The wisdom of Bellarmine

Anthony Grayling quotes Cardinal Bellarmine in 1615, in his reply to Steve Fuller’s reply to his review of Fuller’s Dissent Over Descent. Grayling quotes Bellarmine because ‘Fuller’s endeavour turns in important part on trying to show that science is the child of religion, that its styles of thought are religion’s styles, and that the very coherence of the scientific enterprise owes itself to the grand narrative of the religious world-view,’ and the Cardinal does quite a good job of showing why that is a ridiculous notion.

As you are aware, the Council of Trent forbids the interpretation of the Scriptures in a way contrary to the common opinion of the holy Fathers. Now if you will read, not merely the Fathers, but modern commentators on Genesis, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Joshua, you will discover that all agree in interpreting them literally as teaching that the Sun is in the heavens and revolves round the Earth with immense speed, and that the Earth is very distant from the heavens, at the centre of the universe, and motionless. Consider then, in your prudence, whether the Church can tolerate that the Scriptures should be interpreted in a manner contrary to that of the holy Fathers and of all modern commentators, both Latin and Greek.

If science is the child of that, then a rhinoceros can be the child of a fruit fly, a hummingbird can be the child of a grey whale, a snow leopard can be the child of a star fish. A way of thinking that ‘forbids’ something, and in particular that forbids anything ‘contrary to the common opinion’ of some guys called ‘the holy Fathers’ is not a scientific way of thinking. A way of thinking that points out what commentators on certain chapters of a particular very old book ‘agree in interpreting them literally as teaching’ what the sun is and does (and gets it dead wrong) and then points out (in a threatening manner) that ‘the Church’ isn’t going to tolerate contradiction of agreed interpretation by commentators on parts of a very old book – is also not a scientific way of thinking; it is of course not only the opposite of a scientific way of thinking, it is its deadly, violent, murderous enemy.

Like some others, Fuller wants to see religion…as giving us our idea of the odyssey, the quest, for truth and understanding (“salvation” secularised), a plumbing of mysteries and a searching out of hidden meanings, our errors and stumblings on the way justified by the faith that we can get there in the end. Thus one sees the trick: the infection of the argument by religious terminology to sacralise what is essentially so different from the static metaphysics, the unchanging and marmoreal already-revealed Truth of the faith, which requires not investigation and questioning – for that you die at the stake – but submission, acceptance, obedience, worship.

Just so, and as we’ve seen, more than once, that’s also what Martha Nussbaum does in her book on freedom of ‘conscience’ and religion: she talks repeatedly about a ‘quest for meaning’ when in fact what most religion delivers is not a quest at all but a settled dogma which reqires, indeed, not investigation and questioning but submission, acceptance, obedience, worship. There’s something really annoying about fans of religion pretending that religion is the source of quests for truth and understanding when for the most part it is the opposite and enemy of any such thing.

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