Thursday, July 9, 2009

Neo-geocentrism

A big part of the claim that Christianity is at war with science is geocentrism, the belief that the earth is at the center of the universe. As readers of this blog are aware, this issue is almost entirely misunderstood: in the ancient/medieval cosmology, the closer you were to the center of the universe, the less privileged and esteemed you were. This is precisely why hell is even closer to the center of the universe than the surface of the earth, and why Dante placed Satan at the exact center of hell (and thus of the entire universe), immobilized in a field of ice.

The misunderstanding is that since the premoderns thought the earth was at the literal center of the universe, they must also have thought it was the metaphorical center as well. It confuses geocentrism with anthropocentrism. But this can only be maintained by completely ignoring their Aristotelian cosmology, according to which the universe was arranged in concentric spheres, with God on the outside as the prime mover. The furthest place in the universe from God, therefore -- the furthest place in a sphere from what is outside the sphere --, is at its center. Of course, this ignores the fact that in Christian theology God is not merely transcendent to the universe but omnipresent within it as well; nevertheless, the premoderns maintained that the closer you were to the center, the less valuable you were. This has been amply demonstrated by Dennis Danielson in his essays "Copernicus and the Tale of the Pale Blue Dot", "The Great Copernican Cliché", and chapter 6 in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion; Humphrey wrote an enlightening post on this issue as well.

But I find it interesting that when Christians are told that their worldview requires a belief that conflicts with science, some respond by embracing the belief in question. Thus, there are geocentric ministries today which argue that being a Christian requires belief in a geocentric universe -- although they prefer the term "geocentricity" as it doesn't have as much historical baggage. The Geocentricity website is the official site of the Association for Biblical Astronomy, "biblical astronomy" meaning Aristotelian/Ptolemaic astronomy. The second link takes you to a collection of the publications of their journal.

There's another site that bothers me more. When I was in (Protestant) seminary, my favorite theology professor used a book for one of his classes written by a Protestant-turned-Catholic entitled, Not by Faith Alone. I didn't take that class, but I did plan to someday study this book, maybe together with Alister McGrath's Iustitia Dei, and see where I came out. However, the author of Not by Faith Alone has also published a two volume work entitled Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right, volume 1 of which deals with "the scientific case for geocentrism", thus absolving me of any requirement to take him seriously. (Update: Just to be clear, I'm not tying the Catholic doctrine of justification to geocentrism. I'm only saying that particular author is not credible.)

The Geocentric Bible is essentially an online book arguing for geocentrism; he says he first heard of this view from a young-earth creationist ministry. This leads to another point: most young-earth ministries have embraced a neo-geocentrism in order to account for the problem of starlight travel time. They argue that the universe we know is actually a white hole -- a black hole so crunched that light begins to escape via quantum tunnelling -- with our galaxy (the Milky Way) at its center. They call it "galacto-centrism" since the earth is only approximately at the universe's center. I critiqued the scientific case for this claim here. For now I'd just like to point out that in arguing for this view, they appeal to the idea that if we're important to God, we should expect to find ourselves at the center of the universe. In other words, they accept the conflation of geocentrism with anthropocentrism, a conflation which is not only unhistorical, but which was invented in order to mock and ridicule Christianity. This strikes me as an extremely unwise concession: when fighting the spirit of the age, you shouldn't let it define the terms of the debate. Moreover, the fact that they have to appeal to geocentrism in order to defend their belief in a young earth makes the latter even less plausible than it already was.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

5 comments:

D.J. Lower / KKairos said...

However, the author of Not by Faith Alone has also published a two volume work entitled Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right, volume 1 of which deals with "the scientific case for geocentrism", thus absolving me of any requirement to take him seriously.

I'm going to call your bluff on this implication; the first book's description says it's about the doctrine of justification in the Scriptures, and whether he engages in bunk science isn't necessarily at all relevant to his ability to do solid exegesis. In other words, even if this absolves you of responsibility to take him seriously, this doesn't mean everything in his unrelated argument is bunk. If it did you'd probably also be automatically invalidating the Scriptural arguments of many Catholic authors who don't preach geocentrism.

If what you were implying was simply that his book might not be the best to read, sure, I'll go with that.

Ilíon said...

Of course, on the Einsteinian view, *every* point in space (and, I suspect, every instant of time) is "the center of the universe."

Jim S. said...

Hi D. J., thanks for commenting. Sorry to take so long to respond.

I think the fact that Sungenis accepts and defends geocentrism shows that his analytical abilities are seriously deficient, and that he is willing to accept incredible claims as credible if they fit with his presuppositions. These two things make me very suspicious of anything else he writes.

However, you're right; this is essentially an ad hominem argument. I should address his claims regarding justification on their merits, not on his views of some other topic.

Also, I did not mean to tie the Catholic doctrine of justification to geocentrism, just Sungenis's defense of that doctrine. I fully appreciate that the Catholic view does not have any connection to geocentrism.

Finally, you might appreciate this quote that I got from two Catholic philosophers.

Tyson said...

"This strikes me as an extremely unwise concession: when fighting the spirit of the age, you shouldn't let it define the terms of the debate."

I heartily agree that a knee-jerk reaction to anti-religious arguments can be dangerous. That's how Christians end up being seen as against to science and a lot of other things that we ought to be for.

Ilíon said...

Knee-jerk reactions by Christians or not, the anti-Christian "science" fetishists tend to be intellectually dishonest: they tend to assert anything -- and its opposite -- about us.

Christians should take care not to become "science" fetishists themselves: science -- the real thing, contrasted to the fetish-object -- isn't even about truth, in the first place, and we worship Truth.