Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Darwin, Creationism, and the Galileo Question

I used to sell encyclopaedias for a living, among the many and varied jobs in my life. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, to be precise. The cheapest set was around £1,100 and the leather-bound set some £3,500. Of course, that was a long time ago, I don’t know how much the last ever printed sets, produced in 2010, would have cost.

For that sort of money you might expect some pretty accurate and trustworthy, unbiased and factual articles. In a piece in The Atlantic announcing the end of printed copies Katherine Mangu-Ward observed,

“The beginning of the end for the authoritative print encyclopedia was [a] 2005 Nature study, which found that in entries about science topics Wikipedia contained an average of 3.86 mistakes per article--but that Britannica contained 2.92 mistakes per article, putting the "free encyclopedia anyone can edit" within earlobe flicking distance of the shelf-bending gold standard.”Wales see England

Bibliophiles and especially autodidacts have always entertained romantic notions about encyclopaedias and reference works in general but they are not, nor were they ever, infallible. I have a two volume Odhams Encyclopaedia dated 1953 in which the entry for Mormons reads, “followers of Joseph Smith, hold that Christ, Mohammed, Smith and Brigham Young are manifestations of the Deity and create souls.” Need I say this is not what Mormons believe? And, of course, there is always the classic Britannica entry for Wales from some 150 years ago which read, “Wales see England.” (Reader see right)

Perhaps Clfton Fadiman was right when he wrote in his introduction to The Treasury of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “The very idea of an encyclopaedia is crazy. Even if condensed, how can all that we know (What is “"’all’? What is ‘we know’?) be funnelled into a set of books bound in brown buckram? Absurd…”

Yet, here we are in a new century with digital versions of what once was confined to print. Today, everyone’s go-to reference work is Wikipedia and, although it has been a popular sport to sneer at it, as the Atlantic article shows, it is as reliable now as anything on your shelf, so long as you understand that whatever is on your shelf is less than perfect. These things inevitably reflect the prejudices, gaps in understanding, and errors and blind spots of even the most qualified contributors.


When the great French Encyclopaedists of the 18th century produced their Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, it represented the thought of the Enlightenment and, according to Denis Diderot, its aim was to change the way people think. Indeed, it not only changed the way people think, it told people what to think inasmuch as it contained “information” that best advanced the Enlightenment cause. Regarding religion in all its forms as superstition, the invention of predatory priests, these enlightened rationalists portrayed Galileo as the symbol of the age to come and the victim of the last hurrah of Catholic intransigence in the face of scientific progress.

We all know the story. Galileo said the earth orbited the sun. The church panicked as Galileo removed the earth, and thereby the pope, from the centre of the universe. Galileo was put to the Inquisition, thrown into a cold, dank cell to rot and, according to popular lore, was made to recant what reason showed to be true. From William Lecky to Carl Sagan, from Bertolt Brecht to Bertrand Russell, the intelligentsia have portrayed the events surrounding Galileo as a clash between faith and reason, and Galileo as a martyr to rational humanism. The trouble is most of what we think we know about the story is untrue.

But what has this to do with Evolution and Darwinism? The connection is neatly summed up by the science writer James Newman in his book Science and Sensibility, vol.1:

“It will never be known when man first became convinced that he was of cosmic importance, but the date this pretension was disposed of is pretty clear. The De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium of Nicolaus Corpernicus was published in 1543…Nestled in the Mathematics…was a concept that put man in his place in the cosmos, as Darwin’s concept was to put him in his place on earth…Looking backward in history, it is easy for us to see that a moving earth and sun-centred universe gravely subverted Christian theology. If man’s abode was not at the centre of things, how could he be king?” (Quoted in Six Modern Myths, Philip J Sampson, IVP, 2000)

Simply put, just as Copernicus and Galileo had dragged the world kicking and screaming out of the Middle Ages, so Darwin had pulled it further into the light of scientific rationalism. Both stories show two protagonists, faith and reason, battling over the hearts and minds of men. Both elicit from those parties strong reactions. On the one hand a determination to bury religion once and for all under a mountain of reason, on the other a settled resolve to shore up the edifice of faith against the attacks of modernity. It is this latter that I particularly wish to address. Is there something we might gain, as Christians, from the story of Galileo that helps us deal intelligently with the story of Darwin?

Galileo and Darwin: The Real Problem

When Dante Alighieri wrote his Divine Comedy his location of hell in the bowels of the earth was based on the Aristotelian model of the universe that had held sway for a thousand years. According to Aristotle, the earth was not only at the centre, but at the bottom of the universe. The spheres above the earth were increasingly perfect while all matter, the detritus of creation, fell to earth, the most self-evidently corrupt planet. Science, or what was then called natural philosophy, held this view and the church, relying on what science told it, adhered to it, seeing this model reflecting the fallen nature of man.

Rather than removing the earth from its imperial position at the centre, the new thinking promoted it from what was considered its rightful and fallen place. The irony in the story as it has come down to us is truly rich. Far from being put in his place as Newman insists, man, sitting at the apex of the evolutionary tree, has become the measure of all things. His words define “life, the universe, and everything,” and he trucks no opposition in his stately splendour. This was the dilemma faced by the church which, informed by the scientific wisdom of the day, saw Divine Judgement in the order of things.

Just as, today, some Christians worry that evolutionary science challenges the very foundations of our faith, making the Genesis account a fiction, and the story of creation, fall, and redemption insupportable, so too did the church back then have to deal with the implications for the gospel of this new thinking. The Copernican revolution was as serious an issue for them as is evolution theory to many today. But, the earth isn’t at the centre of the universe (neither is our sun but that is a question for another time), our position in the cosmos doesn’t reflect our fallen nature. In light of this, has faith left the stage, leaving it to those who “know better?” Certainly not!

Remember, the church’s view of the cosmos in Galileo’s day was shaped and coloured as much by the science of its day as by its theology. The scientific community found it just as difficult as the church to accommodate this revolutionary world-view. But accommodation had to be made and we are better and wiser for it. In the same way, the church is informed today by a scientific community that is not always in agreement over evolution theory. Back then Copernicus and Galileo were vindicated, the faith community had to change its understanding, yet faith itself remained firm, Christ is still Lord, of the explicable as well as the inexplicable. Might it be also the case today that, far from needing to fear what science tells us, the church must be prepared to consider that its understanding of things might be mistaken? That, if such a revolution were admitted today, it needn’t shake our foundations any more now than it did then?

We will disagree, of course, but what is new in that? My aim is not to persuade someone to some form of evolutionary creationism. Rather, it is to encourage an openness to new understanding, instead of the usual dogmatism that portrays as enemies those that have, historically,often been friends, from Doctor Luke in the New Testament to the Christians today who, with a scientific background, might help us to think biblically about science, and scientifically about our Bibles.

If you want to read further on this subject I recommend Six Modern Myths, by Philip J Sampson, a book that ought to be on the book shelf of every thinking Christian. I am indebted to this book for the background to this post.