovery of the work of the French physicist and mathematician Pierre Duhem (1861–1916). He had set out in 1903 to study the medieval origin of physics only to discover that there seemed to be none in the histories of the day. With Copernicus, light seemingly dawned suddenly upon a world darkened since the fall of Rome, growing stronger with Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and others. As more and more people were “enlightened” by these “lone” geniuses, they gradually threw off the “works of darkness,” in other words, religion, and specifically Christianity.
By very laborious scholarship, poring over manuscripts haphazardly stored in the Bibliothèque nationale, Duhem found that all the advances of the geniuses had antecedents much further back in time. However, his work was rebuffed and the last half of his Système du monde only published in 1959. Very soon after, however, scholars took note, including Thomas Kuhn of “paradigm-shift” fame. The wall built to fortify the “war” thesis began to crumble.
Ignore the piety
Another barrier erected was between the theological foundations of the thought of people like Francis Bacon, John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Adam Smith and the remainder of their works. An analogy would be performances of J. S. Bach’s music in the former Communist countries, in which the religious titles (“Where sheep may safely graze”, for instance) were simply deleted. The music is the point, ignore the piety. Newton, for example, was much better known in his lifetime as a theologian, not a scientist (the word hadn’t yet been invented). A great movement of “sanitization” took root in the eighteenth century, and continues in some circles to this day.
Peterson is a good storyteller, but his narratives also bristle with references. The influence of Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”, and the coterie of his “X-Club”, pushing the myth of Darwin’s win over the church, is particularly interesting, because it runs counter to the usual telling of the myth. How the phony quote attributed to the third-century Tertullian — “I believe because it is absurd”—became the “definition” of religion is another fascinating story. Sociology, psychology, economic theories like Marxism, all sought to supplant Christian notions with secular versions.
The theological innovations of Pope Pius IX in reaction to the limiting of the papacy’s temporal power, papal infallibility, universal juridiction, and the “Syllabus of errors”, were fresh fodder for the ridicule of Christianity. The historically and theologically dubious grounds for the decisions of the First Vatican Council of 1870 were mirrored by equally dubious histories falsely retrojecting Pius’ totalizing tendencies to all of the existence of Christianity.
Soon all kinds of ills were laid at the feet of ignorant power-hungry Christians, especially bishops, of course. Christians burned down the fabulous Library of Alexandria, for instance. The great pagan philosopher Hypatia was murdered at the command of that city’s bishop. The church hid all kinds of evidence debunking its claims (in the Vatican library, of course), and outlawed texts that contradict its official approved ones (like the gnostic gospels). And on and on… the medieval church burned thousands of women deemed witches, promoted ignorance, approved of serfdom…
Simply put, these and the things “everyone knows” at the beginning of this review are not true. Some are flat-out lies; for instance, Julius Caesar burned the great library before Christ was born. Some are half-truths. How they came to be concocted is why you should read Peterson’s book.
While he is critical of Christians and their churches, sometimes blisteringly so, Peterson’s focus is on de-fanging the war myth. Even there he is usually quite even-handed, and his scholarship is impressively deep, though the book is not pedantic at all — which is quite an achievement. He is good at developing how the Scopes “monkey” trial is at the root of contemporary creationism, and why that modern theology is at odds with traditional thinking about what creation actually is. He ends calling not for a “cascade” of apologetics, but “rigorous intellectual and practical history that proceeds to tell the stories of the rise of the world as we know it and the complex roles of Christianity . . . as part of the grand adventure of human knowledge and practice. Easier said than done, but adventures are never supposed to be simple, or easy.” (p. 319)
Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes is neither simple nor easy, though it is a great read and a rewarding study. One thing that bothered me was the number of misspellings, which is I think the publisher’s fault.
I ended up wondering why so many contemporary Christians seem to want to prove the false fabricated portrait of ignorant, science-hating, intolerant religionists to turn out to be, in fact, true in the end. Maybe that will be Derrick Peterson’s next book.