Seth MacFarlane, well known atheist and cartoonist, is the executive
producer of the remake of “Cosmos,” which recently made its national
debut. The first episode featured, along with the science, an animated
feature dealing with the sixteenth century Dominican friar Giordano
Bruno, who was burned at the stake by Church officials. A brooding
statue of Bruno stands today in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome on the very
spot where the unfortunate friar was put to death. In MacFarlane’s
cartoon, Bruno is portrayed as a hero of modern science, and church
officials are, without exception, depicted as wild-eyed fanatics and
As I watched this piece, all I could
think was…here we go again. Avatars of the modern ideology feel
obligated to tell their great foundation myth over and over, and central
to that narrative is that both the physical sciences and liberal
political arrangements emerged only after a long twilight struggle
against the reactionary forces of religion, especially the Catholic
religion. Like the effigies brought out to be burned on Guy Fawkes Day,
the bugbear of intolerant and violent Catholicism has to be exposed to
ridicule on a regular basis.
I will leave to the side for the
moment the issue of liberal politics’ relation to religion, but I feel
obliged, once more, to expose the dangerous silliness of the view that
Catholicism and the modern sciences are implacable foes. I would first
observe that it is by no means accidental that the physical sciences in
their modern form emerged when and where they did, that is to say, in
the Europe of the sixteenth century. The great founders of modern
scienceCopernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brache, Descartes, Pascal, etc.were
formed in church-sponsored universities where they learned their
mathematics, astronomy, and physics. Moreover, in those same
universities, all of the founders would have imbibed the two
fundamentally theological assumptions that made the modern sciences
possible, namely, that the world is not divineand hence can be
experimented upon rather than worshippedand that the world is imbued
with intelligibilityand hence can be understood.
I say that
these are theological presumptions, for they are both corollaries of the
doctrine of creation. If God made the world in its entirety, then
nothing in the world is divine; and if God made the world in its
entirety, then every detail of the world is marked by the mind of the
Creator. Without these two assumptions, the sciences as we know them
will not, because they cannot, emerge.
In fact, from the
intelligibility of the universe, the young Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope
Benedict XVI) constructed an elegant argument for the existence of God.
The objective intelligibility of the finite world, he maintained, is
explicable only through recourse to a subjective intelligence that
thought it into being. This correspondence, in fact, is reflected in
our intriguing usage of the word “recognition” (literally, to think
again) to designate an act of knowledge. In employing that term, we are
at least implicitly acknowledging that, in coming to know, we are
re-thinking what has already been thought by the creative intelligence
responsible for the world’s intelligibility. If Ratzinger is right,
religion, far from being science’s enemy, is in fact its presupposition.
ideologues will relentlessly marshal stories of Hypatia, Galileo,
Giordano Bruno and othersall castigated or persecuted by church people
who did not adequately grasp the principles I have been laying out. But
to focus on these few exceptional cases is grossly to misrepresent the
history of the relationship between Catholicism and the sciences.
I mention just a handful of the literally thousands of Catholic clerics
who have made significant contributions to the sciences? Do you know
about Fr. Jean Picard, a priest of the seventeenth century, who was the
first person to determine the size of the earth to a reasonable degree
of accuracy? Do you know about Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli, a
seventeenth century Jesuit astronomer and the first person to measure
the rate of acceleration of a free-falling body? Do you know about Fr.
George Searle, a Paulist priest of the early twentieth century who
discovered six galaxies? Do you know about Fr. Benedetto Castelli, a
Benedictine monk and scientist of the sixteenth century, who was a very
good friend and supporter of Galileo?
Do you know about Fr.
Francesco Grimaldi, a Jesuit priest who discovered the diffraction of
light? Do you know about Fr. George Coyne, a contemporary Jesuit priest
and astrophysicist, who for many years ran the Vatican Observatory
outside of Tucson? Perhaps you know about Fr. Gregor Mendel, the
Augustinian monk who virtually invented modern genetics, and about Fr.
Teilhard de Chardin, a twentieth century Jesuit priest who wrote
extensively on paleontology, and about Fr. Georges Lemaître, the
formulator of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins.
please, once and for all, dispense with the nonsense that Catholicism is
the enemy of the sciences? When we do, we’ll expose the Seth MacFarlane
telling of the story for what it really is: not scientific history but
the basest sort of anti-Catholic propaganda.