Sunday, November 1, 2015

Religious Interference with Scientific Progress


Pope Francis recently announced to his fellows in the Catholic church that Darwinian evolution is consistent with church dogma, and with that, he has dragged the more reluctant members of the institution, kicking and screaming, into the 19th century.  It is the official position of the Catholic church that their religion is entirely compatible with modern science.  That is, except for the parts that aren't compatible.  For example, the church still rejects virtually the entire field of cognitive science, in favor of their theistic theory of immaterial souls and intelligence that derives from the mind of God.  The church maintains that in cases like this, their dogma is correct, and science just hasn't figured out the truth yet.  But there's no incompatibility.

The church would have us believe that they have always been at the forefront of scientific advancement.  They point put how many great scientists have been Catholics, and how much scientific research has been sponsored by the church.  And that little to-do with Galileo?  According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, it was little more than a matter of personality conflict.
Galileo did not limit himself to scientific claims on the basis of a view at the time lacking conclusive proof, but also insisted on challenging the dominant interpretations of Scripture at the time, which held that the sun rotated around the earth.  Thus, both influential theologians as well as scientists turned against Galileo.  If Galileo had presented his views with greater modesty about his claims, it is likely that there would have been no condemnation. - CERC
It is Catholic propaganda like this that has many blinkered Catholics believing that their church has always been a champion of science.  So convinced are they of its truth, that they are willing to go out on a limb and issue a stern warning to those who dare assert that the church has been anything less than an avid supporter of science throughout its history:
God, but I am heartily sick of atheists and God-haters forever blathering about "poor Galileo". If that's all they've got - just one extremely confused and far from clear-cut instance of so-called "Catholic opposition to science" - then they need to sit down and shut up NOW. - Bob Prokop
Well, I'm not about to sit down and shut up.  It's time to teach Bob and his fellow blinkered Catholics a little history.  History shows us that the church has opposed and suppressed various forms of scientific advancement from its earliest days right up to the present. 

It was Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, who denounced the anatomical studies of Herophilus, and set the stage for a ban on any further such work, including medical surgery, that lasted for well over a millennium.
There is that Herophilus, the well-known surgeon, or (as I may almost call him) butcher, who cut up no end of persons, in order to investigate the secrets of nature, who ruthlessly handled human creatures to discover (their form and make) - Tertullian
And with the coming of the dark ages, the church focused on extending the reach of the papal government while scientific achievement ground to a virtual standstill.  Education was unavailable to most of the population.  Monasteries served as centers of learning, but were dedicated primarily to the preservation of ancient Greek philosophical literature and knowledge, and devoted little if any effort to advancing the state of knowledge in natural sciences.  The most notable exception to that is astronomy.  The church sponsored astronomical studies, primarily for the purpose of timekeeping and calculating the dates of religious holidays such as Easter.  But as soon as astronomy came into conflict with church dogma, it was suppressed by the church.  Before Galileo, the discoveries of Copernicus were denounced, and his work Des revolutionibus was banned for more than two centuries.  (Here, it is worth noting that in the above cited propaganda from CERC, Copernicus is proudly touted as a great Catholic scientist, as if the church favored his work all along.)

It was only in the second millennium that universities started to appear in Europe and the church began to lose its monopoly on education.  But that didn't keep the church from attempting to exert its authority by threatening to excommunicate those who taught ideas regarded as heretical.  The condemnations of 1210-1277 are often regarded as the first major rift between church doctrine and the academic pursuit of reason.  While there is disagreement over just how much effect they had on the advancement of knowledge, there is no denying that the church stood in opposition to anything that opposed its own dogma.  The Franciscan monk Roger Bacon, often credited with advancing natural science and scientific method in the 13th century, was imprisoned for running afoul of the condemnations.  (Another interesting note here is that some apologetic literature actually claims that by condemning Aristotelian science, the church actually contributed to the advancement of modern science.  That may be true, but it certainly was not their intention.)

As science and technology developed, there was significant resistance from the church on the grounds that it was interfering with God's plan or intention.  Even Ben Franklin's invention of the lightening rod was condemned, because it was seen as thwarting the wrath of God.  It was similar reasoning that led the church to oppose anesthetics for women during childbirth and the vaccination of children against disease.

For a more complete treatment of the church's long history of opposition to science, please read A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, by Dr. Andrew Dickson White, professor of History at Cornell University, written in 1895.  It is available in full online.  This excellent book gives a detailed and unbiased account of the church's attitudes toward a broad range scientific fields through the 19th century, including its eventual acceptance of many scientific theories.

Beyond the 19th century, the church still opposes some areas of scientific endeavor, including stem cell research and cloning.  And of course, the theistic dogma and theories of mind still stand in direct contradiction to modern scientific understanding of cognition based on empirical observation.  This is perhaps the last great bastion of theistic belief in opposition to generally accepted science, relying on the fact that the scientific understanding of mind is still incomplete.  Nevertheless, there is virtually unanimous agreement in the cognitive sciences that mind is a purely physical phenomenon, and that fact is unlikely to change.  Eventually, the church will be forced to find a way to reconcile the physical reality with their own dogma, just as they have done for so many other fields of science already.

As for the church's position on Darwinism, there was widespread rejection by many church leaders at first, but the church never adopted an official stance.  It was left for Catholics to decide for themselves whether to accept it or not.  Some Catholics have, as noted by White, and others have remained opposed to this day, including the CERC, no doubt following the advice of Pope Leo XIII, regarding Darwin's theory: 
It will not throw on Scripture the light that is sought, or prove any advantage to doctrine; it will only give rise to disagreement and dissension, those sure notes of error, which the critics in question so plentifully exhibit in their own persons; and seeing that most of them are tainted with false philosophy and rationalism, it must lead to the elimination from the sacred writings of all prophecy and miracles, and of everything that is outside the natural order. - Pope Leo XIII
Perhaps Pope Francis' recent announcement will persuade them to accept the science.

1 comment:

  1. Over in Victor's blog, planks length comments:
    The Galileo affair was an unbelievably complex thing, and does not easily reduce to a sound bite summary without doing great violence to accuracy and significance. There are reasons that whole libraries can be filled with commentary on this incident. Like most events in history, when you actually pay attention you find there are no white hats or black hats, but rather a whole bunch of guys in gray.

    A complex affair? Sure. But one thing is absolutely certain: The church condemned Galileo and banned his works for the sin of endorsing and confirming the Copernican astronomic theory, which was regarded as heretical. No amount of apologetic revisionism can change the historical facts.

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