Scientists enjoy telling stories. They tell stories about, among other things, the quest to understand the universe — stories that sometimes have implications for belief or disbelief in God…
Too, often, these stories are false.
This is how science historian Michael Newton Keas beings his engaging and enlightening book, Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion.
Unfortunately, he his right.
What he is referring to is when celebrity scientists stop talking about science and interject their personal beliefs under the guise of science. If those beliefs aren’t friendly to religion, they have a habit of promoting the false religion-is-at-war-with-science narrative with a variety of myths. The war between science and religion is a modern fable, not surprisingly promoted by those who don’t think highly of religion.
This is a shame, really, because we need popularizes of science, but when some scientists become celebrities, they can fall off their intellectual foundation rather quickly. When Neil DeGrasse Tyson turns Giordano Bruno into a martyr for science in his show Cosmos, much of the story is fiction. When Carl Sagan made claims to the effect that the cosmos is all that there is or always will be, he wasn’t making a scientific statement, but a personal, philosophical one. When Sam Harris claims the church had been “torturing scholars” for “speculating about the nature of the stars,” it simply isn’t true.
It’s not hard to review history, as Dr. Keas shows, and see there is no widespread hatred of science from religion. In fact, he details some of the ways “theistic religion nurtured the development of modern science from its start.” He also reveals the irony of these celebrity thinkers replacing religion with their own naturalistic philosophy and materialistic magic.
I’ve studied a lot of history and science over many years, so I have seen elsewhere the history Keas lays out. Such as there is far more to the Galileo story — he isn’t the poster child of a war between the church and science. The Dark Ages weren’t so dark — the Renaissance didn’t appear out of nowhere. Nor were most of our ancestors really confused about the shape of our planet — most thought it was a sphere and didn’t need Columbus to prove it (he didn’t think it was flat either).
Do the celebrities purposefully spread their myths? I hope not, but the history isn’t hard to find and they keep repeating their myths anyway.
The takeaway from Keas book is we should learn to recognize when our experts, celebrity or otherwise, switch from teaching to evangelizing. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, unless you are passing it off for something it isn’t. And don’t for a moment think you aren’t capable of testing and questioning those who portend to speak for all of science and history.
They don’t own all the keys to our past and our universe. We all do.