D’bunking D’Souza’s d’bunking

Writing for townhall.com, Dinesh D’Souza tries to claim that the antagonism between Christianity and science is a myth.

Many people have uncritically accepted the idea that there is a longstanding war between science and religion… Little do the peddlers of this paradigm realize that they are victims of nineteenth-century atheist propaganda.

And just in case anyone is unfamiliar with the term “propaganda,” D’Souza proceeds to give us a brilliant example of the form, twisting the facts of history to make it sound like the Galileo story has nothing to do with any conflict between science and the Church. As an added bonus, he throws in a gratuitous attempt to make the scientist look like the bad guy, right in the middle of arguing that Christians have no hard feelings towards science.

D’Souza begins by blaming the whole thing on the atheists.

About a hundred years ago, two anti-religious bigots named John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White wrote books promoting the idea of an irreconcilable conflict between science and God. The books were full of facts that have now been totally discredited by scholars. But the myths produced by Draper and Dickson continue to be recycled.

D’Souza’s self-appointed mission: to document and debunk these myths.

The Flat Earth Fallacy: According to the atheist narrative, the medieval Christians all believed that the earth was flat until the brilliant scientists showed up in the modern era to prove that it was round. In reality, educated people in the Middle Ages knew that the earth was round. In fact, the ancient Greeks in the fifth century B.C. knew the earth was a globe.

So point number one is that, until Draper and White came along about a hundred years ago, everyone knew that Christians had always accepted the round earth since the Middle Ages, if not since about 500 years before Christ. Then these two atheists started spreading a myth claiming that Christians believed in a flat earth until modern scientists showed up, and the myth displaced the fact.

It only takes a trivial amount of research–even Wikipedia is sufficient–to discover that the misconceptions about the flat earth did not arise with atheists Draper and White.

The modern misconception that people of the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat first entered the popular imagination in the nineteenth century, thanks largely to the publication of Washington Irving‘s fantasy The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1828.

Irving, however, was not notably atheistic and is thus unsuitable for the propagandistic purpose of blaming everything on atheists, so D’Souza simply ignores him, and blames the misconception entirely on Draper and White. Then he takes up Thomas Huxley (another atheist).

Huxley’s Mythical Put-Down: We read in various books about the great debate between Darwin’s defender Thomas Henry Huxley and poor Bishop Wilberforce. As the story goes, Wilberforce inquired of Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his father or mother’s side, and Huxley winningly responded that he would rather be descended from an ape than from an ignorant bishop who was misled people about the findings of science. A dramatic denouement, to be sure, but the only problem is that it never happened. There is no record of it in the proceedings of the society that held the debate, and Darwin’s friend Joseph Hooker who informed him about the debate said that Huxley made no rejoinder to Wilberforce’s arguments.

Doesn’t it seem a bit odd to cite a debate between a defender of science and a defender of Christianity, if you’re trying to prove that there’s no debate between science and Christianity? If Huxley is defending science, then what was Bishop Wilberforce’s role in the debate? And what kind of debate do you have if the two sides are not in conflict?

As for the quote itself, it’s a trivial matter. Did Huxley get credit for a witty retort that he never made, or that he made later on, or that someone else made and attributed to him? Maybe, maybe not, but it does not change the fact that Bishop Wilberforce, speaking on behalf of and in defense of the Christian faith, was there as an outspoken and insouciant foe of evolutionary science. As reported in The Athenaeum,

The Bishop of Oxford came out strongly against a theory which holds it possible that man may be descended from an ape – in which protest he is sustained by Prof. Owen, Sir Benjamin Brodie, Dr Daubeny, and the most eminent naturalists assembled at Oxford. But others – conspicuous among them Prof. Huxley – have expressed their willingness to accept, for themselves as well as for their friends and enemies, all actual truths, even the last humiliating truth of a pedigree not registered in the Herald’s College. The dispute has at least made Oxford uncommonly lively during the week.14

Mind you, other scientists also had reservations about evolution at the time. The difference is that the scientific skepticism was based on a lack of evidence, and has effectively vanished as Darwin’s conclusions were documented to be consistent with the facts. Conservative Christians, by contrast, shared Wilberforce’s theological objections to evolution, and remain hostile to it even to this day.

D’Souza continues his attack on Darwin and company by claiming that Christians aren’t the only ones hostile to evolution. (Remember, he’s arguing that Christians do not have any axes to grind vis à vis science.)

Darwin Against the Christians: As myth would have it, when Darwin’s published his Origin of Species, the scientists lined up on one side and the Christians lined up on the other side. In reality, there were good scientific arguments made both in favor of Darwin and against him.

This was actually true for a relatively brief period of time. Once again, however, scientific skepticism faded as the evidence mounted. Conservative Christian theological objections to evolution, however, did not fade, and by the time Draper and White wrote their book, it was quite true, as it is today, that scientists (with a few conservative Christian exceptions) line up on the side of evolution, and conservative Christians, for theological reasons, line up against it. Again, it’s an odd point to bring up if you’re trying to disprove the idea that there’s a conflict between Christianity and science.

The Experiment Galileo Didn’t Do: We read in textbooks about how Galileo went to the Tower of Pisa and dropped light and heavy bodies to the ground. He discovered that they hit the ground at the same time, thus refuting centuries of idle medieval theorizing. Actually Galileo didn’t do any such experiments; one of his students did.

Again, let’s remind ourselves that D’Souza thinks he is disproving the notion that there’s any Christian hard feelings towards science. Yet here he is, as a Christian, trying to make the scientist Galileo look like a fraud. Not exactly the best way to show that scientists and Christians are all buddy-buddy, eh? But at least it makes scientists look bad, which, from a Christian perspective, is some good. And who cares whether Professor Galileo personally dropped the balls or had one of his students do the menial work? Research is still research–a concept D’Souza is apparently none too familiar with:

The student discovered what we all can discover by doing similar experiments ourselves: the heavy bodies hit the ground first!

Uh, no. Sorry Mr. D’Souza, but unless the lighter body has a size-to-weight ratio large enough to make air resistance a significant factor, gravity will accelerate all bodies at an equal rate. Anything else would contradict Newton’s Law of Gravity.

it is only in the absence of air resistance that all bodies hit the ground at the same time.

Wrong again. You can compensate for air resistance by making sure each falling body has the same size-to-weight ratio. Release two balls whose diameter is inversely proportional to their weight, and they will hit the ground at the same time: the smaller size of the lighter ball reduces the influence of air resistance to that experienced by the heavier ball. (Ok, I haven’t done the exact math, but you get the idea: compensate for the differences in air resistance, and the Law of Gravity will work as predicted.)

Galileo Was the First to Prove Heliocentrism: Actually, Copernicus advanced the heliocentric theory that the sun, not the earth, is at the center, and that the earth goes around the sun.

More scientist-bashing. Maybe somebody should remind Mr. D’Souza that his stated goal is to try and prove that Christians aren’t out to get the scientists?

The Church Dogmatically Opposed the New Science: In reality, the Church was the leading sponsor of the new science and Galileo himself was funded by the church.

More precisely, the Church owned the scientists, and kept all research under the Church’s thumb, the more easily to squash any findings which threatened Christian supremacy in matters of belief and practice. Galileo himself is a case in point: his research discovered things that were “controversial” (i.e. that conflicted with what the Church wanted people to believe), and so they told him he could not publish it. The whole point of buying scientists is so you can make them say, or not say, whatever you want.

The leading astronomers of the time were Jesuit priests. They were open to Galileo’s theory but told him the evidence for it was inconclusive. This was the view of the greatest astronomer of the age, Tyco Brahe.

Which is all well and good, but the scientific response to inconclusive evidence is to publish your findings so that your peers can critique it and do further studies, thus uncovering more evidence and allowing a more conclusive determination to be made. The Church’s response, however, was to tell Galileo not to publish. (Remember, D’Souza is trying to prove that there’s no conflict between science and the Church.) That’s about as opposite to the scientific approach as you can get.

Galileo Was A Victim of Torture and Abuse: This is perhaps the most recurring motif, and yet it is entirely untrue. Galileo was treated by the church as a celebrity. When summoned by the Inquisition, he was housed in the grand Medici Villa in Rome.

Uh, no, summoning someone to appear before the Inquisition is not “treating them like a celebrity.” It’s true that Galileo’s influential friends did see to it that he got better treatment than most, but he was still under arrest. And while it’s true that Galileo managed to escape the threat of torture, even the Church obliquely admits the threat was there, though it dismisses the threat as “pure formality” (!).

The Church Was Wrong To Convict Galileo of Heresy: But Galileo was neither charged nor convicted of heresy. He was charged with teaching heliocentrism in specific contravention of his own pledge not to do so.

The Roman Catholic Church, at the Pope’s request, conducted a formal investigation into the trial of Galileo. Let’s let catholiceducation.org contrast D’Souza’s version of the trial with what the Church itself actually concluded.

Bellarmine, in effect, challenged Galileo to prove his theory or stop pestering the Church. Galileo’s response was to produce his theory of the tides, which purported to show that the tides are caused by the rotation of the earth. Even some of Galileo’s supporters could see that this was patent nonsense. Determined to have a showdown, however, Galileo came to Rome to confront Pope Paul V. The Pope exasperated by all this fuss about the planets, referred the matter to the Holy Office. The Qualifiers (i.e. theological experts) of the Holy Office soon issued an opinion that the Copernican doctrine is “foolish and absurd, philosophically and formally heretical inasmuch as it expressly contradicts the doctrine of Holy Scripture in many passages…”

This verdict was fortunately overruled under pressure of more cautious Cardinals and was not published until 1633, when Galileo forced a second showdown. A milder decree, which did not include the word “heresy”, was issued and Galileo was summoned before the Holy Office. For that day, February 26, 1616, a report was put into the files of the Holy Office which states that Galileo was told to relinquish Copernicanism and commanded “to abstain altogether from teaching or defending this opinion and doctrine, and even from discussing it.”

There is a still unresolved controversy over whether this document is genuine, or was forged and slipped into the files by some unscrupulous curial official. At Galileo’s request, Bellarmine gave him a certificate which simply forbade him to “hold or defend” the theory. When, sixteen years later, Galileo wrote his famous Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems, he technically did not violate Bellarmine’s injunction. But he did violate the command recorded in the controversial minute, of which he was completely unaware and which was used against him at the second trial in 1633.

This second trial was again the result of Galileo’s tactless importunity. When, in the 1623, Galileo’s friend and supporter Cardinal Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII, Galileo naturally thought that he could get the decree of 1616 lifted. Urban gave several private audiences to Galileo, during which they discussed the Copernican theory. Urban was a vain, irascible man who, in the manner of a late prince of the Renaissance, thought he was qualified to make pronouncements in all areas of human knowledge. At one audience, he told Galileo that the Church did not define Copernicanism as heretical and would never do so. But at the same time, he opined that all this quibbling about the planets did not touch on reality: only God could know how the solar system is really disposed.

As a scientist, Galileo was perfectly correct in rejecting this half baked philosophizing. But he grossly miscalculated Urban’s tolerance by writing the great Dialogue. There he not only made it clear that he considered the defenders of Aristotle and Ptolemy to be intellectual clowns, but he made Simplicio, one of the chief interlocuters of the dialogue, into a silly mouthpiece for Urban’s views on cosmology. Galileo was mocking the very person he needed as his protector, a pope whose hubris did not take such barbs with equanimity. At the same time, Galileo alienated the Jesuit order with his violent attacks on one of its astronomers, Horatio Grassi, over the nature of comets (and, in fact, the Jesuit was right — comets are not exhalations of the atmosphere, as Galileo supposed.)

The result of these ill-advised tactics was the famous second trial, which is still celebrated in song and myth as the final parting of ways between faith and science. Galileo, an old sick man, was summoned before the Inquisition in Rome. In vain he argued that he was never shown the document which, unbeknownst to him and Bellarmine, had been slipped into the file in 1616 forbidding him to even to discuss heliocentricism. Contrary to popular accounts, Galileo did not abjure the theory under threat of torture. Both he and the Inquisitors knew that the threat of torture was pure formality. Galileo was, in fact, treated with great consideration. Against all precedent, he was housed with a personal valet in a luxurious apartment overlooking the Vatican gardens. As for the trial itself, given the evidence and the apparent injunction of 1616, it was by the standards of 17th century Europe extremely fair. The historian Giorgio de Santillana, who is not disposed toward the Church’s side, writes that “we must, if anything, admire the cautiousness and legal scruples of the Roman authorities” in a period when thousands of “witches” and other religous deviants were subjected to juridical murder in northern Europe and New England.

Galileo was finally condemned by the Holy Office as “vehemently suspected of heresy.” The choice of words was debatable, as Copernicanism had never been declared heretical by either the ordinary or extraordinary Magisterium of the Church. In any event, Galileo was sentenced to abjure the theory and to keep silent on the subject for the rest of his life, which he was permitted to spend in a pleasant country house near Florence. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “In a generation which saw the Thirty Years’ War and remembered Alva in the Netherlands, the worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honorable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.” And it is notable that three of the ten Cardinals who sat on the Commission did not sign the judgment, although we do not know their precise motives for abstaining.

So yes, if you want to quibble, Galileo was only convicted of being “vehemently suspected of heresy,” and not of outright heresy itself. You say poTAYto, I say poTAHto, he still was forbidden to teach heliocentrism, by the Church.

I’ll grant you that Galileo, like Isaac Newton, seems to have been a first-class jerk in terms of his public relations skills. I’ll even grant you that much of his conflict with the Church was provoked by his own actions. But you can’t read through the history of the Galileo affair and ignore the significant role Christian theology played in people’s reluctance to embrace his astronomical findings. (Well you can, but that would be revisionism.) Nor was the Galileo affair the end of scientist-bashing on the part of Christians, as D’Souza’s own article shows.

There may well be certain liberal Christians who are able to confront the findings of science without alarm or hostility, as there were in Galileo’s day, but their existence does not change the fundamental and traditional conflicts that conservative Christians have always had with the secular, scientific approach to truth. Science is about the real world, a world in which God consistently and universally fails to behave as though He believed the Gospel. Accuracy in science can only expose how inconsistent the Christian story is with objective truth.

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2 Responses to “D’bunking D’Souza’s d’bunking”

  1. capeandcowl Says:

    Hey fantastic post. D’Souza selective view of history is utterly annoying. I’ve been deconstructing his arguments on my own blog as well: http://theatheisthandbook.blogspot.com/

    Glad to see others taking him to task for his rather selective view of history as well.

    Keep up the good work.


  2. D’Souza rewrites history (again) « Evangelical Realism Says:

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