Thursday, July 10, 2014

Galileo Affair: Faith versus Reason/Science?

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/galileo6.jpg
In the past, I liked to play a Role-Playing-Game (RPG) called Diablo. Like other RPG games, player needs to overcome many opponents. So I had to fight with many characters in the game in order to win.

However, a strange thing about the game is that the characters that I have defeated can never die. They kept coming out again and again. And I had to fight them over many times.

Interestingly, such strange phenomenon also happens in real life. The past week, Vincent Wijeysingha, a local social activist and politician, wrote a Facebook note that criticised the Christian community to the effect that our faith is unreasonable. He pitted our faith against reason or science. And the example he gave was the “Galileo Affair”.

The “Galileo Affair” is the name given to a series of events surrounding the issue between the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and Galileo Galilei in the 17th century. What happened was that Galileo’s famous book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, challenged geocentricism (the earth is the centre of the universe), which was the accepted understanding in the academia at that time and of which the RCC followed.

Galileo, in following the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, argued for heliocentrism, that the sun is the centre of the universe. As a result, the RCC took upon itself to interrogate Galileo and had him recant of heliocentrism. As we now know, based on current astronomy, indeed heliocentrism is true. Galileo was right. 

Since then, this affair has been used by many people to criticize not only the RCC but the whole Christian community in general as against reason or science. The latest came from Wijeysingha,
 “…throughout history where science has conflicted with church teachings, the church has strived to stamp out the new knowledge made available by science even to the extent of torturing their discovers. Recall the papacy’s treatment of Galileo who showed that Earth was not the centre of the universe: he was forced under torture to recant and the papacy apologised only 300 years later. […] the evidence of church history is that faith does not transcend reason, it constrains it.”[1]
There is much historical inaccuracy in the statement. First, Galileo was not tortured at all. Richard Blackwell, professor emeritus of philosophy at Saint Louis University, who has published a few academic books on the “Galileo Affair” wrote:
“Galileo scholars now agree that no torture occurred, nor could it have occurred, given his age and poor health, according to the rules of the Holy Office itself, and Galileo would have known this.”[2]
Likewise, Maurice A. Finocchiaro, an authority on the “Galileo Affair” wrote:
“In view of the available evidence, the most tenable position is that Galileo underwent an interrogation with the threat of torture but did not undergo actual torture.”[3] 
Second, the “Galileo Affair” is not a case of conflict between faith and reason or science. Geocentrism was not only accepted by the Christian community but by most people in the academia of the 17th century. Although there were theologians who pointed out some Bible verses to support the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe, yet it was not the case that their appeal was to Scripture alone.

Geocentrism was mentioned by Aristotle in the 3rd century B.C. This notion was developed further by Ptolemy four hundreds years later. Hence, geocentrism is better known as ‘Ptolemaic system’. The academia and churches in the 17th century simply inherited geocentrism as accepted science of the universe.

On the other hand, neither Copernicus nor Galileo were the first to talk about heliocentrism. Aristarchus of Samos has proposed the heliocentric model in 250 A.D., more than 1,200 years before Copernicus and Galileo were born. Heliocentrism was a theory much less accepted than geocentrism back then. Therefore the “Galileo Affair” was not faith against reason or science, but a less-accepted science against a much-accepted science.[4] And the RCC has betted on the wrong side. As how Peter Harrison, the Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, sees it:
“In the case of Galileo, the Catholic Church was not opposing science per se. On the contrary, it was using its considerable authority to endorse what was then the consensus of the scientific community.”[5]
Third, RCC's respond to Galileo's book is not simply a matter of the church hierarchy suppressing individual's scientific inquiry. The internal tension between the Dominicans and the Jesuits over the application of the decrees of the Council of Trent, education philosophy and curriculum, and scientific discourse played a huge part that led to the “Galileo Affair”. 

The two Orders were in tense engagement to establish their school of thoughts as the intellectual milieu in RCC. Galileo's proposal heightened the tension and hence was being deemed critically. As Rivka Feldhay, the Professor of History of Science and Ideas at Tel-Aviv University, wrote:
“…the possible limits of Galileo's campaign expressed two cultural orientations of two rival intellectual elites within the church--the Dominicans and the Jesuits--who attempted to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent and were engaged in a struggle over cultural hegemony.”[6]
Despite historical works show the contrary, the “Galileo Affair” keeps coming up as the epitome case that Christians are against reason or science. This falsehood is so entrenched among people for whatever reason that it is irresistible to historical reality. Pretty much like the characters in RPG games that keep coming back despite being defeated many times.


End notes
[1] Vincent Wijeysingha,‘My Reply To Archbishop William Goh,’ Facebook Note, dated 4 July 2014. Emphasis added.

[2] Richard J. Blackwell, Behind The Scenes At Galileo’s Trial: Including the First Translation of Melchior Inchofer’s Tractatuc syllepticus (USA: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 23.

[3] Maurice A. Finocchiaro, ‘That Galileo Was Imprisoned And Tortured For Advocating Copernicanism,’ in Galileo Goes To Jail: And Other Myths About Science And Religion, ed., Ronald L. Numbers (USA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 78.

[4] See the discussion in chapter 1 of John C. Lennox, Seven Days That Divide The World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (USA: Zondervan, 2011).

[5] Peter Harrison, ‘Introduction’ in The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, ed. Peter Harrison (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 5.

[6] Rivka Feldhay, Galileo and the Church: Political Inquisition or Critical Dialogue? (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 293.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Why did I sign 'A Call For Compassion, Dialogue And Mutual Understanding On LGBTQ Issues'?

Two reasons. First, there has been very public, aggressive and confrontational approach launched by concerned Christians who hold on to the church traditional teaching on sexuality. I share their affirmation on the teaching on sexuality, but I think that orthodox Christians can approach the issue in a more inviting manner, which is my preference.

Second, there are Christians who embrace and celebrate LGBTQ sexuality and wanting churches to move beyond the church's established teaching on sex. This camp likes to portray Christians who differ from them as hopelessly outdated, bigoted and discriminatory. I share their willingness to raise questions and re-examine church's teaching on the issue. I also sympathize with their outreach to the LGBTQ community. Yet, I would like to believe that I am applying the same keenness in raising questions and re-examine position not only on the traditional church's teaching but also extend the same inquiry to the LGBTQ position.

When a friend informed me of the petition 'A Call For Compassion, Dialogue And Mutual Understanding On LGBTQ Issues', and after I read it, I thought that this is exactly what our society needs at this moment: A compassion dialogue for mutual understanding. As taught by David Ford, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, when dealing with religious or cultural disagreement, we need to deepen the quality of disagreement that goes beyond mere disagreement; we ought to be able to appreciate and comprehend the differences from other's point of view.

So even though I don't share Free Community Church's view on Christian faith and sexuality, I stand side-by-side with them in urging all sides to have a compassionate dialogue for mutual understanding.

The report by Trinity Chua in The Independent summarizes my position well.

Here is the petition:

*This statement was backed by 217 individual signatories & 9 organisations at time of press release (22nd June, 2pm)

1. We refer to the Straits Times report on “Religious teacher launches ‘wear white’ online campaign” (20 June 2014). We note with regret that this recent controversy is a sign of a “culture war” that has taken root in Singapore. This will pose a significant challenge in building a harmonious society that thrives on diversity.

2. We, the undersigned, affirm the principles which Singapore rests upon. These principles are found in the Singapore pledge: to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality.

3. No individual or group in a democracy should impinge on others in an unjust manner. Our freedom to fully express ourselves according to our conscience must come with the reciprocal responsibility to accord the same freedom to other people. This holds true even if these others hold beliefs that deeply contradict our own. No individual or group should therefore be vilified, condemned, or subjected to harassment or abuse – physical or otherwise – or suffer any other form of reprisal simply for taking a position, taking part or identifying with a range of LGBTQ issues.

4. We strongly call for the idea of equality as citizens before the law to be upheld. This means that all forms of discrimination on the basis of one’s sexual orientation are incompatible with the progressive value of equality that this nation rests upon. Equal citizenship also entails that majoritarianism (the idea that the majority has a right to impose its views and values on the minority) must be kept in check. A just and harmonious society can only be achieved when the majority does not infringe upon and discriminate against any minority, including sexual minorities.

5. The LGBTQ issue has often been portrayed as a conflict between “religious” versus “secular” values. We are troubled by this false dichotomy. We note that numerous religious leaders and organisations, in Singapore and around the world, have expressed support for LGBTQ equality. Religion is equally capable of upholding and supporting universal values such as democracy, justice and equality. In fact, these values form the ethical structure of many religions, including that of the major religions in Singapore. We urge that these values serve as a bridge when discussing issues on LGBTQ across the religious and non-religious spectrum. We call for enlightened religious leaders to make a stand in upholding these values in public discourse.

6. We are concerned about the continuous dehumanizing portrayals of members of the LGBTQ community. They have been subjected to a range of abuses, from discrimination and ostracisation, to verbal and physical attacks. Lately, a worrying trend has emerged on social media with voices calling for gays and lesbians to be targeted for public shaming and harassment. Such extreme views can only emerge from a deeply homophobic atmosphere where homosexuality is pathologised as a “disease” to be cured or exterminated. There is a need, therefore, to increase public awareness on the plight of the LGBTQ community and their lived realities, as well as greater public education on issues pertaining to homosexuality.

7. With these considerations in mind, we call for greater dialogues across all spectrums of views, with the common goal of achieving greater understanding and tolerance. The basis for such dialogues should lie in compassion and knowledge, rather than ignorance, hatred and prejudice. We believe that only through such dialogues can we overcome bigotry and ignorance, and forge a harmonious society that respects and upholds the dignity of every human being. For religionists, we call for these values to be manifested when responding to LGBTQ issues. Religion, after all, is a wellspring for compassion, justice and wisdom for all humankind, and we would do well to strive for such aspirations.