Is Christianity non-rational? | news from paradise

Science is rational and Christianity is not; such is the claim of many vehement atheists. Many go further and say that Christianity is actively at war with science, suppressing its truth. In reality, this claim is just one of the myths that some twist around to hide from the truth and stay huddled in the rhetoric of their species. The truth is much more complex.

It may surprise you, but it’s not just Christians who exercise faith, scientists need it too. They must believe that the universe is assembled in an orderly, coherent and open to rational research. If they did not have faith in these realities, they could not do science. This has led some of the best scientists in the world to say that believing in God is scientifically reasonable. Paul Davies, mathematical physicist and cosmologist says:

I belong to the group of scientists who do not subscribe to a conventional religion but nevertheless deny that the universe is an accident without purpose. Through my scientific work, I have come to believe more and more firmly that the universe is composed with such astonishing ingenuity that I cannot simply accept it as a raw fact..[1]

Here’s another interesting fact:

Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon were English clergymen in the 13th century. Both men were responsible for revolutionizing the way science was practiced. Until their appearance in history, science was largely limited to passive observation. However, when Grosseteste and Bacon arrived, they introduced the notion of experimentation. We can therefore say that experimental science (at least in the West) was born in the Christian Church.

The problem was that Galileo didn’t have irrefutable proof for his heliocentric theory of the earth surrounding the sun.

In fact, it is very difficult to imagine how science could have flourished in the West without Christianity. Indeed, science was often seen as a spiritual discipline. Why? Because it helped reveal the creative hand of God. Many of the best scientists in the world still say the same thing today. Francis Collins (Director of the Human Genome Project), said:

I have found that there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awe-inspiring creation, science can actually be a means of worship.[2]

Galileo

One of the key historical events used by atheists to ridicule Christianity and support their claim that Christianity is inherently anti-science, is the story of the Roman Catholic Church putting Galileo on trial for heresy. They did this because Galileo taught that the earth was not the center of the universe but a celestial body that revolved around the sun – an idea first put forward a century earlier by Copernicus.

The real story is, again, more complex, and it’s a heartbreaking thread, so it’s worth telling.

Galileo lived at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was desperately trying to regain control in the face of the Reformation which saw different groups of Protestants go in a thousand different theological directions. In response to this, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent (1545-1563) at which they decided that only Doctors of the Church were authorized to give definitive interpretations of Scripture.

Galileo, however, fractured this decision and gave interpretations of Scripture in light of his scientific findings. He taught his heliocentric model of the universe as fact, although the Catholic Church would only allow him to teach it as a hypothesis. (It is worth noting, as it shows that the church was not trying to suppress its scientific investigation.) Catholic authorities tasked Galileo with obtaining scientific proof for this theory, then leaving the doctors in church theology interpret the meaning of its findings.

The problem was that Galileo didn’t have irrefutable proof for his heliocentric theory of the earth surrounding the sun. The proof could only come from measuring the parallax of a distant star (measurement of its angle relative to the Earth at different seasons of the year). Unfortunately, the instrument needed to measure parallax to the level of accuracy required simply did not exist. It wasn’t until 1832 that German scientist Friedrich Bessel built one that could do just that.

Galileo might actually be stubborn and even wrong when it comes to science. For example, he attributed the tidal motion of the ocean to the heliocentric motion of the earth, even though Kepler had shown that the tides were related to the phases of the moon.

In reality, Galileo’s fight was not so much with the Catholic Church as with the Aristotelian philosophers, whose understanding of the universe was particularly challenged by Galileo’s hypothesis. It was the Aristotelians who refused to look through Galileo’s new invention (the telescope) at Jupiter’s moons to see for themselves the proof of his theory. And it was the Aristotelians who organized the fall of Galileo with the pope.

Galileo greatly aided their efforts by putting the theological objections of Pope Urban VIII (who was once well-disposed towards Galileo) into the mouth of the madman, Simplicitus, in a satirical book he wrote. So it was probably no surprise that Galileo was brought to justice in 1633!

So, now you know the story.

[1] Paul Davis, The Spirit of God: Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning. (New York: Simon & Schuster Ltd., 1992), p.16.

[2] Francis Collins in an interview with CNN on April 3, 2007.

Dr. Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as a distracted, slightly obsessive man, pathetically weak from cancer and chemo, who has experienced and needs to experience God’s grace every day.

This article is part of a series, Things I’ve been asked

Nick wrote a book Fly over the storm in which he draws on his cancer experience to encourage anyone going through a storm in life to find rest and hope in God. It offers a 40-day retreat to recharge and strengthen and find deep peace in God. Order it from Koorong.

He blogs and records podcasts at nickhawkes.net

Nick told his life story to Eternity here: Deadly storms, heroin addicts, cancer and my faith.

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