I recently debated a Christian apologist at a church in Waco, Texas. I tend to let my opponents pick the topic, because they usually choose a better one than I could think of myself, and this was a fine example of that. Tyler Vela suggested, “Has Christianity Historically Been in Conflict with Science?” I could not turn that one down.
This is a re-upload in an attempt to improve the sound quality. There was a significant difference in the mic volume between us, such that turning mine up to equalize them produces an annoying electronic hum. I didn’t want to do all this audio editing if I didn’t have to, especially when we’re both talking in the Q&A, where I would have to precisely sync the direct recording with the room sound, or else you couldn’t hear everyone. But the echo on the original turned out to be so bad that I had to do what I could to improve it, even though the original video had already been viewed well over 16,000 times. Fortunately someone else stepped in with a better understanding of audio editing and cleaned up that annoying hum. Thank you, Antediluvian Atheist.
Someone commenting on that original video insisted that I had said something that was factually false. It was the same thing my opponent accused me of too, when he said that Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei were not actually punished by the church over their belief in Copernicanism. Now that I’ve had to re-upload the video, I’ll address that criticism here.
If I had gotten something wrong, I’d either just own and admit it or let it go, since my opponent harped on in the debate that “On many of these very events that I just listed, he’s simply incorrect”. No. As I already pointed out there and then, my opponent Tyler Vela hadn’t listed even one historic fact that I actually got wrong. He just assumed that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Remember that he accused me of learning everything I know on Reddit, even though I’ve never been on Reddit. Instead I aced college courses on religious history and I have often conversed with various Biblical scholars both on video and in email, so that I have at least some scholarly guidance.
Based on his presupposition, (he is a presuppostionalist) I think my opponent simply imagined that I said things I didn’t really say. For example, I did not say that Giordano Bruno had been convicted for his belief in Copernicanism. Instead I said that “Giordano Bruno proposed another heretical hypothesis called Cosmic Pluralism, the idea that the stars were suns like our own, albeit much further away, and that they might have their own planets and perhaps even life on them. So the church burned him at the stake”.
I didn’t specify exactly why they burnt him. Now, maybe I should have said “for that and other reasons”, but it never occurred to me that someone would actually try to argue that this was not one of Bruno’s charges, nor that someone would assume that I’d think that was the only charge levied against him.
Both my opponent and someone posting in my comments said that Bruno’s beliefs on Copernicanism or Cosmic Pluralism had “absolutely nothing” to do with his conviction. But that statement is even more wrong than what they accuse me of. I already knew that Bruno was a heretic on a number of different topics. I’m a 20 year veteran atheist activist. How could I not know about Bruno’s assorted heresies?
Just to clarify, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Cardinal Bellarmin therefore drew up a list of the theories deemed to be heretical, over which Bruno again hesitated before categorically refusing to renounce his doctrine: The eight propositions that the philosopher refused to renounce were as follows: 1 – The statement of “two real and eternal principles of existence: the soul of the world and the original matter from which beings are derived”. 2 – The doctrine of the infinite universe and infinite worlds in conflict with the idea of Creation: “He who denies the infinite effect denies the infinite power”. 3 – The idea that every reality resides in the eternal and infinite soul of the world, including the body: “There is no reality that is not accompanied by a spirit and an intelligence”. 4 – The argument according to which “there is no transformation in the substance”, since the substance is eternal and generates nothing, but transforms. 5 – The idea of terrestrial movement, which according to Bruno, did not oppose the Holy Scriptures, which were popularised for the faithful and did not apply to scientists. 6 – The designation of stars as “messengers and interpreters of the ways of God”. 7 – The allocation of a “both sensory and intellectual” soul to earth. 8 – The opposition to the doctrine of St Thomas on the soul, the spiritual reality held captive in the body and not considered as the form of the human body. None of these final accusations tied in with the philosopher’s magic reflections.”
So Items #2, #5, and #6 definitely did have something to do with why the church burnt Bruno at the stake. Number 2 (and arguably #6) pertain to Cosmic Pluralism, and #5 pertains to Copernicanism. So it turns out Bruno was burnt at the stake for his belief in Copernicanism (even though I didn’t say that) and he really was burnt at the stake for Cosmic Pluralism too, which is what I actually did say.
Importantly, remember that my opponent’s allegation against me ignores the fact that Copernicus himself was branded as a heretic for that very idea, which nullifies my opponent’s argument. But it got even worse when Mr Vela said that Galileo wasn’t punished for Copernicanism either. Remember that he said that after I had already read the ruling of the Holy Inquisition against Galileo in 1616:
“The first proposition, that the sun is the centre and does not revolve about the earth, is foolish, absurd, false in theology, and heretical, because expressly contrary to Holy Scripture; and the second proposition, that the earth is not the centre but revolves about the sun, is absurd, false in philosophy, and from a theological point of view at least, opposed to the true faith”.
So the issue the church had with Copernicanism is that it challenged their theology, which proves my point in that debate. And that brings us back to Bruno again. According to Britannica:
“Bruno is, perhaps, chiefly remembered for the tragic death he suffered at the stake because of the tenacity with which he maintained his unorthodox ideas at a time when both the Roman Catholic and Reformed churches were reaffirming rigid Aristotelian and Scholastic principles in their struggle for the evangelization of Europe.”
Funny that it doesn’t say he was executed for all these unorthodox ideas–except for Copernican theory. The passage continues:
“Copernicus’s heliocentric theory provided a starting point for his exposition of what he called a “new philosophy”. It disproved the axioms of Aristotelian natural philosophy, notably the idea that sublunary elements occupied or strove to return to their natural places, that is, the elemental spheres, at the centre of the cosmos.”
So the Church’s handling of Bruno, Galileo, and Copernicus himself all prove my point in that debate, and I didn’t get that fact wrong after all. Mr. Vela argued that Bruno wasn’t practicing good science and that Galileo was wrong about some things, but my point was that Christianity dealt with them in a manner that conflicts with the way science works, which I think was best summarized by Carl Sagan’s description of science on an episode of Cosmos: (from 3:35 on)
Even though it turned out I was right about Bruno, he was never a foundational argument for me. Strategically why would I choose the most obvious answer that every layman gives first? I know better than that, because that will be the one thing any professional apologist will have contrived counter-apologetics for. Remember that apologetics is making up excuses to systematically rationalize or justify the religious position or to otherwise dismiss any and all evidence against it.
Bruno served my purpose for two reasons. (1) because he actually was damned for not accepting the religious dictates about other stars and planets, and (2) that the crux of my argument was how religion and science deal with new information in entirely different ways. While religion seeks to silence or eliminate the heretics and apostates, science celebrates and rewards those who overturn the status quo.
Most amusingly, Mr Vela said that I “might want to argue that there is a philosophical or theoretical conflict between science and Christianity, but that’s not the question of the debate”. Yes it is, and that’s exactly why I accepted his invitation to debate this topic.
Christianity and science have diametrically opposed philosophies and goals. Yet they’re both trying to explain the same thing, the origin of “the world” and the origin of man. So when Tyler Vela said that each was answering a different questions, I was admittedly confused; especially when he asked whether Christianity should have it’s own tectonic plate theory.
I did find it interesting that he and I both wrote our entire debate, rebuttal and closing arguments before we even faced each other, each predicting in advance what the other would say. The difference being that I only had to add a short paragraph pointing out that he was accusing me of things I did not say, and that he hadn’t rebutted any of my arguments, yet he still recited a list of things I did not say as if I said them. His prediction failed.
Vela went on about “the problem with this view”–that I don’t have. He also said that “the idea that Galileo was tortured is just flat-out false”. Except that I never said that either. Nor did I ever believe that. I already knew everything he said when he thought he was correcting me. The reason you see me checking my Facebook and Twitter feeds during his “rebuttal” is that Mr Vela wasn’t saying anything relevant to my actual position, and he hadn’t bothered to edit his counter-argument to address any of the arguments I actually made.
Mr Vela assumed that I thought that the world was believed to be flat until Columbus proved otherwise, even though I had already said that science proved it was round 1,800 years earlier. The one misstatement I did make, (which no one called me out on) was that Christianity was still promoting the flat earth view even in Columbus’ time; when in fact only certain individual Christians did that when most Christian scholars knew better, and I should have said so.
So while we’re here, let me just add that I knew he would assume that I subscribe to the Conflict Thesis, which I don’t. It is true that religious factions have sought to impede, retard or reverse progress in every application that religion has ever touched. For that reason, I will admit that I think we would be much more advanced were it not for religion always slowing us down if not dragging us backward. However that is different from Conflict thesis. which holds that every religious person must always oppose science on every topic all the time.
Francis Collins, for example, admits that “anatomically modern humans emerged from primate ancestors—long before the Genesis time frame” and that “the story of Adam and Eve doesn’t fit the evidence”. So why does he believe in Christianity? I have no idea. How could he? Especially since he seems to have dismissed the core principle of it.
Mr Vela also accused me of logical positivism; which is based on Verificationism, which I reject, and I’m sure he’d be surprised to hear that too. So I’m not a logical positivist; I’m a rationalist. Rationalism should not to be confused with empiricism. I will accept logical arguments as well as empirical evidence. The subtle difference my opponent may have missed is that I hold that one should not be fooled into believing anything that might not actually be true; that we should suspend judgement until the evidence is so overwhelming as to compel acceptance. I know Mr Vela disagrees with that, because he’s not an empiricist. He believes things on faith. How he misdefines that, or how he unwittingly vindicated my interpretation with his clarifying definition could be the basis of a whole other essay. For example, when he sternly denied the God-of-the-gaps fallacy, but others in the audience noted that the description he gave for his position was definitely that.
So Mr Vela based his entire debate on attacking positions I do not hold, that he assumed I would have, without asking first whether I held them. But I based my argument on the topic he suggested, regardless whatever position he may hold beyond that. So they could have replaced my opponent with anyone else, and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Another assumption he made was that I base my position on post 1970s American creationism, when actually most of my position stems from religious conflicts in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries; which I obviously know better than he does–despite his confident but false accusations against me.
So maybe before selecting me as an opponent, he should have inquired what my background or position actually is. In my accepting his challenge however, his position or background didn’t matter. He simply chose a topic that neither he nor anyone else could possibly defend, and that’s not my fault.