To use an analogy, the science vs God debate is very much like Marmite. It provokes very strong views. I myseIf believe there is nothing better than the sticky, viscous, dark brown spread and often resort to screaming and violence to express this.
In todays society we are often led to believe that modern science has done away with God. According to many influential atheistic thinkers, science and faith are in a fight to the death and they cannot possibly be reconciled. But is this really true? What grounds are there for believing so? The alleged divide between science and faith seems to be down to a couple of historical confusions and also misrepresentations from the mass media and the New Athiests. In these next few posts I aim to examine and challenge some of the historical events that are often used to support the myth that science and faith are opposed, so as to iron out some of the misconceptions
Galileo vs The Catholics
One of the events in history that is so often used to show the divide between science and Christianity is the controversial affair between Galileo and the Catholic Church. To my utter dismay, even the gently depressing channel 4 documentary series on the history of Christianity, presented an inexcusably false account of the events. This should have been expected because it was actually presented by atheist and neurobiologist Colin Blakemore. A man, like Richard Dawkins, who greatly enjoys basking in his own ignorance. One thing is certain, I’ll never trust channel 4 documentaries again.
Before we go into this, it is important to note first of all that Galileo was a Christian and found no difficulty with maintaining a belief in God whilst being a scientist (see the quote underneath the blog title). To take into account the whole incident, we must go back a little further to Copernicus. The Polish mathematician Copernicus, first came up with the wonderful idea that the earth and the planets rotated round the sun, commonly known as the heliocentric model. His findings were only published after his death as he feared academic ridicule and was extremely worried about challenging the thinking of Aristotle. The pervading worldview at the time was Aristotelianism which is the view that the earth is fixed at the centre of the universe and everything rotating about it. Initially the church had no quarrel with the claims of Copernicus but then, in the early 17th century, Galileo burst firmly onto the scene.
Galileo first used the telescope to observe the skies and planets, and his observations seemed to confirm heliocentrism. Problems arose when Galileo wanted the Church to officially endorse this theory with regards to Catholic theology and its interpretation. Admittedly many of the Catholics had hitched their wagons to the wrong star and thought the biblical passages referring to the heavens, were supposed to be read literally. Theologians like Aquinas and Augustine knew this was a bad theological position to adopt because the bible wasn’t trying to describe the skies scientifically.
Over the next few years Galileo headed an enthusiastic cultural campaign, but made several enemies along the way due to his blunt manner and questionable tactics. One of the problems was that he insisted that people excepted his theories but Galileo had little evidence to confirm his theory to other people. Eventually he was summoned to two trials. In the first, the presiding churchman told Galileo they would be happy to endorse his views providing he gave some evidence… a reasonable offer, I might add! Some Churchman were opposed to his scientific ideas but a point that is often overlooked is that many other scientists including astronomers and mathematicians, also found Galileo’s views hard to stomach. In his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina he claimed it was the academic professors who were the most strongly opposed and they tried to influence church authorities to speak out against him. Surprisingly one of his most vehement opposers was scientist Francis Bacon. Galileo continually pestered the Catholic leaders who didn’t appreciate layman issuing hermeneutical injunctions on how to read scripture.
Considering the period, Galileo’s trial was very mild. This was a time when thousands of alleged witches were being put to death without any trial, so Galileo got it easy. In reality he wasn’t treated as many think he was, but because he didn’t back up his claims and fell out with a few influential churchman and scientists, he was eventually condemned and put under house arrest. There were no dungeons and no torture as is often thought. He was merely put under house arrest, living in a villa in Tuscany with his daughter. Under this house arrest, Galileo was still able to write and experiment with his Scientific ideas and lived relatively freely. As the authority that condemned Galileo, the Catholic church did make a mistake and were certainly wrong, but both parties were at fault. It was the result of a strong mutual incomprehension as well as a muddling of politics, worldviews, religious authority and the scientific establishment. Galileo’s affair is so often misrepresented as a titanic clash between revolutionary science and Church dogma but it evidently wasn’t so simple and certainly does not show a necessary conflict between religion and science. What this does show though, is that channel 4 and Colin Blakemore are crummy researchers who should know a lot better. Shame on them!
Huxley vs Wilberforce
One other misrepresented event is the famous Oxford debate on Darwin’s book The Origin of Species between biologist Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s bulldog), and Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (Soapy Sam). It is often shown as an example of a hopeless clash between a humble and scientifically informed debater pitted against an ignorant clergyman. Since there is little evidence of what actually happened at the debate, it is difficult to get behind the truth as there are several different conflicting accounts of the debate. In reality it wasn’t a huge debate but a side meeting and a conversation between the two men. Huxley and Wilberforce weren’t even supposed to be the main speakers at the event. The problem also, was that both Wilberforce and Huxley came away feeling they had beaten each other. After the debate Wilberforce wrote a letter to a friend telling him he had just got back from an informal dialogue with Huxley and wrote “I feel that I beat him thoroughly”. On the other hand, accounts from Huxley show that he felt the same. Huxley possessed remarkable wit and enthusiasm and was one of Darwin’s chief expositors on evolution.
Many people often dismiss ‘Soapy Sam’ as a slouch but this clearly wasn’t true. He was a competent mathematician and had a very keen interest in natural Science, he was vice president for British Association for the Advancement of Science and wrote a 39 page review on The Origin Of The Species which Darwin said was “uncommonly clever and he had picked up on all the weak points in the arguments”. Wilberforce was no slouch! The arguments that Wilberforce seemed to use in the debate were purely on Scientific grounds and theological issues and Christian belief didn’t enter in to the discussion. Also we have to take into account that most of the best known scientists at the time opposed Darwin and Wilberforce was merely standing on the side of conventional science. This is a vastly important point that shouldn’t be over looked. Most objective observers of the debate did feel Wilberforce lost because he didn’t seem to come across well, and unfortunately was unpopular among Oxford Don’s. It was merely a failure of manners on his part.
In conclusion, I submit that after taking an honest look at these two events, they fail to support the conflict thesis. Misconceptions like these can cause unnecessary conflicts and its extremely important to look at the truth behind these events. In the next post I shall continue to examine the alleged tension between Science and Faith, looking at the roots of modern science. I finish with a quote from historian of science Colin Russell:
‘The common belief that…the actual relations between religion and science over the last few centuries have been marked by deep and enduring hostility…is not only historically inaccurate, but actually a caricature so grotesque that what needs to be explained is how it could possibly have achieved any degree of respectability’
Time for a Marmite sandwich!