Thoughts on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Secret History of Science and Religion’ (Part 2)

Sir Isaac Newton (1642—1727). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Sir Isaac Newton (1642—1727). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Guest writer Grace Dalton continues her four-part series of posts on BBC Radio 4’s The Secret History of Science and Religion, broadcast last year.

(Continued from Part 1)

Contrasting Christianity with pagan faiths, McLeish cites the Venerable Bede, who, we’re told, argued that believers should possess a familiarity with what we would now call science, so as to quash superstitious ideas about phenomena such as thunder and lightning. “We should not fear demons… In His wisdom, this is how God made the world.”

“As an example of the many now-debunked myths about medieval belief, Spencer reflects: ‘The Church had known that the world wasn’t flat centuries before Columbus set sail in 1492.’ This should give listeners pause in considering what fallacies they may have bought into regarding the ignorance of others.”

As an example of the many now-debunked myths about medieval belief, Spencer then reflects: “The Church had known that the world wasn’t flat centuries before Columbus set sail in 1492.” Indeed, this should give listeners pause in considering what fallacies they may have bought into regarding the ignorance of others.

One of the biggest misconceptions, Spencer proposes, may be the impact of Copernicus’s work, in that it is typically wrongly assumed that heliocentrism (belief that the sun is at the centre of the solar system) insulted the prevalent belief in Earth’s uniqueness. I myself had been led to believe that the Church was antithetical to the revelation that the Earth orbits the sun, as do the other planets, rather than itself being the centre around which the other bodies orbit. Because humanity is so precious to God, perhaps the Church wrongly assumed that God put our home at the centre of the universe, with other bodies serving simply as surrounding decoration? No, several of Spencer’s guests assert; rather, the reason the Earth had previously been thought to be in a distinct position — low, not central — is that it was deemed to be far away from the heavenly bodies, which were thought of as so holy that they must all be far above flawed humanity. This suggests less arrogance on the part of the medieval Church than is often supposed. But as with other points raised by the programme, the presentation of supporting evidence would have been helpful.

“Aristotle, it is argued, had originally popularised the notion of geocentrism. And Christian thinkers — such as Thomas Aquinas in the high Middle Ages — actively endorsed the marrying of Christian theology and Aristotelean thought (since the latter was foundational to the nascent Western science of the time). This syncretism might come as a surprise to those who imagine Christianity to be defiantly opposed to other worldviews.”

Aristotle, it is argued, had originally popularised the notion of geocentrism. And Christian thinkers — such as Thomas Aquinas in the high Middle Ages — actively endorsed the marrying of Christian theology and Aristotelean thought (since the latter was foundational to the nascent Western science of the time). This syncretism might come as a surprise to those who imagine Christianity to be defiantly opposed to other worldviews. Spencer suggests that criticism of Aristotle, when it arose in the Reformation atmosphere of the sixteenth century, thus felt like an attack on the Church; undoubtedly the Reformation contributed to the separation of Aristotle from Christian thinking. I wonder if, here, there might not have been some comment on any of the Bible passages that might indicate whether it was wrong to link Christianity and Aristotelianism in the first place?

In addressing the work of Galileo, Peter Harrison raises the point that the heliocentrism he espoused was much debated within the scientific community at the time — and not simply opposed by the Church. All too often, those who haven’t had access to a scientific education incorrectly presume that scientific consensus is homologous. Whereas in fact, on most scientific matters within the academic community there are conflicting theories, with agreement only growing progressively, as peer reviewed evidence accumulates and alternative theories are sidelined. Majority views change not infrequently, as the history of science and current scientific publications demonstrate. Thus Galileo’s trial for heresy might have been the manifestation of hostility not solely from the Church.

Furthermore, Harrison contends that Galileo riled the Catholic Church by appearing to question its authority during the particularly sensitive decades that followed the Reformation. It’s extremely important to remind non-Christians that the institution of any given denomination (be it the Catholic Church or any other) is not the same thing as Christianity itself; and that many conflicts in Church history are the result of certain denominations’ leadership at particular times, rather than the fault of Christianity itself.

Spencer agrees with the consensus that the treatment of Galileo by the Catholic Church was of particular significance. But importantly, he adds that this did not include torture, merely the threat of it. I’m again frustrated at this point by the absence of citations. He is highlighting and contradicting a common myth (that Galileo was tortured), demonstrating the fallibility of medieval history, yet failing to show on what evidence we can conclude that Galileo was not tortured but only shown torture equipment.

“Robert Iliffe describes Sir Isaac Newton as being highly religious throughout his life, specifically having acquired ‘a great deal of hostility’ towards the Catholic Church via his Protestant upbringing. His Protestantism additionally instilled in him a sense of duty to exercise reason in his study of Christianity, and Iliffe attributes to Newton a belief in his being destined to be a ‘saint’ of sorts.”

Galileo, we are told, had been warned by the Church to limit the claims he might make. He overstepped this by too plainly asserting heliocentrism, whilst employing slight satire and misplaced confidence in his prior friendship with the new Pope. I hope that this serves to illustrate to listeners that clashes of personality, rather than of worldview, lay at the heart of this affair.

The second episode references the Boyle lectures, Robert Boyle being one of history’s best known scientists, who, we are told, was also a theologian who left money in his will to fund lectures defending Christianity. Spencer argues that Boyle, Newton and others would never have imagined a “war between science and religion,” but also that the establishment of such a lecture series implies an awareness of potential friction. But since we aren’t told the themes and contents of the lectures It’s hard to assess this suggestion.

Robert Iliffe, professor of History of Science at Oxford, describes Newton as being highly religious throughout his life, specifically having acquired “a great deal of hostility” towards the Catholic Church via his Protestant upbringing (again, a quote to support this assertion would be helpful). His Protestantism additionally instilled in him a sense of duty to exercise reason in his study of Christianity, and Iliffe attributes to Newton a belief in his being destined to be a “saint” of sorts. Might not this latter point suggest arrogance to some non-Christian listeners? It is, moreover, suggested that there was a concordance between Newton’s twin explorations of science and of theology. Will sceptical listeners consider how this motive of research to ascertain truth and reality differs from the ‘blind faith’ they often presume that theists have?

“In the perception of Brits, Isaac Newton’s achievements were allied to theism, thus strengthening the credibility of Christianity; whilst across the Channel his work was perceived as a vindication of the Enlightenment movement as it rebelled against the Church.”

The impact of Newton’s work is then contrasted between Britain and France. Allegedly, in the perception of Brits his achievements were allied to theism, thus strengthening the credibility of Christianity; whilst across the Channel Newton’s work was perceived as a vindication of the Enlightenment movement as it rebelled against the Church. Secular France’s descent into revolution shored up the feeling in Britain that abandonment of religion spurred on disorder.

Philosophy’s embrace of science as a force for progress increasingly rendered religious authority as a contrasting and thus regressive institution, Harrison asserts. I wonder whether it’s clear enough to listeners that this is a logical fallacy? Spencer rightly raises here the vital point that there’s a distinction to be made between religious authority and religion itself, opining that it’s the former against which science was weaponised. Of course, in our present secular society, the distinction is too often overlooked.

Illustrating the point, Voltaire is referenced as an influential thinker who felt a particular aversion to the Catholic Church, having apparently previously been locked up because of it, and because of the intolerance of which he was such a scathing critic.

Spencer puts forward the hypothesis that the root issue of disagreements is how human beings are considered. Are we just masses of atoms, or are we spiritual and created in God’s image? Hedley Brooke endorses the latter view, but rightly adds that we shouldn’t simplify; indeed each individual will have personal philosophical concerns. Even materialistic philosophers often “stopped short” at denying the human soul (Descartes is given as an example), up until a watershed whereby Julien Offray de La Mettrie argued in Man a Machine that we have no soul nor spirituality. Meanwhile, the chemical revolution was taking place, with new realisations such as the discovery of oxygen in 1774 contributing to people thinking very differently about the reality of the world around them.

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