Saturday, December 01, 2007

Dinesh D'Souza's Myths

For some time now it's been quite evident that there's an effort underway to change people's perception of Medieval Christianity. One hears Conservatives (for example, Victor Davis Hanson and Dennis Prager) referring to something they term the "so-called Dark Ages" and whenever anyone points out that Christianity has a rather long and depressing history of torture and murder, it is usually pointed out that the number of victims is actually quite small and that it certainly pails in comparison to what the "atheistic" regimes of the 20th century "achieved" in that respect.

The latest of these efforts is in a column entitled "Debunking the Galileo Myth," by Dinesh D'Souza. D'Souza states the purpose of this column as follows:
About a hundred years ago, two anti-religious bigots named John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White wrote books promoting the idea of an irreconcilable conflict between science and God. The books were full of facts that have now been totally discredited by scholars. But the myths produced by Draper and Dickson continue to be recycled. They are believed by many who consider themselves educated, and they even find their way into the textbooks. In this article I expose several of these myths, focusing especially on the Galileo case, since Galileo is routinely portrayed as a victim of religious persecution and a martyr to the cause of science.
As a preliminary comment, I'll mention that I've read much of Andrew D. White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology and contrary to D'Souza's claim it is not posing "an irreconcilable conflict between science and God" but merely points out that religious dogmatists have throughout history stood in the way of scientific progress. In fact, White demonstrates in numerous examples that there need be no conflict between religion and science, as long as one ignores literal interpretations of scriptures in favor of interpretations that match the scientific facts of nature. In the examples he provides there is a recurring pattern: A scientist makes a new scientific discovery or offers a promising hypothesis or theory. Some religious authorities oppose the scientist and thus the science on religious grounds arguing that it cannot be so since it contradicts scriptures (as an aside, in some example there are a minority of religious supporters of the new idea that later becomes the majority). Finally, as more and more evidence points to the truth of the scientist's ideas, somewhat more liberal religious authorities begin to reinterpret scripture as not necessarily contradicted by the new science after all. Thus D'Souza's claim about White is simply false.

Moving on now to what D'Souza claims are myths:

The Flat Earth Fallacy: According to the atheist narrative, the medieval Christians all believed that the earth was flat until the brilliant scientists showed up in the modern era to prove that it was round. In reality, educated people in the Middle Ages knew that the earth was round. In fact, the ancient Greeks in the fifth century B.C. knew the earth was a globe.

Sorry, which "atheist" narrative has this erroneous opinion? It would have been helpful if D'Souza mentioned if it was Hitchens, Stenger, Harris, or Dawkins or someone else. It is certainly ought to be well known to any modern educated person that the Greeks knew that the Earth was round. Also, I could point out that the number of educated people in the Middle Ages was infinitesimal and if the idea that the Earth was round was limited to them, then the vast majority of people believed otherwise. Still if the Middle Ages is supposed to cover the whole period from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance, then it is not historically true that all educated people knew the Earth was round and more importantly, Christian religious authorities at the time explicitly endorsed the idea of a flat earth. William Manchester, in his excellent A World Lit Only by Fire points out that:
During the Dark Ages, literal interpretation of the Bible had led the Church to endorse the absurd geographical dicta of Topographia Christiana, a treatise by the sixth-century monk Cosmas. Cosmas, who had traveled to India and should have known better, held that the world was a flat, rectangular plane, surmounted by the sky, above which was heaven. Jerusalem was at the center of the rectangle, and nearby lay the Garden of Eden, irrigated by the four Rivers of Paradise. The sun, much smaller than the earth, revolved around ta conical mountain to the north. The monk's arguments were fragile, and not everyone accepted them -- the Venerable Bede, among others, insisted that earth was round -- but Cosmas scorned them. Rome, agreeing with him, rejected their protest as an affront to common sense.
Next, D'Souza sees fit to correct an apparently common misperception on Galileo:
The Experiment Galileo Didn’t Do: We read in textbooks about how Galileo went to the Tower of Pisa and dropped light and heavy bodies to the ground. He discovered that they hit the ground at the same time, thus refuting centuries of idle medieval theorizing. Actually Galileo didn’t do any such experiments; one of his students did. The student discovered what we all can discover by doing similar experiments ourselves: the heavy bodies hit the ground first! As historian of science Thomas Kuhn points out, it is only in the absence of air resistance that all bodies hit the ground at the same time.
As best as can be verified on the web, this is probably true, though there's some evidence to the contrary. However, it is an undisputed fact that Galileo did do experiments with inclined planes which, a background essay on a Nova documentary points out,
...allowed Galileo to accurately measure acceleration with simple instruments and ultimately to prove that, in the absence of other forces such as air resistance, gravity causes all falling objects to accelerate toward Earth at the same rate.
Regardless, I'm not entirely sure what that has to do with a "conflict between science and God."

I'm going to ignore the two examples about Darwin that D'Souza gives -- I think religious opposition to Darwin is just too well known at the moment to waste time on this. Let me focus instead on D'Souza's further points on Galileo.
Galileo Was the First to Prove Heliocentrism: Actually, Copernicus advanced the heliocentric theory that the sun, not the earth, is at the center, and that the earth goes around the sun. He did this more than half a century before Galileo. But Copernicus had no direct evidence, and he admitted that there were serious obstacles from experience that told against his theory. For instance, if the earth is moving rapidly, why don’t objects thrown up into the air land a considerable distance away from their starting point? Galileo defended heliocentrism, but one of his most prominent arguments was wrong. Galileo argued that the earth’s regular motion sloshes around the water in the oceans and explains the tides. In reality, tides have more to do with the moon’s gravitational force acting upon the earth.
Again, it would have been helpful if D'Souza had indicated any source for this supposed widespread myth. I certainly don't remember this from my reading of White's book. As far as I know anyone with a basic science education knows that, after the classical age, Copernicus was the source for heliocentrism. I certainly knew this back in high school. Apparently D'Souza is content to take the opinions of educated people in the Middle Ages but in modern times he relies on the uneducated. Furthermore, while it is true that Galileo's use of the tides to try to prove heliocentrism is usually regarded as his Big Mistake, it ought not to be judged so harshly:
Many critical questions are involved in this Galileo theory of the tides: first of all the fact that, rejecting any kind of attractive force as the real cause of the tides, this theory was, in Newtonian terms, an error. Nevertheless this judgment has for a long time impeded a historical evaluation of Galileo's theory. Only in some recent essays the question is examined with more care and is judged in the context of the physical and astronomical debate of the seventeenth century. To accuse Galileo of an excess of scientific realism, or even of presumption (as some authors have done), is to lose the possibility of historical reconstruction in which what counts is not the achievement of the future, but the efforts to reach them. Galileo was trying to build a scientific method in a world based more on books than on the nature, more on astrology than on astronomy, more on closing one's eyes than on observing through the telescope. That his theory of the tides did not survive the critical judgment of his successors is not germane to historical inquiry.
Furthermore, notwithstanding Galileo's mistake, Galileo, relying on his discoveries in physics (as in the inclined plane experiments described above), which took care of the existing scientific objections to Copernican theory, with the help of Kepler's astronomical ideas, and most importantly with the help of the new invention of the telescope did prove heliocentrism. Specifically, as David Harriman writing in The Intellectual Activist (Galileo: Inaugurating the Age of Reason, March-May 2000)points out:

The telescope enabled Galileo to observe the four moons of Jupiter, proving that not all astronomical bodies revolved around the Earth. In effect, Jupiter and its moons made up a miniature Copernican system...The implication was clear: Why shouldn't the entire solar system behave in a similar way, with the Earth and other planets orbiting the much larger sun?...
In the fall of 1610, he directed his telescope at Venus--and what he saw decisively refuted the Ptolemaic theory. According to Ptolemy, Venus was always located between the Earth and the sun; it was never on the opposite side of the sun. So as observed from Earth, we should always see less than half of the surface of Venus illuminated. But according to heliocentric theory, we should see a full cycle of phases. And this is precisely what Galileo saw, proving that Venus orbits the sun...

Two years later, in 1612, Galileo made yet another discovery that provided more evidence that the Earth, like Venus, moves around the sun. He found that in order to correctly describe the orbits of Jupiter's moons and predict the times of their eclipses, he had to account for the fact that the angle of viewing Jupiter changes as the Earth orbits the sun. In other words the geocentric theory could not explain the observed orbits, because to do so one must take into account the Earth's movement. This discovery not only refuted the old astronomy--it provided direct support for the most radical claim of the new heliocentric theory.

See also here. So, I'm afraid it is D'Souza who is being mythical here. Next "myth:"
The Church Dogmatically Opposed the New Science: In reality, the Church was the leading sponsor of the new science and Galileo himself was funded by the church. The leading astronomers of the time were Jesuit priests. They were open to Galileo’s theory but told him the evidence for it was inconclusive. This was the view of the greatest astronomer of the age, Tyco Brahe. The Church’s view of heliocentrism was hardly a dogmatic one. When Cardinal Bellarmine met with Galileo he said, “While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still, if there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe…and that the sun goes not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.” Galileo had no such proofs.
Well, I already pointed out that Galileo did have such proofs. As far as the Church's view on heliocentrism, let's contrast what D'Souza quotes of Cardinal Bellarmine with the following quote that Harriman provides:

But to wish to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the center of the heavens and merely turns upon itself without traveling from east to west, and that the earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves very swiftly around the sun, is a very dangerous thing, not only by irritating all the theologians and scholastic philosophers, but also by injuring the holy faith and making the sacred Scripture false.
In light of subsequent events, I think Harriman's quote is much more relevant than D'Souza.

Finally, we have the most offensive parts of D'Souza's claims:
Galileo Was A Victim of Torture and Abuse: This is perhaps the most recurring motif, and yet it is entirely untrue. Galileo was treated by the church as a celebrity. When summoned by the Inquisition, he was housed in the grand Medici Villa in Rome. He attended receptions with the Pope and leading cardinals. Even after he was found guilty, he was first housed in a magnificent Episcopal palace and then placed under “house arrest” although he was permitted to visit his daughters in a nearby convent and to continue publishing scientific papers.

The Church Was Wrong To Convict Galileo of Heresy: But Galileo was neither charged nor convicted of heresy. He was charged with teaching heliocentrism in specific contravention of his own pledge not to do so. This is a charge on which Galileo was guilty. He had assured Cardinal Bellarmine that given the sensitivity of the issue, he would not publicly promote heliocentrism. Yet when a new pope was named, Galileo decided on his own to go back on his word. Asked about this in court, he said his Dialogue on the Two World Systems did not advocate heliocentrism. This is a flat-out untruth as anyone who reads Galileo’s book can plainly see. Even Galileo’s supporters, and there were many, found it difficult to defend him at this point.
No, Galileo was not tortured, though he was threatened with torture, which frankly, for someone merely arguing and publishing what he believes to be the scientific truth, is a profound injustice. As a result of his trial, Galileo was expressly forbidden from holding, defending, or teaching the heliocentric doctrine. Would D'Souza approve if an atheistic Communist regime placed a priest under house arrest and had forbid him from holding, defending, or teaching the theistic doctrine?

On the heresy issue, D'Souza is being disingenous, since heliocentrism was considered "heretical". In the 1633 indictment of Galileo we read:
Whereas you, Galileo, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei, of Florence, aged seventy years, were denounced in 1615, to this Holy Office, for holding as true a false doctrine taught by many, namely, that the sun is immovable in the center of the world, and that the earth moves, and also with a diurnal motion;...
therefore (this Holy Tribunal being desirous of providing against the disorder and mischief which were thence proceeding and increasing to the detriment of the Holy Faith) by the desire of his Holiness and the Most Emminent Lords, Cardinals of this supreme and universal Inquisition, the two propositions of the stability of the sun, and the motion of the earth, were qualified by the Theological Qualifiers as follows:

1. The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.
2. The proposition that the earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal action, is also absurd, philosophically false, and, theologically considered, at least erroneous in faith.
Therefore . . . , invoking the most holy name of our Lord Jesus Christ and of His Most Glorious Mother Mary, We pronounce this Our final sentence: We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo . . . have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world...[emphasis added]

I'm not sure what more there is to add. D'Souza here is exposed a propagandist without concern for facts. The truth is that Galileo was a great scientist and the Church unjustly persecuted him. He was just one example of a long history of antagonism between religion and science.


Rational Jenn said...

I enjoyed your post very much and I have two points to make:

First, house arrest is still arrest. Even if the house was owned by the Medicis.

Second, if Galileo was never charged with heresy, or wronged in any manner by the Church, then why did it reverse itself in 1992, when a Vatican commission concluded after a 13 year study that it was wrong to persecute Galileo for advocating heliocentrism? Here's a link to the story:

I'd also LOVE to see D'Souza's primary source atheist material that contains all of these so-called atheist myths. You're absolutely right--this is part of a concerted effort to rewrite history. (Another crucial element is the notion of a Judeo-Christian moral basis for the founding of America.) They're afraid, I think. And you're quite right in setting the record straight. We should all be vigilant in doing so. Good ideas will (eventually) squash out bad ideas. Bet Galileo knew that.

Rational Jenn said...

Oh, and I just realized that I posted a link to your blog without checking first to see if it's okay. Go ahead and remove it if you see fit. Sorry about that.

Gideon said...

Thanks for your kind comments. Yes, D'Souza is just completely wrong on these things. He's seems to be taking a position that harks back to the days before the Vatican reversed itself on Galileo.

No worries about the link.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Discussions and debates between historians taking opposing positions can be very informative--for anyone who has the time and patience to read sources carefully.

In that vein, I would like to suggest one text to anyone pursing this subject further: Jerome J. Langford, Galileo, Science, and the Church, 1966, revised edition. The foreword is by Stillman Drake, a Galileo scholar and author of Galileo: Pioneer Scientist, among many others. The author, Father Langford, makes a clear and careful, if not persuasive, case for a "moderate" Catholic assessment of the "tragic condemnation" (p. 159).

My point is that Langford, in the process of somewhat defending the Church, brings out points (and documents) that would not be clear to a reader of only the other side of the debate. That is why Drake, who is on the other side, gladly writes the foreword to the book: The debate is more illuminating than listening to either side alone if one's purpose is to understand the whole situation at that time rather than merely picking up ammunition for later polemics.

This is another instance of a general rule I have painfully learned: just because I like someone's conclusions doesn't mean his argument is objective in method or accurate in detail. In technical fields, such as History, everyone can gain from honest debate. Whether D'Souza is honestly debating is another question.

P. S. -- There might be later, better books by Catholic historians. I have not searched for them, but I am relying on this text as an example only.

Gideon said...

Thank you for your comments and intriguing recommendation. Perhaps I'll take a look at the book when I'll get a chance.

wind said...

While the criticisms in this are helpful and valid, they do make light of the deviation between reality and the "generally accepted" view of events. As is usually the case, many, and some of those certainly intellectual by most standards, have a very generalized view of the events. The instances that D'Souza mentions are all examples that I am familiar with in conversations with peasants to PhDs. While you criticize him for not citing them, you are being disingenuous because you certainly have heard many of the same claims. In that context he is right to call them myths.

I find the logic that "threatening with torture is the same as torture" ... and "house arrest is still arrest ..." to only be confirmations that D'Souza has indeed undone some misconceptions. I've heard that he was burned at the stake, flayed, or racked for his beliefs. Perhaps not from you, but from those who set out to prove their conclusion instead of discover the truth.

I suppose I'm probably asking to have my opinions deleted, but it's an old thread. Maybe nobody will notice that I am dissenting.

Gideon said...

I noticed, though I still had to reread this post to remind myself of the details.

"I suppose I'm probably asking to have my opinions deleted, but it's an old thread. Maybe nobody will notice that I am dissenting."

You haven't written anything offensive or beyond the pale. Mere disagreement will not get you deleted here.

Not sure there is much point in renewing the discussion at present.