History: Galileo and More
July 21, 2010
I am convinced that one of the reasons that evolution as the explanation for all diversity of life on earth is challenged so rarely is that there is a false history out there. The history goes like this: Every major scientific advancement was made in spite of the church. When the church and a scientist clash? The church loses every time. With this understanding of history, it is obvious that sooner or later the church will back down on evolution.
But this history is completely false. Science has not been impeded by the church it has been advanced by it. There was no bigger benefactor to the sciences in the years proceeding the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries than the Roman Catholic church. The university system (that grew out of Christian monastic schools) were the infrastructure for the scientific advancements. Almost all of the early scientists were Christians. Many, such as Newton, were more devout than your average person. Newton wrote more on theology than on science.
I am convinced that science didn’t happen in spite of Christianity but because of it. The rationality of God in Christian theology (especially for the highly rational and methodological scholastic thinkers) caused Christians to search for constants, rules, and natural order. If life is random and chaotic with no divine direction, why expect constants? But the early scientists had the benefit of knowing (prior to discovering the scientific proof) that life was not chaotic. Science, for many, was the practice of discovering God’s work in nature. It was considered an accompanying book to the Bible (although the Bible was given preeminence and primacy).
But what about Galileo? In my many discussions with atheists I have been informed that Galileo was tortured for his scientific discoveries and that he battled against the church. One person even claimed the church had killed him. But this is a fairy tale. Galileo was never tortured for his claims. He was put under house arrest in a large and luxurious estate and was treated kindly (with servants, fine cuisine, and etc). The “house arrest” was not strict either given that he was allowed to leave at times including in his ill health being allowed to travel to seek medical attention. Galileo, remained loyal to the Church to the very end of his life. He even requested that he be carried daily to church in his feeble condition.
So why did the Church censure him? It had more to do with the ongoing schism between Protestants and Catholics than anything regarding science. When Galileo put forth his theory (that was actually not new and had, since Copernicus, been published freely for 70 years), he also provided a biblical interpretation to harmonize his theory and scripture. It was this that bugged the Roman Catholic Church. They were battling Protestants who were asserting an individual’s right to interpret Scripture (outside of ecclesiastical oversight). But doing this, the Church feared, Galileo was asserting that when scientific discovery and literal sense of the Scriptures conflict, scientists could independently interpret the Bible. This sounded too much like Protestantism for the Church at this sensitive time. Suddenly, the Copernican question and a much larger controversy were intertwined. In the end, Galileo’s theory was embraced by Christians (Protestant and Catholic) and it could be argued that Newton’s explanation of motion as relative between objects provides clarity to what the scripture means when it says the earth “doesn’t move.” It doesn’t move… relative to us.
The second case of the church being “outwitted” by science is the Scopes Trial. I have written on this in the past and will not recapitulate it all here. I can summarize by saying that the Scopes Trial has been even more misunderstood by history. Read my link and educate yourself.