Sunday, August 02, 2009

In Science v. Religion, Science always Wins

The earth is the center of the universe, with the sun, moon, stars, and planets all circling around the earth in perfectly circular orbits. That was the view of Aristotle and Ptolemy and was the accepted view of all thinkers up until the time of Copernicus.

Copernicus suggested that the behavior of planets could best be explained if the sun was in the center of the universe, and not the earth. Copernicus was ridiculed for his blasphemy. That is because the bible clearly implies, or in some cases actually states, that the earth does not move and that celestial objects orbit it. Here are a few of such bible passages claiming a geocentric worldview:

"He has fixed the earth firm, immovable." (1 Chronicles 16:30)
"Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm ..." (Psalm 93:1)
"Thou didst fix the earth on its foundation so that it never can be shaken." (Psalm 104:5)
"...who made the earth and fashioned it, and himself fixed it fast..." (Isaiah 45:18)
"The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose." (Ecclesiastes 1:5)
"So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day." (Joshua 10:13)

Johannes Kepler spent most of his adult life observing the motions of the planets. He concluded, based on reams of data, that the earth was a planet and that all planets orbit the sun in elliptical paths. Kepler did not publish his thesis until he was near death, for fear of being rejected as Copernicus was.

Galileo Galilei refined the telescope enough so that he could see moons orbiting the planet Jupiter and could see spots on the sun. He was one of the early heliocentrists, believers that the earth revolves around the sun. He was arrested by the Church and forced to recant his heresies. Pope John Paul II formally apologized to Galileo in 1976, claiming the whole thing was a misunderstanding.

You might think today that every schoolchild knows that the sun is at the center of the solar system and is but one of billions of stars in our galaxy, and that the earth and other planets revolve around it. But if you think that, you are wrong.

In 1967 Walter van der Kamp, a schoolmaster, started a movement reviving the notion that the earth is actually at the center of the universe. After van der Kamp’s death in 1988, Gerardus Bouw, an astronomer and cosmologist, took over. He still has many followers today who believe that, because the bible says so, the earth must be the fixed center of the universe.

Aristotle, Ptolemy, and other thinkers of ancient times also believed that the earth was flat. Again, this belief came from biblical passages as well as the fact that the earth looks flat when you’re standing in a field.

Here are some bible verses that imply a flat earth:

“[The King] saw a tree of great height at the centre of the earth...reaching with its top to the sky and visible to the earth's farthest bounds.” (Daniel 4:10-11)
“Once again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory.” (Matthew 4:8)
“After this, I saw four angels stationed at the four corners of the earth holding back the four winds...” (Revelation 7:1).

Around 250 BCE, Eratosthenes, a Greek scholar, used trigonometry and observation to mathematically prove that the earth was a sphere. He even obtained an estimate of the size of the earth’s circumference, which was very close to the modern value.

Early sailors knew the earth was a sphere; after all, they sail around it. But common folks held on to their flat-earth views well into the 15th century. Even some of Christopher Columbus’s men were starting to get nervous when it was taking longer than expected to reach landfall.

But, again, today’s schoolchildren know that the earth is spherical. There are globes in almost every classroom. But also, just as with the geocentric view that the earth is at the center of the universe, there remain holdouts on the shape of the earth as well.

The Flat Earth Society has several thousand members who have developed an elaborate scheme that tries to prove the earth is flat. The scheme comes complete with the notion of a worldwide conspiracy that tries to brainwash the masses into believing that the earth is spherical. They base their arguments for a flat earth almost solely on the bible.

History is replete with examples of how science has been stymied by Christianity and other religions that base their truth on the bible and that don’t want to be bothered with the facts. And since the church has always been a very powerful player in world politics, scientific progress has often been hindered.

The big hot-button debate these days is between those who accept the scientific facts of the theory of evolution and those who claim that God created the earth and everything on it in six literal days. Again, the basis for the creationists’ beliefs is the bible, specifically the Book of Genesis. And, again, the basis of the scientists’ acceptance of evolution is, well, the evidence.

While there remains only a small fraction of the population that literally believes the world is flat or is at the center of the universe, almost half of all Americans believe in the biblical story of Creation. That’s kind of scary for a science teacher like me. It’s difficult to overcome dogma with facts.

But I am at least comforted in the knowledge that in every other case throughout history, science has won out over religious dogma eventually. One day, the story of Creation will be relegated to the backburner of biblical theses along with the flat earth and geocentric notions. I hope that happens sooner than later, since evolution is the foundation for the rest of biological science. But with so many politicians in this country embracing archaic religious mythology, I’m afraid true enlightenment won’t come anytime soon.


Andrew said...

The notion of deities in the early history of mankind made sense, as it was the only logic we had to go by. The sun was actually a deity riding his chariot of fire through the sky, and all must praise, and give sacrifice to the sun god in order to assure his return each day. With the advent of knowledge, and technology, we found more rational explanations for this phenomena, and moved on as a societal whole.

Over the years science has been pulling magic and myth out of naturally occurring events, and as that's happened, many polytheistic religions have fallen. The trend has follow the same logic since the dawn of mankind. In order to drop a dogmatic, supernatural belief, you must demonstrate without any shadow of a doubt that naturally occurring events are not the result of magic. We've overcome nearly every mythic legend with our rapid growth of knowledge, however, a handful of monotheistic religions still stand. The only way to overcome the mysticism behind these religions, is to overcome the two major obstacles which remain in our way:

1) Where, and how did existence begin pre-big bang?
2) How did life begin?

Abiogenesis is working on the origins of life, but the truth is that we don't know, and have no idea if we will ever acquire enough evidence to know. As for the where existence stems from, it's an unknown at the current date. Since we are not soothsayers, there is no way of knowing if we'll ever discover the answers to either of these obstacles. But as long as these two major questions remain unanswered by science, these monotheistic religions will always substitute our gap in knowledge, and people will subscribe to their dogma, even when it contradicts scientific knowledge. It is human nature.

I dream of a secular bases of belief for mankind. It's really a shame that we can't get past these dogmatic beliefs, because the universe holds that much more beauty and awe when you realize it's all a result of very ancient cause and effects which continue to now, and will continue much longer. However, I am very skeptical, and pessimistic to believe such a future lies ahead as long as there remain important questions unanswered.

Jerry Wilson said...

Andrew, M-theory is a theory that explains the existence of the universe prior to the big bang. It is mathematically consistent and agrees with observation. It's still a baby theory, but very promising.

Andrew said...

That's great to hear. Looking into it though, it's so unintelligible. I don't have the physics education it takes to tackle relativity, superstring theory, or M-theory. I'm re-enrolling for more college soon. I hope to understand these by the time I'm finished.

Celestite said...

There are religions, none of the Big 3, that do not butt heads with science. There are religions that believe that science is slowly unfolding the mysteries of the universe and that this is the natural course of events.
There are religions that are about contemplating the things that science doesn't explain instead of fussing over what science does explain.
This science vs religion choice was started by the fundamentalists and I refuse to buy into it. I can have my cake and eat it too, so can any rational person who is also spiritually inclined.