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Thursday, October 7, 2010

On Astronomy and Roman Catholicism

When skeptics make the common mistake (normally executed by atheists) of lumping all religions in together, often times they catagorize Christianity with the fatalistic religions of the world and ignore the contributions that Christianity has made to modern science. For example, Castle Gandolfo (pictured above), which serves as the Vatican Observatory, has been studying the heavens since the papacy of Pius XI and before that, they were studied from St. Peters and other locations since the early 1500's. The Vatican Observatory is one of the largest repositories of meteorites in the world and Brother Guy Consolmagno S.J. is hardly a "God just diddit" Christian.

What sparked my interest in mentioning these historical facts was an article today by writer Hal G.P. Colebatch titled Religious Science Fiction?. The article raises a couple of interesting points, but chiefly among them, I found this particular quote to be especially interesting when Colebatch was lamenting the rise of argumentive athests among the science fiction writer set...

"Historically the contribution of the Catholic Church to astronomy was massive and unequalled. Without it astronomy might very well never have grown out of astrology at all. Cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris, Rome and elsewhere were designed in the 17th and 18th centuries to function as solar observatories. Kepler was assisted by a number of Jesuit astronomers, including Father Paul Guldin and Father Zucchi, and by Giovanni Cassini, who had studied under Jesuits. Cassini and Jesuit colleagues were eventually able to confirm Kepler's theory on the Earth having an elliptical orbit. J.L. Heilbron of the University of California has written:

The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy 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.

Science fiction is, by definition, fiction, that is, it deals with things which are the product of a writer's imagination and are not literally true. In any event, what is and what is not science fiction is hard to define. Simply to say it is about science is meaningless, and while some science-fiction writers are qualified scientists, many are not. Probably even fewer are trained theologians."

So how about it skeptics? Is there really a major world religion that was more conducive to learning and cataloging what we know about modern astronomy than Christianity in general and Roman Catholocism in particular? Feel free to present your arguments (hopefully with supporting links) in the comment box.

EDIT: I meant to include this in the above entry from Wednesday's Independent but forgot...Link



Coco Rico said...

Typo alert -- "Catholicism"

To be fair, Islam had moments that held up learning. So did the Jews.

But my feelings about this mirror my feelings about Christianity and art -- the West thrived when it believed, and grew banal quickly in skepticism.

GentleSkeptic said...

Setting both culturally dominant religion and generalized "skepticism" aside, it's important to note that what yielded understanding about the mechanics of the cosmos — via Tyco Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo, et al — was careful and methodical empirical observation, not supplication and scripture. The question isn't so much whether "a major world religion" is "conducive to learning and cataloging what we know", as how that major world religion reacts to the findings of empirical observation — especially where it conflicts with scripture. And that story is written.

Method over dogma. Why is this so hard to understand?

photogr said...

I think it all boils down to one thing. The human being is an inquisitive creature and seeks out knowledge in what he doesn't understand whether he is a Jew, Christian, Muslim, or Athiest. He wants to have knowledge.

JD Curtis said...

it's important to note that what yielded understanding about the mechanics of the cosmos — via Tyco Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo, et al — was careful and methodical empirical observation, not supplication and scripture

And I wouldn't argue that. I've blogged on this before.

"Dr Malcolm Jeeves ponders the question why the Greeks never went further in their scientific queries in his book The Scientific Enterprise and the Christian Faith. He points out that a unique blend of Greek thinking with a specific strand of Christianity-namely, the Reformed faith-birthed modern science. Jeeves writes:

"It was with the rediscovery of the Bible and of its message at the time of the Reformation....that a new impetus came to the development of science. This new impetus, flowing together with all that was best in Greek thinking, was to produce the right mixture to detonate the chain reaction leading to the explosion of knowledge which began at the start of the scientific revolution in the sixteenth century, and which is proceeding with ever-increasing momentum today"[1]

Not only did science not develop with the Greeks, but it is also true that science would not have originated among the Hebrew people-it did not and would not-for the simple reason that to the Hebrews, as you recall in Psalms, theworld was simply an occaisionfor praise to the Creator. "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork" (ps 19:1).

Nor could modern science ever have come into existance among the Arabs, because of the Muslim religion. The writings of Aristotle, when lost to the Western world from about A.D. 500 to A.D. 1100, were kept by the Arabs of north Africa and finally reintroduced into Europe in the 1100's and 1200's. Aristotle-unlike Plato-had a philosophy that would lend itself to the scientific type of study because it was more inductive than Plato's deductive kind of reasoning. Plato would get an ideal and deduce all manner of things from it. Aristotle would tend to look at the particulars and induce principles from them. Because of the Aristotelian thought they had access to, the Arabs-including Nestorian Christians-generally made greater scientific and mathematical advances than the Europeans during the Middle Ages.

But during all of that time the Arabs never introduced nor created any real science. Why? Because of their religion. Because of the fatalism that dominates the Muslim religion. Since everything is fatalistically determined, obviously there is no point in trying to manipulate the natural world to change anything, because all things are unchangeable.

Science could never have come into being among the animists of central or southern Africa or many other places in the world because they never would have begun to experiment on the natural world, since everything-whether stones or trees or animals or anything else-contained within it living spirits of various gods or ancestors...

JD Curtis said...

(cont).. "Nor could science have originated in India among the Hindus, nor in China among the Buddhists, for both Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the physical world is unreal and that the only reality is that of the world's soul and that the greatest thing anyone has to learn is that the physical world is not real. Therefore, there would have been no point in spending one's life fooling with that which had no reality in the first place.

It waited for Christianity to come and take several of the different strains and weave them together to produce in the sixteenth century the phenomenon we know know as modern science. It was because of a number of basic teachings of Christianity. First of all is the fact that there is a rational God who is the source of all truth, and that this world is a rational world. This gives rise to the possibility of scientific laws.

It is interesting to note that science could not originate in the philisophical view prevelant in the world today. The prevailing philosophy of the Western world is existentialism, which is irrational. It would not be possible for science to develop in an irrational world because science is based on the fact that if water boils at 212 degrees today, it will boil at 212 degrees tomorrow, and the same thing the next day, and that there are certain laws and regularities that control the universe. This all stems from the Christian concept of the god who created the world-a God who is rational and who created a rational world."

Kennedy, D. James and Jerry Newcombe: What If Jesus Had Never been Born?, pgs 94-95, Thomas Nelson Publishers

Source cited in the above by Kennedy-Newcombe:

[1] Jeeves, Malcom; The Scientific Enterprise and the Christian Faith, pg 13, Downers Grove

GentleSkeptic said...

There is no Catholic science, no Hindu science, no Muslim science — just science, a multicultural search for truth.


One wonders why, if you're so convinced of the unique scientific prowess of the Catholic church, you so vehemently disagree with their conclusions about evolution.

Froggie said...

The bible has done more to stifle science than support it.
Look at the Discovery institute, Creation Science Ministries Answers in Genesis, Reasons to Believe and all the other Anti science entities, all who say the bible supports their idiotic claims.
Organized religion is an engine of grief.