“And yet it moves…”
Like so many phrases that are attributed to historical figures, we have no evidence that Galileo Galilei (1564—1642) actually said this. What we do know is that Galileo was brought before the Roman Inquisition in 1615. Ironically, the Copernican world view heliocentrism (that the sun is at the center of the solar system) was not considered overly controversial by 1609. For example, Copernicus’s work had been used by Pope Gregory XII to reform the calendar in 1582 (Kuhn 1957). The charge levied by Father Niccolo Lorini against Galileo and his followers was that they were guilty of reinterpreting the Bible, or “Protestantism” (Langford 1992). The Inquisition relied on their interpretation of text in Psalms 104:5 about the Earth being set on foundations and thus immovable and Ecclesiastes 1:5 concerning the sun moving and returning to its place. Thus, what was at stake in this controversy was who had the right to be the dominant authority on the interpretation of scripture (the Holy Roman Church or individual Christians), not the validity of the observations of astronomers.
This theme has been echoed throughout history. This struggle is ongoing simply because the scriptures followed by three of the world’s major religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) were never meant to read “literally.” Nor was the topic of these scriptures the natural sciences. Nowhere does God provide in plain text even the simplest laws of nature. We do not find F = ma (force = mass x acceleration); DS = (1/T)DE (the disorder of a substance is altered when thermal energy is added to it proportional to the amount of energy added); or the cell theory articulated (all living things are composed of cells), or that the universal genetic code of all living things is DNA. Some have claimed that there are cryptic/symbolic references to the basic laws of science in scripture (as Lorini would have) but this is simple fantasy at best, or attempts at despotic control of the human spirit at worse. Indeed, read literally most of the references to natural law in the Hebrew/Christian Bible are simply wrong. For example, the ancients of the Levantine world thought that the heart was the center of cognitive thought, and that the brain was an organ for filtering blood. This explained why the brain tissue was discarded in the embalming practices of the ancient Egyptians.
We did not learn that these ideas were wrong by improving our ability to interpret scripture. This was accomplished by use of the scientific method, which began in the ancient world, but fully established itself in the age of Galileo. Forward thinking theologians of all faiths eventually realized that there was no necessary conflict between their faith and their science. For example, Gregor Mendel was a catholic priest. He was educated in Vienna under some of the most outstanding physicists and biologists of this time. His experiments were actually designed to uncover the genetic basis of evolution (Mayr 1982). Without Mendel’s work, modern biomedical research would have been impossible.
As a practicing Christian (Episcopalian) who is also an evolutionary biologist, I also find no conflict between my spiritual/religious belief and my career as a scientist (Graves and Bailey 2009). I say that science tells me how the world works, while my faith tells me how to work in the world. It is my faith that is telling me that we must march against despotic attacks on the scientific enterprise and community. What is at stake here is not just funding for scientific research and training, but the maintenance of a culture that values evidenced-based reasoning. Furthermore, without evidence-based reasoning, policies will be adopted that continue to harm the most vulnerable of our citizens (poor people, LBGT, and ethnic/racial minorities). To be clear, scientific reasoning alone will not prevent those attacks on the most vulnerable, but having an evidenced based societal policy allows for us to debunk false claims about our most vulnerable people. One example of anti-scientific policy is the recent decision to overturn the climate-based assessment associated with energy policy, to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, and reduce funding for climate research. The attack on climate science and scientists has become personal. For example, Dr. Michael Mann warned congress of the dangers of this phenomenon over 14 years ago. In that time he has been sued, forced to testify in front of congress, been investigated, and received death threats.
Some would argue that even if climate change is true, it will be a long time before its effects will be a concern. This sort of “head in the sand” reasoning is precisely why we need to pay more and not less attention to science. In one of my recent papers on medical training, I point out that we are already seeing the impacts of climate change with the expansion of insect-disease vector ranges into the temperate zones (Graves et al. 2016). This is also why we should be expanding the funding for the National Institutes of Health not reducing it. This is because the climate/biological changes human activity have already caused require our immediate attention. These are just two examples of why without scientific reasoning being taken seriously by governmental authorities, we risk the very extinction of our species. Our current authorities are unique in their blindness in this regard. Recently Lamar Smith (21st Congressional District, Texas) stated that Science magazine was not an objective source for information concerning climate. Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest professional organization of scientists in the United States, with a citation factor of 34.66. Saying that Science is not an objective source for science information is sort of like saying that World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen can’t be relied upon to tell you the best move in a chess game!
People of faith have often been mischaracterized with regards to their views on legitimacy of science. Actually, the faith community in the United States is not too different from the general population with regards to general scientific literacy (unfortunately for the US is now among the lowest scientifically literate for modern industrialized nations). However there is significant variation within the faith community with regards to support for basic tenets of science, with scriptural literalists being the most anti-science (Sherkat 2011). Yet and still we have examples of progressive actions by the faith community all around us with regards to the social issues generated by scientific reasoning. For example, the Episcopal Church has just called on its members to join the People’s Climate March later in April. In 1987, one of the most important scientific analyzes of environmental racism was authored by the United Churches of Christ (Racial Justice Ministry: Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States). These examples demonstrate that it is possible for people of faith to recognize the value of scientific reasoning and then take action as a result of that recognition.
I see my present call to the faith community to join the March for Science as analogous to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s admonishment of the church during the Civil Rights movement. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Reverend King pointed out:
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of bad people but for the appalling silence of good people. We must see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes the ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
For me the most important portion of this quote is the statement of concerning inaction of good people. We cannot sit idly by while the corrupt continue to destroy our human habitat due to their hatred of those they think less of and their greed to strip the Earth of everything of value. The current attacks on scientific reasoning and scientific research are not random. They are designed to strip us of our ability to understand how we are being harmed. Furthermore, it is the poor that will be most victimized by the harm generated by these anti-scientific actions. As people of faith we have an obligation to protect the least among us. It is in this spirit that I call on all people of faith and good will to join the March for Science. Now we can all move towards making the world a more just and humane place. This is something that all people of faith, and even those who have no particular faith should be able to agree on.
Dedication: This post is dedicated to the memory of Rt. Rev. Alfred “Chip Marble, who passed away on March 29, 2017. He was a tireless fighter for social justice and peace.
Graves, J.L. and Bailey, G.L., (2009) Evolution, Religion, and Race: Critical Thinking and the Public Good, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table; http://forumonpublicpolicy.com/summer08papers/relsum08.html.
Graves J.L., Hurtado, M., Reiber, C., Scotchmoor, J., and Thanukos, A., Evolutionary Science as a method to facilitate higher level thinking and reasoning in medical training, Evolution, Medicine, & Public Health doi: 10.1093/emph/eow029 (2016).
Kuhn, T.S. The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1957.
Langford, J.J. 1992, Galileo, Science and the Church, (Ann Arbor, MI: U. Michigan Press), 1992.
Mann, M. and Toles, T. The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016).
Mayr, E. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press), 1982
Sherkat, D.E., Religion and science literacy, Social Science Quarterly 92(5): 1134—50, 2011.
Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr.
Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Biological Sciences
Joint School of Nanoscience & Nanoengineering
North Carolina A&T State University and UNC Greensboro*
Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Section G: Biological Sciences
*For identification purposes only, does not imply support by either university for the march and associated activities.