Which Scientist Dealt a Bigger Blow to Religion? August 15, 2009

Which Scientist Dealt a Bigger Blow to Religion?

The Economist has a nice, short article about Galileo and the contributions he made.

… He saw mountains casting shadows on the moon and realised this body was a world, like the Earth, endowed with complicated terrain. He saw the moons of Jupiter — objects that circled another heavenly body in direct disobedience of the church’s teaching. He saw the moonlike phases of Venus, indicating that this planet circled the sun, not the Earth, in even greater disobedience of the priests. He saw sunspots, demonstrating that the sun itself was not the perfect orb demanded by the Greek cosmology that had been adopted by the church…

It was nearly 400 years ago that Galileo demonstrated his telescope for the first time.

It has only been 150 years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

Which of those scientists do you think did more damage to religious institutions and their claims to the “truth”?

Or is this not even a contest and one of them wins hands-down?

(Thanks to Todd for the link!)

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  • littlejohn

    They’re both giants in the field of science vs. religion. But maybe Galileo should get the nod because his arrest created such a huge, long-lasting embarrassment to the Church. If only the Anglicans had busted Darwin. Also, there’s really no dispute about Galileo being right; the fundamentalists, for some reason, have chosen not to demonize him. It’s actually sort of puzzling since the Bible pretty clearly implies that the Sun circles the Earth. i guess they know they’ve lost that one.

  • BruceH

    I’d have to say Galileo, hands down. By Darwin’s time, most of the damage had already been done.

  • Galileo. His discoveries changed the way people looked at the universe and challenged our perceptions. If not for him we might not have had Darwin.

  • Epistaxis

    Philosophically, Darwin, because he replaced the whole Creator, not just the Firmament. Historically, I don’t know enough about Galileo’s impact.

  • Josh

    Darwin. Galileo provided refutation for specific church doctrines pertaining to cosmology. Darwin, however, provided a means by which a creator god could be eliminated entirely in favor of a naturalistic worldview.

    That said, they are both towering men of naturalistic rationalism and without Galileo, there may have been no Darwin.

  • Richard Wade

    Galileo by ten lengths.

    His contribution was far deeper and broader than just showing the Church to be wrong. He introduced a new paradigm of thinking about the world around us. Before him, truth was what wise men told you, whether it was Aristotle, Ptolemy or the Pope. Authorities knew, and you memorized what they said, and that was that. Galileo showed us that truth is discovered by observing and testing the world around us. This was a radical idea, and in the eyes of authorities of many colors of cloth, extremely dangerous.

    Without this new paradigm, Darwin would not have taken his voyage on the Beagle.

  • Matthew

    I would actually say(in a dramatic twist of irony): Father Gregor Mendel the father of genetics.

  • Unfortunately it seems most people don’t really care about things outside of earth and seem to be very good at ignoring the majority of the universe. For me, someone who has a huge interest in astronomy and cosmology, the vastness of the universe and Earth’s insignificant place in it really seem to negate any religious ideas that humans could at all be special in the eye of some creator. However, if someone is religious, they’re probably already accustomed to being intellectually lazy (since they won’t exert the tiny energy needed to be skeptical about their unfounded beliefs), so it comes to no surprise that they won’t exert all the intellectual energy needed to comprehend the vastness of space and time.

    Evolution, however, is different, because it’s a simple concept that is directly about their origins and makes the idea that they are special in the eye of a creator profoundly ridiculous (at what point in hominid did they become special?). I’ve met many people who believe in all of evolution except the part about human origins… so dogs and horses and chimpanzees could of evolved but not me… So I guess those are just semi-logical people who REALLY want to hold on to their religious beliefs. It seems that something as direct as human evolution is what really challenges these people.

    Because of the differences in time between these two movements it’s hard to compare, but I would say Darwin’s theory has a more direct impact on religious beliefs. But I’m no historian, so I could be wrong.

  • medussa

    I LOVE the question, and the answers. These are the kind of questions I live for. Thanks to Hemant for letting me start this beautiful Saturday morning with a smile…

    As for the answer, I’d say Galileo wins this contest. His discoveries simply cannot be made to fit into the church teachings, whereas Darwins understanding of evolution and theory of natural selection seems to have spawned a bunch of increasingly bizarre attempts to reinterpret biblical teachings to accomodate them (i.e. 1 day for god = 1 millenium of evolution, etc..).
    Then again, maybe similar attempts were made in Gallileo’s time, and I am just not historically literate enough to know about them….

  • anothermike

    Let’t not forget good old Nick Copernicus.

  • Galileo. Galileo is one of the fathers of modern scientific thought – look at something, see it, observe it, use it to see if your current idea (Earth is centre of the universe) is cool, if not, come up with a new idea that works with what you’re seeing.

    Darwin is a product of that thought.

  • Going against the majority flow here, I’d say Darwin, because he challenged the beliefs of ordinary people, while Galileo’s challenges to conventional cosmology, though important, didn’t really affect those outside science. The reason the Catholic Church got so annoyed with Galileo had less to do with celestial mechanics and more to do with questioning the authority of the clergy.

  • mikespeir

    I’ll go with Darwin, too. It’s been a lot harder for the Church to reconcile Darwin with their beliefs than Galileo. Within a generation it had adopted the idea of heliocentrism, but here we are 150 years on and much of the Christian Church still cannot abide evolution. Heliocentrism didn’t challenge any fundamental Gospel tenets. But Paul pretty much built his theology on a literal interpretation of Genesis. If it’s wrong, then he’s wrong.

  • Eric

    Galileo, he did more, much more. As much as it pains me, as a biologist, to say that the astronomer did more, he did. Currently, it is Darwin who is doing more damage, but Galileo opened the door for scientific inquiry. He showed that rationalism and evidence is greater than religious dogma. And let’s be perfectly blunt, he disproved the Bible. He’s the father of modern science and he disproved the Bible. The two never were compatible and never will be compatible.

  • Galileo created the systematic approach to scientific enquiry without which Darwin wouldn’t have been able to do anything.

    Who did more harm to the church though? Martin Luther. He challenged the authority of the church . Something that neither Galileo nor Darwin set out to do. However that isn’t the question.

    Of the two I’d say that Galileo had a greater influence on science but that Darwin did more to challenge the claim that humanity had a special place in God’s plan. As nothing more than hairless apes with an evolved intelligence we can no longer claim to be especially loved by a god and created as masters of the world. I think that this terrifies some fundamentalist Christians.

  • Richard Wade

    Some people do not seem to understand the breadth of Galileo’s work and influence. To characterize his work as being primarily about heliocentricism is just as incorrect as characterizing Newton’s work as being only about defining gravity, or Edison’s work as being only about the light bulb, or Dawkins’ work as being only about atheism. These are very small fractions of their vast contributions.

    Galileo’s conflict with the Church over heliocentricism is a small, though tragic chapter in his life. Even if he had never touched the subject of astronomy, the rest of his astonishing work still dealt a lethal blow to religion’s hegemony over the minds of men by undercutting its three main pillars: argument from authority, argument from power and argument from tradition. Religion has been in a slow, steady retreat from the advance of science ever since, on a much more sweeping front than mere astronomy, and the retreat continues centuries after their sheepish acknowledgment of where the hell the sun is.

    Because of Galileo, mankind has a new ethos. The old, fading one is “Believe what you’re told.” The new, burgeoning one is “Check it out for yourself.”

    Without that, we would not even be having this conversation. The struggle between these two basic ways of thinking is the essence of the dialogues that atheists have with theists.

  • artiofab

    Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics may or may not have invented the word ‘experiment’ and probably was the first usage of the scientific method in Western civilization. …not that Galileo wasn’t important, but if we’re arguing that “without Galileo being inquisitive, then Darwin wouldn’t have done anything”, then I’m gonna argue that without al-Haytham, Galileo wouldn’t have known to do experiments. (Not that I’m saying the “if not Galileo, then no Darwin argument” is valid, as it assumes that if one person doesn’t make a discovery then no one will. But it’s comparable to the argument I establish.)

    Speaking as an evolutionary biologist, Darwin, as a scientist, dealt a bigger blow to religion. Particularly in the manner in what the science of the two gentlemen says about a Creator.

    Galileo’s science says almost nothing about a Creator: whether one exists, how it functions, what it looks like. Galileo’s creator does like math, so, I guess math teachers should really dig God.

    Darwin’s science says that a Creator (if one exists) set up a world in which organisms are constantly battling: against their peers, against other organisms, and against nature. This Creator made a world in which it makes no sense to be kind to anyone who is not related to you. His science says that the Creator breathed life into existence and then (for all intents and purposes) walked away. His science says that humans, the supposed pinnacle of creation, are mere apes, and that our minds and emotions are just better developed versions of what all other animals have.

    Darwin dealt a bigger blow to religion because it took 120ish years after Galileo for the Catholic Church to no longer have theological problems with heliocentrism. However, 150 years later, the Church still has massive theological issues with some of the content of OTOOS.

    …although, of course, I doubt most religions would just readily admit that God hasn’t done anything since creating life…

  • littlejohn

    I have to disagree about Copernicus. If it weren’t for Galileo, Copernicus’ contribution might have been overlooked.
    Likewise, Mendel and Malthus, who became prominent mainly because Darwin was influenced by them.
    As for Martin Luther, he certainly spit in the Pope’s face, but he really was no better. He was an anti-semitic dickhead.

  • mikespeir

    I do understand all that, Richard. But Galileo wasn’t working alone to that end. Copernicus has been mentioned. Kepler could be. So could others. But we shouldn’t forget the Reformers, either. They, more than Galileo in my opinion, loosened the stranglehold the Church had on Truth. After them, Truth wasn’t the private domain of anyone, not even the Church. The Reformers pulled the fingers from around their throats only to cut those throats themselves. (They couldn’t believably claim unchallengeable access to absolute truth afterward, either.) What I mean to say is that, while Galileo was instrumental to that end, the Reformers really made it happen. They unwittingly showed that revelation could never be absolute. They created the void that science, like Galileo’s, has filled. Without that void, he probably wouldn’t have had anything like the impact he did.

    Granted, Darwin benefited from it, too. But unlike Galileo, Darwin posited an opinion that simply cannot be squared with a fair reading of the Genesis accounts. This undermines the very essence of the Pauline theology that undergirds most of what calls itself Christianity. In other words, Pauline Christianity can abide Galileo. It can’t abide Darwin.

  • EdWest

    You know what? I’m gonna throw down in Darwin’s side.

    Galileo damaged the Church, and the church’s teachings, but Darwin damaged all religious philosophy. He made naturalism and atheism into suddenly tenable positions — if natural forces could explain the existence and diversity of life itself, then all the other arguments for ANY God are diminished in turn.

    both men struck huge blows to the religious authority, but I think Darwin’s radical ideas challenged the very roots of religious ideology. We are related to centipedes and kumquat trees, and all due to blind, unguided forces. No faith necessary.

  • Erp

    I should point out that even as far back as Augustine, prominent Christians argued against taking the Bible literally (in his day I suspect it was a ‘flat earth’ that ignorant Christians were pushing [we know a very small groups were]).

    As for whether Galileo or Darwin dealt a bigger blow to Religion. I can’t say. I will note that most of the Church of England ministers seem to have swung over to accepting at least evolution fairly quickly (many CoE clergymen were competent naturalists). Darwin himself was buried in Westminster Abbey. My own view is that the bigger blow at least to Christianity was the scholars turning their eyes on the history of Christianity, Judaism, and in particular the Bible. Items like the Documentary Hypothesis or the three Isaiahs in the Book of Isaiah tend to make it a bit more difficult to accept the Bible as a clear guide to God’s wishes. The CoE beyond people like Bishop Wilberforce had little problems with Darwin; they had heresy trials for the Biblical scholars (admittedly you had to be a clergyman to be tried).

  • Tully

    I have to go with Galileo for the same reasons that Eric and Richard gave. But I would also give a hat tip to Bacon for making Galileo’s methodology acceptable to the political establishment.

  • Neon Genesis

    I’m going to have to disagree with both the idea that it was the Reformers and Galileo and Darwin who did the most damage to religion and propose it was textual criticism and liberal Christian scholars who did the most damage to the belief in the literal interpretation of the bible. In her book, The Bible-A Biography by the historian Karen Armstrong, she pointed out that the early fundamentalist Christians actually had no problem with evolution and were more concerned about biblical scholarship’s discoveries. Fundamentalists didn’t start to become more concerned about evolution until after WWII when science became more negatively assosicaited with Nazis and they didn’t start to feel the most threatened by evolution until after the Scopes trial, which was the final straw for them. But before then, fundies were more concerned about biblical scholarship undermining their literal belief in the scriptures and didn’t start to become more concerned about evolution until later.

  • Richard Wade

    This is a lot of fun. I understand everybody’s points, I’m learning so much, and agreement or disagreement is completely beside the point, because it’s about emphasis, rather than an either/or choice. What a pleasure it is to hear all your completely valid points of view. Thank you, all, for the enrichment.

  • Dan W

    Galileo damaged some teachings of one religion, the Catholic Church. Darwin, with his discovery, did damage to many religious teachings of several religions. Darwin definitely dealt a bigger blow to religion.

  • ArabiaTerra

    I vote for Darwin.

    Galileo merely changed the shape of God’s creation.

    Darwin gave us an alternative to God.

  • Jason

    Darwin FTW! In the words of Dawkins, he made it OK to be godless.

  • Freak


    Darwin wasn’t influenced by Mendel. Going by dates on Wikipedia, Darwin published while Mendel was still conducting his experiments.

  • J Sveda

    Matthew: “I would actually say(in a dramatic twist of irony): Father Gregor Mendel the father of genetics.”

    Actually, becoming a monk was possibly only way for Mendel to get his research done, mainly because of a large garden at the convent. He was essentially more of a scientist than a monk (later an abbot).

    FYI, I’m from the very city where Mendel did his work on genetics – Brno, Czech republic 🙂

  • littlejohn

    Thanks to Freak for setting me straight on Mendel. I was under the impression Darwin encountered Mendel’s work well after publishing Origin and was impressed by it, as it suggested a mechanism for inheritance of parental traits. But I didn’t do my homework and I’m probably wrong. Hey, you’ll be my age someday, too. Memory is the second thing to go!

  • Wendy

    When it comes to challenging beliefs, both Galileo and Darwin are major heavyweights, but I think Galileo delivered a more convincing blow. To his benefit, his brand of science is easier to observe, it’s more mathematical, and more easily “proven” than Darwin’s, therefore the church has had a harder time rejecting his findings. Heck, he even got an apology from them! Sure, it was almost 400 years too late, but it’s still something…

    Hopefully, one day, Darwin will command the same respect from the church that Galileo now does.

  • Claire V

    I would have to saw Darwin made a more significant blow, simply because his work shook the faith of ordinary people more than Galileo’s did. It was possible to still believe that Man was the ultimate creation of God even if the sun didn’t orbit the Earth… it’s a lot harder to believe that when you realize that the earth is a lot older than you thought and your species is not the end all be all and could ultimately become extinct. (Witness the reaction of despair in certain Victorian poetry).

  • Pseudonym

    Definitely Galileo. Darwin did almost nothing for the science vs religion debate, despite what some elements in the US “bible belt” would have you think.

    Darwin didn’t really shake any beliefs of the common people. Indeed, one of the reasons why his theory caught on is that the clergy of the time who taught against it were flatly contradicting the direct experience of anyone involved in farming, who knew all about natural selection because it’s what they did for a living.

    Darwin was interred in Westminster Abbey right after his death. By comparison, it took 400 years for the Vatican to erect a memorial to Galileo.

  • ChameleonDave

    The Bible says virtually nothing about astronomy, so I doubt Galileo made that many atheists. He talked about how things moved, not how they appeared. He embarrassed clerics at the time, but his discoveries were quickly swept under the carpet, and religious nuts today feel no shame about it.

    Darwin destroyed the one semi-sensible reason for believing in some sort of designer. He is, to this day, a threat to every religious person.

  • Tometheus

    I’m going to throw down on the Galileo side, at least for the Abrahamic religions. He did more for the scientific method than possibly anybody else. Aside from that, people today don’t realize how theologically damaging Galileo’s observations were. Before him, for many religions, the earth was at the center of the universe. To make man was the sole reason for the Genesis creation. By showing the moons of Jupiter, Galileo showed that here are worlds that don’t even care that Earth exists! The earth is no longer something special, but is relegated as a small planet around just another star at the edge of a run-of-the-mill galaxy*. His evidence was so convincing and repeatable that the religions had to accept it, they couldn’t just ignore it. As for Darwin? Most of them still ignore him in their daily lives except when some annoying atheist shows up. Growing up in a fundamentalist church, Creation was the Truth and I never even thought about Evolution until high school. (Being in religious schools meant I learned Creation all the way.) However, I knew that the earth and the planets orbited the sun. After reading the Bible through a couple of times, the scientific facts about the solar system and insignificance of Earth got me to realize how outdated and inaccurate the Bible was more than the descent of man. It was only after I had already started questioning that I finally read Darwin. I won’t even start on the ramifications of Falsification and the scientific method, which is really an ultimate tool in even allowing Darwin to later question the Authorized version of man’s origins.

    To put it another way, pre-Galilean theology just doesn’t exist anymore. Earth is NOT at the center of creation with all of the universe focused here, it is not fixed in space, it doesn’t have corners, is not supported on pillars or elephants or a giant turtle, etc. There just isn’t a Gap for God to fit into anymore with our understanding of planetary motion, day and night, etc. That part of the theology is simply gone except among a few wacky communities. It has been so eradicated that modern people don’t even realize it was a part of their religion at all in previous centuries. Darwin may have initiated the final death knell, but it has yet to finish pealing. Galileo, on the other hand, started the bell tolling.

    *Yes, I realize Galileo didn’t know about galaxies, etc, but his methodology was a necessary step to lead us to this knowledge. For those who say Evolution does more to eradicate theology than Galileo, I leave with this: Evolution does NOT make claims about initial creation of the universe; the Big Bang theory does, and the Big Bang theory would be nowhere if someone hadn’t turned that little invention called the telescope away from ships at sea and towards the heavens…

  • Tometheus

    ^– pet peeve: equating Evolution and the Big Bang theory.

    Darwin was perfectly fine inserting God in later editions of Origin because it had no relevance to his theory. Natural selection is what happens once a replicator exists, it doesn’t tell how one originally got there. It’s the astrophysicists who had the audacity to do away with God entirely.

  • Richard Wade

    What we think at any given moment is trivial in its significance compared to how we think, which tends to last over time, and profoundly affects every “what” that we might think.

    It has nothing to do with biology or astronomy. That is beside the point.

    Darwin changed what we think about something.

    Galileo changed how we think about everything.

    Religion is besieged by a thousand other challenges besides evolution because of how we think differently now.

  • cat

    Galileo wins in my book, if only because he slammed the church with research that it paid for. Little known fact that the Church hired Galileo to ‘prove’ heliocentrism false. Instead, he came back with an incredibly strong proof that the earth revolved around the sun and even helped the Church’s oppenents more by giving a wider planetary motion theory. He gave them an embarassing mathematical smackdown and they paid for it too. Priceless.

  • CaptainBeefheart

    Galileo didn’t do a thing. Darwin. Not Galileo.

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