Wednesday morning notes

8 08 2007

Last night, despite the sweltering humidity, I managed to finish Andrew D. White’s A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom. The main part of the book actually ends about 100 pages before the last chapter, the last few chapters being more of a discussions of changing ideas about interest, oracles/prophets, and Lot’s wife being turned into salt (or so the story goes), so I have to admit that I didn’t give me full attention to the last few chapters. Nevertheless, the book is an absolutely wonderful read, and I’ve learned much from it (expect a post on potential origins of werewolf mythology later today or tomorrow). While White certainly does favor science over theology in nearly every area, it is refreshing to see an author who gives each historical personage their “due” in terms of their accomplishments and achievements; no man is entirely an angel or a devil, but rather a cohabitation of the two.

Still, White does show that there has been nothing so harmful to understanding the natural world as theology. This needs some clarification, however; White is a Christian and many times asserts his faith in the Master, and although he considers more of the Bible as interesting past history of religious thought or poetry than modern evangelicals, he definitely has respect for the Bible as his religion’s sacred text. The major problem, White shows, has been attempts through theology and apologetics to either reconcile or entirely dismiss truths about the natural world that do not fit the Biblical narrative (i.e. storms can be caused by the Devil as in Job, disease is a punishment sent from God, God takes the stars out of a box and hangs them up at night, there are no people in the “antipodes” because the Good News has been sent everywhere, Hebrew was the first language, God resides in the sky above the firmament in the heavens, etc. etc. etc.). While some apologists argue that accepting science is accepting “the wisdom of man over God” so too is accepting any sort of theology; just like any other book the Bible requires interpretation, and human fallibility cannot be exempted just because someone claims that the book we’re dealing with is infallible/inerrant. Indeed, if the truths of the Bible were so plain and exempt from faulty inferences and interpretations, I would have to wonder why there are so many Christian denominations, why Christian bookstores are packed to the gills with various takes on Scripture (both liberal and conservative), and why so many churches have to focus primarily on “the salvation message” for fear of offending some of their parishioners.

The only major problem I have with White’s book, however, is that he often alludes to contradictions/problems in the Bible but never cites the verses in which they can be found. While the book serves as a wonderful overview, many of the books cited by White are probably hard to find these days, and so checking up on things may be a little difficult. Overall White’s analysis seems fairly even-handed, but still a little more detail (or a few more lengthy quotes instead of snippets) would have made the book even better. Regardless of this shortcoming, however, it is an invaluable book for those curious about how religion and science have interacted prior to the 20th century, and I’m sure I will be referring back to it over and over again.

My question now becomes “What to read next?” I brought A.S. Romer’s Vertebrate Paleontology and Alan Feduccia’s The Origin of Evolution of Birds along with me, so I’ll probably jump into one of those when I get home (probably Feduccia’s book, since I’m curious about his alternate hypothesis for bird evolution). Indeed, it has dawned on me that I only have about 3 weeks left before school starts again, so I really want to blast through the remainder of my summer reading if at all possible, and I’ll probably do a recap just before the falls semester starts up (although I can guarantee that I’ll keep on reading during that time).


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7 responses

8 08 2007
Julia

For all your Bible-contradiction needs, the Skeptics Annotated Bible is second to none. There are literally hundreds of examples, but perhaps the most useful for anyone dealing with a creationist is The two contradictory creation accounts. They give you chapter and verse too, and links, so it’s easy to go back and check, and it’s the KJV, so at least you know it’s one of the “authoritative” translations – never really got over an anecdote from a friend of mine who read a modern translation and was faced with the fact that “Saul went to the bathroom in a cave”…

8 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks Julia; I’ll definitely have to check it out. Misquoting Jesus was also a bit of an eye-opener, and I have to admit I’ve just ordered A Field Guide to Evangelicals and Their Habitat and Sinner’s Guide To The Evangelical Right for some more “light” reading as the summer closes out.

8 08 2007
Zach Miller

Why, oh, why would you entertain Feduccia’s Creationist-like refusal to accept maniraptors as avian precursors, sir? The man clings to that basal archosaur hypothesis like Biblical literalists cling to Gensis. I understand your desire to see both sides of an argument, but his is so wrought with error and so obviously WRONG (especially today), that little education can come from it. His works on modern birds are quite good–the man is an ornithologist. He’s just not a paleontologist.

8 08 2007
laelaps

Hi Zach; I guess I’m just a glutton for punishment.🙂 I have written about Feduccia before, but I figured it would only be fair if I read his book instead of going with what I’ve heard. I’m actually surprised Yale published it as it is; the layout is terrible and he launches into plenty of polemical attacks on other scientists who don’t accept his ideas.

I guess that’s the difference between this book and Heimann’s The Origin of Birds (one of my most favorite books in my possession). Heilmann’s book is richly illustrated and tries to make a well-reasoned case based upon what was known at the time; it’s wrong, but I can definitely admire the work and reasoning put into it. Feduccia’s book, on the other hand, has diagrams and pictures scattered throughout the pages, and overall it’s not nearly as engrossing as Heilmann’s book.

I do wonder why so many ornithologists have a problem with the dinosaur origin of birds; even Ernst Mayr favored the thecodont hypothesis in his 2001 book What Evolution Is. At the moment I’m about 50 pages into Feduccia’s book and given the amount of illustration in it I should be done by the close of the week, and at least I’ll have a reference for alternate hypothesis. If nothing else, it’ll be a nice curiosity to have as the dino/bird evolutionary bush gets fleshed out.

9 08 2007
Zach Miller

Well, another thing is that Heimann doesn’t use “The Origin of Birds” as a tyrade against people who don’t agree with him.

(admittedly, at the time, there probably weren’t very many, because Heimann was one of the first natural historians to muse about the evolutionary history of birds)

19 08 2011
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19 11 2011
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