Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes
The Strange Tale of How the Conflict of Science and Christianity Was Written Into History
- ISBN: 9781532653339
- Published By: Cascade Books
- Published: March 2021
It is a truth universally acknowledged that science and religion are and always have been diametrically opposed, and one can only succeed at the expense of the other—or so it seems. In Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes: The Strange Tale of How the Conflict of Science and Christianity Was Written Into History, Derrick Peterson seeks not only to debunk the myth that there is a war between science and religion, but also to trace the roots of this thesis and how it gained such a stronghold in Western thought. Over the last fifty years, scholars have come to recognize that the warfare thesis was constructed through the intentional erasure of religion from the history of science. With both rigor and wit, Peterson serves as a guide through this scholarship, while also performing his own historical inquiry into the key voices who developed the conflict thesis, how they misinterpreted their sources (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not), and how dependent and dynamic the realms of “science” and “religion” really were throughout the last millennium.
Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes begins with the story of physicist-turned-historian Pierre Duhem, whose examination of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks in the 1910s began to deconstruct the story historians of science had been telling for the last century: that scientific discoveries were the result of individual geniuses who emerged only after the Dark Ages, a period during which they claimed that Christianity stalled progress on many fronts. Contrary to this popular interpretation of the history of science, Duhem’s work revealed not only that modern science could trace its roots to key figures within the Middle Ages (the so-called Dark Ages), but also that Christian theology and practice aided—or even enabled—the scientific worldview. Duhem’s work was not published for decades, however, and Peterson’s second chapter focuses on how this silencing enabled the warfare myth to flourish throughout the 20th century, using Newton and Descartes as examples of “pure” science by stripping their work of its religious and theological underpinnings.
The third chapter considers the influence of positivism, a branch of philosophy that theorized that humanity would pass through theological and metaphysical stages before arriving at a scientific or “positive” stage, when all questions would be answered analytically or through empirical evidence. Even once this movement died following its arrival on American shores, positivism’s insistence on a staunch division between theology and science outlived it and continues to influence both the socio-cultural understanding of, and academic textbooks on, scientific subjects (68).
The second section of the book backtracks to consider how the warfare thesis originated, particularly through 19th-century identity-building and professionalization. Chapter 4 analyzes how, as scientists began to develop their field as one free from “dogmatic theology and ecclesiastical control” (121)—but not wholly separate from their own religious commitments—some took this a step further and began to suggest that science and theology were at war. Historians—attempting to build an identity for history itself as a science—glommed onto these louder voices and cited one another without critically analyzing their primary sources. This created an echo chamber of “fake footnotes” in which the myth resonated, and the theological underpinnings of early scientists were erased. The development of the myth benefitted from tension between religion and science in current events, such as when Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Thomas Huxley, publicly debated Darwin’s theory of natural selection in 1860. Events like this advanced the narrative that religion and science must be diametrically opposed, contrary to historical evidence.
In chapter 5, Peterson traces the theme of identity-building and professionalization through psychology, sociology, and anthropology. As each field developed, it redefined religion as something emotional and superstitious, rewriting history to obscure any past engagement between these disciplines and theology. This chapter and the next also focus on the writings of Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper, two people so well-known for advancing the notion of a war between science and religion that it has been called “the Draper-White conflict thesis.”
The final section of the book compellingly deconstructs key “battles” in the “war” between religion and science. Peterson’s greatest strength lies in contextualizing these events and complicating the perception that “science” and “religion” were static and independent categories. The flat earth theory, the “Dark Ages,” the conflict between Copernicus and Galileo, and the Scopes trial reveal that many debates originated as conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, or conflicts among different scientific perspectives, even as there was agreement between theologians and scientists on many issues. With these chapters, Peterson issues a call for more complex histories (253), particularly ones that reinsert religion into the story as a dynamic force interacting with various disciplines, rather than telling simple narratives about heroes and villains.
Ultimately, Peterson succeeds in his mission to be “an ambassador for the immense amount of scholarship out there on the history of Christianity and science” (10). His single-spaced, thirty-nine-page bibliography offers a wealth of resources for anyone interested in the voices that perpetuated the warfare myth and the historians who are deconstructing it. Despite this comprehensiveness, a few questions remain unanswered: Why did new fields feel the need to separate themselves from theology in order to gain legitimacy? Does the fact that a field evolved from some component of theology mean that it is still engaged with it (83)? And finally, at what point does a myth become reality? The COVID pandemic has proven that, even if the warfare thesis is only the result of poor history, it has enormous implications for our present. In no way do these questions detract from the value of Peterson’s work—rather, they present opportunities for future studies, which will certainly be aided by the arguments and historiography Peterson has presented here.
Brittany Acors is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Virginia.Brittany AcorsDate Of Review:December 13, 2022