Does anything strike you as odd about the following sentence:

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.

It comes from Thomas Dixon’s book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 2008.

Afficionados of science/religion disputes will recognize in this a standard gambit of the genre. Specifically, the attempt to recast situations that are obviously conflicts between science and religion into conflicts about something else.

In the present case the second part of the sentence does not contradict the first. The Galileo affair was a science/religion dispute that played out in the political arena of rival claims to knowledge and authority.

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.

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 dsipute between science and religion?

If the Galileo affair, and battles over science curricula, do not count as disputes between science and religion, I can not imagine what Dixon would consider an example of such a dispute.

Comments

  1. #1 ecologist
    December 28, 2009

    You make a really good point. I will remember it the next time I hear a “it’s not really a …” argument used like this. Thanks.

  2. #2 The Science Pundit
    December 28, 2009

    OT: Have you seen the new Sherlock Holmes movie yet? I saw it on Christmas day and I really liked it. The characters of Holmes and especially Watson were played much closer to the way I envisioned them from reading the stories than I’ve seen in any previous adaptation. I also thought the musical score was a perfect fit for the film.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 28, 2009

    Stay tuned! I’m about to do a post on the new Sherlock Holmes film. I liked it too, though perhaps not quite as much as you did.

  4. #4 Max
    December 28, 2009

    I agree with your points in the article. But as for the Holmes movie, meh. Saw it yesterday and was underwhelmed. I found the Holmes character to be too buffoonish to buy. Not a terrible movie– better than Young Sherlock Holmes for example– but not one I’d be interested in seeing again or one I’ll be anxiously awaiting the sequel to. (I’d *see* the sequel probably, but I won’t be counting the days.)

    The Holmes I’ve been enjoying the most recently are the audio books I listen to on the way to work, read by David Timson.

    PS: For some reason I also like “Without A Clue.” I hope that doesn’t shatter my credibility.

  5. #5 Sharon Astyk
    December 28, 2009

    I don’t disagree with you, but I think that logically speaking, you are falling into an error as well – in assuming that these things can only be viewed on way. It is true that the Galileo affair was a conflict about science and religion played out in the realm of politics. It is also true that the Galileo affair was a conflict about internal Catholic politics that was played out in the realm of science vs. religion. One may be the primary focus, the other secondary, but I’m not sure it makes sense to argue that it was and always is only one thing. Again, I don’t disagree that this is a technique that can be used to distract from a central subject, but I don’t think the answer to it is “it is really just this” but “that’s a secondary reading, recast for political reasons.” I don’t think it ever works to say that an historical event has only one possible interpretation – that just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny in most cases.

    Sharon

    Sharon Astyk

  6. #6 Tyler DiPietro
    December 28, 2009

    This kind of politically correct flapdoodle not only plagues discussions of science vis a vis religion, but also religion vis a vis other religions. Over and over again you hear that disputes between religious groups aren’t really about religion but about politics, race, ethnicity, or whatever. Western Europe’s uneasiness in assimilating radical muslims is really just about race. The Israel/Palestine conflict is all about politics. Northern Ireland was merely mired in a secular political dispute. And on and on. These are claims that are not only false, but at this point, annoying. It takes a certain of willful obtuseness not to realize that there is often very little separating religion from politics, and it is at that that its influence is most pernicious.

  7. #7 James F. McGrath
    December 28, 2009

    If there is a danger in saying “This conflict wasn’t really about…” there is also a parallel danger in saying “This conflict was really about…” To say “The Galileo affair was primarily about religion vs. science” misses that Galileo was as deeply religious as his opponents, that his opponents were motivated by Aristotle’s philosophy rather than Biblical literalism, and that the evidence that would eventually show Galileo’s heliocentrism to be far superior was not yet available, and some of Galileo’s “best arguments” (e.g. from the tides) were wrong, and visibly so, as his opponents noted.

  8. #8 Nigel
    December 28, 2009

    Rosenhouse relates to History much as creationists do to Biology: clinging to a long exploded myth, ignoring well established evidence, and rejecting any argument of more than minimal complexity or subtlety as high-falutin’ nonsense just designed to bamboozle us plain folks.

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 28, 2009

    To say “The Galileo affair was primarily about religion vs. science” misses that Galileo was as deeply religious as his opponents, that his opponents were motivated by Aristotle’s philosophy rather than Biblical literalism, and that the evidence that would eventually show Galileo’s heliocentrism to be far superior was not yet available, and some of Galileo’s “best arguments” (e.g. from the tides) were wrong, and visibly so, as his opponents noted.

    Nonsense. None of these points change the diagnosis that the Galileo affair was primarily a dispute between science and religion.

    That Galileo was personally religious is entirely irrelevant. He was a threat to the Catholic authorities because of his scientific work. The bases for the philosophy of the Catholic church at that time is likewise irrelevant. They believed that they had a special authority to interpret scripture and that the Bible was a source of truth that superseded anything a scientist could discover. Nor are the merits of Galileo’s arguments relevant. If the problem was that the church was unimpressed with Galileo’s arguments, they could simply have said that and spared everyone his trial and subsequent draconian sentence.

    The historical details are fascinating and important for their own sake, but the fact remains that Galileo was a threat to the Catholic church because he represented an approach to knowledge that undermined their authority. If you do not believe this was primarily a dispute between science and religion, then what was it primarily about?

  10. #10 Blake Stacey
    December 28, 2009

    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.

    . . . say wha?

    You gotta wonder: for Dixon and company, what would count as a science-religion conflict?

    That Galileo was personally religious is entirely irrelevant.

    Religious people can, I suspect, still be involved in conflicts of a religious character, though history is vague on this matter. If the quarrel in question turns on a point of science, it might fairly be called a “clash between science and religion”.

  11. #11 Tyler DiPietro
    December 28, 2009

    Nigel, you’re comparing apples and oranges. Biology is a hard science, while history is quasi-scientific and hugely influenced to rhetoric. Being skeptical of historical opinion is not on the same level as being a creationist.

  12. #12 James F. McGrath
    December 28, 2009

    I must be misunderstanding you. Either you also assume that Galileo’s scientific work was a threat to his own faith, or by “science vs. religion” you mean “science vs. ecclesiastical authority.” I’d be grateful for the clarification, because your response doesn’t clarify to me how the other details I mentioned are irrelevant, or why I have to come up with some other issue that the conflict was “really” about simply because you’ve called the well-documented historical issues I pointed out as mere “nonsense” to be dismissed with a wave of the hand.

    The fact that the church was in a defensive mode as a result of the Protestant Reformation is also part of the picture – but it is not the “real issue” any more than anything else mentioned thus far. Isolating one of them will not do justice to the complicated historical realities of the events we’re talking about.

  13. #13 Tyler DiPietro
    December 29, 2009

    “Either you also assume that Galileo’s scientific work was a threat to his own faith…”

    And why would Jason, or anyone else for that matter, how to assume this? Just because Galileo didn’t see the truth of heliocentrism as conflicting with his own faith doesn’t contradict the fact that he was penalized by religious authorities for contradicting religious dogma.

  14. #14 magicshoemonkey
    December 29, 2009

    Reading it as it is, I actually think that his own interpretation is worse that just “science vs. religion” in the straightforward sense of two bodies of knowledge conflicting. If he’s trying to say that his interpretation is saving religion, it’s certainly not saving the motives of the Catholic Church at that time. He seems to say the Church was trying to keep the power to control knowledge within their own hands, regardless of reality. If so, that’s much worse than saying “Well, that’s not what the Bible/tradition says.” That’s saying, “I don’t care what you ‘discovered,’ we’re correct because we have/deserve the power to decide what’s true.” And if this is also what creationists are really doing, then they deserve even more to be opposed because they are dictatorial liars, which we pretty much already knew.

  15. #15 GrayGaffer
    December 29, 2009

    My understanding was that the Pope was quite happy to leave Galileo to his astronomical hobbies until Galileo wrote an Aristotelian dialog about his discoveries in which he appeared to cast the Pope in the role of the stupid antagonist. This of course could not be allowed, and so Galileo was necessarily castigated to invalidate the intelligent half of the dialog and thus also to repudiate the characterization of the Pope. That could not be one directly because to raise it as the issue would bring it to public focus and so papal embarrasment. The rest followed by the logic of how the Catholic code prescribed the recant and punishment process of the time.

    There was a quite readable biography of Galileo called “The Stargazer”. I had an early print of it as a teenager in the 60′s, but have not seen my copy since. Anybody else read it?

  16. #16 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 29, 2009

    James -

    Either you also assume that Galileo’s scientific work was a threat to his own faith, or by “science vs. religion” you mean “science vs. ecclesiastical authority.”

    Actually, that’s pretty close to what I am saying. Describing something as a dispute between science and religion does not mean that every form of religion is coming into conflict with everything about science. As far as I know there is nothing that is universal to every human institution encompassed by the term “religion,” and even the most dogmatic and doctrinaire religions are happy to accept much of, perhaps most of, what science is telling us about the world. Given that, it goes without saying that such disputes as arise in actual historical situations are always going to be between certain forms of religion and specific aspects of science.

    The main reason science and religion ever come into conflict is that they posit very different ways of learning about the world. To the extent that religion relies on revelation and clerical authorities to provide definitive answers to questions about the natural world it is almost inevitably going to conflict with a way of learning that emphasizes meticulous evidence collection and testable theories. That is precisely what you had in the case of Galileo. You had the dominant political institution of the day (in Europe, at any rate) basing its authority on the premise that it was uniquely capable of ferreting out the eternal truths of scripture. This put them into conflict with someone who was challenging the church’s pronouncements based on his own observations and evidence.

    I call that a dispute between science and religion. That Galileo was personally religious, or that the Catholics were feeling increased pressure from Protestants, or that Galileo basically humiliated Pope Urban VIII by having a character named “Simplicio” state his arguments, or any of the other historical tidbits you mention, do not change the fact that you had a clash here about rival ways of knowing, one distinctly religious, the other distinctly scientific. In this case the power was on the side of religion, and the result of the fracas was a disaster for both sides.

    It would be different if we were talking about very marginal sorts of religions. I am told that there are some dark corners of fundamentalism where flat-Earthers still roam. If a few of them got together and filed a lawsuit to have their ideas taught in science classes I would not describe that as yet another dispute between science and religion. The flat-Earthers are so far removed from what most people think of as religion that it would simply be unfair to pretend otherwise.

    That is certainly not the case with Galileo. The Catholic church was practically synonymous with Christianity right up until the sixteenth century, and was still a major power in the seventeenth. Nor is it the case with modern evolution/creation disputes, where the forms of conservative religion, especially within Protestantism, that have a problem with evolution are frightfully well-represented.

    By your logic I would have to object to a statement such as, “Abortion is an issue that divides Democrats and Republicans,” on the grounds that some Democrats are pro-life and some Republicans are pro-choice. That is certainly true, and I am glad there are dedicated social scientists who try to ferret out the relationships between views on abortion and party affiliation. But it 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.

  17. #17 Jr
    December 29, 2009

    “The Catholic church was practically synonymous with Christianity right up until the sixteenth century”

    Ever heard of the Orthodox Christians? They were a pretty large group of non-Catholic Christians even before the sixteenth century.

  18. #18 Jonathan Lubin
    December 29, 2009

    There’s nothing in what Jason says that I can disagree with, but:
    This non-historian’s opinion on history can hardly have much value, but I think it’s surprising that few discussions of the Galileo affair mention the conditions at the time of his trial. The Roman Church had been under attack for some time, from the origins of the Reformation a hundred years earlier, to current times, in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War, when the most powerful Catholic power was on the opposite side from the Church’s alignment. I think that if things had been going swimmingly for the Pope’s interests, he would probably have let Galileo be. But that’s a counterfactual: the history is that the Church sinned most shamefully in this matter, in a monstrous crime against the human spirit.

  19. #19 SLC
    December 29, 2009

    Re James McGrath

    and that the evidence that would eventually show Galileo’s heliocentrism to be far superior was not yet available

    Not so. Galileos’ discovery of the 4 large moons of the planet Jupiter falsified the notion of a geocentric universe. Supposedly, Galileo suggested that the Pope (or possibly his representative) look through his telescope to satisfy himself that the 4 objects were indeed satellites of Jupiter but the latter allegedly refused to do so.

  20. #20 Norm
    December 29, 2009

    @19:

    Galileo’s discovery of the moons of Jupiter were evidence for heliocentrism but not the superiority of the heliocentric system over the Ptolemaic system. It would take Kepler’s work for that. Until that time, everybody assumed that planetary orbits were perfectly circular.

  21. #21 James McGrath
    December 29, 2009

    Jason, thanks for the clarification!

    SLC, what the observations of Jupiter’s moons showed was that not everything revolves around the Earth. It would take more evidence to decisively demonstrate that moons revolve around planets which in turn revolve around the sun.

    Galileo’s view reduced the number of epicycles but still required them because it was not until Kepler that positing elliptical orbits would eliminate the need for them altogether.

  22. #22 rob
    December 29, 2009

    i think the real problem was that Galileo was a Mac and the catholic church was a PC.

    and they all shoulda been using Linux.

  23. #23 Jim Harrison
    December 29, 2009

    Sorry, the warfare of science with theology version of history just doesn’t wash. Galileo got in trouble because his supporters in the church lost power, not because of some purported eternal hostility of the church to science. Now it is perfectly true that the Roman hierarchy hates to admit error, hence the belated and in many ways unsatisfactory apology about Galileo. However, in the interest of accuracy, it should be noted that the Jesuits were teaching Newtonian astronomy by the 18th Century, a time during which Enlightenment thinking was having an effect even inside the curia–the 19th Century church, curled up as it was in a defensive shell, was vastly more reactionary.

    Thing is, religions don’t have bones in ‘em. The Catholics have always insisted that the continuity and unity of the church depends on the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, since the Holy Spirit is missing in action, the coherence of the faith is largely an illusion. Odd that nonbelievers would argue in the alternative.

    It’s also too bad that insisting on the complexity of real history is automatically taken for some sort of defense of theology or, worse, of the autocratic organization of the Roman church. Mostly I wish Vatican City would fall into the Tiber, but I recognize that my antipathy to this outfit is irrelevant to making defensible historical judgments.

  24. #24 SLC
    December 29, 2009

    Re James McGrath

    The position of the church at the time was that the earth was at the center of the universe and that everything observed in the heavens revolved around it. Galileos’ discovery of the moons of Jupiter falsified that hypothesis. For the church to admit that there were bodies that did not revolve around the earth would have been catastrophic at the time, calling into question its position that it was the sole arbitrator of all knowledge.

  25. #25 Tyler DiPietro
    December 29, 2009

    “Galileo got in trouble because his supporters in the church lost power, not because of some purported eternal hostility of the church to science….However, in the interest of accuracy, it should be noted that the Jesuits were teaching Newtonian astronomy by the 18th Century”

    Why do I always get the sense advocating more “complex” versions of the history of science vis a vis religion can’t argue against anything other than strawmen? No one has argued that the church has never accepted any science.

    Galileo got in trouble because a scientific view he was advocating conflicted with the official dogma of the church. It doesn’t matter who happened to be in charge at the time, those who determined official dogma deemed Galileo’s heliocentrism unacceptable.

  26. #26 Tyler DiPietro
    December 29, 2009

    Sorry, “…the sense that those advocating more “complex” versions of history…”

  27. #27 Jim Harrison
    December 29, 2009

    What’s at stake here is the hobby horse Rosenhouse is riding, not some straw men I’m proposing. The Manichean tale of the Warfare of Science and Theology is the steed in question.

    If you read a lot of history, you recognize a familiar pattern in Galileo’s case. A guy who is favored by one Pope gets in trouble with the next or vice versa–a classic instance was Lorenzo Valla, the humanist who proved by philological methods that the Donations of Constantine, a document that supposedly gave the church dominion over most of Western Europe, was a late forgery. The church had every reason to be upset with Valla about that, of course; and Valla was lucky to escape with his skin. Nevertheless, when the old Pope died, the new Pope made Valla his secretary. Thing is, whether we’re talking astronomy or Medieval Latin, what counts as “the official dogma of the church” depends on politics more than anything else. So it does matter “who happened to be in charge at the time.” Whether you wind up as a saint and have candles burnt in front of your statue or end up getting burnt at the stake as a heretic has more to do with political conditions than unambiguous doctrines.

    I tend to think that a lot of what irritated the church about Galileo at the time he got in hot water had less to do with heliocentrism, which, after all, never turned out to be very threatening to Catholicism, and lots to do with Galileo’s interest in atomism, which threatened the intelligibility of the church’s beloved doctrine of transubstantiation and was therefore a lot hotter issue. We don’t give a damn about such things: they used to. What’s fascinating about history is the way it requires you to look at the world through alien eyes.

  28. #28 Tyler DiPietro
    December 29, 2009

    So the lack of perfect continuity between papal doctrine somehow negates the fact that Galileo was penalized for contradicting a religious dogma?

    All the condescension in the world couldn’t make that a cogent argument.

  29. #29 Pierce R. Butler
    December 29, 2009

    GrayGaffer @ # 15: … Galileo wrote an Aristotelian dialog about his discoveries in which he appeared to cast the Pope in the role of the stupid antagonist.

    He wrote such a dialog, with one character playing the role of fool, apparently intending to lampoon a minor local intellectual. Someone looking to stir up some trouble persuaded the pope that “Simplicius” was a parody of himself, and G was unable to convince him otherwise.

    G also landed in hot water for writing up his discovery of sunspots, since Official Doctrine™ held that the sun, being out of Sin range during that Adam’n’Eve cock-up, was perfect (literally “immaculate”, or [ahem] spotless).

  30. #30 t
    December 29, 2009

    I got this from various sources,Richard Tarnus I think.

    ‘The first opposition came not from the Catholic Church as one would expect, but from the Protestants.The Catholics allowed considerable latitude at this time.The Protestants claimed that it allowed the pristine literal truth of the Bible to be contaminated. Luther called Copernicus an “upstart astronomer, This fool wants to turn the entire science of astronomy upside down! But, as the Bible tells us, Joshua told the Sun, not the Earth, to stop in its path!” and was soon joined by others like Calvin who recommended stringent measures to suppress the heresy. The Bible said “The world also is established that it cannot be moved” The reformer, Phillip Melanchton, a close associate of Luther voices his opinion of Copernicus:’Some believe that to expound such an absurd matter, as that Sarmatian [Polish] astronomer has done, who would move the Earth and stop the Sun, is an excellent thing. Verily, wise governors should curb such talented rashness’.

    The Catholics felt bound to react to the Protestants. They could not allow them to occupy the ‘moral’ high ground, and took a definite stand against Copernicumism.In March 1616 the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation of the Index issued a decree suspending De revolutionibus until it could be “corrected,” on the grounds that the supposedly Pythagorean doctrine, that the Earth moves and the Sun doesn’t, was “false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture.” The same decree also prohibited any work that defended the mobility of the Earth or the immobility of the Sun, or that attempted to reconcile these assertions with Scripture.’

  31. #31 James Sweet
    December 30, 2009

    Dixon’s got a point. By the same token, the conflict in the Gaza Strip is not really a conflict between Jews and Palestinians, but really it is a dispute over who gets to control the land. World War II was not really a conflict between the Axis and the Allies, but really it was a disagreement over who got to expand their military empire. The Cola Wars was not really a conflict between Coke and Pepsi, but instead it was a difference over who should get the most money for selling carbonated sugar drinks.

    And this blog post is not a conflict between Dixon’s opinion and Rosenhouse’s opinion. It’s just a difference over which opinion is full of shit.

  32. #32 CDRealist
    December 30, 2009

    There is a sense in which what Dixon says is true. That is, if you read it as saying the argument was about how you seek the truth, by looking at the world or asking the Pope what God thinks about it.

  33. #33 Julie Stahlhut
    December 30, 2009

    Actually, I’d take this argument in an orthogonal direction. If the dispute was over whether religious authorities had the right to control secular knowledge, that IS a science-religion dispute, because it implies that religious institutions claim power simply by being religious. The wording of it just moves the root of the problem one step back.

    It’s kind of like the old “It’s not about race — it’s about class” argument. Fair enough at face value — rich people have looked down on the poor, regardless of whether their skin tones matched, for ages. However, if a society is organized in such a way that a visibly identifiable group gets fewer advantages in life, then race and class aren’t completely independent of each other, and an issue can’t be about one without being at least partly about the other.

  34. #34 Paul W.
    December 30, 2009

    Sorry, Bora, but your reasoning here seems pretty muddled.

    You seem to be taking a side in the is-it-religion-or-power debate, when the answer is pretty clearly that it is about both religion and power.

    By way of analogy, consider a Mafia don paying a contract killer to kill someone.

    Who did the murdering? Was it the don, or the contract killer?

    Clearly it was both. And it’s not that they are each 50 percent to blame. It’s that they are each 100 percent to blame. Neither is half a murderer. Both are fully murderers, and both are fully responsible. There is no law of conservation of blame.

    If you ask which one is “the real problem,” you clearly don’t get it.

    Continuing with the analogy, we often do ask which is essentially to blame about such things as mafia hits, but if we’re reasonable, that’s just a shorthand for asking which should we do something about? And often, which is it hopeless to try to do something about, such that we should focus on a different link in the causal chain?

    In the case of mafia hits, we might decide that we can make it harder, more dangerous, and less rewarding for contract killers to ply their trade. Or we might decide that’s not feasible—it’s already a capital crime, and it’s expensive to try to enforce the law against murder much more effectively.

    We might therefore work harder to pin murders on mafia dons, or just interfere with their business in other ways—e.g., prosecuting them for money laundering and income tax evasion. Without a market for killing contracts, there would be less contract killing.

    When it comes to religion vs. science, I think it’s pretty clear that both religion and power politics are to blame, in a mutually reinforcing way. Politicians—especially but not exclusively conservative ones—can use religion as a hit man to go after their political opponents, whether they themselves sincerely believe that stuff, or are just cynical manipulators. (Or both.)

    But likewise, religion exploits politics to perpetuate and empower itself.

    The accommodationists like to make it sound as if it’s not religion that’s calling the shots, but simply power politics with a religious veneer.

    But that’s false. Look at what’s happened to the Republicans lately—they created a fundamentalist monster that is going further than the cynical exploiters of religious paranoia wanted it to, and seriously damaging the party. Religion actually has a lot of power, and is calling political shots to a greater degree than many Republicans (and former Republicans) are comfortable with.

    The New Atheist position is that it’s reasonable to attack the problem there, by attacking religion fairly broadly, so that respect for religion and religious “morality” is diminished, and the balance of power shifts toward rationalism and a sound basis in reality. That’s arguably what you have to do in the long run, in order to make it harder for politicians to rationalize irrational policies. Pandering to religion may more or less work in the short run, but in the long run it’s giving away the store.

    You say

    1) Every conflict is about power. Ergo, every conflict is essentially a political conflict. Who gets to be the boss. Who gets the money. Who gets first dibs at the pretty peasant girls from the village that feeds the nobles in the castle. Who gets to kill whom. Who gets to invade whom. Who gets the territory.

    It’s not that simple. You make it sound like all conflicts are over tangible resources or liberties, contended for by parties in question trying to get those things for themselves.

    Some conflicts are actually over ideas, and imagined resources and liberties, or about resources or liberties for people (or non-people)who are not doing the contending.

    For example, the abortion conflict is sort-of “about” who gets to live or die, but not mostly about whether the people doing the fighting get to live or die. The abortion foes think that someone else’s fetus (or even zygote) is a person that they should protect. Many abortion proponents think that a fetus (or just a zygote) is not a person yet—it’s an individual organism of the human species, but still a proto-person, or just a pre-person or potential person in much the same way a sperm and egg pair are before uniting. (I’ll mostly gloss over the issue of a woman’s right to control her body if a zygote or fetus is considered a person; that’s tremendously important, too, but not relevant to my point here.)

    That is very much a conflict of religious and irreligious ideas, which isn’t just a thin veneer of religion on top of a basic fight for resources.

    Most orthodox religion in the US says that a zygote is a person, because it has a soul, and a soul is what makes a person a person. (Even many liberals believe this, sorta, but think a woman’s right to control her body trumps that person’s right to life.)

    Science says pretty much the opposite. Developmental biology, neuroscience and cognitive science have made it pretty clear that a zygote may be a human organism, but it’s not much like a person at all. The traditional “immaterial soul” appears not to exist, and what makes a person a person is information storage and processing in a meat machine. (If there’s a soul in there too, which we can’t quite rule out, it’s not much like the orthodox conception of the soul.) A zygote doesn’t do much information processing, and a fetus doesn’t do much person-like information processing for the first few months at least, so most fetuses (and certainly zygotes) appear not to be persons.

    Religion systematically confuses issues like life, morality, and personhood, so that people fight over nonexistent rewards and resources—e.g., spreading the Gospel so that people can go to Heaven, restricting others’ sexual behavior so that they’re less likely to fall into “sin” and maybe go to Hell, giving rights to non-people at the expense of actual people and/or other potential people, etc.

    As another example, consider condom distribution in HIV-afflicted subsaharan Africa. Conservative Catholics and Evangelicals have severely restricted funding for condom distribution, and religious leaders have spread lies about the effectiveness of condoms.

    That’s going to kill tens of millions of extra people over the next few decades.

    Perhaps that’s partly just a cynical ploy to undermine birth control so that the faithful will increase in number, and empower religious leaders.

    Somehow, I don’t think that’s most of it. The big story is that a lot of people, including many religious leaders, actually believe that sex is something designed by a Creator for a particular purpose. (Rather than what science says it is, i.e., an evolved behavior that has several evolutionary functions, but no purpose in the religious sense.) They are willing to promote disastrous policies, not to empower themselves, but because those policies are based on prescientific religious ideas that have a life of their own—that zygotes have souls, God designed penises and vaginas to incubate ensouled things, God doesn’t want penises and vaginas used just for fun, etc.

    (Similarly, the mess with embryonic stem cell research has roots in the same prescientific religious ideas.)

    Religious ideas generally obscure important truths, and that makes reasonable politics much harder. Powerful religious institutions defend those ideas against science and reason, and ally themselves with political parties in a symbiotic power relationship, but the ideas themselves still matter a whole lot. They are central to how the power symbiosis works—distorting values with imaginary entities, opportunities, and costs. That symbiotic power relationship will always be there as long as the ideas themselves are not subject to effective attack.

  35. #35 Paul W.
    December 30, 2009

    OOPS… I meant to post that on A Blog Around the Clock, not here, but pasted it into the wrong window.

    Bora seems to have missed Jason’s point.

  36. #36 Paul W.
    December 30, 2009

    James@31

    Right. And by the same token, a mafia contract killing isn’t a murder by a contract killer, or a murder by the person who hires him. It’s just a financial transaction in furtherance of other financial transactions.

  37. #37 Jesse
    December 30, 2009

    I get a whole stack of false dichotomy here.

    The dispute between Galileo and the Church was about science and religion in one (I think) rather narrow way, but it was about a lot of other things too. Why can’t this be so? Why must it be either-or, why not both-and?

    If I said that light bulbs light only because we mine coal to power them, that would be right — but it would be vastly incomplete, no? There’s the tungsten filament, the invention of better glassmaking technique, the introduction of AC current — all these things play a part, even quantum physics at one level.

    Conflicts are often multifaceted.

    And if you think that conflict had nothing to do with politics, you’d also have to come up with another way to explain the dispute between Lysenko and other biologists in the USSR. I think you’d have a tough time arguing it was over religion in that case, no? Are yo saying there are no parallels between Galileo’s conflict with the church and Soviet scientists hundreds of years later? I see many.

    And if there are parallels between the two, common factors, then it seems to me on its face that positing religion/science as the only point of contention is simply silly.

    Black and white with no shades of gray may have a lot of contrast, but you tend to lose detail in the picture.

  38. #38 david
    December 30, 2009

    Hangs and floats on Dixon’s “primarily” whatever that means, which some have quoted him as saying “really” which is the same thing, both vague qualifiers to mean whatever Dixon wants them to mean, and which should not make it past the correcting pen of a freshman English teacher for the Bad-writing Dixon, probably bad writing because the thought behind it is a pile of fuming excrement. Our blogger Jason is right here while Dixon hopes that the reader will grant clear meaning to what is not clear nor “shown.” Our blogger Jason did not grant it, his point is well taken, and he wins it.

  39. #39 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 30, 2009

    Jesse –

    I get a whole stack of false dichotomy here.

    The dispute between Galileo and the Church was about science and religion in one (I think) rather narrow way, but it was about a lot of other things too. Why can’t this be so? Why must it be either-or, why not both-and?

    No false dichotomy here. It IS both-and. But recognizing a variety of factors does not mean we can not identify some as more important than others. If the Church had not arrogated to itself the right to hold forth about the natural world based on its interpretation of scripture, then Galileo would have been no threat to them at all. In that case, all of the other political pressures in the world would have been irrelevant.

    david-

    Our blogger Jason is right here while Dixon hopes that the reader will grant clear meaning to what is not clear nor “shown.” Our blogger Jason did not grant it, his point is well taken, and he wins it.

    Whoo hoo! Victory is mine!

  40. #40 Michael Kingsford Gray
    December 31, 2009

    It should come as no surprise that the religious hierarchy and their indoctrinated minions should lie, defraud, cajole, murder, terrorise, torture, commit genocide upon, subject, disenfranchise, rape, abuse those who challenge their unearned privileges.
    For that is exactly how the meme propagates itself.

  41. #41 piles
    December 31, 2009

    Love your Blog!Whenever i see the post like yours i feel that there are helpful people who share information for the help of others,that must be helpful for others.Thank you so much for sharing.I can’t wait to see the next work of you.I’ll be keeping a close eye on your blog and looking forward to each new post.

  42. #42 KS
    December 31, 2009

    In the conflict between religion and science, politics is the means by which the battle is fought. To concentrate on the means is to ignore the reason for the conflict in the first place. In Galileo’s case, the Aristotelian world view was being questioned, and superseded by the Copernican. The scientific method trumps science. Religions for the most part, and especially Judaeo-Christ-Islamic ones, are not really flexible in reinterpreting data. They each claim authority from a supernatural source which is perfect, eternal and so unlike the world of existence. It is not to be improved upon, because it can’t be wrong.
    Science is always improving upon it’s ideas. Religions – not so much. Science is designed for perpetual change with no idea sacrosanct and above the facts. Religions, especially the monotheistic, “my god is the real one” kind, are considered islands of stability, a fortress of faith so strong that is untouched by facts.
    There will always be a conflict between science and some religions, to claim the conflict is political is subterfuge. Its a conflict between methods of dealing with uncomfortable facts.

  43. #43 Robert O'Brien
    December 31, 2009

    Biology is a hard science…

    Harder than some, but not as hard as others.

    It should come as no surprise that the religious hierarchy and their indoctrinated minions should lie, defraud, cajole, murder, terrorise, torture, commit genocide upon, subject, disenfranchise, rape, abuse those who challenge their unearned privileges.

    Atheists Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot have them beat when it comes to that.

    For that is exactly how the meme propagates itself.

    Referring to “memes” as if it is a legitimate concept is a sure sign of a moron.

    Ever heard of the Orthodox Christians? They were a pretty large group of non-Catholic Christians even before the sixteenth century.

    Don’t pester Jason with facts.

  44. #44 Cecelia
    January 1, 2010

    Galileo’s research was funded by the Pope – and the book Galileo wrote describing his findings was dedicated to the Pope. The Pope had read the work prior to its publication and had tried to create a compromise which would satisfy all the various players. It is interesting to consider that this centuries long discussion over Galileo and the Church – was a result of work the Church actually funded. Since they funded it clearly they were supporting the search for knowledge – one wonders why it didn’t occur to them that the knowledge so discovered might be a problem for the Church in other ways.

    I do think the point that this was not a dispute between science and religion but a dispute between ecclesiastical authority and science is important – and hence one should use the correct terminology when describing it. It is worthwhile to consider that the Church even in the Middle Ages had never insisted on literal readings of the Bible and that Galileo’s findings were never incompatible with any religious dogma. This makes the dispute very different from science and young earthers where the theory of evolution is clearly at odds with the religious dogma of the creationist folks.

    I do think we must be careful about shaping our understanding of events in the past to fit our current events especially when that past was very very different from how we think now. There were also internal politics re: this cardinal and that cardinal which played out in the dispute not to mention the broader themes of the emergence of modernity.

  45. I strongly recommend reading The Galileo Affair here

    http://www.galilean-library.org/manuscript.php?postid=43820

    Best regards from Brazil.

  46. #46 yogi-one
    January 3, 2010

    Sorry to be late to the party, but this thread fascinated me.
    Also, forgive the quote mining, but I think anyone who reads the thread has the context, so here goes:

    magicshoemonkey said
    He seems to say the Church was trying to keep the power to control knowledge within their own hands, regardless of reality.

    A-ha! I agree this whole thing is really about power, which is what so many human conflicts boil down to, especially once politics becomes involved. Defending beliefs can also be a motivation,as for example in the abortion debate, where a significant number of anti-abortionists seem to be in it for justice for embryonic humans, due to their beliefs. A wrong belief can be just as strongly defended as a right belief of course, and one can believe that a falsehood is true, and therefore be willing to fight to the death for a falsehood. Nevertheless, the dispute is at its core about who has the power to make other people live by my/my group’s standards, not theirs.

    The Church, which at the time was also playing the role that we now delegate to political parties, would not have bothered Galileo if power over other people was not at stake here. The whole thing would have just been a historical side-note of an interesting intellectual discussion. But as power became involved, it escalated in relative importance greatly.

    Galileo may have been fighting for knowledge from his side, but for the Church, power was clearly the issue. Religion becomes involved because of the fact that at that time (as throughout much of human history) the Church was the center of power in society. So they get intertwined, but if you really want to pick it a part, the dispute, IMHO, is about power.

    However, in the same breath, I will say that this is not to diminish the importance of the religion vs science aspect.

    Cecelia said
    Powerful religious institutions defend those ideas against science and reason, and ally themselves with political parties in a symbiotic power relationship, but the ideas themselves still matter a whole lot. They are central to how the power symbiosis works

    That is close to my opinion, but I think it’s worth remembering that the Church was/ the dominant political “party” of the time, so separating the two motivations becomes more difficult.

    It was a battle of ideas, but I think the power issue, at least from the Church’s side, amped up the whole thing into a major conflict. That indicates that the Church’s real issue was power, which suddenly moved the whole affair way beyond an intellectual argument between some Biblical scholars and a scientist, which is where it would have languished had the Church not sensed a threat to its political power.

  47. #47 nolrai
    January 4, 2010

    Man this is like saying the recent health care debates are not conflicts between the left and the right, but a conflict over the governments role in daily life. The “but” should really be a “and”.

  48. #48 Paul W.
    January 4, 2010

    yogi-one:

    Cecelia said:

    Powerful religious institutions defend those ideas against science and reason, and ally themselves with political parties in a symbiotic power relationship, but the ideas themselves still matter a whole lot. They are central to how the power symbiosis works

    Actually, it was me who said that… Cecilia said something else, which I disagree with.

    That is close to my opinion, but I think it’s worth remembering that the Church was/ the dominant political “party” of the time, so separating the two motivations becomes more difficult.

    It was a battle of ideas, but I think the power issue, at least from the Church’s side, amped up the whole thing into a major conflict.

    Right. I don’t think anybody here disagrees with that.

    What most of us disagree with is the idea that somehow its being “about power” makes it not about religious ideas as well.

    Ideas have power, which is why people fight over them.

    The particular ideas the Catholic Church was willing to fight for included the authority of scripture, and the authority of the Church over the interpretation of scripture, and the right of the Church to extert its power to suppress scientific ideas.

    Those are 100 percent about power and 100 percent about religion as well. It’s very, very much a both-and kind of thing, not an either-or.

    Cecilia said:

    I do think the point that this was not a dispute between science and religion but a dispute between ecclesiastical authority and science is important – and hence one should use the correct terminology when describing it.

    I think this is wrong. A dispute between ecclesiastical authority and science is very much a dispute between science and religion.

    One of the functions of religion is generally to grant or deny legitimacy to power arrangements, and either reinforce or erode power.

    Religion and politics go hand in hand, so saying that a religious political dispute is not a religious dispute but a political dispute is missing the main point.

    The ideas themselves are crucial to the power arrangements, and have been for thousands of years—especially the ideas about who has the authority to legitimate ideas.

    The function of scripture is largely to legitimate ideas that have political consequences. The function of ecclesiastical authority is control over which ideas are actually legitimated. (E.g., which parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy still count, what institution is The True Church and heir to the apostolic tradition, etc.)

    These things are inseparable.

    And it works both ways. When we legitimate ideas like democracy, civil rights, equality under the law, and separation of church and state, we challenge the authority of scripture, and often ecclesiastical authority.

    The scriptures legitimate kingship, dictatorship, theocracy, slavery, sexism, genocide, homophobia, etc., and those are intensely political ideas, not off on some separate sphere of “religion.”

    When we decide not to go those ways, politically, we are undermining scriptural authority and ecclesiastical authority. (Good for us!) We make the scriptures and ecclesiastical institutions look barbaric. (Which they are.)

  49. #49 Paul W.
    January 4, 2010

    It is worthwhile to consider that the Church even in the Middle Ages had never insisted on literal readings of the Bible and that Galileo’s findings were never incompatible with any religious dogma. This makes the dispute very different from science and young earthers where the theory of evolution is clearly at odds with the religious dogma of the creationist folks.

    That’s an interesting issue, but I don’t think it’s that simple.

    The Catholic Church certainly reserved the right to pronounce on which scriptures were literally true, or non-literally true, etc., and did so in a dogmatic way.

    For example, the Catholic Church asserted that it was the one holy catholic (i.e., universal) and apostolic church.

    That is, it was the one true Church, it was only truly holy Church, it was the church for everybody, and it was the heir to the apostolic tradition—the popes are the “successors of Peter,” the rock on which all that is built.

    That is dogma, in support of other dogmas—original sin, substitutional punishment, the Incarnation, the Trinity, third-party forgiveness, etc., etc.

    It’s about dogma and authority and power; it’s just not scriptural literalism.

    Scriptural literalism is often a red herring, a convenient stick to bash the outright capital-F Fundamentalists with, and exempt the mainstream orthodox Christians, who do buy a lot of dogma as well.

    The Catholic Church’s orthodoxy was (and is) very convenient—it grants itself authority that trumps the scriptures. That lets it flex on some scientific matters, but not others. (Those that undermine central tenets of the religion, and thus the authority and power of the Church.)

  50. #50 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    January 8, 2010

    Yes, Jsson and Paul M.!

  51. #51 Alex V.
    January 21, 2010

    Some great points made in this discussion, especially by Jason Rosenhouse and Paul W. I should email this whole thing to the Pope. I doubt he will see all the distinctions made here and he’ll probably label even the more “conservative” bloggers as sinful atheists. It’s fun to remember that, for whichever reason, before 1996, the Church still considered Galileo a heretic. Even today they don’t seem too happy about him. Very little has changed.

  52. #52 UK Mortgage Loans
    January 5, 2011

    It has really great dispute. But now science is accepting the religious thing after the discovery on different things.

  53. #53 Small Business
    January 19, 2011

    Science and religion had dispute but now science is discovering all those things which is already found in religion.

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