Proposition to be assessed: The sun is the center of the world and completely devoid of local motion.
Assessment: All said that this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.
In the early 1600s, Galileo Galilei began giving lectures supporting a theory that had been hushed in academic circles for decades: the Copernican theory that the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo had come to believe that all evidence supported this theory, and his lectures soon drew the ire of the Catholic Church, which had long believed in geocentrism (that the earth is the center of the universe) and believed this to be required by the Bible. There are several passages in the Bible that Galileo’s theory contradicted, for example this passage from Joshua 10:
Then spoke Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the men of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel, “Sun, stand thou still at Gibeon, and thou Moon in the valley of Aijalon.” And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.
As we know today, a literal reading of this passage is impossible–if the sun were to stand still in the sky, this would mean that the earth had ceased to rotate about its axis. As a result, the atmosphere, which would still be spinning at 1100 miles per hour, would rip off the face the earth, we would be hurdled into the nearest wall at 1.5 times the speed of sound; seismic waves from the sudden halt would cause massive earthquakes, and the atmosphere would boil off as a huge fireball engulfed the sky. In short, we would all die a fiery death. (But hey, it’s in the Bible, so it happened, ok?)
While we know better today by virtue of scientific knowledge, back in the 17th century, the Church still strongly believed in geocentrism and a literal interpretation of the Bible, and they took drastic measures to defend their literal interpretation. In 1633, Galileo was found suspect of heresy, required to renounce heliocentrism, placed under house arrest for the rest of his life and forbidden to publish ever again.
Why would the Church impose such a harsh punishment against one of their most brilliant scientists? Because once you accept that the Earth revolves around the sun and the passages in the Bible about the Earth being the center of the universe are not true, then the floodgates are open. Rather than the word of God, the Bible becomes like any other document. Then it is only matter of time before the power structure of the Church begins to crumble.
Science has always posed a threat to established dogmas, because it enables us to engage the world as critical, thinking human beings. And that is as true today as it ever was. Today we are confronted with powerful dogmas about human behavior, about markets, about reproduction and human health. Consider, for example, that some 30% of all Americans think that climate change is “an uproven theory,” even though there is an almost complete consensus among climate researchers that global warming is not only happening, but that it is man-made. Or consider that only 4 in 10 Americans believe in evolution (this is admittedly a bad question, because evolution is not an opinion to be believed, it is a fact). Or consider that 30% of all Americans believe that the Bible is the actual word of God, meant to be interpreted literally.
Americans are vehement in defending their right to their opinions, though these are not opinions. They are views that fly in the face of established facts, which makes them superstitions: “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” To hold them is no different than asserting that the sky is in fact orange or that gravity does not exist. And these superstitions have serious consequences in the world. In 2006, George W. Bush used his veto for the first time to stop a bill that would have relaxed federal restrictions on stem-cell research. In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on the use of dilation and extraction in performing an abortion, even though it can be the safest medical procedure for the mother. In 2010, the Bush tax cuts were extended in the name of the supply-side theory that cutting taxes will lead to growth (and all without harming the budget). Most recently, Congress refused to negotiate on sequestration–an arbitrary set of government spending cuts, on the theory that this the sequester is better than a solution involving human intelligence.
And the list of myths that lead to injustice goes on. Fortunately, every single one of these false ideas will fall to unrepentant forces of science, just as geocentrism once did. The only question is how far we will be pulled down a path of darkness before we band together as a society, enlighten ourselves and chase ignorance and superstition from our lives. This site is about what happens when ignorance and greed run into knowledge and compassion and battle for the hearts and minds of a society.