The Questionable Authority

Jason Rosenhouse asks us if we think there’s anything wrong with the following sentence, taken from Thomas Dixon’s book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction:

Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge.

Personally, I’m not actually sure that there’s much wrong with that statement at all – at most, I’d question the use of the word “primarily”. Jason, however, disagrees a bit more strenuously:

Why was Pope Urban VIII so threatened by Galileo’s ideas? Why didn’t the church simply laugh at Galileo, and tell him condescendingly to go keep playing with his telescope while the grown-ups talked about more serious things? The reason was that the Pope’s authority was based entirely on the idea that he stood in a privileged relation to God, uniquely able to interpret scripture. If someone like Galileo could use science to challenge his claims, then the entire basis for the church’s power would be seriously weakened. Ironically, DIxon himself explains this very clearly in the sentence immediately following the one above:

In the world of Counter-Reformation Rome, in the midst of the Thirty Years War, which continued to pit the Protestant and Catholic powers of Europe against each other, Galileo’s claim to be able to settle questions about competing sources of knowledge through his own individual reading and reasoning seemed the height of presumption and a direct threat to the authority of the Church.

If that is not the description of a conflict between science and religion then I do not know what is.

That is, in fact, a good description of a conflict between science and religion, and I’d have to agree that Dixon’s characterization of the event as one that’s primarily political really doesn’t do justice to the episode. At the same time, though, I’m almost as inclined to question any attempt to characterize the event as being primarily a science/religion conflict.

When you get right down to it, the Galileo affair was almost irreducibly complex. The very real conflict between science and religion over who gets to declare what the physical world was certainly a major factor, but it was only one of many. The political context – particularly as it involved challenges to the secular power of the church – was also important. So were the many longstanding interpersonal conflicts between the participants. So were the religious and political disputes involving various factions within the church. I’m not sure you can point to any one of those factors as being clearly the most important one involved.

While I’m at least partially in agreement with Jason over the problem with Dixon’s view of the Galileo affair, I’m entirely on Dixon’s side when it comes to the more modern ID/creationism issue. Here’s Jason’s perspective:

Dixon plays this gambit again when talking about evolution and creationism:

The debate about evolution and ID is a conflict not primarily between science and religion but between different views about who should control education.

But why is the control of education such a contentious issue? It is because fundamental questions about sources of knowledge are at stake. Young-Earth creationists believe the Bible constitutes a source of evidence that trumps anything a scientist might discover. Furthermore, failure to recognize that fact places your eternal soul in danger. From the other side scientists believe (with considerable justice, I would add) that their methods are far more reliable than those of religion. Failure to recognize that fact assaults reason and rationality themselves. The ID folks are religiously more diverse than the YEC’s, but the source of the dispute is effectively the same.

How is that not primarily a dispute between science and religion?

If I thought that education was such a contentious issue because of the conflict over sources of knowledge, I’d have to agree with Jason. But I’m pretty sure it’s not. It is true that creationists have a very different view of what constitutes an appropriate source of knowledge about the physical world than most scientists do, but that is not the source of the education conflict. If the creationists were willing to teach their views only in their churches – something that nobody challenges their right to do – the conflict would not exist.

Look at the Amish, for example. I’m honestly not sure what their view of evolution is, but I strongly suspect that a group that is religiously opposed to automobiles, television, and electric lighting does not view science as a source of authoritative knowledge. Their views on these topics do not create controversy because they have no problem with keeping their beliefs within their own community. They do not ask to be allowed to require our children to be educated in accordance with their views; they educate their children themselves, and leave the rest of us alone. Their views may be incompatible with science, but they do not cause controversy the way that creationists do.

The conflict arises when creationists attempt to force their religious views onto the children of other people, who do not necessarily share those views. That’s not a dispute over what the most authoritative source of knowledge is; that’s a dispute over the exercise of secular authority. In other words, it’s a political conflict.

Comments

  1. #1 Don Moore
    December 29, 2009

    great post, thanks for it.

  2. #2 Richard Prins
    December 29, 2009

    I don’t believe it makes a lot of difference in putting the conflict into a separate box (‘a political conflict’). By necessity religions are involved into politics as the self-proclaimed authorities on human morality, albeit on different scales (whether by subjecting the in-group in a more insular fashion, or by trying to influence society/the world as a whole).

    There is, however, always the conflict between revealed (scriptural) and empirical knowledge. Some believers are more able to yield to the latter than others.

    The most liberal believers increasingly go to great lengths to deny conflicts between exist(ed), as opposed to the more dogmatic ones who prefer to show anti-science attitudes (primarily through denial).

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    December 29, 2009

    The idea that there were “political” conflicts that were separable from “religious” ones appears to me to be a product of our modern concept of separation of church and state. In a scenario where ecclesiastical and state authority are inseparable, the political and the religious are indistinguishable.

  4. #4 Geoffrey Falk
    December 29, 2009

    Michael Onfray offers a very different view of the Galileo-Church conflict, in his Atheist Manifesto (p. 81-9):

    “The legend focuses on the issue of heliocentrism, with the pope and the Inquisition condemning [him] because Galileo argued that the earth was a satellite of a sun located at the center of the universe….

    “In fact, things happened differently. What did the Vatican really hold against Galileo? Not so much his defense of Copernican astronomy–although this was a thesis that contradicted the church’s Aristotelian position–as his adherence to the materialist camp … Before the courts of the day, heliocentrism was punishable by lifelong house arrest, a relatively mild sentence. Defense of atomism, on the other hand, led directly to the stake!….

    “In its very earliest days, the church believed firmly in this miracle [of the transubstantiation of the wafer and wine of the Mass into the body and blood of Jesus]. It still does. The Catechism of the Catholic Church—in its twentieth-century incarnation–still insists on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (Article 1373)….

    “The explanation: Christ’s body is veritably, really, substantially–the official terms–present in the Host. The same holds true for the hemoglobin in the wine. For the bread’s essence disappears once the priest has spoken, whereas its perceptible characteristics, its accidents–color, taste, temperature–remain. Those characteristics are preserved in miraculous fashion by the divine will….

    “Therein lay the danger of atomism and materialism. It made a metaphysical impossibility of the church’s theoretical twaddle! By the standards of modern atomic calibration, there is nothing to be found in the bread and wine but what Epicurus predicted: matter….

    “In 1340, Nicolas d’Autrecourt was bold enough to propose an extremely modern (but atomist) theory of light. He believed in light’s corpuscular nature (modern science validates him), which implies [contrary to the transubstantiation "miracle"] an identification of substance with its characteristics…. The church at once forced him to recant, and burned his writings. It was the beginning of a persecution of all scientific research proceeding through atomism–which the Jesuits banned as early as 1632, maintaining the prohibition for centuries. Materialism (Articles 285 and 2124 of the Catechism) is still on the prohibited list of the contemporary church.”

  5. #5 John Pieret
    December 30, 2009

    I was ymost troubled by Jason’s comment in response to James McGrath:

    [I]t doesn’t change the fact that my quoted sentence is a pretty accurate generalization. At some point you have to stop looking at the trees and consider the forest instead.

    If the picture of ceaseless, unavoidable conflict between science and religion is too simplistic, so too is the notion of a generally chummy relationship punctuated by regrettable but infrequent moments of conflict. The problem is that so much of the academic writing in science and religion seems to have an agenda of promoting that second view. Given the malign influence of conservative sorts of religion, both on American politics and around the world, this is a bad issue on which to retire to the ivory tower and put an endless string of caveats around every observation.

    It seems to me that, if we have to stop being nuanced and accurate because our “enemies” aren’t, we’ve already lost.

  6. #6 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 30, 2009

    Mike -

    As other commenters have pointed out, the clean distinction you are trying to draw between religious and political conflicts simply does not work. What you have in both the Galileo affair and in modern evolution fights are political disputes that arise out of conflicts between science and religion. They don’t cease to be science/religion fights simply because the actors in the dramas were also motivated by concerns over secular authority.

    And I think you have overlooked something obvious in your analysis of modern creationism. Why aren’t the creationists content to teach their views just in their churches and private schools? The reason is that they believe matters of eternal significance are riding on what gets taught in science classes. Secular authority is the prize, but that does not alter the fact that the fight arises out of differing views between the foundations of knowledge. Or, less pretentiously, between science and religion.

    John Pieret –

    It seems to me that, if we have to stop being nuanced and accurate because our “enemies” aren’t, we’ve already lost.

    You know perfectly well that was not my point. Of course we should be nuanced and accurate. But it is possible to get so lost in the details that you miss the big picture. There’s a reason there’s a famous proverb about forests and trees. The historical minutiae of the Galileo affair and modern evolution fights simply don’t contradict the judgment that these are conflicts born out of disputes between science and religion. In fact, they confirm that judgment.

  7. #7 Mike Dunford
    December 30, 2009

    @Jason:

    As other commenters have pointed out, the clean distinction you are trying to draw between religious and political conflicts simply does not work. What you have in both the Galileo affair and in modern evolution fights are political disputes that arise out of conflicts between science and religion.

    In case I wasn’t sufficiently clear before, I don’t think that there is any clear distinction between the religious, scientific, and political aspects of the Galileo affair. That particular debacle involved so many different factors that I think trying to say that it was primarily any one sort of conflict is a mistake. The modern evolution fight is a different story.

    And I think you have overlooked something obvious in your analysis of modern creationism. Why aren’t the creationists content to teach their views just in their churches and private schools? The reason is that they believe matters of eternal significance are riding on what gets taught in science classes. Secular authority is the prize, but that does not alter the fact that the fight arises out of differing views between the foundations of knowledge. Or, less pretentiously, between science and religion.

    I think you might be losing sight of the broader picture. There have been battles over evolution in the schools, to be sure. But in both Dover and Texas (just to cite two examples), many of the same school board members were looking to transform the curriculum in other subject areas as well. At the same time, members of many of the same religious groups have been (and are) fighting to ensure that their beliefs remain or become law when it comes to issues as diverse as sex ed, abortion, birth control, end of life healthcare, prayer in the schools, religious displays in public buildings, the so-called war on Christmas, homosexuality in general and same sex marriage in particular, Muslims in the military, women in the military, proselytization in the schools, prisons, and military, and public funding for faith-based programs. And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head.

    If science were the only – or even the primary – battleground, I think I would be fairly comfortable referring to the creation/evolution struggle as a conflict between science and religion. As it stands now, I am far from convinced that is the case. As far as I can tell, the people fighting on the side of religion don’t think their beliefs are more authoritative than just those of science – I think they believe that their beliefs about absolutely everything are more authoritative than anyone else’s.

    Since this includes cases where their beliefs conflict with the religious and/or philosophical beliefs of others, and not just cases where their views collide with our scientifically-based understanding of the world, I think it makes more sense to view the creation/evolution struggle as being one part of a larger battle for political control over secular life than as an isolated case of a science/religion conflict.

  8. #8 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 30, 2009

    Mike -

    Thanks for the clarification regarding Galileo. I still think you are wrong, however, in describing what happened as irreducibly complex. And I agree that evolution/creation fights are one front of a broader war, but I don’t think that alters the status of such fights as conflicts between science and religion. I just posted a lengthy reply to you and Bora, if you are interested.

  9. #9 Houdini's Ghost
    December 30, 2009

    Mike, I find your latest clarification the most convincing iteration, but I still have to side with Jason in his unwillingness to elide the role of religion from the discussion. I almost agree with this; “I think it makes more sense to view the creation/evolution struggle as being one part of a larger battle for political control over secular life than as an isolated case of a science/religion conflict.”

    But I would alter slightly to “I think it makes more sense to view the creation/evolution struggle as being one part of a larger battle for RELIGIOUS control over secular life.” It’s true that creationists are against more than just scientific knowledge that challenges their dogma; they are against any authority that does so. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t essentially a religious conflict. Calling it a battle for political control over secular life makes it seem like religion is irrelevant, when in fact it is the driving force here.

  10. #10 david
    December 31, 2009

    You say “irreducibly complex.” For all of about five hundred years? I think Ratzi was still saying recently “we did right by Galileo?” Authoritarian or what? A Gordian knot?

    Is banning a book irreducibly complex? is showing Galileo the instruments of torture irreducibly complex?

    None of that is complex to me.

    Preachers [priests] have preached against science for centuries [common knowledge to some; see Camus's The Plague]. Now, suddenly, the conflict is not “really” or “primarily” science versus religion but simply politics? What possible motivation is there for this sudden change in character?

    I’ll have none of it, sorry. What I see is religion, raw, very raw, religion, which is into politics, nothing complex about it.

  11. #11 James Sweet
    December 31, 2009

    FWIW, I thought that any post disagreeing with Jason’s Dixon post would be a post I also disagreed with, because I wholeheartedly agreed with Jason on that one. But — am I allowed to do this? — I think I agree with part of this post, as well as Jason’s post.

    Regarding Galileo, I guess it all comes down to what one means by “primarily” and the importance one places on that word. To deny that science vs. religion played an important role in the Galileo conflict I think is a hopelessly obstinate position. Whether it’s “primarily” political or “primarily” science vs. religion depends very much on one’s definition of “primarily” and on one’s frame of reference. It’s a big shrug to me, as long as people aren’t trying — like Dixon or Coturnix — to deny that science vs. religion was an important part of that conflict.

    Re: Creationism/ID, I’m still firmly with Jason. The “Amish argument” Mike makes is interesting, but I think if we break it down, it just supports Jason’s position. There is a science vs. religion conflict with the Amish, but it’s not an important one because they have chosen not to fire any shots across our collective bow. The difference with the IDiots is not that the conflict is somehow fundamentally different, but that they have chosen to escalate the conflict by going on the attack.

    As I posted over in Jason’s blog, saying that Creationism in schools isn’t about science vs. religion, but is instead about who gets to control education, is like saying that the conflict in the Middle East isn’t about the Jews vs. the Palestinians, but about who gets to control the land. The 2008 election wasn’t about McCain vs. Obama, but about who gets to be the president.

    Those are stupid statements. The Creationism/ID debate, to use the full sentence, is “a conflict between science and religion about who gets to control education.” The first parts of the sentence specifies the players, and the latter part specifies the prize. To assert the prize and use it to deny the players is just plain asinine.

  12. #12 william e emba
    December 31, 2009

    One of the causes of the whole heresy trial apparently was Pope Urban VIII’s belief that Galileo, his friend from way back when, had personally betrayed him and the church by making Simplicio the defender of heliocentrism.

  13. #13 qbsmd
    December 31, 2009

    I think you might be losing sight of the broader picture.

    It’s funny to see two people simultaneously accuse each other of missing the big picture. It usually seems to be a symptom of people talking past each other.

    There have been battles over evolution in the schools, to be sure… At the same time, members of many of the same religious groups … sex ed, abortion, birth control, end of life healthcare, prayer in the schools, religious displays in public buildings, the so-called war on Christmas, homosexuality in general and same sex marriage in particular, Muslims in the military, women in the military, proselytization in the schools, prisons, and military, and public funding for faith-based programs< \blockquote>

    So your point is that the bigger picture is a conflict between religion and equality/sanity? It seems that when the smaller picture involves science it makes sense to call it religion vs. science.

  14. #14 Zuska
    January 1, 2010

    I think it makes more sense to view the creation/evolution struggle as being one part of a larger battle for political control over secular life than as an isolated case of a science/religion conflict.

    That’s the most sensible thing I’ve read on this topic so far. Thanks for laying it out so cleanly.

  15. #15 JakeS
    January 2, 2010

    So much of this depends on which part of the relevant political movement(s) one looks at.

    The creationists do not operate in a vacuum – they are part of a larger far-right coalition. For some parts of that coalition (the creationists, the people who want to engrave bible quotes onto public buildings, etc.), it’s clearly a religious struggle against secular society.

    For other parts of the coalition (notably the oligarchs, the Wall Street and Beltway insiders and their assorted fellow travellers), the religious conflict – indeed the entire “culture war” mythology – is a convenient distraction from the fact that they and their fellow Villagers have been looting your country for the last thirty-odd years.

    For still other parts of the coalition (the war profiteers, energy industry incumbents, etc.), the “culture war” is a way to mobilise shock troops against (and discredit) their traditional enemies, because there happens to be a large overlap between the Dirty Hippies(TM), who are a pain in the neck for Big Oil, and the reality-based community, whom the creationists identify as enemies.

    Since there is considerable overlap between these groups (Santorum is a fundagelical Villager, Cheney is an oil industry oligarch and Ahmanson is a fundagelial oligarch, to name just three examples), analysing any single one of them in isolation risks missing important points.

    - Jake

  16. #16 atheismisdead
    January 3, 2010

    badscience.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=13976&start=0

    to see how this so-called *NEW ATHEISM* has been completely crushed

    Atheist:

    have you for but a moment considered that you have adopted a position against 98% of the human race, both past and present?

    do you think you are RIGHT and they are all WRONG?

    WRONG

    now listen to this arrogant puffed up son of a bitch….

    youtube.com/watch?v=ilWM7jIEN_k

    little scientist geek who would try to usurp God Himself!!!

    the atheist sins not only against God, but also against man…

  17. #17 Melinda
    January 4, 2010

    I’ve been reading quite a few posts on this throughout science blogs and I have to say I appreciate your arguments.

    What so many seem to be ignoring, however, is that the Church was not relying on scripture for its cosmology (except in a tangential way as a response to the Protestants). It was relying on Aristotle and Ptolemy. Galileo’s work refuted not scripture, but the great ancient philophers upon whose ideas both the Church and the secular authorities relied for their power/authority over others. To falsify any of the central works of Aristotle or Ptolemy was to challenge the foundation of authority/power in both the religious and secular realms.

    Also, I find a simple religion v. science framing problematic since at the time, science was funded by the Church, was conducted primarily by members of the clergy and theologians, and was viewed as a means to understanding divine creation. Newton, for instance, wrote more on theology than he did either science or mathematics.

  18. #18 RickK
    January 4, 2010

    “Newton, for instance, wrote more on theology than he did either science or mathematics.”

    But Newton explicitly removed “divine intervention” from his science. He kept his faith out of his science. That’s how any church-going scientist should behave.

    Millions of dollars worldwide are being poured into the cause of putting faith INTO science, putting divine magic back into the investigation of nature, and in extreme cases, pushing rational science aside completely.

    But the simple fact is that, throughout history, natural phenomena are reliably described by natural causes. Divine magic was once responsible for the Sun’s warmth, the Moon, the stars, the tides, the seasons, lightning, rain, drought, earthquakes, health, disease, schizophrenia, epilepsy, the variety of animal species, and many other things.

    Now divine magic has a very limited sphere of influence: visions, the afterlife, the birth of the universe, and (if you believe Michael Behe) the spinning whip on the bum of a germ.

    Those millions of dollars are trying to regain some turf. And it is a fundamental reinforcement of the power of rational science that those millions of dollars are having so little effect.

  19. #19 Melinda
    January 4, 2010

    Newton removed divine intervention for religious reasons, not scientific ones per se. He wanted to understand the divine mind and felt that simply inserting divine intervention at convenient moments would stunt the search for understanding that divine magic.

    I’ll point out that as a lover of science and a practicing believing Jew, I’m very fond of keeping my science away from my religion, except to the extent that science can help me understand the material/environmental conditions in which my moral decisions are made.

  20. #20 eddie
    January 4, 2010

    I think it’s a mistake to think that the religious side is sincere in their belief. Sure, they assert biblical authority, but only as a means of maintaining power in their own group; power that is anti-democratic and used for evil. Maybe the amish are sincere, but they are still child abusers as they need to lie to maintain their power. Also hypocrites in that they choose some modernity and reject others with no moral or logical basis; just the abuse of authority. Other abuser groups try to force their faux authority on the wider world as it it the disapproval of the wider world that most threatens their power to abuse children.
    In short, it’s never been about the substance of religious claims. There never was any. On the science side, I think that those who think the battle is primarily about the truth of various claims are missing the point. The point is to undermine the power to abuse and relieve the suffering of their victims.

  21. #21 william e emba
    January 7, 2010

    But Newton explicitly removed “divine intervention” from his science. He kept his faith out of his science.

    This is not true. Newton explicitly invoked angels to keep the planets in their orbits over the long haul, because his calculations implied planetary perturbations were unbounded. In fact, Laplace later showed they generally remained bounded, and in a famous story regarding his Celestial Mechanics, explained to Napoleon that the “God hypothesis” was not in his book because it was not needed. “Intelligent Pushing” has not been part of astronomy ever since.

  22. #22 JakeS
    January 8, 2010

    I think it’s a mistake to think that the religious side is sincere in their belief. Sure, they assert biblical authority, but only as a means of maintaining power in their own group;

    The “religious side” is hardly homogeneous. Most of the leadership show clear signs of double-high (both authoritarian and socially dominant) personalities. Or, in more colloquial terms, they’re psychopaths.

    The line members are a more mixed bunch.

    The relevant text to understand these people is Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians.

    It also contains a section on curing authoritarian personality types which is strikingly reminiscent of what I’ve read from recovering creationists.

    - Jake

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