Science and Religion

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This sequence covers a basic introduction to the relationship between science and religion. It explores the Big Bang Theory, Evolution and the Flat Earth Theory.

A2 The Big Bang Theory

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The Big Bang theory is currently the best theory we have to explain the origin of the universe. Modern science believed that the universe had always been around. Einstein had developed his theory of relativity which actually predicts a start to the universe. He thought this can't be right and so added a fudge factor (Einstein's Cosmological Constant) to maintain what many scientists held to be true that the universe had always existed. A physicist by the name of George Lemaître looked at the equations and realised that the fudge factor should not be there and wrote a paper to explaining his theory that the uniserse was expanding. started from some 'primeval atom'. Einstein said he was wrong. When Hubble discovered evidence that the universe was expanding and some scientists were getting together to work out how to understand this, George sent his paper to them. They realised he got it right and Einstein then congratulated George on his achievement and they travelled together giving a lecture series on their understanding. You can read about it in, "'A Day Without Yesterday': Georges Lemaitre & the Big Bang"

Big Bang

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NASA / WMAP Science Team

A representation of the evolution of the universe over 13.77 billion years. The far left depicts the earliest moment we can now probe, when a period of "inflation" produced a burst of exponential growth in the universe.

A3 Flat Earth

Submitted by rjzaar on April 30, 2017 - 1:56pm

The ancients were well aware the world was a sphere. Pythagoras (6th century B.C.) is generally credited with having first suggested a round Earth. Aristotle (4th century B.C.) agreed and supported the theory with observations such as that the southern constellations rise higher in the sky when a person travels south. He also noted that during a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow is round.  Eratosthenes (3rd century B.C., head librarian at the Library of Alexandria) built on their ideas and calculated the circumference of the Earth with remarkable accuracy at about 252,000 stadia.  Depending on which stadion measurement he was using, his figure was either just 1% too small or 16% too large; many scholars think it likely that he was using the Egyptian stadion (157.5 m), being in Egypt at the time, which would make his estimate about 1% to small… remarkable.

Among the Catholics St. Augustine (354–430) wrote,  “it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form.” (De Civitate Dei, Book XVI, Chapter 9). There are many other examples such as Bede, "Now the Earth's roundness and the Sun's orbit constitute the obstacle to the day's being equally long in every land." St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote, "For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself." (ST I, 1, 1, ad2) You can find more at "Spherical Earth".

The idea that Columbus sailed to the “New World” against the wisdom of his day is a complete myth, if a very persistent one. So then where did this myth actually come from? Jon Sorensen identified the earliest source as Washington Irving's A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) in his article How to Answer the "Flat Earth" Charge. That's a long time after Columbus left Spain in 1492. In this work, there is a scene depicted in the book where shadowy Catholic clergymen warn Columbus that he might sail off the end of the Earth. This, of course, is not supported by any real historical data. 

Columbus’ Error

The Reasonableanswers blogger explains what really was happening in his day.

Columbus did indeed face resistance while searching for sponsors for his voyage, but the issue of contention was not whether the earth was flat or round, but over the size of the earth. Those who opposed Columbus believed that the circumference of the earth was too great for ships to sail around to the other side. There was no talk about “falling off the edge of the world.” Columbus had calculated that the distance for his trip from the Canary Islands to Japan would be about 4,450 km, which is one-fifth the actual distance of 22,000 km. If not for the placement of the Americas in between, Columbus and his crew would have surely perished, as his critics predicted. Columbus’ voyage—and later explorations by others—did not change the perception of the shape of the earth, but merely added new land masses to the Middle Age maps of the world.

Rather than being a bold triumph of science over superstition, Columbus’ voyage is proof that sometimes even dumb blind luck can make you famous.


Figure of the heavenly bodies

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Bartolomeu Velho

Figure of the heavenly bodies - Illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric conception of the Universe by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho (?-1568). From his work Cosmographia, made in France, 1568 (Bibilotèque nationale de France, Paris).

A4 Evolution

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“Evolution is change in heritable traits of biological populations over successive generations.” (Evolution - Wikipedia)

These small changes in animals or plants eventually leads to new species. These changes have been taking place since the first complex molecule was able to reproduce itself and therefore be considered by some to be ‘alive’.

"Since the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859, the attitude of the Catholic Church on the theory of evolution has slowly been refined. Early contributions to the development of evolutionary theory were made by Catholic scientists such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel. For nearly a century, the papacy offered no authoritative pronouncement on Darwin's theories. In the 1950 encyclical Humani generis, Pope Pius XII confirmed that there is no intrinsic conflict between Christianity and the theory of evolution, provided that Christians believe that the individual soul is a direct creation by God and not the product of purely material forces." (Catholic Church and evolution - Wikipedia)

The Catholic Church has no authority to declare scientific hypotheses as truth, but some of its teachings do have implications for science. To better understand this let's have a look at what Pope Pius XII actually wrote:

"The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter - for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God." (Pius XII, Humani Generis 1950: #36)

What this quote makes clear is that anyone is free to believe in evolution since the Church does "not forbid" this provided that Catholics believe that "souls are immediately created by God." The Church can never teach evolution since that is not it's purpose. But it would reject any 'science' that would dispute that 'souls are immediately created by God' since not only is that not in line with its teachings, but it is not science! Science can never teach about the soul since there are no experiments that can be done on souls. You can't use science to prove or disprove the human soul. It is a matter for belief alone. Therefore, there is no contradiction between science and Catholicism since they are complementary to each other. Let us explore the importance of the Catholic teaching that 'souls are immediately created by God'.

You were personally created by God. As pope Benedict teaches:

“We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”
Pope Benedict XVI

But even the process of bringing about the human body is one planned by God since God set the universe in motion and destined it to bring about humanity.

evolution to heaven

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Ignatius Zaar

The ultimate 'evolution' of man is glory in heaven through the cross of Christ.

A5 Galileo

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Galileo's (1564-1642) championing of heliocentrism (the Sun at the center of the Galaxy) was controversial within his lifetime, a time when most subscribed to geocentrism (the Earth at the center of the Universe). He met with opposition from astronomers, who doubted heliocentrism due to the absence of an observed stellar parallax (the apparent change in position of the stars due to orbiting the sun). He also met with religious opposition based on the current scientific understanding of his time. 

It is a complex topic and so some points about attitudes at the time are important. The Catholic Church had no problem with geocentrism provided the scientific proof can be shown. For instance at the time Cardinal Baronius said that the bible "is intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." And he pointed out correctly that both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the sacred writers in no way meant to teach a system of astronomy. St. Augustine wrote, "One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: I will send you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon. For He willed to make them Christians, not mathematicians." Quotes from The Galileo Affair. (We can add today that the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) also was not sent to teach us about dinosaurs.) 

Cardinal Bellarmine was sent to talk with Galileo about this. When Cardinal Bellarmine met with Galileo he said, "While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still, if there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe…and that the sun goes not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me." (Letter to Foscarini , 12 April 1615) 

At the crucial trial of Galileo about teaching heresy, Galileo claimed three proofs for geocentrism all of which don't prove geocentrism. That the tides are due to the change of speed on the surface of the earth much like a cha-cha amusement ride, the movement of sun spots and the phases of venus. Tides are due primarily to the moon, sun and coastal and sea floor shapes and some minor factors, not the movement of the earth itself. Sun spots can be explained with the rotation of the sun, not that the earth goes around the sun. The last point of the phases of venus is a more serious point but not sufficient on its own. There are more details about these proofs here. What brought conclusive proof was stellar aberration by James Bradley in 1729 which eventually led to the Church formally lifting its ban on Galileo’s books in 1758. That's a long time after 1615.

Scientifically, Galileo did not have proof this point is absolutely clear but what about the Church medling with science itself. Why did the Church step in to condemn Galileo? As what has already been hinted at, scipture has many references to the sun going around the earth. It seems to be obvious to anyone on earth. They see it moving. So without proof it appears Galileo is going against scripture and that is what he was tried for. There are many other historical issues about the trial such as Galileo having a strong ego that got in the way of his previous friendship with the current pope. Clearly the careful analysis of the case itself was primarily about science which you can see here

There are many inaccuracies about Galileo's trial. He did not stamp his feet and cry out, "But it does move." He was submissive throughout the trial. He was not tortured. His house arrest for the last nine years of his life which were lived in a palace where he could freely work on his research provided he did not teach about geocentrism. He actually stayed in three places, the palace of the Grand Dukes Ambassador, Niccolini, at Rome; the residence of his friend Archbishop Piccolomini at Venice, and his own villa of Arcetri near Florence. He completed two more works during this time. 

So it appears Galileo was wrong with his evidence. If Galileo had pulled his head in earlier there would have been no problem, ie if he hadn't said he had proof for geocentrism. If the Church had not pushed ahead with trying him for heresy there would not have been this issue. 

Yet, Galileo accepted the inerrancy of Scripture. So what can we put this condemnation down to.  Bertrand Conway explains it well in Galileo Galilei:

In a word the condemnation of Galileo was due chiefly to the vast majority of the theologians of the day who urged the Holy See to condemn a scientist who attacked their favorite Aristotle, and ventured to teach them how to interpret the Scriptures.
Their pride had been hurt by the many bitter attacks of Galileo, who had in private conversations and public print styled them stupid and ignorant. Their dread of the private interpretation of the Scriptures — so harmful in Germany and England — had made them overcautious. Their egregious blunder consisted in branding a scientific theory as heretical, when at best they should have considered it as unproved. They were right in maintaining the general law of exegesis that Biblical texts are to be taken in their literal sense, unless there exist good reasons to the contrary. They were wrong in forgetting the wise teaching of St. Augustine and St. Thomas that in describing the phenomena of nature the Bible speaks according to appearances.
In a sense the condemnation of Galileo was providential. It proved for all time that fallible bodies like the Roman Congregation ought not to dub a scientific theory heretical, and it prevented them from making a similar mistake for over three centuries. It proved also that whenever there is apparent contradiction between the truths of science and the truths of faith, either the scientist is wrong in advancing a mere hypothesis as a fact, or that the theologian errs in mistaking his personal opinions for the teaching of the Gospel.
Pastor concludes his brief but able study of the case with the wise words: There has been no second Galileo case (History of the Popes. Vol. XXIX., p. 62).

The Catholic Church has publically apologised for the Galileo affair. On 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and issued a declaration acknowledging the errors committed by the Catholic Church tribunal that judged the scientific positions of Galileo Galilei, as the result of a study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture.

But while the condemnation was an official act of the Church, it was by a fallible court that has no authority to make official declarations on faith and morals (the magisterium). So a Church court made a mistake, which the official Church (John Paul II) has publically apologised for. The mistake has never been repeated, yet it is a crucial argument for justifying the conflict between science and religion. Such a conflict is absurd when the evidence is examined. Anyone that uses such an argument should be explained the facts and invited personally to accept the official apology of the Church. 

One final point from this era is that Galileo was not the only scientist of his day. 26 of the 35 Jesuit scientists who have lunar moons named after them were alive during the life of Galileo. You might like to check out their achievements or even the list of Catholic scientists.

A6 The supposed conflict between Science and Catholicism

Submitted by rjzaar on April 30, 2017 - 1:56pm

There is no conflict between science and religion. Historically this conflict really developed out of the Enlightenment which developed in the late 1600s and 1700s to emphasise the individual and reason against tradition. Many Enlightenment thinkers were anti-Catholic. Many writers were creating myths or at best twisting truths to make Christianity look bad.  The scientist John William Draper and the writer Andrew Dickson White were the most influential exponents of the conflict thesis between religion and science in the 1800s. Draper wrote a History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and White wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Modern historians have discredited both books. Wikipedia's article on the Conflict Thesis states: 

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould said: "White's and Draper's accounts of the actual interaction between science and religion in Western history do not differ greatly. Both tell a tale of bright progress continually sparked by science. And both develop and use the same myths to support their narrative, the flat-earth legend prominently among them". In a summary of the historiography of the conflict thesis, Colin A. Russell, the former President of Christians in Science, said that "Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study. The same is nearly as true of White, though his prominent apparatus of prolific footnotes may create a misleading impression of meticulous scholarship".

There is no conflict between science and religion. In fact, Catholicism has encouraged science through the centuries. Fr Tomas William LC explains this well in Myth No.3: Religion Is Opposed to Science:

History shows that the natural sciences grew out of Christian culture. As the sociologist Rodney Stark has so convincingly shown (See especially For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery), science was "still-born" in the great civilizations of the ancient world, except in Christian civilization.

Far from being an obstacle to science, Christian soil was the necessary humus where science took root.

Christianity's unapologetic support of science is borne out by the immense direct contribution of the Church to science itself. To take but one area – that of astronomy – J.L. Heilbron of the University of California-Berkeley has written:

"The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions."

With this in mind, Hitchens' claim that "the right to look through telescopes and speculate about the result was obstructed by the Church" seems especially disingenuous.

What can be said of astronomy can be said equally of medicine, physics, mathematics and chemistry.

Examples of this fertile ground can be seen in the number of priest scientists: Priest Scientists