Myths and Modern Myths

Have you ever heard someone describe the Bible as myth? All those supernatural occurrences couldn’t possibly have taken place, it is said. It’s a good story, intended to help people lead a good life and perhaps get closer to God (if there is one), but not to be taken literally.

What is a myth? A myth is a story that serves to provide meaning and structure for life. It might have some history behind it, but that isn’t important. It is the ideas that count. Myths are intended to translate the supposed abstract realities of the world in concrete, story form.

Myths were important to the ancient Greeks for defining who they were and what the world was like. In modern times, however, we try to de-emphasize the significance of myths for a culture; we equate myth with fiction, and fiction isn’t to be taken seriously.

In his book, 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization,{1} Philip Sampson debunks the notion that we’ve given up myths, even in the arena of science! According to Sampson there are a number of myths that have become significant for our culture even though they are false–or at least misleading–with respect to the facts. In this book, Sampson gives the true stories behind some of the myths our culture holds as true, such as the idea that Galileo’s fight with the church provides a good example of the supposed warfare between science and religion.

Myths such as these serve to perpetuate certain notions their promoters want us to believe. They can develop over time with no conscious aim, or they can be knowingly advanced for the good of a certain cause. So, as with the Galileo story, if one wishes to advance the notion that there is a tension between Christianity and science, with science being clearly in the right, one might employ a story which pits the knowledgeable, good scientist just out to present facts against the hierarchy of a church which seeks to keep people in darkness so as to advance its own cause.

In ancient Greece, myths weren’t told as though they were historically true. In our society, however, facts are important, so myths are told as if they are scientifically or historically accurate. Thus, with the Galileo story, there is enough history to seem to give it a factual basis–although significant facts are left out!

In this article we will look at three of these modern myths: Galileo and the church, the purported oppression of people by missionaries, and the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Galileo and the Church

One myth that is deeply ingrained in our culture is that of the supposed “warfare between science and religion.” Science deals with fact; religion deals with nice stories, at best. Whenever there is a conflict, obviously science wins the day. This myth goes deeper than just who has the best interpretation of the data. It’s as if there is, of necessity, a conflict between the two, and religion has to be shown to be inferior to science.

One story that seems to serve this myth especially well is the story of Galileo. You’ve probably heard about Galileo’s celebrated battle with the church over his views on the nature of the universe. As the story is typically told, Copernicus discovered that the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo, who agreed that the earth was not the center of the universe after all, then developed his work. Supposedly the church wanted to keep man at the center of God’s creation and thus as the supreme part of the created order. To move earth out of the center was to somehow lower man. Thus, the church persecuted Galileo and eventually silenced him, showing its raw power over society.

George Bernard Shaw said, “Galileo was a martyr, and his persecutors incorrigible ignoramuses.”{2} Says writer Patrick Moore, “The Roman Catholic Church attacked Galileo because the [heliocentric] theory was not reconcilable with certain passages of the Bible. As a consequence, poor Galileo spent most of his life in open conflict with the Church.”{3} However, reason ultimately prevailed and science won the day over religious obscurantism.

The problem with this story is that it ranges from the true to the distorted to the blatantly untrue! Galileo’s primary trouble was with secular scientists, not with the church. It was when he began reinterpreting Scripture to promote his cause and publicly ridiculed the pope that he got into big trouble.

“The Galileo story was developed by French Enlightenment thinkers as part of their anticlerical program,” says Philip Sampson, “but by the late nineteenth century it had created a language of warfare between science and religion.” Science became the fount of reasoned knowledge, and religion was “reduced to ignorance and dogma.”{4} To accomplish this, however, history had to be distorted.

Let’s see what really happened with Galileo. It needs to be noted up front that in Galileo’s day the theories of scientists were not thought to give an actual account of the way the heavens worked; they simply provided models for ordering the data. They “were regarded as the play things of virtuosi,” as George Sim Johnston put it.{5} “To the Greek and medieval mind, science was a kind of formalism, a means of coordinating data, which had no bearing on the ultimate reality of things.”{6}

The fact is that the church didn’t care all that much about what Copernicus and Galileo thought about the order of the universe, scientifically speaking. Copernicus’ book on the subject circulated for seventy years without any trouble at all. It was the scientists of the day who opposed the theory, because it went against the received wisdom of Aristotle. Copernicus believed that his theory actually described the universe the way it was, and this was unacceptable to the academics. When Galileo published his ideas, it was the ridicule of fellow astronomers that he feared, not the church.

According to Aristotle, the earth was at the center of the universe, and all the rest of the universe was situated in concentric spheres around it. From the moon out, all was thought to be perfect and unchanging. The earth, however, was obviously changing and thus imperfect. All matter in the universe was thought to fall downward toward the center of the earth. The earth is therefore like the trash bin of the universe; it was no compliment to man to emphasize his place on earth. In other words, to be at the center of the universe was not a good thing!

To now say that the earth was out with other planets where things had to be perfect was to seriously undercut Aristotle’s ideas. So when Galileo published his notions it was the ridicule of fellow astronomers that he feared, not the church.

It’s true that Galileo got into hot water with the church, but it was not because his theory moved man physically from the center of the universe; that was a good thing, given Aristotle’s views. Man was already considered small in the universe. Most people already believed that the earth was created for God, not for man. “The doctrine that the earth exists for man’s use,” says Philip Sampson, “derives from Greek philosophy, not the Bible.”{7} Thus, the Copernican theory “ennobled” the status of the earth by making it a planet. So the church in general didn’t see the heliocentric theory as a demotion.

The fact is that Galileo was on good terms with the church for a long time, even while advancing his theory. He made sure that the idea he was attacking of the incorruptibility of the universe with its perfect heavens and imperfect earth was an Aristotelian belief and not a doctrine of the church. “Indeed,” says Sampson, “the church largely accepted his conclusions, although the die-hard Aristotelians in the universities did not. . . . Far from being constantly harried by obscurantist priests, he was feted by cardinals, received by Pope Paul V and befriended by the future Pope Urban VIII.”{8} As historian George Santillana wrote in 1958, “It has been known for a long time that a major part of the church intellectuals were on the side of Galileo, while the clearest opposition to him came from secular circles.”{9} He wasn’t afraid of the church; he feared the ridicule of his fellow scientists!

What did get Galileo in trouble with the church were two things. First, because the church had historically followed Aristotle (as did secularists) in interpreting scientific data, it wanted hard evidence to support Galileo’s views, which he did not have. For Galileo to insist that his theory was true to the way things really were was to step outside proper scientific boundaries. He simply didn’t have enough hard data to make such a claim. The problem, then, wasn’t between religion and science, but between methods of interpreting the data. But this, in itself, wasn’t enough to bring the church down on him.

The bigger problem was Galileo’s manner of promoting his beliefs. To do so, he reinterpreted Scripture in contradiction to traditional understandings, which ran counter to the dictates of the Council of Trent. Perhaps even worse was his mockery of the pope. His treatise, Dialogue Concerning the Chief World Systems, took the form of a debate. The character that took Aristotle’s view against the heliocentric theory was called Simplicio. His “role in the dialogue is to be a kind of Aunt Sally to be knocked down by Galileo. . . .Galileo puts into Simplicio’s mouth a favorite argument used by his friend Pope Urban VIII and then mocks it. In other words, he concluded his treatise by effectively calling the very pope who had befriended him a simpleton for not agreeing with Galileo. This was not a wise move,” says Sampson, “and the rest is history.”{10} In fact, Galileo himself believed that the major cause of his trouble was the charge that he had made fun of the pope, not that he thought the earth moved.

So the condemnation of Galileo did not result from some basic conflict between science and religion. It “was the result of the complex interplay of untoward political circumstances, political ambitions, and wounded prides.”{11} However, the myth continues to bolster the status of secular, naturalistic thought by making religion look bad.

So is there warfare between science and religion? Hardly. This is really warfare between worldviews.

The Missionaries

A favorite charge against Christians for many years is the belief that missionaries effectively destroyed other cultures: running roughshod over the natives’ beliefs and culture. Like the myth of the warfare between science and religion, the myth of the oppressive missionary provides a vehicle for exalting secularism while denigrating Christianity. According to this myth, the Christian missionary arrogantly strips natives of their own culture and forces western Christian culture on them, even to the point of oppression and exploitation.

Secular literature often leaves one with an impression of missionaries as stern, joyless oppressors who took advantage of innocent natives in order to advance their own ends. They forced their art and music on other cultures, made the people learn the missionaries’ language, and manipulated them to wear western clothing. “Missionaries are accused of exploiting natives for commercial gain,” says Sampson, “colluding with expansionist colonialism and even committing ‘ethnocide.’ They are implicated in the theft of land, the forced removal of children from their parents, the destruction of habitats, torture, murder, the decline of whole populations into destitution, alcoholism, and prostitution. Even when they provide disaster relief, they are guilty of ‘buying’ converts.”{12} There are no “half tones,” says Sampson. Missionaries “impose rigid, joyless, and patriarchal rules” on natives who are “portrayed as residents in an idyllic land, the victims of the full might of Western oppression incarnate in the person of ‘the missionary.'”{13}

One of the problems in this assessment is the ready identification of missionary activity with that of western colonialism and trade. While missionaries often did import their culture along with the Gospel, they were not, for the most part, interested in taking over other peoples. Colonialists, however, were. It was “the Enlightenment visions of ‘civilization’ and ‘progress’ that inspired colonial activity from the eighteenth century and rejected faith in God for faith in reason.” Colonialists had no qualms about attempting to “civilize” the “barbarians” and “savages.” Civilized was a term which “had ‘behind it the general spirit of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on secular and progressive human self-development.'” Traders, also, were guilty of exploiting other peoples for their own profit. Consider the power of commercial enterprises such as the search for gold by the conquistadors and the activity of such organizations as the British South Africa Company that brought exploitation.{14}

What this reveals is the role of modernism in the oppression and exploitation of native peoples. Romanticism established the image of the “noble savage,” the pure, pristine individual who, living close to nature, had not been corrupted by the influences of civilization. The fact is that some native peoples were given to human sacrifice and cannibalism, among other vices. However, the myth of the noble savage took root in western thinking. Then Darwin taught that there were weaker races that were doomed to extinction by the unstoppable forces of evolutionary change (new ideas about eugenics grew out of this thinking). These two images–the noble savage and the weaker race–combined to paint a picture of vulnerable nobility. According to the myth, Christian missionaries were guilty of taking advantage of this vulnerability to advance their own causes. The reality was that it was often colonialists who exploited these people, and salved their consciences by picturing the people as doomed to extinction anyway.

By contrast, what one finds in the literature about missionary activities includes occasions where they stood against the colonial and trading powers. The Dominican bishop Bartolomè opposed slavery in the sixteenth century. John Philip of the London Missionary Society supported native rights in South Africa in the early nineteenth century. Lancelot Threlkeld demanded “equal protection under the law for the Awabakal people of Australia.”{15} John Eliot stood up for the Indians in Massachusetts’ courts against unjust settler claims. Even one critic of missionary activity conceded that evangelical missions in Latin America “tended to treat native people with more respect than did national governments and fellow citizens.”{16} Missionaries taught people to read their own languages, good hygiene to indigenous groups, farming skills, and even brought medical help. In some regards, the missionaries did try to change other cultures, and sometimes illegitimately. But sometimes that isn’t wrong; there should be no apologies for trying to stop such practices as human sacrifice and cannibalism. Compare the efforts of contemporary secularists to end female genital mutilation practiced by some African tribes.

Scholars have known for many years that the identification of missions with oppression is unfair, yet the myth continues to be told. It simply isn’t true that missionaries were responsible for the destruction of native cultures. But the myth persists, for “it provides the modern mind with an alibi for its own complicity in oppression.”{17}

The Witch Trials

Some critics like to portray the Christian Church as the great persecutor of the weak and helpless. A popular vehicle for this myth is the story of the witch trials in Europe and America in the 16th and 17th centuries. Philip Sampson says that this story “relates that many millions of women throughout Europe, mainly the elderly, poor and isolated, were tortured by the church into confessing nonexistent crimes before being burnt to death.”{18} The story of the witch trials provides a handy illustration for the myth that that the church actively persecutes those who aren’t in agreement. “The history of Christianity is the history of persecution,” said one writer,{19} and this is seen in no bolder outline than in the story of the witch-hunts. Furthermore, this story provides a good example of the supposed women-hating attitude of the church since the vast majority of witches tried were women.

There is no denying that Christians were involved in the trial and execution of witches. But to paint this issue as simply a matter of the powerful church against the weakest members of society is to distort what really happened.

Before considering a couple of facts about the trials, the bias of the critics who write about them should be noted. For most, there simply is no such thing as a supernatural witch, meaning one who can actually draw on satanic power to manipulate nature. If this is true, it must be the case that there is some natural explanation for the strange behavior of those charged with witchcraft, and the church was completely unjustified in prosecuting them. But this is a naturalistic bias; it ignores the fact that “most people of the world throughout most of its history have taken supernatural witchcraft to be real.”{20} Modern writers like to think that it was the dawning of the Age of Reason that brought about the end of the witch trials, but today this is seen as mere hubris, “the prejudice of ‘indignant rationalists’ [who were] more concerned to castigate the witch-baiters for their credulity and cruelty than to understand what the phenomenon was all about.”{21} It was the centralization of legal power that brought the trials to an end, not a matter of “Enlightenment overcoming superstition.”{22}

This leads us to ask who and why these charges of witchcraft were brought in the first place. What we find is that this “was not principally a church matter, nor was the Inquisition the prime mover in the prosecution of witches,” as is often thought. It was ordinary lay people who typically brought charges of witchcraft, and mostly women at that!{23} The primary reasons were not bizarre supernatural behavior or heretical beliefs, but the tensions brought about by a loss of crops or the failure of bread to rise. “People commonly appealed to magic and witchcraft to explain tragedies and misfortunes, or more generally to gain power over neighbors.”{24} Even kings and queens saw witchcraft as a very real threat to their thrones and well-being. The Inquisition actually supplied a tempering influence. Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said, “In general, the established church was opposed to the persecution” of witches.{25} Likewise, the Protestant churches were not the real aggressors in the witch trials. John Calvin believed that witchcraft was a delusion, the cure for which was the Gospel, not execution.{26}

Estimates of executions in the millions are grossly exaggerated. Recent studies estimate about 150300 per year, making a total of between 40,000 and 100,000 who were executed over a period of 300 years. While “this is an appalling enough catalog of human suffering,” as Sampson says,{27} it pales in comparison to the slaughter of innocent people in the 20th century, resulting from the excesses of modernistic thinking. “Genocide is an invention of the modern world,” says one writer.{28} Compare the numbers slaughtered under Nazism or Stalinism to that of the witch trials. If the witch trials demonstrate the danger of religion to society, the slaughters under Hitler and Stalin demonstrate the much greater danger of irreligion.

Modern writers like to think that it was the dawning of the Age of Reason that brought about the end of the witch trials, but today this is seen as mere hubris. It was the centralization of legal power that brought the trials to an end, not a matter of “Enlightenment overcoming superstition.”{29}


From the days of the early church we have been called upon to defend not only our beliefs but also the activities of individual Christians and the church as a whole. In his book, 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization, Philip Sampson has given us a tool to better enable us to do that today. I encourage you to read it.


1. Philip J. Sampson, 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001).

2. George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1946), 17, quoted in Sampson, 28.

3. Patrick Moore, A Beginner’s Guide to Astronomy (London: PRC Publishing, 1997), 12, quoted in Sampson, 28.

4. Sampson, 45.

5. George Sim Johnston, “The Galileo Affair,” downloaded from May 7, 2001.

6. Ibid.

7. Sampson, 34.

8. Sampson, 36-37.

9. George de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (London: Heinemann, 1958), xii, quoted in Sampson, 37.

10. Sampson, 38.

11. William R. Shea, “Galileo and the Church” in God and Nature, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers (Berkley: University of California Press, 1986), 312, quoted in Sampson, 39.

12. Sampson, 93.

13. Sampson, 94.

14. Sampson, 94.

15. Sampson, 97-98.

16. D. Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? (Berkley: University of California Press, 1990), 12, quoted in Sampson, 98.

17. Sampson, 99.

18. Sampson, 130.

19. Laurie, Cabot, Power of the Witch (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1992), 62, quoted in Sampson, 130.

20. Sampson, 133.

21. Sampson, 144.

22. Sampson, 133.

23. Sampson, 134-135.

24. Sampson, 134.

25. Hugh R. Trevor-Roper, The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1969), 37, quoted in Sampson, 139.

26. Sampson, 141.

27. Sampson 137.

28. Trevor-Roper, 22, quoted in Sampson, 137.

29. Sampson, 133.

©2001 Probe Ministries.

Rick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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