The story of the controversy between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church carries a significance today that would probably have surprised the original participants. Nearly four hundred years after it took place, it is cited by Richard Dawkins as an important example of conflict between religion and science. This interpretation looks rather weak if we look at the details of the controversy itself.
The Pope at the time, Urban VIII, had shown a strong belief in the importance of scientific research. Galileo Galilei showed no sign of disbelieving in Christianity. The major conflict came in 1632 when Galileo published a thinly veiled defence of Copernicanism, a view that placed the sun at the centre of the universe rather than the Earth. The Church had previously declared Copernicanism to be both scientifically false and heretical. Galileo's book was a challenge to their authority.
Urban VIII's priority was the position of the Church. The religious and political power structures over which he presided depended on the Church holding ultimate authority to declare what was true and what was not. The issue of a sun-centred universe was not in itself what outraged the Church authorities. Rather, they were threatened by someone working out truth independently of – and contrary to – their own teachings. We may admire Galileo for bravely standing up to an oppressive authority and asserting his own discoveries of truth. But the idea that this was a conflict between religion and science would have made no sense to either Galileo or Urban VIII.
Political issues are equally important when we look at recent disputes about evolution. The theory of evolution by natural selection split both the scientific establishment and religious authorities in the nineteenth century. Evolution gradually became accepted in most of the world, before fresh controversies made the news towards the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The disputes were particularly strong in the United States, where evolution has never been as widely accepted as in most other countries. The 1960s saw the beginnings of campaigns for the teaching of “creation science” in schools. This is a supposedly scientific explanation of the world's origins that is linked to a literal - and biased - interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis. By the turn of the century, “creation science” had significantly been supplemented by “intelligent design”, a less explicitly Christian argument that tries to suggest that certain features of the natural world could not have been produced by evolution alone.
These movements are often backed both politically and financially by certain Christian churches. The struggle against evolution is frequently mentioned by Christian campaigners in the same breath as they talk of the need to defend the status of Christianity in the USA. Theirs is a defensive argument, often aided by right-wing politicians seeking support from these conservatively Christian voters. In other words, this dispute is as much political as religious.
Questions of power are fundamental if we are to understand disputes about truth. The complexity of truth is denied by two movements that have gained ground in recent years. The term “fundamentalism” broadly refers to those groups and ideas that see no truth or validity in any religion but their own. Indeed, they often describe other religions as false or evil. In the same way, there is a form of atheist fundamentalism that refuses to see anything good or truthful in any religion. The writer Martin Amis insists that “a religion is a belief-system with no basis in reality whatever”. Such rhetoric is common amongst the “New Atheists”, the term associated with Amis, Dawkins and a small but influential group of writers and scientists who share their views.
Fundamentalism tends to develop from fear of a religion losing its social status or political position. Hindu fundamentalists fear the influence of religions such as Islam and Christianity in India. Islamic fundamentalists are clearly afraid of Muslims being influenced by “western” political ideas. The decline of church power in several Western countries has led to calls for a return to a “Christian nation”. The British fundamentalist group Christian Voice claims to speak for Christians “who have had enough of secularist politicians imposing wickedness on the rest of us”.
In the same way, New Atheism has followed a fear on the part of secularists that religion is regaining lost ground. In the 1960s and 70s it looked as if religion could be on the way out in many Western societies, but by the 1990s, religious activism was experiencing a revival. After the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, and the subsequent “war on terror”, religion became a far more central topic of political and media discourse in western Europe. It was at this time that New Atheism appeared on the scene, rapidly growing in popularity.
The Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton accuses the New Atheists of “cultural supremicism”. He writes of those “who sneer at religion from the Senior Common Room window as yet more evidence of the thick-headedness of the masses”. The Catholic feminist scholar Tina Beattie puts the New Atheists “in the context of those nineteenth century scholars who perceived themselves as beacons of progress in a world of seething ignorance and barbarism”.
The reality is that questions of truth cannot be considered aside from issues of power and politics. People campaigning against the powerful have frequently taken an unconventional approach to truth. A prime example is Mohandas Gandhi, the key figure behind nonviolent struggles for India's independence from the British empire. For Gandhi, truth is something to be lived out. To describe his approach, he coined the phrase satyagraha, often translated as 'truth force' or 'soul force'.
As Terrence J. Rynne puts it, truth “is not just a cognitive affair but the goal of all human endeavours. We are made for the truth. We pine and long for the truth.” He quotes Gandhi, who spoke of being “attuned” to the truth, which was latent until embodied in action of service to others.
Such understandings of truth undermine the simplistic approach of fundamentalists, New Atheists and all those who want to reduce truth to questions of fact without out regard to politics or culture. They are a reminder that to tackle the injustice and oppression which are often associated with religion, we need to go deeper than religion's casual critics are prepared to go.
© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from part of his book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion. It is published by New Internationalist and can be bought at http://www.newint.org/publications/no-nonsense-guides/religion, priced £7.99.