Are Darwin and Galileo a tag team against religion?

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • January 29, 2009
{mosimage}“Be afraid, be very afraid!” is perhaps a tad too dramatic, but on the other hand be prepared for a year that promises to go too far in setting up one of the great fake dramas of all time.

The first hint of what 2009 portends was in the last issue of New Scientist for 2008. The editors of the magazine in their collective wisdom decided to poll leading scientists around the world on the vital question, “Who did more to knock man off his pedestal: Darwin or Galileo?” As with any vital question of the day, the framing of the question is truly much more important that the answer. The question is timely because this year marks two “very special” anniversaries. It is 400 years since the Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for heresy and 150 years since the publication of Darwin’s groundbreaking work on evolution. To round out the trifecta of anniversaries, it is also the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Think about the assumption at the core of the question. Man, in the broad historic sense of humanity, was atop a pedestal, too cocky, too self-important and as such needed to be brought down to size, reduced to proper dimension, relegated to a status more befitting something ordinary, some cog in a wheel.

Darwin is lauded for his observation that all life has a common origin and that there is nothing special other than the passage of time and the luck of the genetic draw that resulted in a species such as humans. Galileo gets his shot at the title for demonstrating that the Earth and by extension the humans on the Earth are not and never were the centre of the universe.

It is a perspective that became the common currency of the 20th century and that promises to become even more entrenched in the 21st. You can detect it at the core of the radical environmentalist philosophy that often depicts human beings as a scourge, a plague and a pestilence on the planet. You can observe it in the utilitarian calculations on the greater good for the greatest number that asserts that individuals matter little. You can note it operating in calculations about war, in which death becomes euphemized with notions of collateral damage or the price of change. You can recoil from it in the dismissal of suffering in the social engineering doctrine that one can make an omelette without breaking eggs.

The core of the concept is that being human is nothing special and that human beings would best abandon such foolish species-centric ideas. And there is another significant assumption contained within the question and at the heart of the great debate of 2009.

Darwin and Galileo are “heroes” to the New Scientist and their admirers because both men are seen as in deep opposition to religion. The operating principle is that any sense that “man” was on a pedestal was the direct result of religious bafflegab, so any attack on the principle must perforce be an attack on religion. For this principle to be sound, admirers need to, and do, dismiss the evidence that both Galileo and Darwin themselves declined to assert that their observations were an attack on religion and God.

In fact, signalling how far the Catholic Church has gone in posthumously patching up things with Galileo, the Vatican is recognizing the United Nations International Year of Astronomy with repeated allusions to the scientist’s contributions to scientific understanding, along with his religious devotion. This includes a statue of Galileo to be erected on Vatican grounds.

Nevertheless, the sham debate continues. It is not sufficient for the supporters of either man to simply ascribe to them the status of great scientists who achieved brilliant insights into the operation of the universe. They must be enlisted into the intensifying war on religion by science. As a consequence the importance of their work is always judged both on its merits and on the role it played, retrospectively, in knocking religion off its pedestal.

So why this effort to turn the anniversaries into a very real adult version of king of the castle? Simply because, unlike Christianity, which admits that science plays a very real role in understanding man and his place in the universe, the science zealots can’t seem to abide the presence of another way of “knowing” the universe. It is a sad, shallow, simplistic way of treating great minds but 2009 is just starting and it may get a lot worse.

(Kavanagh is a Senior Producer for CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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