ONE OF THE CENTRAL CLAIMS of secular ideology is that religion in general, and the Church in particular, has long stood as a bastion against societal progress and intellectual achievement. The most vocal proponents of the New Atheism have driven this idea home, suggesting not only that spirituality inoculates against reason, but it is science and secularism that have rescued us from the oppression of the believer. David Bentley Hart captures this idea with rhetorical brilliance:
Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of church and state. Withering blasts of fanaticism and fideism had long since scorched away the last remnants of classical learning; inquiry was stifled; the literary remains of classical antiquity had long ago been consigned to the fires of faith, and even the great achievements of “Greek science” were forgotten till Islamic civilization restored them to the West. All was darkness. Then, in the wake of the “wars of religion” that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowering of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress, the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new and revolutionary sense of human dignity. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state or, in the course of time, to something altogether separate from the state, and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion. Now, at last, Western humanity has left its nonage and attained to its majority, in science, politics, and ethics. The story of the travails of Galileo almost invariably occupies an honored place in this narrative, as exemplary of the natural relation between “faith” and “reason” and as an exquisite epitome of scientific reason’s mighty struggle during the early modern period to free itself from the tyranny of religion. This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail. – David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions
Take Galileo, for instance. As the story goes, Galileo Galilei was an astronomer of particular brilliance, whose examination of the night sky led him to the irrefutable conclusion that the Ptolemaic model was wrong; that Copernicus had it right all along; that the earth truly revolved around the sun, and not the other way around. His evidence was powerful, of course, but then there was Mother Church. A heliocentric universe would undermine the cosmological dogmas of the faith, we are told, and must thereby be squelched as heresy. The Inquisition called in an ill and frail Galileo, labeled him a heretic, forced him to recant, and banished him into exile. Religion reigns; science dies. Woe to Christendom.
The Real Story
The reality, of course, is quite different. Such a story fails to acknowledge that Galileo’s “discoveries” were not new, but that this man was actually the receptor of a fine university education, which was provided by the church in that day, whereby he first learned of Copernicus and his theory. It fails to acknowledge that among Galileo’s contemporaries, the Ptolemaic model was already falling out of favor, with the Tychonic model coming to replace it. It also fails to recognize (and this is of critical importance) that the Copernican model was fatally flawed, and failed to account for the observations of movement in the night sky. It was a model that paled next to the Tychonic (and even the Ptolemaic) in its explanatory tidiness. It was an interesting theory, but it bore no notable evidence that it was true.
Perhaps most importantly, however, this story fails to recognize Galileo’s close friend and ardent supporter, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who would soon become Pope Urban VIII. As both Cardinal and Pope, this man supported Galileo, heaped untold honors upon him, lavished him with gifts both costly and public, and even provided a pension for Galileo’s son. Even after Galileo identified that he was an ardent Copernican, there was no backlash from the authorities in the church, and the Pope continued his friendship and earnest support.
It was Galileo that turned this on its head. A man of incredible arrogance, he lambasted any whose views differed from his own, and was quick to incite public controversy. Ironically, he even ridiculed Johannes Kepler, a contemporary whose observations actually solved the problem with Galileo’s Copernican model. As he turned his attention upon the authorities in the church, the resulting controversy led to the infamous ecclesial consultation of 1616. Here, Galileo was asked to provide evidence for his theory, and Galileo had nothing to offer. Despite an inability to provide a solitary convincing proof for the Copernican model, Galileo still demanded the church’s unquestioning acceptance of this model as factual.
The church declined. Furthermore, the church instructed Galileo that he was to cease teaching a Copernican understanding as being the factual standard. However, Galileo was supported and encouraged to write his book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the Ptolemaic and the Copernican, with one caveat: at some point in his treatise, he need include a statement identifying that the Copernican theory was just a hypothesis.
An Arrogant Irritation
Galileo, however, was clever. He did include that statement, but he wrote his treatise employing several fictional characters as archetypes of different perspectives on the Copernican model. One such character was Simplicio, a comical representation seemingly modeled after Pope Urban VIII, who stood in contrast to the wise Copernican and the clever scientist. It was Simplicio who uttered this requisite statement.
As one could imagine, this was taken as a serious affront to the Pope who had not only vigorously supported Galileo, but had continued to fund and honor him publicly. The result was a titanic showdown in 1632 between Galileo (who still had no notable evidence for his theory, and is unclear he even understood how the model worked by the time of this meeting) and the Pope – a powerful man who had spoiled and indulged him long enough. Galileo was exiled.
It is fair to say, at this point, that we see a gross misuse of power by the lead authority of the Christian Church. However, to make this debacle a pivotal example of Christianity’s suppression of science is patently false. It is ironic, in fact, that what we see is the Church demanding evidence, and Galileo demanding blind assent. To add to the irony, history would eventually demonstrate that the Church was right in rejecting Galileo’s theory, for the model he presented not only bore no evidence, it bore no evidence because it was undeniably wrong.
Galileo was not a martyr for science; he was an arrogant man who spurned his benefactors, aggravated powerful men, and demanded blind assent with nothing to show for it. Foolishness is not the same thing as courage.
What do you think? Where have you been challenged on the interplay between faith and science?
Image Credit: Dave Dehetre