Sunday, July 09, 2006

Pulled down by gravity: Fine acting fails to liberate The Life of Galileo

Pulled down by gravity: Fine acting fails to liberate The Life of Galileo, The Sunday Times, July 09, 2006, Christopher Hart ... But the play is riven with weaknesses. This version is by David Hare, who claims The Life of Galileo isn't "a simple-minded attack on the Catholic church". Unfortunately, however, that is exactly how it comes across: an oppressively schematic depiction of the reactionary, medieval Catholic church, BAD, against the noble, heroic individual scientist, GOOD, with a lack of subtlety or shading that would embarrass Richard Dawkins. [While I doubt that Richard Dawkins would be embarrassed by any excuse to attack Christianity, irrespective whether it was true or not, it is good to see that the media is getting beyond what Phil Johnson calls their "`Bash Creationism' macro" where "They start with Galileo, move on to the Scopes trial, and go through the whole religion-versus-science routine":

"Early press reports tended to say that Kansas had banned evolution from the classroom, had stripped all references to evolution from its curriculum guidelines, and so on. Some reporters thought the school board was bringing creation science and the Bible into the science curriculum. This was all a misunderstanding, which stemmed, in part, from two things. One is that the earliest reports came before the decision was actually announced, and they were clearly from news sources on the science educators' drafting committee. That committee had given the board a strongly pro-evolution draft. Members of the committee were vociferously angry about the action the board had decided on, and they exaggerated the story of the atrocity that was about to be committed. The second source of misunderstanding, I think, is that this was the kind of story that reporters generally treat with a template. They start with Galileo, move on to the Scopes trial, and go through the whole religion-versus-science routine. I think some of them hit the `Bash Creationism' macro on the word processor. Many of the news reports and editorials could almost have been written by the same person. The Kansas school board did not eliminate all references to evolution. In the revised guidelines it accepted there were almost four hundred words on the subject, compared to fewer than a hundred in the previous guidelines ...." (Johnson P.E., "Evolution and the Curriculum: A Conversation with Phillip Johnson and Gregg Easterbrook," Ethics and Public Policy Center, February 2000, No. 4)

As a Protestant, I have no brief for the Roman Catholic church, but as Christian scholar, the late Charles E. Hummel, pointed out, "Galileo's condemnation by-the Catholic church" was not an example of "Christianity's hostility to free inquiry and to scientific progress". In fact, "The real authoritarianism that engineered Galileo's downfall was that of the Aristotelian scientific outlook in the universities" (my emphasis):

"Over the centuries Galileo's condemnation by-the Catholic church has loomed large in controversies between science and religion. His trial has been held up as the prime example of Christianity's hostility to free inquiry and to scientific progress. For example, one biography of Galileo concludes with this assessment:
Galileo does stand as a classic example of the evils of a totalitarian regime. He was persecuted and prosecuted by men who ... were afraid of the power of independent thought. Galileo queried the Scriptures, he made his own interpretation, and so cut right across the religious authority of the Church.... All they could see was a man who could disrupt their system, and they took the one course they could: they stifled the dissension at its source.' [Ronan, C.A., "Galileo," G. P. Putnam's Sons: New York, 1974, p.253]
But was the conflict so clear-cut? Whose system did Galileo set out to disrupt, the religious authority of Rome or the scientific authority of Aristotle? How did an academic conflict originating within the university become a theological issue for the church? And what forces of power politics-ambition, envy, prejudice, rancor, special interests - propelled the conflict to its disturbing conclusion? ... Galileo's trial of 1633 was not the simple conflict between science and religion so commonly pictured. It was a complex power struggle of personal and professional pride, envy and ambition, affected by pressures of bureaucratic politics. The deliberations seemed to take on a life of their own, moving toward an inevitable conclusion with elements of a Greek tragedy. ... one should be wary of accepting the traditional interpretation of the trial, exemplified by Colin Ronan's conclusion:
Galileo does stand as a classic example of the evils of a totalitarian regime.... [He] cut right across the religious authority of the Church.... It was essentially Galileo's danger to an authoritarian outlook that caused his downfall ." [Ronan, 1974, p.213]
... Ronan's conclusion is a curious mixture of truth and error. He is close to the truth when he calls Galileo the victim of an authoritarian outlook. The problem is that he points the guilty finger in the wrong direction. To call the Catholic Church in the Italy of that time (a collection of independent states) a totalitarian regime is an anachronism. The Pope hardly had the power of a modern dictator. For example, if Galileo had stayed in the Republic of Venice, which had recently expelled the Jesuits for political intrigue, he would have been safe. The real authoritarianism that engineered Galileo's downfall was that of the Aristotelian scientific outlook in the universities. Only after Galileo had attacked that establishment for decades did his enemies turn their controversy into a theological issue. Even then it was the natural philosophers who worked behind the scenes with pliable church authorities to foment Galileo's trial, and finally to rob him of the reasonable solution worked out by the Inquisition. ... A more accurate assessment is given by Santillana: `In reality it was a confused free-for-all in which prejudice, inveterate rancor, and all sorts of special and corporate interests were prime movers.... It has been known for a long time that a major part of the church intellectuals were on the side of Galileo, while the clearest opposition to him came from secular ideas.... The tragedy was the result of a plot of which the hierarchies themselves turned out to be the victims no less than Galileo-an intrigue engineered by a group of obscure and disparate characters in strange collusion. [de Santillana, G., "The Crime of Galileo," University of Chicago Press: Chicago IL, 1955, pp.xii-xiii]" (Hummel, C.E., "The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts between Science & the Bible," Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 1986, pp.13, 116, 122-123)

Moreover, as this London Sunday Times article notes, "there's a huge, clanging irony at the heart of" this play and that is, the "Inquisition is reckoned to have executed about 3,000 people in three-and-a-half centuries" (which "is 3,000 too many"), but it is "hardly a death toll to match that of some 20th century communist" i.e. atheist "regimes":

And there's a huge, clanging irony at the heart of it that Hare rather curiously avoids. The wicked Inquisition is reckoned to have executed about 3,000 people in three-and-a-half centuries. This is 3,000 too many, but hardly a death toll to match that of some 20th century communist regimes that Brecht himself so admired. Brecht's Inquisition, banning books, enforcing a rigid ideology, persecuting and sometimes executing dissidents, reminds you precisely of the eastern bloc, 1945-89, which Brecht insisted he found so congenial, living in Soviet-occupied East Berlin for the last decade of his life. But no such teasing connections are made. When Brecht/Hare have Galileo sneering at the free market, you know this is no longer a properly imagined character you're listening to. ...

That is, over 90 million of its own citizens killed by atheist governments in Russia, China, Cambodia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, in the `enlightened' 20th century:

"Communism did kill, Courtois and his fellow historians demonstrate, with ruthless efficiency: 25 million in Russia during the Bolshevik and Stalinist eras, perhaps 65 million in China under the eyes of Mao Zedong, 2 million in Cambodia, millions more Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America--an astonishingly high toll of victims. This freely expressed penchant for homicide, Courtois maintains, was no accident, but an integral trait of a philosophy, and a practical politics, that promised to erase class distinctions by erasing classes and the living humans that populated them. Courtois and his contributors document Communism's crimes in numbing detail, moving from country to country, revolution to revolution. The figures they offer will likely provoke argument, if not among cliometricians then among the ideologically inclined. So, too, will Courtois's suggestion that those who hold Lenin, Trotsky, and Ho Chi Minh in anything other than contempt are dupes, witting or not, of a murderous school of thought--one that, while in retreat around the world, still has many adherents. A thought-provoking work of history and social criticism, The Black Book of Communism fully merits the broadest possible readership and discussion." (McNamee, G., Editorial review of "The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression," by Stephane Courtois, Harvard University Press, 1999.

The Roman Catholic Church has apologised for "the trial of Galileo" and the "Inquisition" (amongst other things), but I have yet to hear an atheist apologise for the far, far greater sins of atheism!

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
`Evolution Quotes Book'

No comments: