The Cosmos and the Holy Book
But I’ve been surprised by the numerous religious references in the book–namely, all the times when religious thought/doctrine/dogma has stood against those who merely observed reality. Partly I was surprised simply because I just never expected these negative references in a book from ’79–I somehow thought all the open talk of religion hating science started with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. And partly I was surprised when I realized that Religion won the first round of what appears to be an ongoing war between Science and Religion.
The bit that hit me hardest was about Ionian Coast scientists in the 500s BCE (or thereabouts) who were figuring out Heliocentrism, figuring out that the Sun burned and the Moon merely reflected its light, that the sun was huge and almost unimaginably far away, etc…but most of that was either lost (burned) or severely repressed until the Renaissance in the 1500s (where it was strongly resisted again). It began to make me fear for the future. I mean, they HAD it, they were on the right track more than 1800yrs before Copernicus and it was taken away from the world! We could be in the future by now! We could have flying
cars by now! Sure, on the other hand, there might have been a Nuclear War between the Roman Empire and Carthage…but if we succeeded in not destroying ourselves, we could be in the Future by nearly 2000 years! Maybe there would be a cure for cancer, Clean Energy, terraforming on Mars, a Star Trek-esque moneyless and largely fair and classless society–everything!
Since the book that has inspired me to write this is called Cosmos, I’ll be focusing on the idea of heliocentrism–the fact that the earth and all the planets in the solar system revolve around the sun (as opposed to Geocentrism, the idea that everything revolves around the earth).
So, what happened? Could it happen again? Could the darkening of the Enlightenment already be underway?
Back in the Day
Back in the day–like waaay back, several hundred years before a woman named Mary gave birth to a boy she named Jesus, there was the beginnings of Science. Anaxagoras from about 500BCE is the first known person (first known…at least in the Western World) to say that the Sun and stars are not gods, but great fiery stones nearly as big as all Greece (Cosmos 182)! Not only that, but the Moon was a celestial body that merely reflected the sun’s light–also not a deity! Needless to say, this didn’t go over too well in a world that figured these things were gods and that one had best not belittle or anger them.
Similarly, Democritus, around 400BCE, had a nifty idea–everything is made up of itsy bitsy tiny “atoms”, fundamental elements of some sort that when combined correctly make up everything. However, like Anaxagoras, he was a “materialist” and did not in any way attribute any of his mathematical musings or his idea of “atoms” to any gods, nor did he acknowledge deities or immortal souls or whatnot in his various works–so Plato urged them all to be burned (Cosmos 188).
The Platonists and their Christian successors held the peculiar notion that the Earth was tainted and somehow nasty, while the heavens were perfect and divine. The fundamental idea that the Earth is a planet, that we are citizens of the Universe, was rejected and forgotten. This idea was first argued by Aristarchus, born on Samos three centuries after Pythagoras. Aristarchus was one of the last of the Ionian scientists. By this time, the center of intellectual enlightenment had moved to the great Library of Alexandria. Aristarchus was the first person to hold that the Sun rather than the Earth is at the center of the planetary system, that all the planets go around the Sun rather than the Earth. Typically, his writings on this matter are lost. From the size of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse, he deduced that the Sun had to be much larger than the
Earth, as well as very far away. He may then have reasoned that it is absurd for so large a body as the Sun to revolve around so small a body as the Earth. He put the Sun at the center, made the Earth rotate on its axis once a day and orbit the Sun once a year…The idea outraged some of Aristarchus’ contemporaries. There were cries, like those voiced about Anaxagoras and Bruno and Galileo, that he be condemned for impiety. —Cosmos 188-189
Charged with “impiety”, having your works burned–for stating that the earth isn’t the center of the universe and that the sun and moon are celestial bodies instead of deities? Charged with the crime of observing reality and coming up with a non-supernatural explanation? Really? Well, sure! If the sun and moon are deities, we don’t want them to stop doing the nice things they do for us (like rising regularly) and so we better shut this infidel up before our gods smite the lot of us!
Not So Long Ago
Although the “Dark Ages” were not to begin for another 800 or so years (sometime after the final fall of Rome in 432CE), the early flickerings of science, of observing reality and daring to consider non-supernatural explanations that went contrary to pre-concieved notions, was largely stamped out. Well, in the European part of the Western World it was; many of these ideas were preserved and built upon in the Middle East during something like an Islamic Renaissance–but even they rejected the idea of heliocentrism. Eventually they, too, fell to fundamentalist theology and gave up on the sciences. This will make an interesting post some time later, I think.
But some of the Old Ideas lived on and greatly aided, or inspired the Renaissance in Europe (and yes, I know, the European Renaissance was something that spanned nearly 4 centuries and had a number of interrelated social and societal causes). Of interest to our narrative here is that eventually, one Catholic cleric from Poland (the fact that he was a Catholic Cleric shall be of importance to this article a little later) named Nicolaus Copernicus read enough of the old ideas and had enough brains and opportunity (for observations, calculations, etc) of his own to come up with a mathematical principle for Heliocentrism!
However, he did not publish it until the year of his death. Thus, what became known as the Galileo Affair could well have been the Copernicus Affair! As it was, though, the Copernican heliocentrism came under considerable attack from organized religion when it was popularized by one Galileo Galilei. You see, the then hypothesis of heliocentrism appeared to explain very well, mathematically, numerous observations of reality about how the planets and stars moved in the sky. “Nope, sorry”, say the Catholic authorities, including a couple Popes, “but we can’t have that! You see, the Holy Book we use, written by largely uneducated people from around 3-4000 years ago (though claiming Divine Revelation as its source) clearly says that the Earth doesn’t move. If you’ll re-read 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10,Psalm 104:5, and Ecclesiastes 1:5 then I think you’ll see the errors in your idea. If not, you are condemned for strong suspicion of heresy!” “Yeah”, Martin Luther chimes in, “and remember that Joshua prayed to God that the sun and the moon stand still, not the earth!” (Josh. 10:12) So Galileo’s books, and Copernicus’ book, were banned. Thus are the ways of Dictators and Dogmatists: don’t like an idea? Ban it, burn it, and kill or imprison the Heretic/Infidel/Enemy of the State who dreamed it up.
Fortunately for the world, though, the Religious Authorities did not win this round. You see, the heliocentric hypothesis proved so useful, so ultimately correct (esp. when combined with Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion) that it wouldn’t go away. So, the Catholic Church accepted heliocentrism as a good mathematical explanation for what we observed…as long as it was only that–a mathematical device–and not a statement of fact that contradicted scripture.
The hypothesis of heliocentrism eventually became a thoroughly proven scientific theory, complete with strong predictive capabilities and the Religious had to do something known as Apologetics: “well, you see, it would appear that the scriptures in question were only poetic metaphors and not necessarily intended to be taken, or interpreted, as articles of fact.” Yes, since they couldn’t find any other way out of it, since it was thoroughly proven truth, they finally resorted to apologetics. By 1939, Pope Pious XII apparently lauded Galileo as a “hero of research“!
More to the Point
But here’s the strange thing to me: the apologetics were easy, and even friends of Galileo are reported to have used them in his defense (those scriptures aren’t part of the Thou Shalt bits of the bible, they’re just poetry). Of course, the authorities may have feared that to open the doors to apologetics would set things upon a slippery slope–if we admit that a Scientist is right and the Holy Bible is, well, not wrong…but not entirely correct…once, then what happens the next time? And the time after that?
On the other hand, I think the fight over Our Place in the Cosmos over the centuries gets right to the heart of the matter. Back in the day, when we didn’t know much about weather, earthquakes, eclipses, comets, etc, it would be easy to see everything as a Sign and get all superstitious. We get superstitious today about wearing Lucky Socks whenever our favorite sports team plays–and we know better! Fear and Ignorance would have afforded a strong defense against the idea that our gods were no gods. We need them! We don’t know why they do what they do, but we best not risk “rocking the boat” by letting some Mad Scientist over here insult them by saying they’re just burning rocks! Thus the possible earliest beginnings of Pascal’s Wager.
Later, with the Monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), it got a bit more personal: God (Yhwh/Allah) created the Earth and the heavens. He created us in His own image and likeness. He put the sun, moon, and stars in the sky to mark day/night and various seasons and act as signs. Nothing was mentioned about us being part of a galaxy of 100Billion stars, or of that galaxy being one of 100Billion galaxies in the known Universe. The sun, moon, and stars are signs for US, the special creation of the One True God on this very special place we call Earth. Therefore, the scriptures mentioning that the earth doesn’t move aside…if we do move, if we’re not the center of the Solar System, or the center of the Galaxy, or if there are a billion other galaxies…where does that leave us in the great Divine Scheme of things?
And so the Apologetics began! It started with the “those scriptures are just poetry” bit. Later, Johannes Kepler (he of the Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion) thought that a heliocentric model of things fit in wonderfully with the Christian belief for he saw the son as a metaphor for God–and isn’t it good and right that everything should revolve around God (Cosmos 57)? Christiaan Huygens felt that all the planets out there must be inhabited, otherwise God hath made them in vain (Cosmos 147)!
And so it went on down the centuries to our time. I grew up in a Fundamentalist Christian sect that did (I thought at the time) a wonderful job of interpreting what we knew to be true (through astronomy, geology, etc) in the light of what the Bible said. “See that wonderfully vast universe out there? That is for YOU! That is for all the humans who will turn to God, for it is God’s Great Master Plan to reproduce himself! If you repent and grow in godliness, then you will be resurrected as a God Being and go out to those dead planets (that were dead due to a Universe-wide War between God and the fallen Lucifer–part of Gap Theory, which is a subset of Old Earth Creationism) and revitalize them as new Earths with new batches of people!”
The bible is the same, but what we see in it has changed because of what we know of Reality. Though it sounds terrible to say, the war between Science and Religion has really been a war between those who observe and accept reality and those who don’t. Along the continuum you get those who, like Copernicus (the Catholic Cleric), Galileo, and Kepler (whose early education was in a Protestant Seminary) are able to accept the reality they observe without losing their religion (perhaps rationalizing with apologetics, or perhaps compartmentalizing the Science bit and the Faith bit), to Old Earth Creationists who subscribe to the Day-Age theory of the creation week and some of whom think God maybe even created through the process of Evolution, to OECs who favor the Gap Theory, all the way to Young Earth Creationists, who appear to feel that this whole business of reinterpreting the Bible in light of our growing knowledge and understanding of the world and cosmos around us has gone quite far enough.
Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid. Maybe.
I mentioned at the start that finding out that religion had won once before made me fear for the future. Why should that be? We have loads of science! Look at all the Technology we have (tech comes from science)! But there seems to be a disconnect in the public mind of Tech = Good, Science = Bad. This is especially apparent amongst the religious who try to get “Intelligent Design Theory” into the biology classrooms. Of course, this makes sense, as the science needed to make an iPhone probably doesn’t cover the areas of knowledge that would directly contradict anything said in the Holy Book…whereas findings in Biology have–repeatedly.
For example, compare and contrast the entry for Evolution in Wikipedia and Conservapedia (yes, Conservapedia–the Conservative Encyclopedia…apparently every other source of information has a Liberal Bias). To belabor the point, also check out science/science, atheism/atheism, Christianity/Christianity, and
For Evolution, it took five sentences for Conservapedia to start mentioning the existence of large numbers of scientists who disagree with evolution as a means to discredit the idea before speaking about the particulars. Their bit on Science was funny, as they mention “There are hubs of real scientific research, however, in places like the Institute for Creation Research and the Heartland Institute.” “Real Science” means science from a Young Earth Creationist/Christian point of view, as is clearly evidenced by the context. The entry for Atheism was quick to link the idea with Communism and even with the Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France. Under “Christianity”, Wikipedia began talking about what Christians typically believe, whereas the first sentence about Christian beliefs in Conservapedia is “Christian beliefs are well supported via a large body of compelling evidence” with half the sentence being a link to their article on Apologetics (*snicker*). And, of course, the first sentence for Global Warming in Conservapedia is that the theory is a liberal hoax to justify bigger government.
Speaking of Global Warming–debate all you want on the evidence, please. Agree or disagree with the idea, fine–argue the science. However, when people in positions of leadership, like Senators John Shimkus (R-IL) and James Inhofe (R-OK) say “global warming is a hoax because the Bible tells me so”…yeah, that’s where we’re going to have a problem. Remember that everyone used to think that the bible told us that the Earth was immovable and thus at the center of the universe? They use Gen. 8:21-22 where God promises he will never again kill all living things as he did with the Flood. Of course, from what I’ve read, nobody is saying that global warming will destroy the earth, or even kill all land-based life. From what I read in Wikipedia, the expected rise in sea levels up to the year 2100 is between 7 and 23 inches. Now, 23in (58cm) would cause serious problems to coastal areas (which are always heavily populated), but it would in no way “flood the earth”. So, even if that scripture is the Sure Word of God, it is in no way evidence that global warming could never happen “because God wouldn’t allow it”. And these science hating bible-thumpers are trying to get appointed to head the Energy Commission!
But there is good news–according to a University of Michigan article, science literacy among American adults is rising! “In 1988, just 10 percent of U.S. adults had sufficient understanding of basic scientific ideas to be able to read the Tuesday Science section of The New York Times, according to Jon Miller, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). By 2008, 28 percent of adults scored high enough to understand scientific ideas at that level.” I’ve never read that column, so I’m not quite sure how difficult a task that might be, and 18% in 20 years is pretty slow, but improvement is improvement!
The End is Nigh
I suppose a large part of the reason for this post is further justification, to myself as much as to anyone else, for me adding my small voice to the greater choir of skepticism. When I read that religion/mysticism went a long way to rubbing out knowledge about reality that took 1800 years to rediscover, I become nervous. I become especially nervous when I read that until the mid 1950s Old Earth Creationism with the Gap Theory component was so well-accepted in the mainstream that to question it was nearly heresy–and yet it was questioned and now Young Earth Creationism is charging ahead with great success. They reject much of the science, much of the knowledge about reality that the Old Earthers had accepted and had adapted to their theology. The Young Earthers are anti-science (anti-reality) and their influence is on the rise.