Friday, July 01, 2005

The list of harmful books I posted a couple of weeks ago generated some heated debate but no suggestions. Certainly, I don't think we can say that no books are harmful or dangerous even if we don't actually want to ban them. I'm going to duck out of that argument and suggest a few books that have been harmful to the proper understanding of the history of science and religion. As this is my own subject, I feel better qualified to come up with some books than in the more general debate.
  1. Edward Gibbon - Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The best man at my wedding likes to tease me that I'm the only person who has actually read this from cover to cover. I doubt that's the case because it is riveting stuff. It is also almost completely wrong. So many anti-Christian myths began here. Christian's destroying the library of Alexandria, Eusebius's dishonesty, Christianity causing the 'Dark Ages' etc. etc. Gibbon has a lot to answer for. The combination of his enormous erudition, beautiful style, biting wit and enlightenment agenda are a potent combination.
  2. Auguste Comte - Cours de Philosophie Positive. You know the story of this book already. Mankind started off fearing nature so worshipped it. Then we invented a multitude of gods which were eventually whittled down to just one. Now, we are assured, rationalism and science have replaced even that god in providing answers to our questions about nature. This leads inevitably to atheism, the final goal of religious progress. Utter tosh but so appealing to atheists as it makes them think that everything was leading to them and the rest of us are stuck somewhere in history.
  3. Andrew Dickson White - The Warfare of Science and Theology. This book perfected the great myth that religion and science are in conflict. White is actually careful to aim his fire at dogmatic theology but succeeds in tarring all Christianity with his considerable brush. Most of the 'facts' in this massive work are now known to be fantasy but are still believed by many if not most people. Enjoying a new lease of life on the internet and an object lesson on how to mislead with footnotes.
  4. Sir James Fraser - The Golden Bough. A considerable effort to boil all religion down to some sociological archetypes. I haven't read all of this because it is so unfeasibly enormous. Volume after volume of completely misunderstood case studies of religious belief and practice all twisted into Fraser's grand scheme. The style is again wonderful (and wonderfully politically incorrect) which leads many to believe it, including by best man!
  5. Thomas Kuhn - The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Until about 1990 every North American history student read this book. Now they have all grown up they continue to carry it around so that the scientific revolution, another great historical myth, is the single best known event in the history of science. Meanwhile, Kuhn's next paradigm shift is eagerly awaited by every crackpot on the planet.
So, there you have it. Five books that no history student should be allowed to read ;).

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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