Is Christianity non-rational?

Science is rational and Christianity is not; such is the claim of many strident atheists. Many go further and say Christianity is actively at war with science, suppressing its truth. In reality, this claim is but one of the myths some people wrap around themselves in order to hide from truth and stay huddled within the rhetoric of their own kind. The truth is far more complex.

It may surprise you, but it is not just Christians who display faith, scientists need it too. They need to have faith that the universe is put together in a way that is ordered, consistent and open to rational enquiry. If they didn’t have faith in these realities, they couldn’t do science. This has led to some of the world’s top scientists saying that belief in God is scientifically reasonable. Paul Davies, a 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 a purposeless accident. Through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact.[1]

Here’s another interesting fact:

Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon were English clerics in the 13th century. Both men were responsible for revolutionising how science was done. Until they turned up in history, science was largely restricted to passive observation. However, when Grosseteste and Bacon arrived, they introduced the notion of experimentation. It can therefore be said that experimental science (at least in the West) was born in the Christian church.

The problem was, Galileo didn’t actually have the knockout proof for his heliocentric theory of the earth circling the sun.

In fact, it is very hard to imagine how science could have flourished in the West without Christianity. This was because science was often seen as a spiritual discipline. Why? Because it helped reveal the creative hand of God. Many of the world’s top scientists still say the same thing today. Francis Collins (Director of the human genome project), said:

I have found 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 awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.[2]

Galileo

One of the key events in history 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 so because Galileo taught that the earth was not the centre of the universe but a heavenly body that circled the sun – an idea first put forward a century earlier by Copernicus.

The real story is, again, more complex, and it’s a ripping yarn, 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 that saw different groups of Protestants going off in a thousand different theological directions. In response to this, the Catholic Church called the Council of Trent (1545–63) at which they decided that only doctors of the church were allowed to give definitive interpretations of Scripture.

Galileo, however, fractured this ruling and was giving interpretations of Scripture in the light of his scientific findings. He taught his heliocentric model of the universe as fact, despite the Catholic Church only permitting him to teach it as a hypothesis. (This is worth noting, for it shows that the church was not trying to suppress his scientific enquiry.) The Catholic authorities instructed Galileo to get scientific proof for this theory, and then let the church’s doctors of divinity interpret the significance of his findings.

The problem was, Galileo didn’t actually have the knockout proof for his heliocentric theory of the earth circling the sun. Proof could only come from measuring the parallax of a distant star (measuring its angle from the Earth at different seasons of the year). Unfortunately, the instrument required to measure parallax to the required level of accuracy simply didn’t exist. It wasn’t until 1832 that the German scientist, Friedrich Bessel, built one capable of doing so.

Galileo could actually be obstinate and even wrong when it came to science. For instance, he ascribed the movement of the ocean’s tides to the heliocentric motion of the earth, even though Kepler had shown that tides were linked 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 evidence of his theory for themselves. And it was the Aristotelians who set about engineering Galileo’s downfall with the Pope.

Galileo greatly assisted their endeavours by putting the theological objections of Pope Urban VIII (who was once kindly disposed towards Galileo) into the mouth of the fool, Simplicitus, in a satirical book he wrote. So, it was probably not surprising that Galileo was brought to trial in 1633!

So, now you know the story.

 

[1]   Paul Davies, The Mind 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 3 April 2007.

Dr Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man who is pathetically weak due to cancer and chemo, who has experienced, and needs to experience, the grace of God each day.

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

Nick has written a book Soar above the Storm in which he draws on his experience of cancer to encourage anyone walking through a storm in life to find rest and hope in God. It offers a 40-day retreat to be refreshed and strengthened and find deep peace in God. Order it at 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.