Church/Science Conflict Greatly Exaggerated

Guest Post: Dan Brown’s History of Science | MandM
The Da Vinci Code launched the literary careers of a whole faculty previously-obscure professors of New Testament Studies. Admittedly, they had good reason for wanting to put the record straight about Brown’s distortions of early Christian history. This time, it’s historians of science who might be upset by Brown’s misrepresentation. Because his contention that the Catholic Church has spent the last two millennia holding back the advance of science is as wrongheaded as the story that Mrs Jesus retired to the south of France with her kids.

It’s true that the Church did make a single significant mistake in 1616, when it banned Copernicus’s opinion that the earth orbits the sun. But in the subsequent trial of Galileo, the Catholic Church was siding with the scientific consensus of the time. Still, you can’t manufacture an eternal conflict from a single example, so proponents of the hypothesis have had to resort to a different strategy – inventing the evidence.
(tags: error dawkins science)

UPDATE: There’s no denying that Catholic Church made errors in the past, but it’s tried to make amends. Many of its scholars hold to theistic evolution, so it certainly is not hostile to modern science, despite the claims of agenda-driven “New Atheists”.

UPDATE #2: Many arguments advanced at Catholic Encyclopedia “Science and the Church“; among them:

The conflicts between science and the Church are not real. They all rest on assertions like these: Faith is an obstacle to research; faith is contrary to the dignity of science; faith is discredited by history. Basing the answers on the principles explained above, we can dispel the phantoms in the following manner.


A believer, it is stated, can never be a scientist; his mind is bound by authority, and in case of a conflict he has to contradict science.
The assertion is consistent on the supposition, that faith is a human invention. The believer, however, bases faith on Divine Revelation, and science on Creation. Both have their common source in God, the Eternal Truth … In case of an apparent difference between faith and science, he takes the following logical position: When a religious view is contradicted by a well-established scientific fact, then the sources of revelation have to be re-examined, and they will be found to leave the question open. When a clearly-defined dogma contradicts a scientific assertion, the latter has to be revised, and it will be found premature. When both contradicting assertions, the religious and the scientific, are nothing more than prevailing theories, research will be stimulated in both directions, until one of the theories appears unfounded. The conflict about the heliocentric system belonged, theoretically speaking, to the first case, and Darwinism, in its gross form , to the second; practically, however, disputed questions generally turn up in the third case, and so it was actually with the heliocentric system at the time of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galilei.

It is true, the believer is less free in his knowledge than the unbeliever, but only because he knows more. The unbeliever has one source of knowledge, the believer has two. Instead of barring his mind against the supernatural stream of knowledge by arbitrary postulates, man ought to be grateful to his Creator for every bit of knowledge, and, panting for truth, drink from both streams that pour down from heaven.

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23 thoughts on “Church/Science Conflict Greatly Exaggerated

  1. Ropata that argument (“the Catholic Church was siding with the scientific consensus of the time”) would have been used to put Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Krauss, Vavilov, Sakharov, etc., etc., under house arrest for the rest of their lives and suppression of the writings for 200 yrs! (As they did with Galileo).

    It could have been used as an excuse by Stalin for the persecution of many Soviet scientists.

    As for “you can’t manufacture an eternal conflict from a single example”. That sounds to me like modern day apologists for Joseph Stalin who try to argue away the significance of the Stalin Terror.

    Apologetics is the slippery moral slope – you can end up justifying anything.

    What do they say – “With a god anything is permissible?”

  2. Galileo is someone I greatly admire, so is Luther. I’m not defending the suppression of ideas at ALL. I linked the conversation at M-and-M because it is a much-needed counter to this endless (and in your case, emotive) narrative that there’s a big conflict between the church and science.

    Also, I don’t think mention of Stalin helps advance the atheist cause..!

  3. There is a conflict – and it’s caused partly by apologists who misrepresent the history of the Galileo affair.

    If lies like this were not being presented there wouldn’t be any need to criticise them. So don’t blame me.

  4. Ken,
    >There is a conflict – and it’s caused partly by apologists
    The Galileo affair was a clash of scientific orthodoxies, not religion vs. science. Also it’s not ‘apologists’ seeking to correct Dan Brown-style conspiracies, it’s mainstream historians!!

    But there’s a lot of money and fame to be had from perpetuating ahistorical myths ..

  5. Ropata – that’s equivalent to justifying the imprisonment (and death) of Vavivlov by saying that it was not due to Stalin and hius regime – merely “a clash of scientific orthodoxies.” After all Lysenko was opposed to Vavivlov, wasn’t he?

    I see huge parallels between dogmatic Christianity and dogmatic communism.

  6. I see huge parallels between dogmatic Christianity and dogmatic communism.

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would not be impressed by that inflammatory comment. Marx wanted people to live in harmony and peace, and wealth to be distributed justly, so did Jesus Christ. That’s about the only parallel I can think of. Stalin instituted gulags, pogroms, and secret police. There is no equivalent in church history.

    As I said before, the Catholic church was clearly wrong to put Galileo under house arrest and suppress his work. But taking that as evidence of some kind of Jesuit conspiracy to systematically oppose advances in science is simply incorrect. Dan Brown has made a lot of money by writing ahistorical fables that bolster people’s biases against the church, by prefacing his work with grandiose statements as to its veracity.

  7. (“the Catholic Church was siding with the scientific consensus of the time”) would have been used to put Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Krauss, Vavilov, Sakharov, etc., etc., under house arrest for the rest of their lives

    Ken, perhaps you can comment then on the argument made by Dawkins when he criticised the alabama school board for encouraging students to be critical in accepting evolution.

    One of his arguments was that this was contrary the scientific consensus.

    Would you also care to comment on the repeated appeal to the scientific consensus in the global warming debate.

    I am not taking a position on either of these issues. Just enquiring why an appeal to consensus seems perfectly appropriate when you agree with the conclusion.

  8. Ah, Matt, we know you are thinking with your knee muscles/tendons rather than your brain when you mention the name Dawkins!

    Whatever you think of “consensus” those of use who challenge it within science are never burnt at the stake, imprisoned for life or have our books banned for 200 years. This happened to Galileo because he was making a scientific claim, based on evidence, which the church felt violated their theological claim, based on scripture.

    The Inquisition’s sentence of Galileo says in part:

    We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare, that thou, the said Galileo, by the things deduced during this trial, and by thee confessed as above, hast rendered thyself vehemently suspected of heresy by this Holy Office, that is, of having believed and held a doctrine which is false, and contrary to the Holy Scriptures, to wit: that the Sun is the centre of the universe, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the Earth moves and is not the centre of the universe: and that an opinion may be held and defended as probable after having been declared and defined as contrary to Holy Scripture; and in consequence thou hast incurred all the censures and penalties of the Sacred Canons, and other Decrees both general and particular, against such offenders imposed and promulgated.”

    and:
    “We order that by a public edict the book of DIALOGUES OF GALILEO GALILEI be prohibited, and We condemn thee to the prison of this Holy Office during Our will and pleasure;”

    So it is wrong to claim the Church was “siding with scientific consensus” – they were trying to determine the science (always a bad thing) by prohibiting teaching of Copernicus’s ideas, and that is why they began proceedings against Galileo.

    Strange parallel with the school board you mention. Because their position was also theological, not scientific. They were not adopting a scientific position but a religious one that involved denying a proper scientific education to the kids. Perhaps if they had the sort of power the church once had they would also be burning their teachers at the stake, like Bruno.

    I will ignore your red herring about “consensus” and its meanings. The important issue is that we should not allow these apologetics attempts to blame Galileo, claim he was wrong (Glenn’s silly ideas which you should really talk to him about) or excuse the church for what it did. That would be equivalent to excusing the Soviet Communist Party and Stalin for what they did.

    I don’t know why you guys are so determined to blame the victim here. After all the Catholic Church has now acknowledged what they did and apologised – although it took them 400 years.

  9. Not trying to blame the ‘victim’ — just saying that the Catholic Church was wrong, but not the malevolent force that people imagine. This is an exaggeration.

    The story of Galileo marks an important turning point in the history of science: it was emerging from the influence of clerical and political interests, and establishing its own authority. Galileo was not only a dissident against the Church’s geocentric interpretation of Scripture, but also against the ‘scientific’ consensus of geocentrism held by many scholars.

    As far as I can tell, the Church was not trying to ‘determine’ the science. Martin Luther had recently precipitated the Reformation and the Church was trying to defend its perception of orthodoxy/truth from heretical ideas. Also, Galileo’s abrasive style made him personal enemies: other advocates of heliocentrism did not get in hot water at all.

    And Galileo’s ‘punishment’ hardly made him a victim: house arrest is a pretty light sentence.

  10. “I see huge parallels between dogmatic Christianity and dogmatic communism.”

    Well, I see huge parallels between dogmatic flibblamity and dogmatic hubbleshubble. They are both dogmatic.

    It really doesn’t matter what words you plug into those two gaps. ANY two things that are dogmatic will have something in common, whether it’s Christopher Hitchens or Stalin.

  11. I think my point is clear, Glenn. You are just trying to avoid the fact that apologists are attempting to explain away the behaviour of the church in the Galileo affair. In essentially the same way that some modern day Stalinists have attempted to explain away the behaviour of Stalin and the CPSU at the time.

  12. I think this comment by Matt Flanagan is germane here:
    In a letter made available to Galileo in 1615 Cardinal Bellermine of the Inquisition stated clearly that if proof of Galileo’s theory could be provided the Inquisition would change its position.

    The Inquisition was following a hermeneutical principle (which Galileo himself had defended in his letter to Christina) that stated that an interpretation of scripture which was (i) accepted by the consensus of interpreters and (ii) reflected the literal sense of the words was to be accepted in the absence of compelling proof to the contrary. This was actually reflected in the order the Inquisition made to Galileo , which was acccompanied by a comment on the part of Bellarmine that he could teach helocentricism as a useful hypothesis but not as established truth. The order states that it is contrary to scripture because the literal reading and the consensus interprets it this way. Galileo had in fact traveled to Rome to try and provide proof (which was actually scientifically mistaken) because he recognized this point.

  13. Yes. That was a reply to me. But it is still making excuses and therefore being selective – just as Stalinists would excuse the Stalin terror.

    I am aware of the politicing around Galileo’s trial – that Bellarmine absented himself for example. But one should not ignore the text of the sentence as Matt does.

    Nor should one make unwarranted claims about Galileo’s evidence. Apologists often do this citing Galileo’s mistake in claiming tides as evidence that the earth moves. Einstein comments on this in the foreward quoted in my post. Conveniently evidence like the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter are ignored.

    Hardly honest. But then neither are the Stalinist apologisers. 
    Sent from my iPod

  14. Funny, my Stalinist friends accuse me of “exaggerating history” when I talk about the Stalin Terror. No doubt they also put it down to a conspiracy.

    I agree, though, that as a writer Dan Brown is pathetic.

  15. Ken, you do realise that Galileo was 400 years ago? That there was a Reformation and numerous encyclicals apologising for the Galileo affair and resiling from the Church’s past acts? That attempts to suppress Galileo’s writings have in fact ceased!?

    Atheist catechism:
    There is no god but Science and Galileo is its Prophet!

    This is a great narrative; elevating Galileo to sainthood and martyrdom, while the religious authorities try to shut him out. Reminds me of something 😉

  16. Yes, I do realize that. Just as Russian communism changed after Stalin’s death.

    The sad thing us that se people seem to want to renege on the admission of mistakes and the apologies.

    They attempt to rewrite the history by denying what the church did, excusing it, denigrating Galileo, claiming Galileo was wrong. In the process they prte a conflict with science and the dishonestly blame supporters of science for this.

    And why make Galileo into an atheist saint. He was a believer)not that he really had a choice). And all supporters of science, thrusts and non-thrusts, recognise the important role he played in reestablishing an evidence based approach.

    And, I’m science we may have heroes but we don’t have saints. Noone is Infallible.

  17. Advocates of scientism like to portray themselves as rational, dispassionate, thoughtful… but in this matter Ken you clearly have lost objectivity!

    Stalin hated God, trying to make the church out to be a stalinist organization is just silliness. If you don’t like the church, fine; but your take on history is unbelievable.

  18. Ah – the old “scientism” label. Always an indication of a dishonest attack!

    Stalin’s attitude towards the church is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the current apologetics attempt to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair and deny that it represented an attack on a scientific recovery is similar to modern day Stalinist attempting to deny or excuse the Stalin terror. The common feature is the subjective and defensive attitude, despite their different world outlooks

    By the way – an interesting thought. I suggest that the group of people who suffered most from the Stalin Terror were the Communists. Approx. 50% of the CPSU Central Committee were killed in a 3 year period then. Imagine what this amounted to if translated into the party membership as a whole.!

    Similar, the Mao Terror of the so-called “Cultural Revolution” wiped out mainly Communists..

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