“Science vs. Catholicism” Myths Refuted

“Science vs. Catholicism” Myths Refuted July 29, 2011
Original title:  “Typical ‘Science vs. Catholicism’ Criticisms (and Myths) from an Agnostic Scientist Refuted”
Lavoisier: line engraving by Louis Jean Desire Delaistre, after a design by Julien Leopold Boilly [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
Antoine Lavoisier: the Father of Chemistry (1743-1794) was the real “martyr for science”: not Galileo or the rank heretic Bruno. Galileo was sentenced to comfortable house arrest by a Catholic tribunal. Lavoisier was not nearly so lucky: he got his head cut off by the “enlightened” atheist French revolutionaries (five other scientists were killed as well). Why, then, do we never hear about that?
* * * * *

I have received permission to post the words (but not the name) of an agnostic scientist who is a friend of a friend of mine.  He wrote:

Please do not post with my name. I did not put any time into this, and was not intending to get into a scholarly debate with your friend. So would not want it to be considered as my “scholarly work” since it is not my area and I do not have time to read his book. Your friend obviously has a lot more time for this than I do. I am a scientist, not a philosopher of science (even though I have a doctor of philosophy). Rather than debate me, he should be debating someone who does research in this area. . . .

He can post [my words] if he wants without a name, but in my view he should not present me as some expert on the philosophy or history of science. I’m not. I’m a scientist with some opinions. If he is a scholar on the subject and wants scholarly debate, he should be engaging someone like Richard Dawkins.

Our mutual friend sent me a link to a video forwarded by the scientist, called Science Saved My Soul. That about summed up the situation for me, before I saw any particular objections. This is the error known as “scientism.” Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman described it as follows:

I am not denying, I am granting, I am assuming, that there is reason and truth in the “leading ideas,” as they are called, and “large views” of scientific men; I only say that, though they speak truth, they do not speak the whole truth; that they speak a narrow truth, and think it a broad truth; that their deductions must be compared with other truths, which are acknowledged to be truths, in order to verify, complete, and correct them. They say what is true, exceptis excipiendis; what is true, but requires guarding; true, but must not be ridden too hard, or made what is called a hobby; true, but not the measure of all things; true, but if thus inordinately, extravagantly, ruinously carried out, in spite of other sciences, in spite of Theology, sure to become but a great bubble, and to burst.

(The Idea of a University, Part I, Discourse 4: “Bearing of Other Branches of Knowledge on Theology,” 1852)

They scorn any process of inquiry not founded on experiment; the Mathematics indeed they endure, because that science deals with ideas, not with facts, and leads to conclusions hypothetical rather than real; “Metaphysics” they even use as a by-word of reproach; and Ethics they admit only on condition that it gives up conscience as its scientific ground, and bases itself on tangible utility: but as to Theology, they cannot deal with it, they cannot master it, and so they simply outlaw it and ignore it.

(The Idea of a University, Part I, Discourse 9: “Duties of the Church Towards Knowledge,” 1852)

But science is not possible without theistic premises. Hence, I sent our scientist friend my book (as a PDF): Science and Christianity: Close Partners or Mortal Enemies? I also recommended many related articles on my Philosophy, Science, and Christianity and Atheism, Agnosticism, and Secularism web pages. This led to the following reply (a few typos corrected):

So I’ve skimmed. I get the message that science is strongly rooted in religion. I don’t argue this at all. In the past, everything was done in the church, it’s where education and research was carried out. Plus everyone at least pretended to be christian for fear of being burned at the stake or flogged. But history is full of examples where science progressed “despite” religion. Recall the Dark Ages for example. Galileo was sentenced to life in prison for establishing the truth using the scientific method. The Catholic church stood behind the biggest failed hypothesis of all time for 13 centuries. Ptolemy’s view of the solar system established in the 1st century AD had the Earth at the center of the solar system. The church refused to question this because it was in total agreement with the bible which said the Earth was stationary (which of course is incorrect). 13 centuries later Copernicus finally challenged this theory and put the sun at the center and and the Earth orbiting the sun. Several of Coperinicus’ supporters were burned at the stake by the Catholic church (Copernicus died of natural causes before he himself could be burned at the stake) for getting behind what was eventually shown to be absolutely correct. So yeah, religion helped get science going, but has been holding it back.

I responded in turn: not in extreme depth or supreme, but merely with a “fired-off” reply (as I was busy today doing other things) [additional material added presently in brackets]:

* * *

Obviously, your friend hasn’t read my book yet.

I’ve never heard of Copernicus’ supporters being burned at the stake. I demand (please convey to him) to see documentation of this. I don’t believe it.

[Possibly, our friend is referring to Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), but the problem is that he was not condemned primarily, or even remotely (if at all), for heliocentrism, but rather, for a host of heresies, including  pantheism (all is God), erroneous opinions about the Trinity, Christ’s divinity, and His incarnation, denial of transubstantiation, the perpetual virginity of Mary, creation, and the last judgment, and belief in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into non-humans, along with various forms of magic and divination. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (“Nicolaus Copernicus”) concurs:

Pope Clement VII (r. 1523–1534) had reacted favorably to a talk about Copernicus’s theories, rewarding the speaker with a rare manuscript. There is no indication of how Pope Paul III, to whom On the Revolutions was dedicated reacted; however, a trusted advisor, Bartolomeo Spina of Pisa (1474–1546) intended to condemn it but fell ill and died before his plan was carried out (see Rosen, 1975). Thus, in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology, and this is clearly shown in Finocchiaro’s reconstruction of the accusations against Bruno (see also Blumenberg’s part 3, chapter 5, titled “Not a Martyr for Copernicanism: Giordano Bruno”).

Blumenberg, H., 1987, The Genesis of the Copernican World, trans. R.M. Wallace, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Finocchiaro, M.A., 2002, “Philosophy versus Religion and Science versus Religion: the Trials of Bruno and Galileo,” [pp.] 51–96 in [Hilary] Gatti (ed.), 2002, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher of theRenaissance, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Likewise, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908), in its article on Bruno, states:

Bruno was not condemned for his defence of the Copernican system of astronomy, nor for his doctrine of the plurality of inhabited worlds, but for his theological errors, among which were the following: that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skillful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the world, that the Devil will be saved, etc.

But our agnostic scientist friend wrote:

That he is not aware of the persecution of Copernicus supporters is interesting. I will help him by looking up the reference. It was in a text book I used for a class once – which doesn’t in itself make it right, but better than internet as a source.

Fine; if he refers to Bruno, it is now shown that it is a mistaken inference to say he was killed because of Copernicanism.  But he maintained (my italics) that Several of Coperincus’ [sic] supporters were burned at the stake by the Catholic church.” Very well, then, bring on these other unfortunate candidates. I am not saying no one was ever burned, but I am unaware of their being burned for heliocentrism or Copernicanism. If they were, they were, but it has to be documented. Blumenberg and Finocchiaro are scholars familiar with the specific subject matter. That is solid substantiation: at least for Bruno.]

Secondly, the relation of science and religion is not just “past” but extends to the current time, with a sizable percentage of scientists still professing belief in God, and great scientists right up to our time professed theists or otherwise religious.

[as I showed in my book: listing 31 scientists from 1900-1950 who were theists (e.g., Planck, Eddington, and Lemaître) or otherwise religious and not materialists (e.g., Einstein) ].

Galileo was not sentenced to life in prison, but to an extremely mild house arrest: most of the time living in houses that were palaces of high officials.

[I have noted (first draft for a portion — pp. 30-31 — of my book, The One-Minute Apologist):

In 1633 Galileo was “incarcerated” in the palace of Niccolini, the ambassador to the Vatican from Tuscany, who admired Galileo, spent five months with Archbishop Piccolomini in Siena, and then lived in comfortable environments with friends for the rest of his life (though technically under “house arrest”). No evidence exists to prove that he was ever actually subjected to torture or deliberately blinded (he lost his sight in 1637). ]

His polemical use of “dark ages” is the usual agnostic misunderstanding. It is not synonymous with the “middle ages” but for historians, the period of the late first millennium when the barbarians were in the ascendancy and classical learning was in danger. It was precisely the Church that preserved classical literature and culture, over against these non-Christian barbarians. Yet modern secularists have managed to perpetuate a myth that it was the very opposite of that. Gross ignorance there . . .

[see, e.g.,  Encyclopaedia Brittanica online (“Dark Ages”):

the early medieval period of western European history. Specifically, the term refers to the time (476–800) when there was no Roman (or Holy Roman) emperor in the West; or, more generally, to the period between about 500 and 1000, which was marked by frequent warfare and a virtual disappearance of urban life. It is now rarely used by historians because of the value judgment it implies.]

Anyone can make mistakes in science. That is not exclusive to Catholics in the Middle Ages or earlier. Galileo, Kepler, Newton and other scientists were neck-deep in astrology and the occult. Galileo made several errors in his cosmology and notions of scientific hypothesis; in some cases being corrected by St. Robert Bellarmine.

If we want persecution of scientists, as late as the late 18th century, I would recommend that your friend study up on the so-called French “Enlightenment” and particularly the case of the great chemist Lavoisier, who was (along with several other prominent scientists) murdered (head lopped off, of course) by the state (far beyond anything that happened to Galileo).

[These other scientist-martyrs to the “goddess of reason” were: Philippe-Frédéric de Dietrich (1748-1793), Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794), Jean Baptiste Gaspard Bochart de Saron (1730-1794), Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes (1721-1794), and Félix Vicq d’Azyr (1746-1794) ]

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