Does the Church Have Authority Over Science?
by David Geelan | 15 August 2019
Eppur si muove, which translates as “And yet it moves,” is a phrase purportedly muttered by Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) as he was led away from his trial by the Inquisition for heliocentrism—the belief that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of the solar system. Galileo was forced to recant his view, and was placed under house arrest for the last 10 years of his life.
Geocentrism, the dominant model of the time, and the model adopted by the church, held that Earth was at the center of the Solar System—and, indeed, of the universe, since the distinction wasn’t really understood—and that Earth was of “base matter,” corrupted, while the planets, sun and moon were perfect celestial spheres that moved in perfect circles.
It was as much a philosophical and theological position as a scientific one, and in the end it was careful scientific observations that led to change. Work by Tycho Brahe on very carefully mapping and plotting the motion of the planets, and early work by Galileo with the first telescopes, which revealed that the moon had craters and features, rather than being a perfect featureless sphere, began to challenge some features of the geocentric world view.
Heliocentrism drew on the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, a devout churchman. Copernicus recognized that the increasingly complex system of “epicycles”—smaller circular orbits added to larger circular orbits—required to explain the motion of the planets, moon and sun from the perspective of geocentrism could be replaced by a far simpler and more elegant system of elliptical orbits with the sun placed at the center and Earth being one among a number of planets orbiting it.
(From a modern relativistic perspective, neither of these views is considered to be “true.” Rather, both Earth and sun are frames of reference for motion that can be used depending on what we are trying to achieve. Our whole solar system is orbiting the galactic center, and our galaxy is moving relative to other galaxies. There is no single fixed “true” frame of reference to which we can compare motion, and no center to the universe.)
Like the stories of Newton’s apple and Archimedes’ bath, the “Eppur si muove” incident may well be apocryphal—but Galileo’s stubborn resistance and commitment to truth makes a great story! And it illustrates a key point, which is made in another way by the aphorism (updated for inclusive language): “Someone convinced against their will, is of the same opinion still.”The history and philosophy of science is rarely as simple as it seems. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600, and while it is often said that this was due to his support for heliocentrism, in fact there were other matters of doctrine on which he was judged to be heretical and which led to his death. There probably was no actual martyr to the cause of heliocentrism, although Galileo certainly experienced a trial and confinement for it. Even in the case of Galileo, to some extent he brought his fate on himself by including a somewhat direct attack on the current pope in his book about astronomy.
But I recount this history with a purpose: to address what happens when the church or any other body seeks to ban a new concept in science through authority, control and force. While we see a small (and arguably mostly trollish rather than serious) resurgence of “flat Earth” belief these days, and that is often associated with geocentrism, very few people seriously hold to a view which places Earth at the center of the solar system now. The weight of evidence has shifted, and the weight of argument too. Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend suggests that it was Galileo’s rhetorical tricks and eloquence that carried the day, as much as the empirical evidence.
A personal favorite story: in an attempt to save the element of geocentrism that claimed that celestial bodies were perfect featureless spheres, churchmen suggested that, although the moon looked bumpy through a telescope, in fact its surface was covered by a layer of an invisible, transparent substance, such that in fact the surface was a perfect smooth sphere. Galileo accepted (for the purpose of argument) their premise that the invisible material existed, but claimed that it was, instead, piled up higher over the mountains of the moon, and lower over the craters, so that in fact the moon was twice as bumpy as it looked! With an argument incapable of being tested, either possibility was equally plausible.
The notion that it is possible to hold back scientific knowledge and progress that challenges existing views seems not to be well supported by evidence from the history and philosophy of science.
One element of this is that fixed doctrines on scientific matters sometimes seem to be drawn from metaphorical expressions used in Scripture. The idea that the Earth was flat was drawn in part from the reference in Isaiah 11:12 to the “four corners of the Earth.” In hindsight we would see this as a reference to the four cardinal compass directions—North, East, South and West—and as a reassurance that God would return all of his people from their diaspora, no matter where they had gone, but it was held to be Biblical support for a flat Earth.
Many geocentric views of the world placed hell literally underground, and heaven literally in the sky, and to consider Earth to be simply one among many planets complicated that view. Giordano Bruno believed that the stars were other suns, potentially with planets orbiting them, potentially with life on those planets. This is a thoroughly modern view—although we still have no evidence either way on life elsewhere in the universe—that he developed in the early 1500s.
I very much enjoyed Larry Downing’s recent article “Would Uneducated Adventists Be Better Adventists?” At the crux of some of the issues he raised was the use of compulsion, coercion and control to try to police the views of believers within the Adventist church.
The current issue for science and religion in Adventism is, and has been for some time, origins. There are other potential issues, but this is the one where increasing focus is being placed. Various sponsored “religion and science” seminars and conferences are being run by the church, but their topics are strictly circumscribed to support a recent creationist orthodoxy.
Historically, in Adventism there was scope for a broader range of perspectives on just when and how God created the universe, Earth and life. In 2004, however, the wording of Fundamental Belief 6 was tightened to the following:
God has revealed in Scripture the authentic and historical account of His creative activity. He created the universe, and in a recent six-day creation the Lord made “the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them” and rested on the seventh day. Thus He established the Sabbath as a perpetual memorial of the work He performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today. The first man and woman were made in the image of God as the crowning work of Creation, given dominion over the world, and charged with responsibility to care for it. When the world was finished it was “very good,” declaring the glory of God. (Gen. 1-2; 5; 11; Exod. 20:8-11; Ps. 19:1–6; 33:6, 9; 104; Isa. 45:12, 18; Acts 17:24; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2; 11:3; Rev. 10:6; 14:7.)
Prior to this change the words “recent six-day creation” hadn’t been included, and the wording on “the heavens, earth and… sea” allowed a little more scope. As currently stated, for example, the view held by many Adventists that the universe is old while Earth and life are young is excluded, as is a view that the Earth spent a long time “without form and void” prior to creation. A very wide range of the views that actual Adventist believers hold is excluded by this form of words in the Fundamental Belief. Jack Hoehn’s excellent recent series on the Adventist Today website on design in the cell and the complexity of life, for example, is not consistent with current Adventist belief as encapsulated in Fundamental 6.
The change to the Fundamental Belief occurred 15 years ago, but in my view the issue is coming to a head now alongside the ordination of female pastors, because there seems to be a great appetite for conformity and coercion on the part of the current General Conference leadership. A “compliance document” will be voted at the next General Conference session, and is likely to pass, with the intention of enforcing conformity and reducing the freedom of individuals, as well as all levels of the organization, to follow their conscience, the evidence and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Like King Canute trying and failing to hold back the tide through sheer force of authority, the Inquisition, with all its power, didn’t manage to hold back scientific progress and the understanding that the sun is at the center of our solar system. Those who seek to enforce particular understandings of the Scriptural accounts of origins may find salutary lessons in those experiences.
David Geelan is Sue’s husband and Cassie and Alexandra’s dad. He started out at Avondale College and has ended up (so far) as an Associate Professor of Science Education at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, Australia.