Religious bigotry muzzled Copernicus, Galileo, Jefferson and Darwin

Religious bigotry muzzled Copernicus, Galileo, Jefferson and Darwin November 24, 2020
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Smithsonian scan of title page of original copy of “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” (1820), by Thomas Jefferson. (Wikimedia, Public Domain)

I believe it’s important to frequently remind ourselves why the perpetuation of religious ideology is dangerous, especially the tendency of dominant supernatural faiths to coerce and control societies.

Underscoring this reality is an excellent Nov. 17 post in Hemant Mehta’s The Friendly Atheist blog, titled “Why Thomas Jefferson Hesitated Before Creating The Jefferson Bible.” The post promotes a new book — The Jefferson Bible: A Biography — by historian Peter Manseau, the curator of American Religious History for the Smithsonian.

Jefferson’s famous cut-and-paste “Bible” was basically a patchwork solely of ethical and moral parables attributed to Jesus Christ in the New Testament, leaving out anything overtly supernatural, fictitious or superstitious (meaning most of both the Old and New testaments).

The reason the United States’ pro-Enlightenment third president “hesitated” to make public the fact that he was creating such an radically abridged volume, certain to be labeled sacrilegious and blasphemous by his majority-Christian constituents, was fear of public condemnation. He was a politician, after all.

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Italian postage stamp commemorating evolution discoverer Charles Darwin, 2009. (Adobe Stock)

The same fear at least temporarily paralyzed many, many of Western Civilization’s searchers for truth over long millennia, from Copernicus to Galileo to Darwin, to name but a few. And that profound reticence usually resulted, at best, in self-censorship, or worst, official banishment, government-imposed irrelevancy or execution.

That is how belief in unverified, invisible deities perpetuates over many centuries in societies where religion holds majority temporal power. And how human progress is stalled.

Consider why the U.S. today remains a majority Christian nation (although this dominance has been fast fading for decades), an inheritance of the faith’s super-dominance in medieval Western Europe, from which the lion’s share of America’s early colonists hailed.

Since supernatural, monotheistic religion through history, and by its nature, aggressively coerces adherents to strictly follow its dogma, often on pain of death (then as now), fear is the essential tool of control.

Although we don’t execute so-called “heretics” today in the American democratic republic, religious authorities (and now government leaders) still try to shame naysayers and apathetics into line with laws against blasphemy and so-called religious disrespect. In some other, predominantly Muslim countries, however, blasphemy and apostacy (leaving a faith) are capital crimes still punishable by death — judicial and extra-judicial (officially or by vigilante “justice”). In India, executions are mostly extra-judicial, applied by radical Hindu nationalists against Christian and Muslim unbelievers (in Hinduism).

This ruthless historical loathing of the unbelieving “others” in societies under the heel of majority religions has grievously retarded human progress for hundreds if not thousands of years.

In the case of Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), he literally kept secret until his deathbed his groundbreaking “heliocentric” discovery — that the Earth orbited the Sun and not vice versa, as the Bible asserts. Considering his was a time when the Bible was considered the infallible “Word of God,” you can understand Copernicus’ wariness of publishing his finding while he was still alive.

Italian astronomer, mathematician and natural philosopher Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) resurrected and with better telescopes enhanced Copernican theory of planetary motion and paved a path for its broad scientific acceptance — but not in his lifetime. The Catholic Church’s heretic-hunting Inquisition filed charges against Galileo for his “sacrilegious” scientific writings on heliocentrism, threatening him with excommunication from the church and death if he did not disavow the theory’s accuracy. His spirit broken by the cruel, intimidating Inquisition process, Galileo finally disavowed his theory and was banished to home arrest in the hills above Florence for the rest of his life, and prohibited from speaking or writing about his theories.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was similarly cowed from immediately publishing his earthshaking theory of evolution by natural selection, which would become the bedrock understanding undergirding modern biological sciences. Darwin’s theory asserted that organisms (including humans) change, or evolve, over time due to changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits that allow organisms to better adapt and survive in their environments.

Importantly, this theory seemed to (and did) disprove the biblical concept that God created the world, man and all creatures at once, in their final form, in the beginning of creation. Especially worrisome to he devout was the idea that mankind evolved from lower species of animal.

Darwin, the son of an Anglican minister and member of a devout family of clergymen, was understandably wary of publishing his findings, which he had confirmed over many years of research. He knew what was in store for him if he went public.

“At Edinburgh he had seen censorship; other materialists [researchers focused on materially discernable facts instead of divine received wisdom] were being publicly disgraced,” according to an Encyclopaedia Britannca article. “His notes began mooting disarming ploys: ‘Mention persecution of early astronomers.’”

After increasingly shunning society and moving his family to a remote village far from London, Darwin wrote a letter to his wife in 1844 asking her, if he died, to pay and editor 400 pounds sterling to publish his work. The aging scientist “lost the last shreds of his belief in Christianity with the tragic death of his oldest daughter, Annie, from typhoid in 1851,” according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

But he didn’t die before publishing. After hearing of a fellow scientist’s work on a similar theory and fearing “the loss of priority,” Darwin quickly, on November 22, 1859, published his groundbreaking masterpiece, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, and changed the world.

Meanwhile, although science has more authority now than then, religion aggressively continues trying to tip the balance back in its favor, as authorities — Christian citizens as well as evangelicals in government, including U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr — continue railing against the supposed spread of “militant secularism” in the land and co-opt laws to try and control the behavior of non-Christians and nonbelievers.

Although the American milieu is too-gradually changing, citizens are still maligned for their atheism and religious apathy.

As I recall Jefferson’s abridged “Bible,” I also remember American novelist William Faulkner’s prescient aphorism: “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

So at least by remembering history we may at least have a shot at not repeating it. Someday.


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