The Trump Reflex

The door bell rings. I open the door. In front of me are two of Jehovah’s witnesses. I invite them in. It’s a force of habit, enhanced by the fact that I’m a teacher and student of religion. I always jump at the opportunity to ask them a few questions.

Actually, I’m really curious about their views on the evolution vs creationism debate. They assure me that Jehovah’s witnesses don’t accept creationism because some statements of creationism reject credible scientific evidence. No kidding. Thus I assume that Jehovah’s witnesses accept the theory of evolution. Which, I learn, they don’t either.

As the conversation continues, I come to the conclusion that Jehovah’s witnesses refuse to be labeled as creationists because it puts them in the same basket with Christian fundamentalist Evangelicals. From an outsider’s perspective, Jehovah’s witnesses and Evangelicals have a lot in common. However, as is often the case, it’s easier to admire those who do not belong to your own terrain than those who are close to you. It’s – as René Girard would have it – a mimetic law, which Plato already refers to in his dialogue Lysis (215d) when Socrates says:

By a universal and infallible law the nearer any two things resemble each other, the fuller do they become of envy, strife and hatred…

best-tennis-playersCompetition and rivalry indeed often increase because of similarities. Two tennis players with similar talents and competences will make for a good game. Another example is the feud between biker gangs Hell’s Angels and Outlaws, or the rivalry that existed at first between ISIL and Al-Qaeda. And most of the time, foreigners and their customs don’t bother us until, of course, they become refugees who seem to invade “our country” and might take “our jobs”.

The desire to differentiate yourself from an adversary increases as differences are actually disappearing. The tragic and ironic thing is, the more you then try differentiate yourself from your opponent, the more you become (like) your opponent. For instance, after the Second World War many Germans and German speaking citizens in Europe were brutally raped, tortured and murdered in a horrific frenzy of vengeful violence. This genocide truly became a mimesis of the holocaust, although the vast majority of perpetrators never had to stand trial for what they did. History is written by the victors, and they create the stories (which is, in light of Girard’s mimetic theory, the function of classical mythology) to cover up violence or to decide whose violence is justified and whose is not.

Back to my visitors, the Jehovah’s witnesses. Like their ideological kinsfolk and rivals, the Evangelicals, they reject the theory of evolution. They claim that the Evangelicals’ representation of God as Creator is not scientific enough, meaning that, in their view, it is just partly in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.

As strange as this may sound, both the religious movement of Jehovah’s witnesses and of Evangelicals are heir to modernity. They are not harking back to the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Christian humanists and reformers started protesting some of the (medieval, premodern) Catholic Church’s teachings (hence the name Protestantism). The protests eventually led to the second major Schism in the history of Christianity, the first being the Great Schism of 1054 (the separation of Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches).


Protestants are convinced that individuals can make up their own mind on what the Bible teaches. Therefore protestants attach great importance to the availability of the Bible in your mother tongue. According to them, you shouldn’t accept any dogma on the basis of clerical authority or Church tradition, which is a modern idea indeed. They are convinced that the Holy Spirit guides every reader to reach a correct interpretation of the Bible. The idea that every human being principally has access to some kind of transcendent, universal rationality as a criterion to determine what’s true, independent of the truth claims made by so-called authorities and historically, culturally situated traditions is, again, a focus of modernity.

However, Protestantism not only meant a separation of new churches from the Catholic Church, it also almost immediately became internally divided. Apparently, what the Holy Spirit teaches is not so easily agreed upon. Hence, today, there are a myriad Protestant denominations. Moreover, the history of Reformation and Counter-Reformation eventually brought an end to the central position of (the Christian) religion in Western Europe.

For centuries, the Christian religion had been a unifying, stabilizing factor in Europe’s society, important for the establishment of peace between people with different cultural backgrounds. The Christianization of pagan habits brought the nations of Western Europe under one and the same religious umbrella.

crusadesThe internal peace and identity of a Christian Europe was enhanced by military expeditions against an external Islamic enemy during the Crusades. In contrast, the violence and the wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation meant that religion was no longer experienced as a factor for peace. Thus it comes as no surprise that, in the 18th century – the Age of Enlightenment – many philosophers stressed the priority of the so-called transcendent, universally valid (and thus divine) Reason to determine truth, values and moral behavior.

In premodern thinking, reason and science had been servants of the so-called revealed truths in Christian religion. The clerical authorities, their interpretation of the Bible and the traditions of the Church set the agenda for reason and science. Someone like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) turns the tables. Sapere aude, he writes, which is Latin and translates to Dare to be wise or Dare to think. By that he means an individual should think independently of any religious dogma (whether it comes from scripture, tradition or authority). Religious dogma should stand the test of Reason, and not the other way around.

The Enlightenment thinkers are convinced that every human being is principally capable of reaching the universal (and therefore, for many of them, divine) truth by developing his or her reason. According to Kant, you shouldn’t accept any truth claim on the basis of authority and tradition, nor on the basis of an uncritical “own opinion”, but on the basis of the so-called transcendent Reason. Eventually, the modern secular State became the institution that at first seemed to provide its citizens the means to discover the so-called universal truth. Sadly, however, some of the modern states became totalitarian, claiming to own truth and morality, and violently suppressing any type of “otherness” that was considered a potential threat to the government’s policy. Hitler and Stalin were two leaders of infamous totalitarian states in their respective countries.

In short, after the historical period of the Church defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence, Europe gradually accepted the secular State defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence. One of the main features of modernity indeed is the State’s monopoly on the use of violence. Both the Church and the State were experienced as totalitarian institutions at certain points in their history. The use of their force was not always experienced as something that provided safety, but as a source of terror.

theuniversaldeclarationofhumanrightsIn 1948 the world received The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is in fact a declaration on individual rights. After the traumas of violence motivated by religious ideologies in the 16th and 17th centuries and of violence motivated by secular ideologies in the 20th century, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be read as an attempt to protect the individual from too much influence by the Church (hence “freedom of speech”) or the State (hence “freedom of religion”). The secular violence in the 20th century also meant that we do not automatically believe anymore in reason and science as factors for the progress of humanity. Scientific progress and technological developments also made possible weapons of mass destruction, which caused violence at an unprecedented scale during the two world wars. Moreover, the Industrial Revolution also started an era of increasing social and environmental issues.

Anyway, a totalitarianism of the Church was replaced by a totalitarianism of the State, and is now replaced by a totalitarianism of the Individual. There used to be a time when educated citizens referred to the Church’s teachings as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life, followed by a time when they referred to the State’s program as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life. Today, in our postmodern world, individuals refer to themselves as the ultimate measure of all things, very often unaware of the influences shaping their perspective (that’s why reflection, philosophy – the art of asking questions, also about yourself – is so important to gain some freedom!).

gravity-just-a-theoryIs it really surprising that someone like Donald Trump became the president of the most powerful nation in the world? We are indeed living in a world where there seems to be no truth more important than one’s own opinion, and everyone, including Trump, produces his own narcissistic self-validating bubble by ignoring certain facts and advocating others. It seems the most powerful individuals have the means to impose their bubble on others. When research on climate change is not favorable for his policy, president Donald Trump simply bans Environmental Protection Agency staff from talking to the press (as this happened on January 24, 2017).

I think about my visitors of the Jehovah’s witnesses again. They also had a “Trump Reflex”. When I confronted them with all the data, all the scientific research and all the logic supporting the theory of evolution, they simply replied: “It is just a theory.” In other words, confronted with reason and science questioning their own opinions, they reduced that reason and science to something like “mere opinion”. And then you get conversations like this one (from The Big Bang Theory, season 3, episode 1, The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation):

This dynamic, the Trump Reflex, is visible in all quarters, not only in religious circles. Anti-theists, for instance, when confronted with the fact that a modern, fundamentalist reading of the Bible is not the most plausible one from a scientific point of view (including historical and literary critical research), will also often speak of “just a theory” to uphold their views on the “stupidity” and “irrationality” of biblical narratives.

Georges Lemaître and Albert EinsteinBelgian Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, the famous physicist and founder of the “Big Bang” hypothesis, is a good example of someone who clearly distinguishes the questions of modern natural science from the questions the Bible is concerned with. In doing so, he criticizes both creationists and anti-theistic atheists regarding, for instance, their reading of the creation myths in the biblical book of Genesis. Both groups approach these texts with the same expectations, only to come to different conclusions. Creationists believe that the Bible and science tell the same story on the origin of the universe and of life, while anti-theists are convinced that, although the Bible tries to answer the same questions as science according to them, science actually contradicts the Genesis stories. Lemaître, on the other hand, sees no agreement nor disagreement between the Bible and modern science, simply because they are concerned with different questions.  Some quotes from Lemaître, taken from an article by Joseph R. Laracy (click to read) clarify his position on the relationship between modern science and the Bible:

Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes… The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.

The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague… In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.

The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them… The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.

As for the so-called mimetic theory on the origin and further development of culture, some people almost immediately, without really knowing what they are talking about, discard it as “just a theory” also. Even when solid scientific research that is in no way informed by this particular theory comes to very similar, if not the same conclusions (click here for more)!

Christopher Hitchens quote on own opinion

Anyway, Donald Trump is each and every one of us when we refuse to question our so-called “own” opinions by scientifically obtained facts and reasonable, scientifically supported theories. Of course, no one owns the complete, total truth, but some theories will be more plausible than others.

The day we started believing that our entitlement to own opinion was more important than a quest for truth and for understanding reality was the day we paved the way for the Donald.


Tussen 9/11 (Twin Towers) en 11/9 (Trump Tower)

Op 7 september 2005, beïnvloed door het werk van politicoloog Benjamin Barber en socioloog Manuel Castells, schreef ik onder andere het volgende voor een artikel in Tertio. Blijkbaar is er sindsdien niet zoveel veranderd in de wereld. Enkele evoluties hebben zich gewoon doorgezet (ik geef een aantal voorbeelden tussen haakjes):

In Europa, maar ook daarbuiten, is aan de ene kant een soms merkwaardige alliantie ontstaan tussen linkse krachten en moslims [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: moslim Dyab Abou Jahjah in De Afspraak op één, 22 november 2016, die zijn sympathie uitspreekt voor sp.a, groen en PVDA] die de islamitische zaak bepleiten tegenover de rechtse politiek van een George W. Bush – vertegenwoordiger van een soort ‘christelijk patriottisme’ –, en aan de andere kant een even opportunistisch verbond tussen joodse en christelijke fundamentalisten met extreemrechtse tendensen [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: de – door sommigen genoemde – ‘christelijke kruisvaarder’ van het kabinet van Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, die goed bevriend was met wijlen Andrew Breitbart, een overtuigde jood; beiden zijn bekend van het rechtse Breitbart News Network].Beide partijen gaan elkaar te lijf met – alweer, hoe kan het ook anders – het recht op vrije meningsuiting. Dat conflict dreigt ons af te leiden van het echte probleem, namelijk dat zowel linkse als rechtse Europese politici en mediafiguren zich almaar meer uitspreken tegen een of andere vorm van geloof en godsdienst [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: Filip Dewinter die de koran een ‘licence to kill’ noemt op 22 januari 2015, in het Belgische federale parlement; Joël De Ceulaer die op 13 januari 2015 via de website van Knack oproept om het godsdienstonderwijs af te schaffen na de aanslagen op Charlie Hebdo – zie ook Maarten Boudry in dit straatje, die ‘het politiek niet correcte denken over islam niet gemonopoliseerd wil zien door extreemrechts’; zie in dit verband: The Fascism of Anti-religious Utopians].

We mogen niet vergeten dat fundamentalistische christenen en moslims bondgenoten zijn in zoverre ze beiden strijden tegen een in hun ogen decadente westerse consumptiemaatschappij die geen voordeel haalt uit duurzame principes en levensprojecten, en er daarom ook weinig of geen ruimte aan biedt.

Kortom, de markteconomische ontwrichting van het sociale weefsel leidt, globaal, tot psychosociale problemen van autoagressieve aard (toename van het aantal depressies, zelfmoorden, zelfdestructieve verslavingen en eetstoornissen), alsook tot psychosociale problemen van heteroagressieve aard (extremistische, vaak gewelddadige en terroristische ‘tegenculturen’ – van zowel religieuze als seculiere aard – die hun leden een duidelijke identiteit verschaffen).

Polariserende identiteitsconstructies in onze samenleving, à la Trump, zullen niet gauw verdwijnen zolang de mainstream media weinig ruimte bieden aan diversiteit. Wie, bijvoorbeeld, als gelovige, maar ook als ongelovige, argumenteert tégen (de propaganda van) het mainstream idee over geloof en godsdienst, wordt vaak weggezet als ‘een uitzondering’. Als gelovige krijg je dan meestal te horen dat de eigen, individuele geloofsopvatting niet van tel is omdat ze niet zou overeenstemmen met wat en hoe ‘de meeste gelovigen’ geloven. Dat is alweer een standaardreactie die nauwelijks in vraag wordt gesteld.

Wat een Etienne Vermeersch als bevooroordeelde anti-theïst over godsdienst te vertellen heeft, krijgt in de mainstream meer ruimte dan wat een (eveneens bevooroordeelde) gelovige als Rik Torfs daarover kwijt kan. Het geloof van Torfs zou dan ‘te intellectueel, te gesofisticeerd en te specifiek’ zijn om er veel aandacht aan te besteden in de publieke sfeer. Verlichte geesten houden bij hun beoordeling van een bepaald gegeven echter geen rekening met wat een zogezegde meerderheid daarover te vertellen heeft. Verlichte geesten zullen nagaan of de rationele en wetenschappelijke argumenten die Torfs gebruikt in de voorstelling van – in zijn geval – het christelijk geloof al dan niet meer steek houden dan de argumenten die Vermeersch hanteert in de voorstelling van dat geloof. Of een meerderheid van gelovigen eerder aansluit bij Torfs dan wel Vermeersch is in eerste instantie niet belangrijk voor wie gelooft in de kracht van rationaliteit en wetenschap.

Los daarvan is de (minstens impliciete) opvatting dat de meeste gelovigen naïeve fundamentalisten zijn (van wie het geloof bijvoorbeeld in conflict zou komen met de moderne natuurwetenschappen) en/of enggeestige lieden (van wie de denkbeelden een voedingsbodem vormen voor geweld) misschien vandaag een van de hardnekkigste enggeestige vooroordelen. ‘De massa’ is altijd op zoek naar houvast en zekerheid. Vroeger vond de massa in Vlaanderen die in een vanzelfsprekend, nauwelijks bekritiseerd en gesocialiseerd katholicisme. Vandaag vindt de massa in Vlaanderen haar zekerheid in een vanzelfsprekend, nauwelijks bekritiseerd en gesocialiseerd atheïsme. Daarnaast zullen er altijd verlichte individuen zijn, zowel aan gelovige als aan ongelovige zijde, die ruimte bieden aan de twijfel.

In onzekere tijden, waarin mensen zich gemakkelijk laten verleiden door populistische extremen die zekerheid beloven, mag er misschien meer aandacht gaan naar de kunst om te twijfelen – ook aan onze eigen zekerheden en onze eigen neiging tot conformisme, diabolisering en polarisering (à la Trump?).

Hierna het volledige artikel uit 2005 (klik op de afbeeldingen om ze te vergroten):


Tertio 7 september 2005Tertio 7 september 2005_2


P.S.: In het weekblad Knack van 30 november 2016 staat op pagina 29 een vertaald interview uit Der Spiegel met Brits historicus en publicist Timothy Garton Ash. Een fragment:

Heeft de liberaal het ook niet moeilijk met meningen die hij verwerpelijk vindt? De atheïst verdraagt de gelovige soms even moeilijk als de gelovige de atheïst.

GARTON ASH: Consequent zijn in de tolerantie is voor liberalen soms inderdaad een uitdaging. Ik noem een concreet voorbeeld: de christen die beweert dat homoseksualiteit een zonde is, mag om die reden niet benadeeld worden. Dat verandert als die christen zich niet tot woorden beperkt. Als hij een homoseksuele persoon schade berokkent, bijvoorbeeld door hem een job te weigeren, is de grens overschreden.

Vergelijk dit met een voorbeeld uit het artikel van 2005:

De Italiaanse katholiek Rocco Buttiglione werd bijvoorbeeld niet aanvaardbaar geacht zitting te nemen in de Europese Commissie. Hij had gezegd dat hij homoseksualiteit zondig vond. […] Linkse politici wilden […] Buttiglione uit de Europese Commissie, ook al onderschreef die het principe van de scheiding tussen kerk en staat zeer duidelijk. De filosofieprofessor verklaarde immers dat het belangrijk is “een onderscheid te maken tussen moraal en recht. Vele dingen kunnen als immoreel worden beschouwd en moeten toch niet worden verboden. Ik kan homoseksualiteit een zonde vinden, maar dat heeft geen gevolgen zolang ik het geen misdaad noem. De staat heeft niet het recht zich op dit gebied te mengen.”

Voor alle duidelijkheid: lang niet alle christenen vinden homoseksualiteit een zonde (ik ben zelf christen en beschouw homoseksualiteit niet als zondig). Dat betekent echter niet dat anderen geen andere mening mogen hebben (hoezeer ik het ook oneens ben met die mening). Het is de discriminatie van mensen met een andere dan de zogezegd “liberale, progressieve” mening die een quasi geïnstitutionaliseerde vorm van hypocrisie openbaart. Het westers liberalisme blijkt helemaal niet zo tolerant te zijn als het van zichzelf beweert. Zoiets wordt vroeg of laat afgestraft. De verkiezing van Donald Trump heeft óók daarmee te maken. De satiricus Jonathan Pie zegt het goed:

In plaats van mensen te diaboliseren, ga je er beter mee in debat, en voer je discussies op grond van rationele argumenten. Dát zou “verlicht” zijn. Mensen met een andere mening dan de “liberaal progressieve” afschilderen als “kwaadaardig” en/of “achterlijk”, is een vorm van paternalistisch levensbeschouwelijk imperialisme, een vorm van cultureel totalitarisme. En daar zijn “we” zogezegd toch tegen?

Truth, Goodness, Beauty

I’m wondering… When was the last time you’ve measured the hertz of the joy you felt while gaining a new insight?

I’m wondering… Have you recently written down the mass density of your deepest friendships or the miles of your biggest loves?

I’m wondering… How many pounds of beauty have you experienced already this week?

Agreed, these are strange questions about truth, goodness and beauty, impossible to answer. Maybe that tells us something. Let’s take a look at the facts first.


Human beings are gifted with a rational ability to discover truth.

We did not create this ability ourselves. Already in this sense, truth and the rational ability to discover it transcend us.

Although knowledge can be useful, truth does not necessarily answer to our needs or demands. Thus truth cannot be reduced to a merely human construct at the service of, for instance, our survival instinct. Also in this sense, the revelation of truth before our rational minds transcends us.

Science might explain how our rational ability came into being, but it cannot explain the fact that we live in a universe where truth can be found. Once again, truth and the ability to find it transcend us.


Human beings are gifted with the ability to develop goodness – respect, friendship and love for fellow human beings.

We did not create this ability ourselves. It transcends us.

Although relationships can be useful, goodness does not necessarily answer to our needs or demands. Happiness or sadness because of the happiness or sadness of others are possible consequences of the loving connection we can make with others. As with goodness itself, the others we meet cannot be reduced to mere means at the service of our needs and desires, nor to products of our imagination. Again, goodness, respecting others, transcends us.

Science might explain how our ability to develop goodness came into being, but it cannot explain the fact that we live in a universe where goodness can be found and developed. Once again, goodness and the ability to develop it transcend us.

einstein-quote-on-truth-goodness-beautyTHIRD CLUSTER OF FACTS

Human beings are gifted with the ability to experience beauty.

We did not create this ability ourselves. It transcends us.

Although there can be cultural differences concerning the things that trigger the experience of beauty, the ability itself to experience beauty cannot be reduced to an individual or particular cultural taste or style. Again, the ability to experience beauty precedes and transcends our eventually developed preferences or cultural needs.

Science might explain how our ability to experience beauty came into being, but it cannot explain the fact that we live in a universe where beauty can be experienced. Indeed, once again, beauty and the ability to experience it transcend us.


We can be the most destructive of beings, as our mimetic faculty can move us beyond the things we need from a merely biological point of view. For instance, we can develop eating disorders like anorexia. Or we can go so far as to kill ourselves while (mimetically) competing with others, because of a so-called heroic cause. Every time we do such a thing we of course picture ourselves in a certain way. This ability to picture ourselves in a certain way, to be self-conscious, is nothing else than the ability to duplicate ourselves, which rests on our highly mimetic faculties (a duplication is a form of mimesis, a form of imitation).

On the other hand, we can also be the most creative of beings, as, well yes, our mimetic faculty can move us beyond the things we need from a merely biological point of view. It allows us to develop an interest in or love for the world (which leads to the experience of truth), our fellow human beings (which leads to the experience of goodness), and the value of life (which is the experience of beauty).

Although our love for the world, our fellow human beings, and the value of life is itself invisible and immeasurable (we indeed cannot measure its “hertz, mass density, miles or pounds”), it is nevertheless very real. It is a reality that can be noticed indirectly. The love that carries us and inspires us may be invisible, its effects are not. Love for the world becomes visible, for instance, in the work of scientists who discover gravitational waves. Love for others might become visible in kind words, a warm embrace, a tender kiss. Finally, the creation and experience of beauty in nature, culture and art are visible expressions of the grateful realization that life is valuable, so valuable it’s priceless.


Some atheists might interpret the fact that we live in a universe that allows for the ability to discover and develop truth, goodness and beauty as something meaningless.

I don’t know. Maybe our notions of truth, goodness and beauty are gateways to an awareness of a more complete Reality of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Maybe our notions of truth, goodness and beauty are ever incomplete and anticipating mimetic models of an eventually fulfilling Understanding, Love and Joy. Just maybe.

In any case, we are living this great mystery (‘magnum mysterium’) of a reality that gracefully allows for the experience of truth, goodness and beauty. And sometimes, just sometimes, all the distracting noise disappears, and we find ourselves in tune with those transcending forces which connect us to an immensely fertile ‘cosmos’… and to ourselves. In the words of Tom, a treble from the world-famous choir of King’s College, Cambridge:

“When I sing in the choir, sometimes, there are moments when everything seems to go away, and you’re just there, which is an amazing feeling…”

Enjoy these particles of the spiritual life. From a documentary on Carols from King’s:

O Magnum Mysterium (Morten Lauridsen):

“The public has a distorted view of science because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”

Freeman John Dyson (born 1923).

In Memoriam Michaël Ghijs

gabriel-garridoSaturday, February 23, 2008. Gabriel Garrido, a renowned conductor of Latin American baroque music, is about to begin an evening concert at Cité de la Musique, Paris. His equally famous Ensemble Elyma is ready, together with eleven members of the Belgian boy and men choir Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. All of a sudden, maestro Garrido turns around and addresses the audience:

“We are saddened to inform you that two days ago, on Thursday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs, the widely acclaimed conductor of the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino from Aalst, Belgium, passed away. We would like to dedicate this concert to his memory.”

Then he turns again and looks us straight in the eyes. We, the members of the Cantate Domino choir, all have a lump in the throat. We all try to hold back our tears. Finally, maestro Garrido raises his hands and off we go to sing Cantate Domino’s first concert after the death of its founder. We all know things will never be the same again (footage from the concert):

Only 5 months before, on October 8, 2007, on his 74th birthday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I still remember it vividly, because we used to celebrate our birthdays together (mine is on October 6).

Michaël Ghijs conducts his choir one last time during Mass on Sunday, February 3, 2008, in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels. He is literally deathly sick at the time, no longer able to accompany his boys during the entrance procession, but still he manages to direct them for the remainder of the Mass. It is but one example of his tremendous willpower and passion. Of course, these personality traits make him stubborn at times. For instance, during a concert tour in Asia he asks me wether or not to include Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy for an afternoon programme. My answer is not to include it, because I have the impression that the young trebles don’t seem sure about themselves. From his reaction I immediately know I shouldn’t have said that. He starts rehearsal with the Choral Fantasy, saying that the sopranos will show everyone who doubts them what they are capable of. Eventually, he shows me wrong. He is, as always, proud of the achievements of his singers. It is no coincidence that many former members of Cantate Domino have a career in music.

philippe-herrewegheMichaël Ghijs is proud of and grateful for the hard work and successes of the people he works with, yet he is not driven by pride. Although he can be stubborn, he can also say that he is sorry and admit to making mistakes. It is characteristic of the way he leads the choir. Conflicts are possible, meaning that Michaël Ghijs is not just a commander-in-chief who expects blind obedience. On the other hand, great discipline is needed and established because he wants to perform the often difficult music the best he can. Not because he wants to make a career or because he chases some kind of success, but simply because he loves the (mostly religious) music and the message it contains. His love of music itself and his artistic motivations became clear, for instance, when he compared different recordings of the same work. I remember very vividly, during my first year in the choir, that he really disliked a recording of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul oratorio by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. It’s the recording some of my friends and I had bought. He thought the overall interpretation didn’t serve the music nor the message. Also, after concerts, he could be very dissatisfied with our performance even when the crowd had given us a standing ovation.

I guess this is difficult to understand for people who are primarily driven by a desire to make a career and/or to become rich. True, eventually the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino works with famous conductors like Colin Davis, Laszlo Heltay, Ronald Zollman, Philippe Herreweghe, Michael Tilson Thomas, Pierre Cao, Claudio Abbado, Alexander Rahbari, Johan Duijck, Rudolf Werthen and Dirk Brossé; with musicians like Vladimir Ashkenazy, José van Dam and even Toots Thielemans; with ensembles like Capilla Flamenca and the above mentioned Ensemble Elyma – listen to an excerpt from the collaboration on the CD Corpus Christi à Cusco (K617, 2006):

The choir even participates in the movies Daens and In BrugesNothing of the choir’s impressive resume, however, has ever been a goal. It’s just been a consequence of passion and hard work (the trebles alone practice up to 15 hours a week!). Moreover, Cantate Domino has never been a merely artistic project.



Michaël Ghijs has a hard time refusing boys who can’t really sing. Those who persevere find a way of making themselves helpful in the practical organisation of the choir. They are welcome to join the choir on its concert tours. Regarding these tours, Michaël Ghijs also has a hard time refusing members who don’t really deserve to come along because of longer periods of absence. Sometimes the yearly concert tours are undertaken by a group of around eighty individuals, making them a financially challenging operation. Yet Reverend Ghijs often pays the entire trip out of his own pocket for members whose financial situation doesn’t otherwise allow them to travel. The choir indeed is open to people of all sorts of cultural and social backgrounds. Reverend Ghijs also makes it a point to look after members and former members when they experience difficulties in their lives. For instance, he provides shelter for a young man who came out of the closet as a homosexual and whose parents threw him out because of that. Or he gives daily calls to a former member of the choir who is in the hospital for a treatment of meningitis. There are so many situations to mention… Perhaps it is in these social aspects that the priestly vocation of Ghijs is most apparent. The choir never is a money making machine. Singing at funerals and marriages, or performing in care homes, prisons, whatever: the choir often just receives enough to pay the bill of the bus (sometimes to the chagrin of the older members who are in charge of the finances).

diapason-cover-june-2005In any case, what Michaël Ghijs achieves with his choir, with boys who often don’t have any proper education in music, is nothing short of a miracle. One of his best qualities is his firm belief in the abilities of young people before they even believe in themselves. When some of us think we will never be able to properly perform Amen by Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, Michaël Ghijs pulls us through. He even wants us to sing it at the Belgian provincial choir tournaments, next to, among other music, Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. In the end he is right. Our perfomance places us, once again, in the highest division. In the same period an album is recorded by Capilla Flamenca together with some trebles of Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. Ten years later, this CD is listed among “the 25 most beautiful recordings of boy choirs” by renowned French magazine Diapason (June, 2005):


Listen to an excerpt from the CD Missa Alleluia (Eufoda, 1996):

If anything, these things prove that Michaël Ghijs above all educated young people to enable them to shine and to share their talents with the world. Of course, there will always be cynical minds who regard the work of a priest with young boys and men with suspicion. I know Reverend Ghijs got called names sometimes by so-called rebellious teenagers when he crossed the street with his boy sopranos. The words are not worth repeating. Reverend Ghijs, unlike me, ignored them and always continued his work with the same energy, passion, eagerness to learn and genuine concern for what happened in the lives of his singers.

I’ve had the privilege to have known this man, a true friend and mentor, for almost twenty years. Like everyone else, he was a complex human being with flaws and weaknesses, with doubts and frustrations. He dared to be vulnerable. He kept reading and studying, knowing that he never knew enough. He questioned the personal assumptions of his Christian faith and developed his theology in a different direction over the years (in no small part because he discovered the work of James Alison). He loved the good life and could enjoy delicious food and drinks in good company.

Michaël Ghijs is missed by friends all over the world, from the Americas over Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and a range of other European countries to South Africa, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and many other places. In the course of his lifetime, Reverend Michaël Ghijs discovered his own limits and cultural boundaries, not as ends in themselves to separate himself from others, but, on the contrary, as means to encounter others. His legacy is a spirituality to be imitated and a work to be continued, in whatever context, in true friendship and in gratitude.

May God bless him.

My trip down memory lane, compiled from different tv performances, pictures and records – life in Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino:

The Myth of “The Evil, Unenlightened Catholic Church”

We all know the story:

  • The Christian faith is, by its very nature, an enemy of science.
  • The Catholic Church has, during its history, vehemently and violently suppressed scientists who came up with new scientific ideas.
  • Scientists from the past who believed in God did so because of their upbringing, or they faked it because they feared prosecution by religious authorities.
  • For proof of all of the above, one just has to look at what happened to Galileo Galilei or Giordano Bruno.
  • Historians who criticize these views are biased Catholic apologists.

galileo-goes-to-jailToday we should know that this story is itself biased and apologetic of the view that the Catholic Church (or even religion in general) is one of the main sources of superstitious darkness and evil in the world. One of the books that dismantles the myth of the Catholic Church as sworn enemy to science, is Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (pdf). It was edited by Prof. Ronald L. Numbers and published by Harvard University Press in 2009. The word myth in the title means what it means in everyday conversation and thus refers to a claim that is false.

In his introduction, Numbers briefly mentions the ideological background of the 25 authors who each debunk a myth on the relation between science and religion. Perhaps because he is aware that some people don’t necessarily have a scientific mindset (although they might claim the opposite). A scientist normally reads what is written, critically weighing the rational and scientific arguments that are brought up. If someone asks who wrote something to judge whether a text is truthful, he or she is not really judging from scientific criteria. Anti-theists (from the so-called “new atheist” corner) often think that the religious views of an author automatically get in the way of scientific research, and then close themselves off from further reading. This close-mindedness is, of course, not a sole preserve of new atheists. Theists also might not be free enough to hear what atheists have to say, thinking that atheists are automatically anti-theists, who push an often emotionally driven campaign against religion. Seemingly to reassure the lesser scientific minds on both sides, Numbers gives his overview: nearly half of the book’s contributors (twelve out of twenty-five) are unbelievers (agnostic or atheist), five are mainstream Protestants, two are evangelical Protestants, one is a Roman Catholic, one a Jew, another a Muslim, one a Buddhist, and the beliefs of yet two others fit no conventional category. This already makes clear that not everyone who criticizes the above mentioned myth is a biased Catholic, since there is only one Roman Catholic among the 25 authors of Galileo Goes to Jail.

Among many other interesting facts, the book provides and proves some important points regarding the Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno case. Both Galileo and Bruno defended heliocentrism, a view that was at the time developed most prominently by Nicolaus Copernicus. Both men received their education within the Catholic Church. However, while Galileo remained a genuinely pious Roman Catholic (a fact that is overlooked sometimes), Bruno converted to the so-called Hermetic Tradition (Hermeticism). The reason why Bruno was an adherent of heliocentrism, was because of his religious views (and not because of a scientific insight independent of religion!). As is also the case for his contemporary scientific colleagues, Bruno did not separate matters of science (“natural philosophy” at the time) from religious matters. (Natural) philosophy and theology were, eventually, one and the same. From Galileo Goes to Jail, pp 66-67:

In Bruno’s day, indeed in his own writings, theology and philosophy were of one piece, inseparable. He stated this succinctly in the prefatory letter dedicating The Cabala of Pegasus (1585) to the fictional Bishop of Casamarciano: “I don’t know if you are a theologian, philosopher, or cabalist – but I know for sure that you are all of these… And therefore, here you have it – cabala, theology and philosophy; I mean, a cabala of theological philosophy, a philosophy of kabbalistic theology, a theology of philosophical cabala.” Clearly Bruno thought of his work as all three and incomplete if construed as any one of them alone; he wrote as a philosopher but reckoned himself a Professor of Sacred Theology.

Also, Ibid., p 98:

Seventeenth-century natural philosophers were not modern scientists. Their exploration of the natural world was not cut off from their religious views and theological assumptions. That separation came later. Reading the past from the standpoint of later developments has led to serious misunderstandings of the Scientific Revolution. For many of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, science and religion – or, better, natural philosophy and theology – were inseparable, part and parcel of the endeavor to understand our world.

giordano_bruno_campo_dei_fioriGiordano Bruno was eventually burned at the stake in 1600. Although this is of course an appalling punishment, Bruno was not burned because of an anachronistic modern scientific worldview, but because of a number of so-called religious heresies (which he didn’t fake, by the way; apparently he was even prepared to die for them). His “Pythagorean” convictions (the way the heliocentric hypothesis was sometimes referred to at the time) included, for instance, the belief in the transmigration of souls. As is known, the Catholic Church had just gone through a period of a stricter attention to orthodoxy, because of the turmoil created by the Reformation and Counter-reformation. Therefore the Church, as all human endeavors tend to do in circumstances questioning the cornerstones of their sense of identity, could barely stand what it experienced as new attacks on its identity. It may remind some people of the difficulty certain anti-theists experience to accept criticism on their views about religion. Of course anti-theists don’t burn people at the stake, unless, of course, their hatred of religion comes from some “neo-Stalinist” worldview. In that case, theists should run for their lives.

All these matters aside, in fact, essentially the debate between Catholics (and others) who were defending the heliocentric hypothesis and Catholics (and others) who weren’t, was a debate between ancient Greek philosophers with slightly different religious convictions. For centuries, the worldview of Aristotle and Ptolemy had dominated intellectual life, as it was adopted by Christian theology. People like Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler challenged this view, at the same time challenging mainstream medieval theology. From Galileo Goes to Jail, p 83:

In the sixteenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus’s (1473–1543) view that the sun is at the center of the universe was often called the “Pythagorean hypothesis,” and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) both traced the roots of their innovations back to Plato. These men and their contemporaries all knew what some today have forgotten, that Christian astronomers (and other students of nature) owe a great debt to their Greek forebears.

Observations like these already debunk another myth, namely that Christianity gave birth to modern science. Although the Catholic Church played a significant role (see below) in the birth and development of modern science, it was self-evidently not the sole factor. Again, from Galileo Goes to Jail, p 83:

Christian astronomers (and other students of nature) owe a great debt to their Greek forebears. This was not the only debt outstanding for Christian philosophers of nature. They had also benefited directly and indirectly from Muslim and, to a lesser degree, Jewish philosophers of nature who used Arabic to describe their investigations. It was in Muslim lands that natural philosophy received the most careful and creative attention from the seventh to the twelfth century.

Nevertheless, the discussion about heliocentrism at the dawn of the modern era was also (and perhaps mainly) a discussion within the Church, among Catholics (intellectuals engaged in matters of natural philosophy)! A more extended quote from Galileo Goes to Jail, pp 101-106:

It would of course be absurd to claim that there have been no instances of Catholic laymen or clerics opposing scientific work in some form or other. Without question, such examples can be found, and quite easily. Yet it would be equally absurd to extend these examples of opposition – no matter how ignorant or illconceived – to the Catholic church or to Catholics as a whole. This act would be to commit the historical sin of overgeneralization, that is, the unwarrantable extension of the actions or thought of one member of a collective body to the entire body as a whole. (For example, there are apparently American flatearthers alive today, yet it is not correct then to say that twentyfirst-century Americans in general believe that the earth is flat.)

The Catholic church is not, and has never been (perhaps to the chagrin of some pontiffs), a monolithic or unanimous entity; it is composed of individuals and groups who often hold widely divergent viewpoints. This diversity of opinion was in full evidence even in the celebrated case of Galileo, where clerics and laymen are to be found distributed across the whole spectrum of responses from support to condemnation. The question, then, is what the preponderant attitude was, and in this case it is clear from the historical record that the Catholic church has been probably the largest single and longest-term patron of science in history, that many contributors to the Scientific Revolution were themselves Catholic, and that several Catholic institutions and perspectives were key influences upon the rise of modern science.

In contrast to our starting myth, it is an easy matter to point to important figures of the Scientific Revolution who were themselves Catholics. The man often credited with the first major step of the Scientific Revolution, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), was not only Catholic but in Holy Orders as a cathedral canon (a cleric charged with administrative duties). And lest it be said that he was simultaneously persecuted for his astronomical work, it must be pointed out that much of his audience and support came from within the Catholic hierarchy, and especially the Papal Court. His book begins with a dedication to Pope Paul III that contains an account of the various church officials who supported his work and urged its completion and publication. Galileo, too, despite his celebrated and much mythologized face-off with church officials, was and remained Catholic, and there is no reason to question the sincerity of his faith.

A catalog of Catholic contributors to the Scientific Revolution would run to many pages and exhaust the reader’s patience. Thus it will suffice to mention just a very few other representatives from various scientific disciplines. In the medical sciences, there is Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), the famous anatomist of Brussels; while another Fleming, Joan Baptista Van Helmont (1579–1644), one of the most innovative and influential voices in seventeenth-century medicine and chemistry, was a devout Catholic with strong mystical leanings. In Italy, the microscopist Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694) first observed capillaries, thus proving the circulation of the blood. Niels Stensen (or Nicolaus Steno, 1638–1686), who remains known today for his foundational work on fossils and the geological formation of rock strata, converted to Catholicism during his scientific work and became first a priest, then a bishop, and is currently a beatus (a title preliminary to official sainthood). [Another famous convert to Christianity from the same period is the brilliant French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal]. The revival and adaptation of ancient atomic ideas was due in no small part to the work of the Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655). The Minim friar Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), besides his own competence in mathematics, orchestrated a network of correspondence to disseminate scientific and mathematical discoveries, perhaps most notably the ideas of René Descartes (1596–1650), another Catholic.

accademia-dei-lincei-sala-letturaBesides individuals there are also institutions to be mentioned. The first scientific societies were organized in Italy and were financed and populated by Catholics. The earliest of these, the Accademia dei Lincei, was founded in Rome in 1603. Many other societies followed across Italy, including the Accademia del Cimento, founded in Florence in 1657, that brought together many experimentalists and former students of Galileo. Later, the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, founded in 1666 and probably the most stable and productive of all early scientific societies, had a majority of Catholic members, such as Gian Domenico Cassini (1625–1712), famed for his observations of Jupiter and Saturn, and Wilhelm Homberg (1653–1715), a convert to Catholicism and one of the most renowned and productive chemists of his day. Four of the early members were in orders, including the abbe Jean Picard (1620–1682), a noted astronomer, and the abbe Edme Mariotte (ca. 1620–1684), an important physicist. Even the Royal Society of London, founded in very Protestant England in 1660, had a few Catholic members, such as Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–1665), and kept up a vigorous correspondence with Catholic natural philosophers in Italy, France, and elsewhere.

Catholic religious orders provided a variety of opportunities for natural-philosophical work. One of Galileo’s closest early students and supporters, and his successor to the chair of mathematics at the University of Pisa, was the Benedictine monk Benedetto Castelli (1578–1643). But on a broader scale, during the Scientific Revolution, Catholic monks, friars, and priests in missions constituted a virtual worldwide web of correspondents and data collectors. Information on local geography, flora, fauna, mineralogy, and other subjects as well as a wealth of astronomical, meteorological, and seismological observations flooded back into Europe from far-flung Catholic missions in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The data and specimens they sent back were channeled into natural-philosophical treatises and studies by Catholics and Protestants alike. This massive collection of new scientific information was carried out by Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, and, perhaps most of all, Jesuits.

No account of Catholic involvement with science could be complete without mention of the Jesuits (officially called the Society of Jesus). Formally established in 1540, the society placed such special emphasis on education that by 1625 they had founded nearly 450 colleges in Europe and elsewhere. Many Jesuit priests were deeply involved in scientific issues, and many made important contributions. The reformed calendar, enacted under Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and still in use today, was worked out by the Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christoph Clavius (1538–1612). Optics and astronomy were topics of special interest for Jesuits. Christoph Scheiner (1573–1650) studied sunspots, Orazio Grassi (1583–1654) comets, and Giambattista Riccioli (1598–1671) provided a star catalog, a detailed lunar map that provided the names still used today for many of its features, and experimentally confirmed Galileo’s laws of falling bodies by measuring their exact rates of acceleration during descent. Jesuit investigators of optics and light include Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618–1663), who, among other things (such as collaborating with Riccioli on the lunar map), discovered the phenomenon of the diffraction of light and named it. Magnetism as well was studied by several Jesuits, and it was Niccolo Cabeo (1586–1650) who devised the technique of visualizing the magnetic field lines by sprinkling iron filings on a sheet of paper laid on top of a magnet. By 1700, Jesuits held a majority of the chairs of mathematics in European universities.

Undergirding such scientific activities in the early-modern period was the firm conviction that the study of nature is itself an inherently religious activity. The secrets of nature are the secrets of God. By coming to know the natural world we should, if we observe and understand rightly, come to a better understanding of their Creator. This attitude was by no means unique to Catholics, but many of the priests and other religious involved in teaching and studying natural philosophy underscored this connection. For example, the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) envisioned the study of magnetism not only as teaching about an invisible physical force of nature but also as providing a powerful emblem of the divine love of God that holds all creation together and draws the faithful inexorably to Him. Indeed, if Jesuit work remains today inadequately represented in accounts of scientific discovery, it is in part because science proceeded down a path of literalism and dissection rather than following the Jesuits’ path of comprehensive and emblematic holism.

Finally, historians of science now recognize that the impressive developments of the period called the Scientific Revolution depended in large part on positive contributions and foundations dating from the High Middle Ages, that is to say, before the origins of Protestantism. This fact too must be brought to bear on the role of Catholics and their church in the Scientific Revolution. Medieval observations and theories of optics, kinematics, astronomy, matter, and other fields provided essential information and starting points for developments of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The medieval establishment of universities, the development of a culture of disputation, and the logical rigor of Scholastic theology all helped to provide a climate and culture necessary for the Scientific Revolution.

Neither interest and activity in science nor criticism and suppression of its tenets align with the confessional boundary between Catholics and Protestants. Modern science is not a product of Protestantism and certainly not of atheism or agnosticism. Catholics and Protestants alike made essential and fundamental contributions to the developments of the period we have called the Scientific Revolution.

Indeed, as the above quoted text mentions, within the Catholic Church the order of the Jesuits holds a special place regarding the origins and further development of modern science. As the astronomer George Coyne points out, himself a Jesuit priest, Galileo’s observations caused tensions within the Jesuit order at the time, and eventually Jesuits at the Roman College confirmed the earth-shaking ideas of their fellow Catholic. It is truly worth reading Coyne’s paper on the relationship between Galileo and his Jesuit colleagues, The Jesuits and Galileo: Fidelity to Tradition and the Adventure of Discovery (pdf).

Some people, especially so-called anti-theistic new atheists, claim that all those great Catholic or other Christian scientists and mathematicians from the past believed in God simply because they were raised that way, or because they feared prosecution. Maybe some anti-theists have special powers, able to read the minds of people who died a long time back. In any case, what those scientists wrote about their own faith suggests otherwise. Alright, maybe they all participated in a conspiracy to raise the impression that they had a strong spiritual mind, thinking profoundly, honestly and individually about the Christian tradition. However, so long as we don’t have any proof of such a conspiracy, and as long as we don’t have any proof of anti-theistic paranormal powers, we should perhaps abandon the paternalistic claim that those great, innovative minds were not able to think about their faith in a mature way. Once again, from Galileo Goes to Jail, p 81:

sir-isaac-newtonRené Descartes (1596–1650) boasted of his physics that “my new philosophy is in much better agreement with all the truths of faith than that of Aristotle.” Isaac Newton (1642–1727) believed that his system restored the original divine wisdom God had provided to Moses and had no doubt that his Christianity bolstered his physics – and that his physics bolstered his Christianity.

Or take Galileo, Ibid., p 96:

Another theme common to early-modern discussions about the possibility of human knowledge of the creation was that expressed by the metaphor of God’s two books: the book of God’s word (the Bible) and the book of God’s work (the created world). Natural philosophers regarded both books as legitimate sources of knowledge. Early in the seventeenth century, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) appealed to this metaphor in the context of a discussion of the relative importance of studying the Bible and observing natural phenomena: “the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word, the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God’s commands.”

As for the further relationship between what became modern science and the Christian Bible, it should be clear how it eventually developed. Georges Lemaître‘s ideas may serve as an example. This Belgian Catholic priest and famous physicist (founder of the “Big Bang” hypothesis among others) clearly distinguishes the questions of modern science from the questions the New Testament authors deal with. In fact, according to Lemaître, questions of modern science have nothing to do with theology, and vice versa. The Christian scientist thus cannot let his faith be of any importance for his scientific work. Some quotes from Lemaître, taken from an article by Joseph R. Laracy (click to read) clarify his position regarding the relationship between theology and modern science:

Georges Lemaître and Albert EinsteinShould a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes… The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.

The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague… In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.

The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them… The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.

The question about the meaning of “salvation” in the light of the New Testament indeed is different from, for instance, the question how and why objects fall down. That’s how plain and simple an insight can be in order to stop battling windmills like some heroic but mad and narcissistic Don Quixote.

For more on Lemaître, click the following (pdf): The Faith and Reason of Father Georges Lemaître & Priestly Contributions to Modern Science.

The already mentioned astronomer and Jesuit George Coyne also points to the false conflict between modern science and the Bible, for instance in the “mockumentary” Religulous (click here for more):

The Christian Scriptures were written between about 2,000 years before Christ to about 200 years after Christ. That’s it. Modern science came to be with Galileo up through Newton, up through Einstein. What we know as modern science, okay, is in that period. How in the world could there be any science in Scripture? There cannot be. Just the two historical periods are separated by so much. The Scriptures are not teaching science. It’s very hard for me to accept, not just a literal interpretation of scripture, but a fundamentalist approach to religious belief. It’s kind of a plague. It presents itself as science and it’s not.

Not insignificant note: the Roman Catholic Church accepts all kinds of interpretive approaches to the Bible, but it decisively rejects one approach, namely a fundamentalist reading of the Bible (click here for more).

Maybe Coyne says it more beautifully in this TED-talk (click to watch):

Hopefully, together with both Lemaître and Coyne, and with countless other researchers from different ideological backgrounds, it’s a bit more clear now that the story this post started with is indeed a biased myth, even plain propaganda. In the words of Prof. Ronald L. Numbers, from the introduction to Galileo Goes to Jail, pp 1-6:

The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict. No one bears more responsibility for promoting this notion than two nineteenth-century American polemicists: Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) and John William Draper (1811–1882).


history-of-the-conflict-between-religion-and-scienceHistorians of science have known for years that White’s and Draper’s accounts are more propaganda than history. Yet the message has rarely escaped the ivory tower. The secular public, if it thinks about such issues at all, knows that organized religion has always opposed scientific progress (witness the attacks on Galileo, Darwin, and Scopes). The religious public knows that science has taken the leading role in corroding faith (through naturalism and antibiblicism). As a first step toward correcting these misperceptions we must dispel the hoary myths that continue to pass as historical truths. No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views, though, the Italian Inquisition did incinerate the sixteenth-century Copernican Giordano Bruno for his heretical theological notions.

Unlike the master mythmakers White and Draper, the contributors to this volume have no obvious scientific or theological axes to grind.

Perhaps the reason why some atheists stubbornly still swallow and believe the propaganda that began with people like White and Draper, is that they need an outside “enemy” to build their identity. If religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, can be depicted as a bulwark of stupidity and evil, some atheists can more easily see themselves as belonging to the intelligent and moral part of humanity. Of course, as we know from the Gospels and other spiritual resources: to see the stupidity and immorality of someone else does not automatically make oneself intelligent and moral. Apparently, creating an “us vs them” to get a sense of superiority is a universally human temptation. The French-American anthropologist and literary critic, René Girard (1923-2015), had a profound insight in this matter and its implications.

The way certain atheists build part of their identity by their emotionally driven aversion to religion, also explains why they consider religion as one of the main sources of violence in the world. A claim that can be highly debated, especially from an atheist point of view! Before being religious or secular (communist or nationalistic or whatever), violence is always human violence. Religious ideas originated in humans, they did not come from divine revelation (at least from an atheist perspective). Thus – this can be reasonably expected, as is also clear from a human history of violence – human characteristics that gave birth to certain religious ideas legitimating violence will continue to generate ideas to legitimate violence, whether of a religious or secular nature. The disappearance of one religious or secular ideology legitimating violence does not take away the universally human characteristics that gave birth to the violence in the first place.

These considerations on the origin of violence might lead to a better assessment of the basic sources of any type of violence. For instance while interpreting recent 10 year average data of annually killed Americans. According to these data, 9 Americans are killed annually by Islamic jihadist terrorists (including jihadists who are US citizens), while 11,737 (almost twelve thousand!) Americans are killed annually by other Americans. Is it really far-fetched to think that those 9 jihadist terrorists would have found other outlets for their psychologically developed frustrations, anger and aggressive tendencies anyway? In the case a violent Islamist ideology was not available? The focus on so-called religious violence (9 killed) gets in the way of attacking the real problem, namely human violence (11,737 + 9).


For instance, the man who killed 84 people in Nice, France, by driving a lorry through a crowd (click here for more), 31 year old Tunisian delivery man Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, clearly had identity and social issues. It should be stressed that this “Nice killer” not only searched the web for “jihadist” terror attacks, but that he also looked at shootings like the one in Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers. He was apparently interested in violent acts that would put him in the spotlight and give him a sense of significance, no matter under what flag. The Nice killer thus showed signs of the “copycat effect” (a mimetic phenomenon, indeed): sensational media exposure about violent suicides and murders results in more of the same through imitation. Moreover, this terrorist showed no interest in religion until only a few weeks before his violent act. In short, violent Islamist ideology seemed to be one of the coincidental guises he could use to perform his act. If it were not available, it is very likely that he would have used something else.

Of course it is easy to prove that something is bad or evil. If I would list all the rapes and other acts of sexual violence that happen daily around the world, I could maybe make the claim that “sex is evil”. But that would, luckily, not be the whole story.

In short, if you still believe the story of the Catholic Church as the age-old sworn enemy of science, your historical views belong, metaphorically speaking, to the Middle Ages.