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Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective, Part 1

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April 18, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

The following series is taken from Ted Davis' paper "Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective" for the Test of Faith project. You can download the full paper in PDF format at their website, www.testoffaith.com, as well as find many other wonderful resources about science and faith.

Ask the person on the street for an opinion about science and religion, and you are likely to hear something about a confrontation, perhaps combined with a reference to Galileo’s trial for heresy by the Roman Inquisition in 1633. The view that science and religion have always been and are still engaged in an ongoing, inevitable conflict pervades the Western world and provides crucial support for the aggressively anti-religious agenda of the New Atheists. It is surely no accident that the two nineteenth-century books most commonly associated with advocating the ‘warfare’ view – A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, by Andrew Dickson White, and History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, by John William Draper – are available for free downloading at infidels.org and positiveatheism.org, respectively. (They are not accompanied by links to any of the many scholarly sources offering devastating criticisms of the works of White and Draper.)

White was an historian himself, and for several generations his riveting narrative of enlightened and progressive science triumphing over ignorant and obscurantist theology set the tone for many other historical studies of science and religion. In the past few decades, however, historians of science have decisively rejected the ‘warfare’ view, along with many of the widely believed myths that White and Draper promulgated – such as the fictitious claim that John Calvin cited Psalm 93 against Nicolaus Copernicus or the wholly unfounded assertion that most Christians prior to Christopher Columbus believed in a flat earth. By insisting that all aspects of the history of science and religion must fit into one poorly chosen conceptual box, the ‘warfare’ view lied by gross oversimplification and led numerous scholars to overlook the large amount of historical material that just didn’t f t into that box. The history of Christianity and science is much richer and far more interesting than White and Draper could have imagined. We will mainly discuss the interaction of science and religion during the Scientific Revolution, a period of roughly two centuries (1500 to 1700) during which most of the important aspects of modern science emerged, but first we will look briefly at the first fifteen hundred years of interaction between Christianity and science.

Christianity & Science before Copernicus

Discussions of Christianity and science often begin with the Carthaginian lawyer Tertullian. Around 200 A.D., he formulated the central question for Christian scholars of all ages: ‘What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the academy and the church?’ Tertullian himself had no enthusiasm for Greek philosophy, including natural philosophy (what we now call science), but most early Christian authors took a more favourable view, especially Origen and Augustine. No Christians actually contributed to natural philosophy, however, until the sixth century, when John Philoponus of Alexandria wrote insightful commentaries on several works of Aristotle. Even at that time, though, Philoponus was an exception. Cultural and historical circumstances were such that, for the most part, Islamic scholars encountered Greek science and began making contributions of their own long before there was a thriving scientific tradition in Christian Europe.

It was not until the creation of the first universities by ecclesiastical and secular authorities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (or later, depending on the location) that Christian scholars began to engage Greek science and medicine in more than a sporadic and incomplete manner. Prior to that time, most of the writings of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen had been unavailable to scholars in Western and Northern Europe. During the High Middle Ages, however, scientific texts and topics constituted about one-third of the undergraduate (arts) curriculum at the universities, which existed with active support from the church. Furthermore, the philosophers and theologians at those mainly autonomous universities freely debated a wide range of scientific and theological questions. In the process, they developed powerful analytical tools that aided in the subsequent development of modern science.

How did these early scholars conceive of the relationship between science and religion? Most Christian writers down through the Renaissance saw both reason and Scripture as valid sources of knowledge, but they did not usually regard them as equally authoritative. Philosophy (including what is now called science) was considered a ‘handmaiden to theology’, and not an autonomous enterprise in its own right, but it was still an important area of study to which considerable resources were given in the universities. Theology was ‘queen of the sciences’, or queen of all knowledge. These scholars thought that one of the roles of scientific knowledge was to help explain biblical passages about nature. The author of a commentary on Genesis, for example, might draw on Aristotelian cosmology and physics in connection with references to the heavens in the creation story. They did not think it appropriate, however, to question the traditional interpretation of a biblical text on the basis of a scientific theory. The book of nature (as philosophy was often called) did not have nearly as much authority as the book of Scripture.

All of this changed, however, with the advent of the new astronomy of Nicolaus Copernicus, an administrative officer at the cathedral in Frombork, a small coastal town in northern Poland. We'll explore the impact of his work, and of the rise of modern science, in our next post.

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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Robert Byers - #58192

April 19th 2011

There is and has never been a conflict between Christianity and science.

Rather there has been a conflict between some conclusions that one or the other party has held that the other didn’t like.
The rise of intelligent investigation with great results (science) has happened in the most christian civilization in the history of man. The Anglo-American civilization. I see the rise of the intellect as from the influence of the Puritan/evangelical Protestant English and Scottish people and their Christian motivation to rise up .
Modern ‘science” is a Christian patent.
If people claiming to do science take on the claims of scripture or even the existence of god then its the duty of Christians etc to take on their evidence.
Modern creationism(s) simply and very well challenge not only the evidence used against God and Genesis but that the quality and quantity of the evidence even can claim the prestige of what is called science.
 In short past and gone processes and results are not easily open to investigation of a high standard.
Evolution and company have gotten away with great claims from trivial research and scant repeatable experimentation.
Long live science but soon die poor scholarship and error
Ted Davis - #58211

April 19th 2011


We differ (apparently) on a number of things you touched on, but esp on these two.  (1) I do not believe that Christianity created modern science, although (as you will see in subsequent parts of this essay) I do think that Christian theology significantly shaped a crucial component of modern science—namely, the attitude that nature is a contingent order that must be investigated through a combination of reason and experience.  Nor do I think that “Anglo-American civilization” birthed science.  Neither Copernicus nor Kepler nor Galileo was English or Scottish, and only one of them was a Protestant.  (2) The so-called historical sciences (which you refer to as “past and gone processes”) are legitimate sciences.  We can’t repeat the past and observe it as it takes place—I’ll give you that—but, we can draw powerfully supported forensic inferences from presently observed phenomena.  We can, for example, assemble a highly persuasive case that an extra-terrestrial object slammed into the earth about 65 MY ago, resulting in a mass extinction and producing an enormous crater under what is now the Gulf of Mexico.  If that kind of reasoning is not valid, Robert, then we shouldn’t be convicting people of crimes that no living person has witnessed.

Robert Byers - #58234

April 20th 2011

Thank you for the reply.

Science is nothing but people thinking about things and so the more and the more smarter the people are the better the results. So I do see Christianity as the origin for the rise in intelligence of the european peoples. Then the greater rise since the reformation being from the Protestant peoples especially the winning team of the british or Anglo-American civilization. I understand not every last achiever was these people but its like noting white basketball players in the NBA. Yes a few but its defined by the black ones.
science is not just a list , short or tall, of people. Not just the winners in discovery. Its a whole intellectual standard as scored by the results of peoples. Science is almost entirely been in its great results a North East Protestant European contribution. not just pound for pound but way ahead. Then greatly a British world contribution. This because of the unique Evangelical percentage of the population.
The true faith made the better world after all.
I don’t see how “science’ can not be scored and so a reflection on its achievers. 
Real results from real causes.

Past and gone events, including processes, are not like modern forensics. Forensics work because processes are certain.
Biological and geological processes are not and in fact are whats being investigated. Not just results living now.
Yes discovery about the past can be made but it demands a high quality and quantity of evidence for such great conclusions and more needed when my side already has conclusions based on a witness.
Creationism has little problem taking on evolutionism.
Its still just a obscure subject that grabs the imagination of few.
For example i say there is not a persuasive case for a impact from space hitting 65 million years ago.
There is a better case for a flood impact 4500 years ago.
Proving such things demands a high standard of investigation (science). Yet the space rock thing is mostly based on trivial data and the authority making the conclusions.

There is no conflict between religion and science. Just conflict where some conclusions are made without good evidence against a well evidenced tradition of biblical confidence in the Protestant civilization.
Ted Davis - #58283

April 21st 2011

It seems to me, Robert, there is indeed a great deal of conflict between the particular views you mention here (namely, creationism of the YEC variety) and large parts of modern science, which I regard as genuine science. Historians of science have decisively rejected the conflict view of White & Draper, but this does not mean that we don’t see some instances of genuine conflict between science and religion; it means rather that those instances, by themselves, do not support the construction of the grand historical narrative of ongoing, inevitable conflict. It’s a subtle but crucial point, often lost in an age much too given to sound bites.

Indeed, IMO, the significant influence of creationism today is a legitimate example of “conflict” between science and religion—between genuine science and a specific type of religion.

Robert Byers - #58306

April 21st 2011

I agree with you there is and need not be a grand conflict between science and religion.

In fact again i say there is no conflict between such entities. tHere is just conflict between some conclusions in some subjects.

I disagree with that, you seem to say, creationism is at odds with “genuine science”. We are at odds with error in origin subjects not well done. We say.
Its not science much less genuine.
Its in reality ideas about past and gone processes and results.
It seems your just saying YEC etc in rejecting conclusions contrary to Genesis we are rejecting science.
So we must be wrong. Science is right.
Science is just a word for human beings investigating carefully things of nature.
We reject some conclusions, their investigation abilities, their motives, and the whole concept of such ancient processes being very open to modern investigation.
YEC exists because we take on the “science”. not because we throw at it the religion.
Thats why AIG and ICR and others are famous and getting more so.
YEC makes a good case on many points.
Jordan - #58204

April 19th 2011


The best way to counter “evidence used against God” isn’t to try and come up with a bigger list of “evidence for God”, but to show that the scientific method isn’t designed to answer the question of God’s existence, and that any conclusion about God’s existence is therefore a statement of faith and nothing more.
Steve Ruble - #58213

April 19th 2011

...the scientific method isn’t designed to answer the question of God’s existence, and that any conclusion about God’s existence is therefore a statement of faith and nothing more.

I’m not sure that follows, unless you assume that all non-scientific conclusions are statements of faith.  I think we can at least attempt to reason about the existence of gods, even if the tools of empirical science aren’t applicable to god-claims; at least in theory - if not often in practice - a non-fideistic argument for the existence of god can be made.  Likewise, counter-arguments can be made which rely on claims about logical consistency and coherence, rather than strictly empirical observations.

Jordan - #58250

April 20th 2011

Good point, Steve. I guess I would amend my comment to say the scientific method isn’t designed to answer the question of God’s existence, and that any conclusion about God’s existence is therefore outside the realm of science.

Robert Byers - #58267

April 21st 2011

I don’t agree there is a scientific method. its just people thinking hare and carefully. If they are.

In origin issues which touch on real conclusions about clear claims in Genesis it does matter if evidence is being claimed to say Genesis fibbed.
YEC is not about god’s existance. 98% of all people who ever existed already accept deity(s).
its about evolution and friends who take on the accuracy of scripture and so by implication all scripture.
Creationism aims and hits at their errors.
Merv - #58217

April 19th 2011

Dr. Davis wrote:  “Furthermore, the philosophers and theologians at those mainly autonomous
universities freely debated a wide range of scientific and theological
questions. In the process, they developed powerful analytical tools that
aided in the subsequent development of modern science.”

Would it be fair to say their debates were safely ensconced within the tradition of Theism and Holy Scripture?  I.e.  they weren’t debating about such things as the existence of God, right? 

This was eye-opening to me to hear that Copernicus even had the encouragement to publish from some prominent church officials.  I guess we’ve all heard rumors and hearsay from the other extreme for so long that it is like a breath of fresh air to hear this treated more objectively. 

Your last comment about how all this [balance of authority between Scripture and nature?] changed in Copernicus’ time is an interesting assertion.  I read ahead to see where you went with that.  Wouldn’t you agree that people from earlier would not have dismissed “plainly held” facts but would have sought different scriptural understandings as necessary?  They just didn’t have so many potentially contrary facts to work with yet.  But Augustine seems to think care was needed in whether or not interpretations would lead to absurdities.  Or even Paul himself occasionally throws in phrases that appeal to “common sense” of the day such as whether or not a man’s hair should be long.  It seems to me that the balance of authority (or perception of a need to address conflict) didn’t necessarily change so dramatically as much as the quantity of data to consider began its exponential rise.


Steve Ruble - #58240

April 20th 2011

This was eye-opening to me to hear that Copernicus even had the encouragement to publish from some prominent church officials.  I guess we’ve all heard rumors and hearsay from the other extreme for so long that it is like a breath of fresh air to hear this treated more objectively. 

I agree, such encouragement is interesting… but it doesn’t change the fact that Copernicus’s book was banned by the RCC.  It just makes the situation more complicated: some within the church were in favor of free scientific research, and some were not - and obviously those who were not gained power shortly after the time that Copernicus was writing.

I think the most telling part of the history of the relationship between science and religion is not that scientists were always repressed by the church - indeed, sometimes they were sponsored by the church and/or members of the clergy - but that scientists were forced to take into account at all the opinions of the sectarian powers.  Why should a scientist ever need to take into consideration the revealed truths claimed by a religious order? Why should a sectarian group have any secular power over the lives or acceptable conclusions of scientists? Is there any justification for that?
Ted Davis - #58280

April 21st 2011

Actually, Steve, Copernicus’ book was not “banned by the RCC” in its ruling of 1616 concerning the motion of the earth. A different book (by the Carmelite priest Paulo Foscarini) was in fact “banned,” that is, placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, so that a faithful Catholic simply should not read it at all. The book by Copernicus and another book (a commentary on Job by Diego de Zuniga) were both “suspended until corrected,” which meant that a Catholic could read either one, provided that a few sentences in each (just a single passage in Zuniga and 8 or 10 isolated sentences in Copernicus) were crossed out and rewritten, to make them more hypothetical in tone when speaking about the earth’s motion.

The reasons for this, IMO, were mainly these two. (1) Bellarmine was operating under the rules for exegesis set down by the Council of Trent, a post-Copernican council that forbade Catholics from interpreting texts contrary to the unanimous consensus of the Patristics, and on this particular issue both “ancient” and “modern” authorities (from Bellarmine’s point of view) always agreed that the earth is at rest and the sun moves. Furthermore, there was no proof of the Copernican hypothesis at the time, so there was no reason in Bellarmine’s view to take a harder look at those texts. (2) It was a long tradition in astronomy, going back at least to the time of Ptolemy, to regard all mathematical models in that science as “hypotheses,” in the sense of useful devices that needn’t be literally true (that is, they need not correspond to physical mechanisms). Copernicus’ own book had publicly appeared with a preface (albeit an unauthorized preface that endorsed a view that he had explicitly rejected in private correspondence) telling readers to take Copernicus’ theory no less hypothetically than any other theory. That made perfect sense to Bellarmine, but not to Galileo. See my comments in part 2 for more on the whole controversy, which probably would not have happened either 100 years earlier or 100 years later.

Steve Ruble - #58348

April 22nd 2011

Thanks for the phrase “suspended until corrected” - it helped me find <a href=“http://j.mp/gtyRPU”>this</a> passage, which sheds some light on the issue. It looks to me like the RCC was opposed to heliocentric theories to the extent that those theories were presented as though they were true. I was incorrect to say that Copernicus’s book was banned, but it’s clear that the RCC was not about to tolerate any truth-claims which contradicted their interpretation of scripture - or even, it appears, any attempts to show that other interpretations of scripture were possible.  

Ted Davis - #58418

April 22nd 2011


Bellarmine’s language in his letter to Foscarini (author of the banned book) says that, if there were definite proof of the Copernican view, then we would need to re-examine our understanding of the relevant texts. Your point point “truth-claims” is noted, but at the time no one had been able to provide the “necessary demonstration” (that’s the language that was being used by Bellarmine and Galileo both); in other words, without that necessary demonstration there was no “truth-claim” being made. That’s how it was seen, in the traditional Aristotelian approach to scientific claims.

In the absence of a truth claim, and in the presence of deep religious strife during the Reformation, Bellermine just didn’t see why anyone *should* consider an alternative interpretation to be “possible.” In his view (and I probably would have agreed with him), Galileo just didn’t have enough evidence to expect the church to go there.

Steve Ruble - #58444

April 22nd 2011

Well, I just re-read that passage I linked to, and it certainly looks to me like Bellarmine is condemning not only heliocentric-theory-presented-as-fact, but additionally any attempt to argue that the heliocentric model is consistent with scripture. I see it as being very similar to the position of a creationist condemning not only the theory of evolution, but also any attempt to claim that the Bible is consistent with the theory of evolution.  Of course, evolution is substantiated in our day in a way that heliocentrism was not in the 1600s - but in both cases I think we can see an unfortunate tendency some people have: to pin claims about the way the world is to their scriptures and to then see threats to those claims as threats to the truth of those scriptures. 

Ted Davis - #58515

April 23rd 2011


I agree with the comparisons you’ve drawn between responses to heliocentrism then and evolution today; I always point these out when teaching this topic. I also have a high regard for Langford, the text you linked; indeed I use it in one of my courses. Langford’s interpretation is reasonable; there are other reasonable interpretations as well. My comments were based on what Bellarmine told Foscarini in April 1615, roughly a year before the decree against Copernicus was issued. An abridged translation of that letter is at http://www.historyguide.org/earlymod/foscarini.html Pay s.pecial attention to the “third” point he makes, “if there were a true demonstration…” That’s a crucial passage for understanding the approach that Bellarmine took, when he chaired the committee that made the public ruling. No proof, no reason even to consider alternative interpretations. Show us proof, however, and then we may need to go there.

Contemporary creationists, of course, will always insist that there is no “proof,” no “necessary demonstration,” for either the age of the earth or evolution. Our standards of “proof” in science have changed somewhat since the early 1600s; what we look for today is the coherence of the whole picture, not the kind of “necessary demonstration” that both Galileo and Bellarmine believed science could and should provide. But, creationists do seem to hold to something close to “necessary demonstration.”

Ted Davis - #58281

April 21st 2011

As for sectarian groups having some control over science, it’s a good question—but historically anachronistic. At the time, in almost any place in Europe an author needed permission from various authorities in order to have a book printed; a printer had to have a specific license issued by a specific official. For example, when Robert Boyle published the second edition of his famous book “The Sceptical Chymist” at Oxford in 1680, it carried an “imprimatur” (the Latin word for “it may be printed”) from Henry Clerke, the vice chancellor of Oxford University. I’m sure that it was issued pro forma, but it was needed nevertheless.

In short, censorship was the norm. It could be either political or religious censorship, and nearly all books about science fell afoul of neither. People today might think that science should be free from all forms of censorship, and from influence from all power groups, but of course that is just naive. We do enjoy substantially more freedom to publish today, at least in most Western nations, but science is hardly free from political and social influences that can shape research agendas and can influence the publication of experimental results.

Ted Davis - #58282

April 21st 2011


The theological debates I was referring to, relative to the medieval universities, were indeed “safely ensconced within the tradition of Theism and Holy Scripture.” They were vigorous debates nevertheless, and some of the ideas they generated, including ideas in logic and theology, are still part of our conversations now. For more on this, see many of the writings of Edward Grant, a leading historian of medieval natural philosophy; for a semi-popular version of his ideas, see http://www.amazon.com/Science-Religion-400-B-C-1550/dp/0801884012

Jon Garvey - #58235

April 20th 2011

Would it be fair to say their debates were safely ensconced within the tradition of Theism and Holy Scripture?  I.e.  they weren’t debating about such things as the existence of God, right?”
Merv, even before the Universities people like Anselm (11th century) were looking at proofs for the existence of God. I’m pretty sure that one of the results of the Universities being freed from the influence of the Church was that such debates became more common. I think this was not so much because of a movement of atheism, as to put belief in God on a sound philosophical footing, which meant examining the arguments against his existence critically. But the discussion was pretty unconstrained, and not usually, I think, regarded as any threat by the Church.

What you might call a methodological atheism - familiar enough today!

Merv - #58242

April 20th 2011

Steve wrote:  “I
think the most telling part of the history of the relationship between
science and religion is not that scientists were always repressed by the
church - indeed, sometimes they were sponsored by the church and/or
members of the clergy - but that scientists were forced to take into
account at all the opinions of the sectarian powers.  Why should a
scientist ever need to take into consideration the revealed truths
claimed by a religious order?”

Fair question—but for what scientist was this ever “forced”? (Galileo comes to mind as the classic example given for this, but Dr. Davis and others have shown that even this wasn’t that clear-cut—or perhaps even just debunked.)  Perhaps most of them stayed within theological constraints automatically because they were religious men themselves, although what Jon added above also makes sense (that “counter-debates” were at least academically present).  I agree with you, Steve, that such considerations look strange to us today.  But in their time, theology and natural philosophy were treated as a seamless whole.  So it would have seemed counter-intuitive to them *not* to think within that paradigm.


Steve Ruble - #58263

April 20th 2011

Merv, I think you’re right that many scientists of the past saw theology and natural philosophy as parts of a continuum… but theology qua theology is just reasoning about gods, whereas most of the notable instances of conflict between religious authorities and scientists turn on interpretations of revelation - specific holy texts - not on independently generated theories about god.  Whether you see the persecution of Galileo as serious matter, or as a religious matter, it is the case that the formal justification of that persecution was that Galileo was “following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture”(Wikipedia), and this charge was not, apparently, considered ridiculous at the time.  My question, to put it clearly, is: what can, or could, justify the claim that observed evidence should be disregarded because it contradicts the words in a particular book?  

Merv - #58265

April 20th 2011

Steve asked:  “what
can, or could, justify the claim that observed evidence should be
disregarded because it contradicts the words in a particular book?”

My answer to your question is that no words in any book should justify ignoring confirmed evidence.  In fact this question, as you’ve raised it, strikes at or near the heart of the change they struggled with in Galileo’s time.  Galileo was poking at the idea that people should actually experiment to help answer questions rather than go by the written authority (Aristotle or other ancient Greeks).  As I understand it, this was a radically disturbing new approach since education for many centuries had simply meant learning the thoughts and writings of the ancient masters.  If one had a question about anatomy, they consulted writings of Galen and would have been presumed impudent to dissect something themselves—or if they did and found discrepancies, then the question was “what did I, the dissector, do wrong?”—certainly it would never be cause to question the masters.  That radically different mindset is less radical for us today.  (though I can be pretty trusting of Wikipedia myself).    Some Christians (YECs) will disagree with this answer and say that their particular literal interpretation of the Bible still has this evidence-trumping kind of status.  But even they are permeated with a culture that (themselves included) has learned to routinely mistrust most printed and historical things.  We are now in a skeptical age—the entire lot of us.  We may still routinely “fly with” what we read even from places like Wikipedia.  But we do so knowing that most of it is not authoritative and would need confirmation if we wanted more certainty.

All this said, I doubt that the “formality” of the church’s eventual opposition to Galileo would have even existed at all were it not for the obvious science
(at the time) that plainly stated and taught that the earth is immobile.  And this included evidence quite independent from any written authority.  Aristotlean physics wasn’t completely devoid of a kind of empirical common sense.  Ted’s article seems to push for recognition of that.


Jon Garvey - #58270

April 21st 2011

Merv, I believe you’re right to point out the confluence of authorities opposing Copernicus in Galileo’s time. The Catholic Church at that time, unlike less powerful opponents like Luther or modern fundamentalists, used Scripture as a confirmatory authority rather than the primary source of knowledge.

So their concerns included
(a) that many secular scholars opposed Copernicus because of lack of evidence and the fact that they had an awful lot invested in the classical authros and their complex epicycles.
(b) that this scholarly opinion conveniently supported the Aristotelian science and philosophy with which the RC Church had allied itself.
(c) that the Church was deeply in the business of holding an entire political society together: what they said about science had social and political consequences. Science usually suffers at the hand of politicians.
(d) to the Curia (though not many within the Jesuit camp, for example) Scripture appeared to confirm the well established geocentric view.

All that before Galileo’s own personal clashes with key figures came into it.

That broad base of unproven assumptions actually reflects issues today: when someone like Peter Atkins can say (from an establishment scientific position) that we know life evolved from chemical antecedents, he is speaking well beyond the evidence or even reason. Indeed he is appealing only to established tradition and worldview. But he is not widely criticised for this by academia, politicians, the media or even much of the Church. This is even more starkly seen by science’s a priori exclusion of non-evolutionary mechanisms (including design) from consideration. There’s not a lot of difference philosophically between “the earth can’t move because the Bible says so” and “life can’t be designed because Darwin says so.”

Ted Davis - #58284

April 21st 2011

Steve asks, “My question, to put it clearly, is: what
can, or could, justify the claim that observed evidence should be
disregarded because it contradicts the words in a particular book?”

Another very good question, Steve. Various individuals are going to provide various answers. For example, some contemporary archaeologists would say that *nothing* in the Bible should be taken seriously for archaeology, since (in their view) it’s all just a literary construction from hundreds of years later; on the other hand, some creationists would say that *everything* in the Bible should be taken more seriously than any conclusion in the historical sciences. Either extreme, IMO, leads to some ridiculous claims.

To be specific about Copernicanism, what finally convinced most educated that it was true, was the coherent, unified explanation of motion in the heavens and on earth provided by Newton’s physics in the 1680s and subsequently (as others applied his ideas to other phenomena). Prior to that point, one can still find leading scientists who were not convinced; the great astronomer Ole Romer is a nice example. Ironically, the annual parallax of stars—the missing evidence for the earth’s motion sought by Galileo and many others—was not clearly observed until the 1830s. By that time, however, the truth of heliocentrism was already a foregone conclusion.

Now, one can still find today some religious  people who won’t accept Copernicanism.  They specifically reject the use of the principle of accommodation (derived from Augustine, used often by Calvin  in commenting on biblical passages about nature, then used by Kepler and Galileo to argue for heliocentrism) as a dangerous slippery slope, and they embrace a “modified Tychonian” cosmological model.  At least one proponent of such a view has a PhD in astronomy (Gerardus Bouw). http://creationwiki.org/Gerardus_Bouw

I wrote an essay about such folks, in light of Galileo & Bellarmine, a few years ago. I also discussed how other creationists (i.e., creationists who accept heliocentrism) deal with accommodation. The essay is published in http://www.brill.nl/Default.aspx?partid=75&pid=31539 Anyon.e wanting to know more about this should contact me privately.

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