In Related News, the Pope Criticised Badly Drawn Boy for Having a Silly Hat

It’s a bit old now, but it’s something I’ve been meaning to blog as part of my apparently ongoing project to document and mock everything the new, crazy Pope says and does wrong from the moment of his appointment to shortly after the moment of his death, after which (much as he thinks otherwise) he will not say or do anything.

He was not-very-recently scheduled to give a talk, on the subject of… er… nothing very much, at La Sapienza university, but the talk was cancelled after large numbers of scientists complained. They said the Pope shouldn’t be allowed to talk at a now-secular (the university having been founded by an earlier and probably saner Pope) research institute after What He Said About Galileo. Eventually the talk was reorganised for a later date, and the Pope tried to claim the triple-whammy of association with the university, victim, and victor. Personally I think he came out of the whole thing looking like a twat, but then that’s much the way he went in so no harm done.

For those who missed it, the now-pope, 17 years ago and long before he was pope, defended the Catholic Church’s treatment of Galileo way back when. (For those who missed that too, Galileo pointed out that the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way around. The last Pope, John Paul II, was happy to admit Galileo was right, as to be fair is the new one, but where Benedict XVI loses my respect is that he condones the actions of the Church at the time when they banned all his books, forced him to recant and locked him in his house until he died.)

Of course, the Church was quick to leap to Ratzinger’s defence:

The Vatican has dismissed some of the protestors [sic] as anti-clerical activists, and have said that others have misunderstood Benedict's remarks, made 17 years ago. ... As Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, Pope Benedict said that Galileo had turned out to be correct about the earth revolving around the sun, and that subsequent biblical scholarship had rejected literalist readings of texts that had been taken by the Church to deny this. Nevertheless, he said, Galileo had been dogmatic and sectarian in his statements at the time, and the Church authorities had acted reasonably given the levels of knowledge available then.

So, his defence is that Galileo, though now-demonstrably and -clearly right, was too dogmatic for the Pope. So they banned his books and humiliated him and locked him in his house for questioning their beliefs, but that’s okay because he was a tad dogmatic. In any case, “the levels of knowledge available then” were the same as the levels of (relevant) knowledge available now: there was no proof that the sun orbitted the Earth. As such Galileo was surely perfectly free to doubt it, yes? No. It’s as if the Pope believes that the Church is free to demand that everyone follows their thinking on any issue right up until the moment that it can be definitively proved wrong and everyone agrees. Another fun paragraph from that article is here:

Nevertheless, there is no doubt but that the Vatican is extremely embarrassed by the incident, which will strengthen the hand of those who argue that religious belief and scientific enquiry are incompatible - a view rejected by those involved in science-theology conversations, but spreading widely among non-specialists.

That reads like it was written by one of those strange people who study theology as if it was a proper subject. The incompatibilities (or lack of them) between science and religion is a philosophical area – we can’t prove it. Sure, it’s easy to point out that science is based around the idea of questioning all knowledge and demanding proof of all claims, whereas religion is based around the idea of believing what you’re told, preferably without any proof, but some people will say that they don’t accept that and even though they’re obviously wrong, they’re not demonstrably wrong. They just have to chase you back until you hit an assumption (say, “logic holds” or “the universe exists”) and declare their assumption equally valid.

And I just bet that they’re using the phrase “non-specialists” to mean “atheists”. That’s what it usually means in this context: it’s the mindset that thinks you can’t disprove religion without studying it for years. It’s a bit like saying “you can’t prove Ï€ doesn’t equal four without checking every decimal place”. After all, the view they ascribe to “non-specialists”, “that religious belief and scientific enquiry are incompatible,” is the view held by Richard Dawkins, the esteemed biologist, professor for the public understanding of science, and author of The God Delusion. I think it’s fair to call him an expert in the field.

But they’ve decided what’s true and anyone who disagrees obviously just hasn’t studied hard enough. Damn those dogmatic astronomers!