Thursday, May 23, 2013

Trust Me, There Are Trees in Forests

The Huffington Post is at it again, attacking "the idea that there is a conflict between religion and science." Alan Lurie, in his usual passive-aggressive way, admits the idea that such a conflict exists "is often presented by well-intended, educated individuals;" nevertheless, "the idea that religion has historically been opposed to science is simply an erroneous and unsupported construct that was created in the late 19th century, primarily as an anti-Catholic polemic. And it is an idea that all (yes, all) knowledgeable historians categorically reject."

I'll just bet that Lurie has a foolproof method for determining just exactly who is and who is not a "knowledgeable historian."

It's so absurd. Lurie is in effect categorically denying that there are any trees in forests, and claiming that all competent specialists in such matters agree with him. I think it's time to take a survey of tenured professors in History departments at leading universities and ask what they think of this. I think many of them might be quite surprised that people publishing in such a prominent outlet of the Huffington Post are asserting that "the idea" of a conflict between science and religion is "an erroneous and unsupported construct." As opposed to a fact of life known to just about everyone who's half-educated or better. How to go about proving that there are trees in forests? One obvious response to Lurie didn't occur to me for a while: the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. For many people -- for instance, me -- the very existence of the Index is a refutation of Lurie's thesis, as if a refutation were necessary. Forbidding people to read certain texts is the opposite of the freedom of thought which is an essential part of the conditions necessary in order for science to thrive. (But who even needs to be told such things? Well, Lurie needs to have such things pointed out to him, apparently, as do many of his colleague at Huffington Post Religion. Many, or most, or actually all of them. Can you imagine such a state of affairs?) In case some people actually need a little more, let me just provide the names of some people who have been on the Index: Maimonides. Johannes Scotus Eriugena. Copernicus. Bruno. Kepler. Francis Bacon. Galileo. Descartes. Hume. Kant. Erasmus Darwin. Comte.

Of course, I'm not actually addressing Lurie or his colleagues. I've pretty much given up on them on this point. In order to have arrived at such a position, they have had to be thoroughly immune to reason or plain fact concerning this point. I don't know how to debate such belief. All I can do is denounce it to third parties who might have been in danger of taking these guys seriously. Lurie writes:

"Over most of its existence, in fact, the Catholic Church was the center of open scientific investigation, supporting mathematicians, physicists, botanists and astronomers."

That's one way of putting it. Another way, of course, would be: between late antiquity and the Reformation, all Western European institutions of learning were controlled by the Catholic Church, and anyone who wanted to be a mathematician, physicist, botanist or astronomer had to do it on the Church's terms. Not that Protestants and Protestant institutions of learning have been consistently more pro-science: they've been sometimes more pro-science, sometimes less than Catholics, and they've always presented much less of a unity in this regard, as in others, than the Catholics. And of course the assertion that stating that religion and science are in conflict reflects anti-Catholic bigotry is another red herring: there are anti-Catholic bigots, and they may chime in against the picture of the Catholic Church in harmony with science, but that doesn't mean you have to be a bigot in order to point out that the picture is inaccurate.

And speaking of inaccurate pictues: Lurie writes: "the popular image of Galileo brought to trial in chains to face a sadistic Inquisition, where he uttered his defiant statement 'but it moves,' before being thrown into the papal dungeon, is a dramatic 19th century fabrication" This is not the first time I've read this business about chains and a dungeon in an article in Huffington Post Religion. Only problem is, I don't know who's asserting that Galileo was put in chains and thrown into a dungeon. I thought most everybody knew that Galileo was politely threatened with torture (which Lurie doesn't mention), recanted some of his scientific theories (which Lurie doesn't mention), spent the rest of his life under house arrest, during which time he wrote his magnum opus, which reversed the recantations (which Lurie doesn't mention) and was smuggled into Holland after his death, where, unlike in Italy at the time, it could be published (which Lurie doesn't mention).

This article is a perfect example of why you need to know your sources, know how reliable they are, and not simply trust someone because they're published in the Huffington Post, or TIME magazine -- or anywhere at all -- or because they're on PBS talking to Bill Moyers, and why ideally you'll familiarize yourself with the primary documants in the original languages, as well as knowing something about the people who edited those documents -- if you don't bypass the editions and go straight to the manuscripts.

Or, of course, if that's too much bother, you could simply trust me, hehe.

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