Richard Dawkins and the “Religion vs. Science” Mentality

Richard Dawkins and the “Religion vs. Science” Mentality March 20, 2008
+ Galileo Redux
British atheist biologist Richard Dawkins (b. 1941) at the 35th American Atheists Convention (4-10-09). Photo by Marty Stone [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license]




A Catholic commented in a thread devoted to a post of mine regarding Galileo:

I think the Church would not get into these types of situations or be the cause for such questions if she would stick to religion and religious topics and leave science to scientists.

I replied:

But you neglect to see that Galileo was being overly dogmatic and intruding into the theological realm. This is not simply a matter of the “Church” making a dumb mistake and overstepping its bounds. The “Church” (i.e., the magisterium) never spoke on the matter one way or the other (see the lengthy quotation in my post referred to above, from The Catholic Encyclopedia). Certain members of the Church held erroneous cosmological views. But so did Galileo in some respects too. Big wow. Folks made errors. No big deal. As I wrote in my treatment of the Galileo issue, in my book, The One-Minute Apologist:

But the scientist (though basically correct) was overconfident and quite obstinate in proclaiming his scientific theory as absolute truth, and this was a major concern. Accordingly, St. Robert Bellarmine, who was directly involved in the controversy, made it clear that heliocentrism was not irreversibly condemned, and also that a not-yet proven theory was not an unassailable fact. Bellarmine actually had the superior understanding of the nature of a scientific hypothesis. Galileo was scientifically fallible, too. He held that the entire universe revolved around the sun in circular (not elliptical) orbits, and that tides were caused by the rotation of the earth. True heliocentrism wasn’t conclusively proven until some 200 years later.

As in all my apologetics, and especially when about these “notorious” instances of Catholic error, I want the “whole story” to be known and understood, not just one-sided propaganda that seeks to discredit the Church first and foremost and ignores all of the relevant information.

We get the added bonus that the whole, real truth is invariably far more interesting than the self-interested, self-promoting myths and legends that are too often bandied about by academics and so-called “intelligentsia” (in this case, in the name of “science”).

If anyone is overstepping the largely legitimate methodological boundaries of science and religion today, it is the subgroup of atheist, materialist scientists: folks like Richard Dawkins, who insist on stepping outside of their area of expertise and proclaiming dogmatically that there is no God. Dawkins as a scientist cannot say that, because science deals with matter (and God is Spirit, and the supernatural is outside the realm of science per se).

But he won’t shut up about it because it makes him feel important and smarter-than-thou and sells lots of books and makes lots of $$$$$. He won’t say (at least not very often, or loudly) that as a scientist he has no prerogative to speak about it, and that when he does so, he is doing it merely as a non-expert amateur philosopher: scarcely more qualified than you or I. That would be too honest and real and counter-productive.

So these guys transgress the boundaries all the time, and it’s fine, but let a Catholic scientist like Michael Behe dare to say only that not all things can be explained by conventional evolution, and the sky falls down. That is bringing religion into science, and flat earth creationism and “Bible science,” blah blah blah.

The double standard is wider than the Grand Canyon.

* * * * *

I refuse (as an apologist and enthusiastic student of the history of ideas) to let a complex issue like the Galileo affair be reduced to secular-inspired slogans. We owe much more than that to our Catholic forefathers who weren’t nearly as “dumb” as they are so often made out to be.

As I see it, I am simply collecting all the relevant facts and presenting them, so that readers can have a more accurate picture of what actually happened. Like most people, I was spoon-fed the secular line that made out that the Church was this troglodyte, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, know-nothing monster and Galileo and his cohorts were all open-minded, enlightened truth machines, persecuted as such by the reactionary Church.

The truth is far more complex than that, as I think I have shown in the few words that I devoted to the issue in my latest book, and in some longer papers. For one thing, Galileo remained an orthodox Catholic, and he was guilty of now-known scientific errors, too. St. Robert Bellarmine (no intellectual slouch) actually had a more accurate notion of scientific hypotheses and theories than Galileo did (by today’s definitions and criteria). And that ain’t just me saying that. As usual, I back myself up with the relevant sources (as much as possible, from non-Catholics). In this instance, it was well-known philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn:

Most of Galileo’s opponents behaved more rationally. Like Bellarmine, they agreed that the phenomena were in the sky but denied that they proved Galileo’s contentions. In this, of course, they were quite right. Though the telescope argued much, it proved nothing.
(The Copernican Revolution, New York: Random House / Vintage Books, 1957, p. 226)

Kuhn, in this same book, even defends, at length, the contributions and brilliance of the lifelong geocentrist Tycho Brahe (describing him as “the preeminent astronomical authority” of the second half of the 16th century, who had “immense prestige”), as I documented in a paper of mine.

Truth is stranger (and far more interesting) than fiction. It’s not the case that the Catholics were (to use the caricatures and stereotypes constantly utilized by materialist scientists and other like-minded secularist academics) the anti-science dummies who were all geocentrists, and refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, while the scientists were (to a person) the ultra-smart, forward-looking, inquisitive folks (gee, kinda like scientists today!), who were never geocentrists, and who would never, ever believe something as “unscientific” as astrology.

WRONG on all counts. One must look at individuals, and in the context of their time, and have some understanding of the intellectual milieu as well and a sense of the development of both science and theology over time. Kuhn understands this. The ones who truly study the matter on both “sides” with an open mind do, as a general rule.

What happened, happened. The Church is on record as having apologized for the errors that some high-ranking Catholics made, through Pope John Paul II and others. They had nothing whatever to do with infallibility. They were simple human errors, of a sort that many scientists and philosophers also made. I noted in my book chapter on Galileo that the Lutheran philosopher Leibniz: one of the most brilliant minds of all time, fought against Newton’s theory of gravitation.

No one is denying that such errors occurred (last of all, me). But the fuller picture should also be discussed because of how the incident is used and exploited by secularists and non-Catholic Christian opponents of the Catholic Church.

My methodology is always the same regarding all these “scandals” in Catholic history: whether it be the Inquisition or the Crusades or the current sexual scandal. I don’t deny the real wrongs and errors at all, but I put them in proper perspective and refuse to accept the nonsense that always makes the Catholic Church the Big Bad Boogeyman and ignores similar scandals in non-Catholic circles. I will not bow to intellectual double standards, ever.

Atheist scientists want to go back to the early 17th century and even then have to distort what happened and only present one side of it, when there are plenty of far more scandalous “skeletons” in their own closet (that we rarely hear about), and more recently, at that. We need only go back less than two hundred years to find stuff like phrenology, where the shape of a person’s skull was thought (by mainstream science) to have a direct relationship to their intelligence. The science of, say, 1900, was shot through with racism: hardly a proud chapter in scientific history.

But Christians of two, three generations earlier, like William Wilberforce and the abolitionists were far more “progressive” on the race issue. Christians (not “progressive” scientists) are always on the cutting edge of societal progress, whether we look at slavery, or civil rights, or the fall of Soviet Communism (Pope John Paul II and Christians in Eastern Europe, and another “dumb guy”: Ronald Reagan).

I have shown how Galileo himself and other scientists of his time like Kepler, were neck-deep in astrology.

Eugenics is another sad chapter in scientific history. We saw what the Nazis did with that. In America, we had sterilization of black men and suchlike. Remember, Germany was one of the most scientifically advanced societies then and now. But this was supposedly “good science”. Margaret Sanger picked it up and institutionalized her racism in her group, Planned Parenthood, and indeed, this played the key role in promulgation of the immorality of contraception and later, of abortion itself. That’s why the best Christian apologists of the period, like Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, wrote about these kinds of follies that were rampant within science. Lewis often satirized the tunnel vision materialist scientist of his time. Chesterton went after eugenics; both of them lambasted contraception, etc.

Many Protestant and Catholic Christians accept the typical secular line about Galileo. They may be persuaded by the secular intellectuals to think that the Catholics of former times were dumb, just as many academics think we’re dumb today, too, just as the more anti-Catholic Protestants also do. We all must be vigilant to avoid being taken in by secularism and its ways of thought. It’s a constant battle. But we have to be aware that we are doing it.

My perspective is that we should be critical of the information we get, and understand the presuppositions and biases of those who give it. Catholics have biases, too. Everyone does (as I’ve always stressed). That’s exactly why I have constantly advocated hearing “both sides” of any issue and getting all the facts, and never relying on one account only, and why I am a huge advocate of dialogue and debate, because it is, in my opinion, the very best way to learn and to use one’s mind to its potential.

My task as an apologist and amateur historian of ideas (that and development of doctrine are two of my very favorite areas of inquiry) has been to fight the stereotypes that are passed down by critics of Catholicism or of larger Christianity and to demonstrate on a popular level that there was much more complexity and nuance in play than is usually assumed because of uncritical acceptance of biased secular history.

I not only defend the Church’s position (truly defend it, with reason, not just parrot or regurgitate it), but I interact with severe critics of it, and make arguments not only for why our position prevails, but why theirs fails and falls short, as well. This is critical thought and having the courage of one’s convictions. In dialoguing, one is forced to look more closely at their own position, and I have posted some 400-450 dialogues and debates on my blog.

* * * * *
Further discussion, with questions from CHNI board members paraphrased and in blue:

Doesn’t the discussion of (and in) the Galileo affair depend in large part on whether to literally interpret biblical passages about the movement of the sun?

A lot of it had to do with that, yes.

Has the Church actually defined this matter?

The problem had to do with literalizing what was intended as phenomenological language, or over-literalizing in some places, and how science and the Bible can be interpreted in harmony; respecting both areas of knowledge. It can be done. In a pre-scientific understanding, the sun going up and down would imply that the earth is not moving and the sun is.

The Church hasn’t defined this (as far as I know) because it has nothing to do with faith and morals per se. The Church as a whole simply accepts heliocentrism based on scientific proofs of same. At the time of Galileo, there was quite respectable science (given the state of knowledge at that time) for geocentrism too (as I discussed, regarding Tycho Brahe, above), so believing such a thing was not as wacko and reactionary as is customarily made out today. The math involved in either system, as I understand it, was not even all that different. It’s easy with hindsight to condemn our ancestors as dumbos, and to stand on the shoulders of giants. We can call those in the past mental midgets, but it doesn’t follow. They made it possible for the knowledge we have today: scientific or otherwise.

A lot of the prevailing attitudes, I’m convinced, are based on a prior “chronological snobbery” (C.S. Lewis’s delightful term) or disdain for the “age of faith” or the Middle Ages. G.K. Chesterton wrote about this:

There is something odd in the fact that when we reproduce the Middle Ages it is always some such rough and half-grotesque part of them that we reproduce . . . Why is it that we mainly remember the Middle Ages by absurd things? . . . Few modern people know what a mass of illuminating philosophy, delicate metaphysics, clear and dignified social morality exists in the serious scholastic writers of mediaeval times. But we seem to have grasped somehow that the ruder and more clownish elements in the Middle Ages have a human and poetical interest. We are delighted to know about the ignorance of mediaevalism; we are contented to be ignorant about its knowledge. When we talk of something mediaeval, we mean something quaint. We remember that alchemy was mediaeval, or that heraldry was mediaeval. We forget that Parliaments are mediaeval, that all our Universities are mediaeval, that city corporations are mediaeval, that gunpowder and printing are mediaeval, that half the things by which we now live, and to which we look for progress, are mediaeval.

(“The True Middle Ages,” The Illustrated London News, 14 July 1906)

Scientifically speaking, we can’t say the earth is the center of anything, since it is just one planet in one solar system in one galaxy. I think we should say it is the spiritual center of the universe, as far as we know. And we can say that the universe is “theocentric.”

If science disagrees with the Church, it is in error.

The Church, by and large, doesn’t try to proclaim on scientific matters. It’s more concerned with ethical situations that scientific advance has made matters of discussion, such as cloning or artificial insemination or birth control, or assisted suicide. There is no glaring conflict with science at present. The Church hasn’t ruled out the possibility of evolution. It only says that there was a primal human pair, and that each soul is a special creation by God, and holds, of course, that God created the entire universe and all matter in it and that He continues to uphold it by His word of power, using the scientific laws of nature that He created to do so, mostly in a natural manner.

As it stands, Big Bang cosmology is quite consistent with the biblical account of creation. Current speculation of a cyclical or oscillating universe is sheer speculation. There is no proof of that whatsoever.

The Church only speaks authoritatively about matters of faith, and so we have to interpret the Galileo incident in that light, right?

Both sides (i.e., the parties) were at fault. Some in the Church were making false notions of biblical interpretation dogmas and “scientific,” while Galileo was being unscientifically dogmatic in proclaiming as “proven” and “fact” his new theories, that were not yet proved by the criteria of science itself.

I believe firmly that revelation and science (and the logic, mathematics, and philosophy that lie behind science) are two harmonious forms of knowledge that do not conflict and that all truth is God’s truth. I’ve seen nothing that causes an irreconcilable contradiction. Evolution doesn’t do that. Relativity doesn’t. Biochemistry, as far as I am concerned, leads to a quite appropriate conclusion of intelligent design, and ties into the traditional teleological (design) argument for God. I also agree with Galileo’s statement that “the Church teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

If science conflicts with the Catholic faith, it is false, no?

Yes, but in practice sometimes it takes years for the scientific community to catch up with the knowledge of the Church. We’ve been saying the universe began in an instant from the beginning. Science figured this out and made it “orthodoxy” only in the last forty or so years (as the agnostic astronomer Robert Jastrow has noted). We’ve said all people were equal, while science was toying with phrenology and eugenics. Eventually they got it and got up to speed. The Catholic Copernicus advanced heliocentrism, with the blessing of the pope. Etc., etc.

For some folks to make out that the Church was somehow “anti-science” is an exercise in showing their own profound ignorance about the history of science and the relationship of Catholicism and Protestantism to it. Some Catholic individuals were on the wrong side of some particular scientific question, but that is true of scientists as well, so big wow. It’s all part of the overall advancement of knowledge and science. Some folks are gonna be wrong.

My big beef is that every (non-dogmatic) Catholic mistake in history is trumpeted from the housetops and made far more than it was in historical context, while similar whoppers and embarrassing skeletons in the closet of science itself are rarely if ever heard about. And so, e.g., in secular treatments about Galileo, one rarely reads about how deeply he was into astrology. That doesn’t fit the mold and the plan and the usual spin, so it is left out. The goal is to make Christians and the Church look like idiots, not to present what actually happened, and to explain all the relevant considerations. The goal in most secular presentation and public education (consciously or not) is propaganda, not true education, where a thing is analyzed properly and fairly.

I include all these relevant factors in my treatments of the subject, so people can have a well-rounded treatment that respects all sides, rather than trying to make one out as idiots and the other as selfless truth machines, along with anachronistic projection of current scientific approaches back to a time 500 years ago that was very different from today.

Galileo was right about the science (i.e., heliocentrism), but for (partially) the wrong reasons. The folks in the Church who condemned his theories were wrong, but for (partially) the right reasons.

The Church as the Church is not an organ of scientific inquiry. Even when dogmas proclaim something like creation, they don’t explain the “how” but only state the bald fact that God created.

The Catholic theologians who claimed that Galileo didn’t see what he saw in his telescope were out of bounds.

And these were the minority, which is itself caricatured, as I noted above, with a quote from Thomas Kuhn.

Scientists shouldn’t get all angry about a caricature of actual Catholic teaching and action.

There are all kinds of distortions about the history of this affair. The Catholic Encyclopedia makes it clear that no dogmatic proclamations were involved:

As to the decree of 1616, we have seen that it was issued by the Congregation of the Index, which can raise no difficulty in regard of infallibility, this tribunal being absolutely incompetent to make a dogmatic decree. Nor is the case altered by the fact that the pope approved the Congregation’s decision in forma communi, that is to say, to the extent needful for the purpose intended, namely to prohibit the circulation of writings which were judged harmful. . . . As to the second trial in 1633, this was concerned not so much with the doctrine as with the person of Galileo, and his manifest breach of contract in not abstaining from the active propaganda of Copernican doctrines. The sentence, passed upon him in consequence, clearly implied a condemnation of Copernicanism, but it made no formal decree on the subject, and did not receive the pope’s signature.

When the Church defined that a soul is created at conception, was it trying to scientifically explain conception?

No. It’s not trying to explain it, because that is a physical, scientific matter. As to the soul, that is non-material, and so science cannot speak authoritatively about it. Likewise, science can’t say anything about the soul. The minute a scientist does so, he is acting as a theologian or philosopher or both, not as a scientist.

The Church in Galileo’s time was concerned with the teaching that Man is the center of the universe, right?

Yes; but that in turn does not require geocentrism. I don’t see how it makes any difference, but that was the notion that had been passed down, and was from Aristotelianism.

Does the universe somehow illustrate that man is at the center?

The Anthropic Principle might be said to be one argument in that regard, used today. Most scientists today don’t want to do such a thing, and would relegate it to philosophy. I think, myself, that there is a borderline area between science, philosophy , and religion, where they all intersect, since science is itself derived from philosophy (empiricism) and presupposes metaphysical categories and existence and the trustworthiness of our senses for observation before it can get off the ground at all. Religion has many philosophical elements. Some philosophies are quasi-religious in either character or at least how they function in a person’s life.

But there is very little intelligent discussion about these “border areas” today. Only a few who understand the different areas to a decent degree even try to do so. It’s one of my big goals in my “general apologetics”: to bridge the gaps of these areas which are seen to almost be mutually exclusive. They are, in a sense, methodologically, but not altogether, when closely scrutinized.

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