The Magazine

Reason for Faith

The two ideals need not be rivals.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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While the birth of heliocentrism certainly changed man's understanding of his place in the cosmos, it did so by "simultaneously [enhancing] the cosmic status of both earth and sun." The problem is that we read into the historical record assumptions that simply didn't exist back then; namely, that the center is somehow a privileged position. But the Jewish philosopher Maimonides argued that "in the case of the Universe .  .  . the nearer the parts are to the center, the greater is their turbidness, their solidity, their inertness, their dimness, and darkness." And the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas agreed that precisely because earth lay (as he thought) at the center, it was "the most material and coarsest (ignobilissima) of all bodies." In other words, the center was no privileged position.

But even if Copernicus had demoted the earth--notably, this spin wasn't proposed until a hundred years after his death--it wouldn't have been a problem for anyone who declared with the Psalmist, "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him?"

Just as antireligion polemicists thought the demotion of the earth would be a fatal blow to traditional faith, so too did they think that attacking the ghost in the machine would do away with conceptions of the soul. The problem here is that Descartes explicitly rejected this image of how he thought the immaterial mind related to the material body, "asserting that mind and body are 'intermingled' so as to form a 'unitary whole.' "

Furthermore, traditional Christianity never took the dim view of the body that the polemicists, in rejecting Descartes's putative views, assumed it did. The strong Christian accent on our identity as embodied beings who hope in the resurrection of the body seems to have escaped them. Equally baffling are claims that Newton was a Deist who set up the Clockmaker God, for this conception of Newton "is more than just badly mistaken: it is precisely the opposite of the truth. It cannot simply be corrected; it must be utterly repudiated."

While Newton promoted a mechanistic physics, he held that "God governed the world actively and constantly." Newton explained this governance by appeals to alchemy--a part of his intellectual legacy (along with his lengthy biblical and theological treatises) that is constantly overlooked by popularizers of science history.

When one steps back to consider all the myths together, one notices a thread running through about half of them: the role that religion played, for better or worse, in developing the life of the mind and fostering scientific practice.

On the one hand, antireligion proponents argue that the birth of Christianity did away with ancient science, that medieval Christianity explicitly suppressed the beginnings of science, that Islamic culture was inhospitable to the scientific mindset, and that at the dawn of modernity, Catholics contributed nothing to the scientific enterprise.

On the other hand, some argue that Christianity alone--with its emphasis on God as Logos and the rational structure of creation--actually gave rise to science: Why is it, they ask, that across time and space, science only fully developed in one culture?

As both sets of myths are debunked, there emerges a rich tableau of the characters and scenes that helped produce modern science: the ancient Greek predecessors; the Islamic reception, development, and transmission of Greek thought; the Christian emphasis on the unity of truth in God and thus on investigation into the book of God's word (the Bible) and the book of God's work (nature); and the financial support of the institutional church, which founded the modern university. While Christianity wasn't the only factor that gave rise to modern science, it was certainly no hindrance. As one scholar put it, "The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably all other, institutions."

A book advancing such claims could easily have devolved into a slipshod production by pro-religion apologists. But Galileo Goes to Jail is nothing of the sort. Published by Harvard, it is rigorously researched and well footnoted, and written by 25 of the leading historians in the English-speaking world. And as Numbers points out in his introduction, fewer than half of the contributors are religious believers at all; and of those, there are only two evangelicals, one Catholic, and one Jew. In other words, they have no axe to grind, and their only agenda is to set the historical record straight.