Sorrier than thou TOI 20 Sep 2008, Mukul Sharma
Church officials, Christian theologians and the Vatican in particular have been doing a lot of apologising of late. It's for past errors and excesses committed in the name of religion and includes the Inquisition, persecution of Jews, the Nazi holocaust, comments that appear to link Islam with violence and for child abuse by priests. However, nowhere has this series of sorries been more forthcoming than in the field of science.
- It began with Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Italian philosopher who was burnt at the stake for saying the Sun, and not the Earth, was the centre of the solar system. In March 2000, Pope John Paul II issued a document that "regretted" it had resor-ted to violence in Bruno's case and his burning was "deplored".
- Then in the 17th century Galileo, who also advocated the Copernican model, was forced to recant by the Inquisition under threat of torture and put under house arrest for his last years. In 1992, the Vatican apologised and admitted the great astronomer, apparently, "had a point".
- The most recent is Darwin, the 19th century naturalist who was attacked by the church for disagreeing with the ‘Book of Genesis' and saying that all species had evolved from a common ancestor. A recent essay by the Rev Malcolm Brown, a senior clergyman and the church's head of public affairs in the United Kingdom says the Church of England "owes" an apology to Charles Darwin for misunderstanding his theory of evolution when it was first published and making errors over its reaction to it. A full-blown mea culpa should be hopping along any day now.
The point to note here, though, is that the apologies are coming not only thicker but also faster so that a time may soon come when they might even catch up backwards with the concerned crime. And considering that at any given time there is at least one major active battle going on between the church and science, this may not be a bad idea for both parties.
For instance, there's homosexuality. Is it sinful, chosen, changeable, unnatural and abnormal for everyone? Or is it morally neutral, predetermined, natural and normal for a minority of people? If it turns out to be the latter — bingo — that's one more apology in the in-box. There's abortion too. A hundred years from now if scientists discover the soul actually enters the foetus exactly after 26 weeks then another very very sorry would be up for grabs. And one more when time travel's discovered and they go back and take Bishop Ussher who said the age of the Earth was only 6,000 years, to 200 million BC and leave him in a real Jurassic Park.
Actually in order to avoid any more embarrassment or moral fumbling in the future it might be an even better idea to just apolo-gise in advance for everything scientific the church stands for. For it is a fact that the results of most modern empirical inquiry are always going to be at loggerheads with antiquated notions of how the world works. And also because Christianity is not like some other eastern religions which even when science exposes a particularly cherished belief of theirs as pure poppycock, still bash on mindlessly as if nothing had happened.
What's more, if they did trump the scientific community this way, no one would have to look silly later since others would not be able to point any accusing fingers at them. Of course, it goes without saying this means they would also have to give up on lost causes and losing battles instead of brawling around in there to the bitter end and generally getting all bloodied and bombed out before retreating.
But look at it this way; in times to come people of other religions will talk with envy and awe about how great Christianity turned out to be. After all, it takes a lot of courage to admit you're wrong — especially beforehand — thereby proving that hindsight is not the only thing more perfect than science. Foresight is too.