Science in Christian Perspective
A Case History of the Power of Public Opinion
on a subject of particular interest to the A.S,A.
Richard H. Bube
From: JASA 12
(September 1960): 24-25
One of the functions which members of the A.S.A. can usefully serve is to present a positive and authoritative witness in favor of secular literature which properly discusses the relationship between science and Christianity. They can also present an equally positive and authoritative witness against secular literature which improperly describes a conflict between these two disciplines. To show that such witness can have a beneficial effect isthe purpose of this brief note, setting forth the case history of such an incident in which I was involved.
About sixty years ago, Andrew Dickson White, the founder and first President of Cornell University, wrote a book called A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, which has been acclaimed a classic in its field. White was instrumental in preventing ecclesiastical control of Cornell University, and as a result of his efforts in this direction, he set down a summary -of notions held by various theologians throughout history which had been proven false by further research and advance in science. Although White could hardly be construed as a conservative in Christianity, he professed to be a friend of Christianity and stated that his book was aimed against authoritarian anti-scientific dogmatism in an effort to free Christianity and science from such restrictions in the future. On the whole, White's book is fairly one-sided, accepting as it does any hypothesis of science at the expense of conservative Christianity, and by implication associating the -harebrained notions of certain isolated individuals with the general belief of the church of their day. Yet it does serve a useful purpose in showing the peril in associating theological doctrine and practices with contemporary notions of the natural world, identifying Biblical interpretation with Biblical revelation to the detriment -of both the scientific and the Christian community. So much is by way of introduction.
Dover Publications, N.Y., is currently putting out a paper-back edition of White's book and circulating advertising leaflets concerning it. One of these leaflets was sent to me. The line adopted by the advertising copy writer is indicated by the following quotations:
"Amusing follies of thought ... thousands of entertaining accounts of -the vagaries, absurdities, and fallacies which religion has tried to force upon science."
it * * * delightful thorough cove-rage of the crank theories, crackpot explanations, and fanatical concepts that religion has attempted to force upon science."
"It is the standard work exposing the persecution which theology has waged upon every scientific advance in the past, and the damage which religious thought control has inflicted upon human welfare."
"It is a veritable compendium of folly held in defiance of reason.... This set will also enrage you, for it is the history of thwarted truth and suppressed knowledge-the story of mankind held back hundreds of years by bigots and fanatics."
A fellow scientist and I sent a letter to Dover with a restrained yet pointed denunciation of the false implications contained in the advertising copy. We pointed out that the copy makes the work sound like an anti-Christian book which it was not by the confession of its own author, that it dwelt on notions which all intelligent people have long since discredited but implied that "religionists" were a fanatic group apart who continued to seek to inflict these notions on others today, that it contained the false implication that a great gulf separated science from Christianity, and that it was at very least in exceedingly poor taste.
We received in reply a courteous letter from Mr. Hayward Cirker, President of Dover Publications, from which the following is a partial quotation -
"We had no intention of offending any religious group. Our copy writer was too enthusiastic in describing a book on the subject of the struggle between religion and science. I quite agree with you that most of these differences have been reconciled among intelligent people. However, the struggle continues among less educated groups.... If you would like to revise or rewrite it so that it might be acceptable to all Christians, we would be very glad to have your suggestions with a view to changing our circular in future printings."
We replied to this invitation by suggesting that Dover publish some quotations from the Preface by White himself to spell out the real purpose of the work. In addition we submitted the following brief summary of a possible advertising slant:
"History provides many examples of men basing their whole religious faith, life, and practice upon an interpretation of the Bible. They have been so convinced that their interpretation was the very essence of the revealed content of the Bible that they were willing to contest the discoveries of the scientific community, and to make acceptance of their interpretation, if not a requisite for life and safety, at least a requisite for entrance into the Christian church organization.
"Sooner or later such interpre:tations assumed in direct antagonism to the reliable inves~tigation of science must give way. When they do give way, they leave behind the impression on the world that science has cleared up one more mysterious superstition that the organized church had been attemptingto foist upon humanity. What has really happened is that one more false interpretation has given way to truth, andthe real content of the Biblical revelation is found as usual to be in agreement with the real content of reliable scientific research.
"It would be a tremendous benefit to Christianity and to the world as a whole, therefore, if it were clearly recognized that the revelation of God given in the Bible cannot contra,dict the revelation of God given in nature. That to tie in the basic spiritual truths of Christianity with popular notions of the day relevant to the contemporaneous interpretation of the Bible with regard to the natural world is to saddle the strength of spiritual truth with the millstone of transient opinion.
"White's book gives a number of sad examples of the confusion of men's interpretation of the Bible with the actual content of the Bible, and of the unfortunate refleotion on the integrity of Christianity which can result from such relatively isolated instances."
The response to this letter came within five days with the very promising statement:
"The circular will not be run again without making changes along the lines of your sound suggestions."
This is the end of the case history. Undoubtedly other A.S.A. members have had similar experiences. The time has come for all men who see the unity of scientific endeavor and Christian revelation to speak out over and over again that their testimony as Christian scientists may be known, not only to the limited audience of enlightened Christians, but to the world at large.