Simply because it was written in a book

The Google Doodle today (replacing the usual Google logo) commemorates Nicolas Steno, one of the 17th century founders of modern geology and specifically stratigraphy. As it happens, Steno was also a Catholic bishop who was actually beatified — yes, he’s on the path to sainthood — by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

Now, plenty of bishops and monks and other officers of the Catholic Church were scientists, back in the days when religion and government were more fully intertwined and there was no separate, say, National Science Foundation to fund research. And before scientific investigation unearthed so much evidence against the specific claims made in the Bible, it was fashionable for Christians to be scientists; who wouldn’t want to know more about God’s creation?

The strange thing about Nicolas Streno is that he seems to have been acutely aware of what we would see today as the fundamental contradiction between a scientific approach and a faith-based approach. “By 1659,” we know from his diary, “Steno had decided not to accept a statement as true simply because it was written in a book, but rather to rely on his own research.” He’s quite the model of cognitive dissonance, having stopped somewhere short of applying this scientific attitude to religion. (The Templeton Foundation would have loved this guy.)

… Well, okay, maybe he didn’t think he stopped short of thinking scientifically about faith. Quoth Wikipedia:

Steno’s questioning mind also influenced his religious views. Having been brought up in the Lutheran faith, he nevertheless questioned its teachings, something which became a burning issue when confronted with Roman Catholicism while studying in Florence. After making comparative theological studies, including reading the Church Fathers and by using his natural observational skills, he decided that Catholicism, rather than Lutheranism, provided more sustenance for his constant inquisitiveness. In 1667, Steno converted to Catholicism on All Souls’ Day when Lavinia Cenami Arnolfini, a noblewoman of Lucca insisted.

I’m sure that Catholicism “provided more sustenance for his constant inquisitiveness.” It’s provided exactly this sort of trap for smart people for centuries; Catholics have gotten very good at dressing up their bullshit in pseudointellectual blather and making you feel as if you’re being academic while making baseless assertions. I haven’t read Steno’s own letters, just the Wikipedia bio … but it sounds as though he compared Lutheranism to Catholicism but never Christianity to other religions or irreligion. (This would be consistent with how I’ve seen many people in our modern age come to their religious conclusions, too.) The thing is, Catholicism doesn’t have any better evidence for the beliefs it teaches than any other set of supernatural claims has. But I guess it’d be too much to expect anyone in Europe in the 1600s to think that far outside of their cultural assumptions, prolific scientist or not.

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3 Comments

  1. Christian theology for along time cunningly “interpret” the Bible for adjusting old tales to the modern civilization. It`s a sharp contrast in the vague interpretation of the Old Testament and the latteral citation of the Gospels` creators, for example some liberal theologists offered to exclude some anti-semitic and other backward opinions from this sources,but the mainstream churches resist this vehemently.

  2. Although I am an atheist I can still appreciate the efforts and intelligence of any scientist. He may have had his flaws but within this context he did good work.
    Unlike others he just did not go that little bit further. But knowing the times he lived, I would have stated similar stuff if I was there…martyrdom is for delusional g0d-bots.

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