Columbus passionately arguing for a round earth before Queen Isabella's 'flatearthers' commission headed by the Archbishop of Granada is one of the dramatic events of history. Dramatic, but untrue. At that time, everyone believed in a round earth. The real argument was, given the great size of the earth's circumference, whether Columbus could reach India with the amount of supplies needed to feed the sailors. Was the risk worth the expenditure of the Queen's money. Columbus' critics questioned his 'cooked' figures (and they were 'cooked') to make the earth smaller and thus passage to India appear more possible.
This imagined conflict fueled the war between the assumed progressive forces of modern scientific thought and the regressive dogmatism of a religious establishment. According to Steven Jay Gould, the paleontologist at Harvard University and noted defender of the theory of evolution, the war between science and religion only started between 1880 and 1889 with the publishing of two books, both of which created the flatearth myth: History of the War Between Religion and Science and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. (Elevated, to prove the authors' point, were two minimally significant characters who had made a flat earth a matter of religious belief.)
This biased view of Western history has helped perpetuate the idea of religion and science, two great forces of our lives, covering different major areas of the human enterprise, being at each other's throats. This has unfairly dichotomized our world and led to conflict rather than cooperation in dealing with great issues. To my mind, the real enemy is not the beliefs of religion nor the findings of science but irrationality and dogmatism in either field.
In our century, a madeup incident on the PolishGerman border unleashed the German Blitzkrieg, and the fabricated attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin gave this country the excuse to bomb North Vietnam. Although there is no body count in the fabricated 'war between science and religion,' casualties exist and erroneous attitudes still shape people's attitudes and behavior.
"God cannot alter the past but historians can," wrote Samuel Butler. It's time for all of us to alter the past to conform to reality, thus creating a new present and future. In the coming days, we can follow that polemical antiwar slogan of the Vietnam era: "What if they gave a war and nobody came."
--Robert H. Tucker
29 December 1997