God And Galileo: Why People Who Believe The Universe Should Revolve Around Their Religion Are Dangerous

A proper application of the church-state wall helps keep the theocrats at bay.

Occasionally something I write for Church & State or on this blog will spur a reader to mail me a letter or send me an email thoughtfully pointing out to me why I’m all wet.

This happened a few years ago after I wrote an article about efforts by creationists to infiltrate public schools. A gentleman in Nebraska sent me a booklet that asserted that not only is the Earth young (a mere 6,000 years), it is also the center of the universe.

I thought he might be pulling my leg, so I called my friend Glenn Branch at the National Center for Science Education. Glenn told me that it was no joke. There really is a movement of religious zealots who are convinced Galileo was wrong. They are called “geocentrists.”

How do these geocentrists know that the Earth is the center of the universe? The Bible tells them so! As a recent Chicago Tribune article put it, “A few conservative Roman Catholics are pointing to a dozen Bible verses and the church’s original teachings as proof that Earth is the center of the universe, the view that was at the heart of the church’s clash with Galileo Galilei four centuries ago.”

The Tribune quoted geocentrist Robert Sungenis, who said, “Heliocentrism becomes dangerous if it is being propped up as the true system when, in fact, it is a false system. False information leads to false ideas, and false ideas lead to illicit and immoral actions – thus the state of the world today.… Prior to Galileo, the church was in full command of the world, and governments and academia were subservient to her.”

Sungenis and his supporters organized a conference in South Bend, Ind., last year titled “Galileo Was Wrong. The Church Was Right.” The Southern Poverty Law Center sent an infiltrator, who filed this enlightening report.

Just to be clear, the leadership of the Catholic Church thinks these guys are wacko, and obviously the vast majority of religious people reject their ideas. The Vatican maintains an astronomical observatory, and even though a few bishops are sometimes prone to flirt with “intelligent design,” the church’s official stand on evolution is pro. Pope John Paul II even apologized to Galileo for all of that unpleasantness 400 years ago.

When I read about the geocentrists and others like them, I wish I believed in mediums. I’d hire one to contact James Madison and Thomas Jefferson so I could thank them personally for the church-state wall. Yeah, we scoff at geocentrists today, but as Sungenis points out, they had their day. It lasted something like 1,500 years. Church and state were one, and if you didn’t like it, well, they had a torture rack and possibly a pyre just for you.

They ran not just government but science too. Are there people today who yearn for those days? Are there people today who would like to make their theology the official doctrine of the state and force it into public schools? You bet.

When people become convinced that their interpretation of religion is absolutely true – to the extent that they are willing to discard even obvious facts such as the heliocentric universe – they become capable of just about anything. The last thing we need is for them to have their hands on the instruments of the state.

Luckily, the geocentrists are unlikely to get anywhere with their ideas. They are just too daft. But their partners in crime, the creationists, have intimidated teachers and school boards all over America to the point that many public schools are afraid to even mention evolution. (“Change over time” is often the preferred substitute.)

A proper application of the church-state wall helps keep the theocrats at bay. It keeps government, public schools and science from becoming the captive of those who believe their theology gives them not just the right, but the obligation, to run everyone else’s life.

The church-state wall is the one thing that can stop them. Let’s keep it high and firm.

Galileo, I am certain, would agree.

P.S. “The Wall of Separation” will be on hiatus on Monday. Happy Labor Day!