Debunking the flat earth theory

Galileo’s trial for heresy four centuries ago remains the heavy
artillery in a theory that religion and science are inevitably at war –
with the good guys on the side of science and the villains in the
church. But recent historical scholarship suggests that this thesis is
largely based on myths promoted by individuals with agendas of their

The truth is much more complex—and hopeful—as historian John Stenhouse
recently showed in a paper entitled, “Galileo’s Dilemma: Science and
Religion”, delivered as one of series in New Zealand marking the
centenary of Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

John Stenhouse is Senior Lecturer in the History Department, University
of Otago. He teaches the history of science, religion and ideas in
Europe and New Zealand. His recent publications include the volume of
essays (edited, with Ronald Numbers) Disseminating Darwinism: The Role of Place, Race, Religion and Gender (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Building God's Own Country: Historical Essays on Religions in New Zealand (University of Otago Press 2004). He is currently writing a book on Missionary Science: Christian Missions and the Making and Spreading of Western Science.

In an interview with Carolyn Moynihan he talks about the new scholarly basis for understanding Galileo and much else.

MercatorNet: The Galileo case harks back nearly four centuries
and yet there are still books being written about it and science
magazines editorialising on it. When will it be laid to rest, do you

Stenhouse: I can’t see the Galileo case being laid to rest--not
only because it is intrinsically fascinating, but because it serves as
a powerful symbol in contests for intellectual authority and cultural
power. Anti-religious writers have used it to bash the Catholic Church;
religious apologists have used it to defend the church. Since neither
secularists nor religious believers seem likely to disappear anytime
soon it seems unlikely that the Galileo affair will disappear from our
contemporary and future culture wars.

MercatorNet: Science today is often seen as something quite distinct from religion and even opposed to it. Has this always been the case?

Stenhouse: No. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century
science and religion often overlapped and interpenetrated. Many of the
greatest scientific minds of sixteenth and seventeenth century
Europe—Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo, Francis Bacon, Isaac
Newton, and Robert Boyle—did not sharply distinguish their science from
their religion.

Take Isaac Newton, for example, the great English natural philosopher
who revolutionised physics and cosmology during the late-seventeenth
century. Newton’s religion profoundly affected the way he thought about
nature. His most famous book, Principia Mathematica, described the
workings of the solar system, with planets and satellites moving in the
same direction in the same plane while comets coursed among them. “This
most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets,” he wrote,
“could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and
powerful Being.”

Galileo himself, like everyone involved in the case, was a Christian.
Every one of them acknowledged the authority of the Bible. Virtually
all, including Galileo, were theologically informed and held informed,
defensible cosmological beliefs. Conflict erupted as much within the
church and within science as between the two. The best recent book on
the affair (by Annibale Fantoli) sums up Galileo's position as For
Copernicanism and For the Church.

Historians, philosophers and popular writers have seized on incidents
like Galileo’s trial or the Scopes “monkey trial” to argue that
organised religion is always at war with science, but this thesis has
taken such a pounding in recent years that professional historians of
science have largely abandoned it.

MercatorNet: Who were the key proponents of the “warfare theory” of science and religion?

Stenhouse: The warfare thesis first appeared during the 18th
century with writers such as Voltaire and Condorcet, who hated powerful
European state churches for moral and political reasons and set out to
smash them with science, history, philosophy and wit.

In the 19th century two American historians gave the warfare thesis the
appearance of sound scholarship. John W Draper’s History of the
Conflict between Religion and Science
was published in 1874 and was a
best-seller, running through 50 printings in Britain, 21 in the United
States, and 10 translations. Draper, a lapsed Methodist, argued that
the Vatican's relentless persecution of scientists such as Galileo left
its hands “steeped in blood”. Draper’s anti-Catholicism pleased many
Protestant and secular readers, angry that the Vatican had during the
1860s refused to embrace modern liberal and progressive thinking.

Two decades later, in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology
in Christendom
, Episcopalian historian Andrew Dickson White, president
of Cornell University, extended Draper’s warfare thesis to the
Protestant churches as well. White depicted history as a series of
battles between narrow-minded, dogmatic Christian theologians, on one
side, and truth-seeking, open-minded men of science, on the other. The
background to this is his dispute with Protestant rivals over his
founding of Cornell University as a secular institution. His book had a
huge impact on modern Western thought, strongly influencing Bertrand
Russell’s own book on Religion and Science (1935). White’s Warfare was
still being reprinted and praised by historians as late as the 1960s.

MercatorNet: What does recent scholarship tell us about the history of the church and science?

Stenhouse: The idea that Christopher Columbus had to defy
Catholic flat-earthers to embark on his voyage of discovery has had
wide currency. But as historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has shown in his
book Inventing the Flat Earth, the real error “is not the alleged
medieval belief that the earth was flat, but rather the modern error
that such a belief ever prevailed.” Virtually all educated Christians
during the high Middle Ages knew that the earth was round. The ignorant
medieval flat-earth Catholic is a modern myth, a product largely of
Protestant and secular prejudice.

As for Galileo, a leading historian of science, David C. Lindberg, has concluded that,
though shocking by our standards, by the standards prevailing in
seventeenth century Europe, the “central bureaucracy of the church and
the people who staffed it lived up to widely held norms, followed
accepted procedure, and even on a number of occasions treated Galileo
with generosity.” The Galileo affair “was a product not of dogmatism or
intolerance beyond the norm, but of a combination of more or less
standard (for the seventeenth century) bureaucratic procedure,
plausible (if ultimately flawed) political judgement, and a familiar
array of human foibles and failings.”

Nor did that episode stop talented Catholic scientists such as Rene
Descartes, Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi, and Blaise Pascal from
making important contributions to a range of disciplines. In a
remarkable recent book, John Heilbron has shown that the Catholic
church, cultivating astronomy in order to refine the church calendar,
turned European cathedrals into gigantic solar observatories. According
to Heilbron, the church “gave more financial 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.” This conclusion has won
wide assent from historians of science.

Outside Europe, Catholic missionary orders, with Jesuits leading the
way, exported the latest European science and technology, minus
Copernicanism, to the wider world during the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. They brought back to Europe new knowledge of the places,
plants, and peoples of Asia and the Americas. Global Catholic
missionary networks constituted a kind of early modern world wide web
of science.

During the nineteenth century Protestant missionaries took the lead
from their Catholic counterparts. They sent back to Berlin, Paris,
London, Oxford and Edinburgh information, maps and specimens of the
plants, animals, languages, places and peoples they encountered. Many
served as valued collectors and fieldworkers for metropolitan experts
in Europe. The best won recognition as outstanding scientists and

MercatorNet: How do you assess the current state of dialogue between faith and science, and how should it ideally develop?

Stenhouse: Dialogue between science and faith seems to me to be
in a promising state. Pope John Paul II made an important gesture in
establishing a commission to review the Galileo case and acknowledging
that the church made serious mistakes in condemning him. The US
Templeton Foundation has poured millions into encouraging academic
courses, research and publishing in this area over the last 15 years or
so, and helped stimulate interest. There's a great deal of important
work being done, particularly by historians and sociologists but also
in bioethics and theology.

I think the crucial thing, for dialogue to be useful, is that those
involved must really understand, and take seriously, the relevant
scientific and religious traditions. Some historical and philosophical
understanding also helps. There's still a tendency not only amongst
scientific humanists but also amongst certain kinds of theologian, I
think, to place science on a pedestal and to avoid subjecting
scientific traditions to the same kind of critical scrutiny that
religious traditions routinely receive nowadays.

Albert Einstein declared in 1940, “Science without religion is lame,
religion without science is blind.” He believed that respectful
dialogue would enhance those traditions and the common good of
humanity, and I believe his vision is as relevant today as ever.

Carolyn Moynihan is the Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.


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  • Sheila Liaugminas