Galileo, Darwin, and our Heretical Heritage

To me, the most significant, revolutionary, and vibrant contribution of Western civilization is the cultivation and nurturing of bold ideas, whatever they may be. This concept is most famously expressed in the First Amendment of the US Constitution that includes the prohibition against the creation of any law that abridges the freedom of speech. Although there are as many disturbing and offensive proposals as constructive ones, any idea worth its salt can withstand the challenge presented by scrutiny. Alas, of late, ideas and unpopular opinions are being attacked under the guise of “sensitivity concerns” promulgated by disturbingly repressive university speech codes.


But the focus of today’s post is on personal heresy—who defines it, who enforces it, and why it’s crucial for us to think our heretical thoughts.


In 1633, Galileo was called to Rome to face charges from the Inquisition regarding his theories of heliocentrism. Pope Urban VIII, plagued with mounting court intrigue and accusations by a Spanish cardinal that he was “soft on defending the Church,” decided that it served papal purposes if his former friend, Galileo, were forced to recant his sacrilegious speculations. Charged and convicted under “vehement suspicion of heresy,” Galileo recanted, spending the remainder of his life under house arrest. Legend has it that after this declaration of guilt, the astronomer muttered, “And yet it moves.”


Approximately two hundred years later, Charles Darwin began developing his theory of evolution, sketching out a tree-like pattern of transmutation from common ancestors. Recognizing that his suspicions flouted literal interpretations of Biblical scripture as well as the widely held 19th century Christian doctrine of the Great Chain of Being (in which all living organisms has their proper place in a fixed, immutable order with Man at the top), Darwin knew how controversial his theories were–so much so that he recorded them only in his secret B Notebook. He understood that ridicule and vitriolic accusations of heresy were inevitable if he chose to publicize these ideas. In time, he overcame such concerns and published On the Origin of the Species in 1859, forever changing the discourse and understanding of humanity’s origins.


Both men took great personal risk, encountering moral and social opprobrium for promoting these theories. Their stories are two of the most well known, but the threat of accusations of heresy exist all around us: they exist in politics; they exist in religion; they exist in our social circles, our family codes, and our private expectations. Difficulties inevitably arise when we begin to stray from such canons, when we begin thinking our own, unorthodox thoughts.


But, forbidding yourself to play around with possibilities, to reconsider, to change your mind, to refuse to question the ground rules–this is a highly dangerous way to live. It can sap your soul and the ideas themselves never, truly disappear. I say all this in the context of the lives we lead, the responsibilities & duties we’ve assumed and must uphold. It doesn’t mean all your meditations will be good ones. It doesn’t mean you will act on them. But, they are the thoughts you are thinking. As such, you may as well know they’re there. Besides, whatever it is you’re mulling over, someone else has already considered the exact same possibility you’re flirting with. Heretical thoughts are only heretical for those who decree them as such. Here are some forbidden examples:


Maybe the children don’t always have to come first; maybe it depends on the context.

Maybe I don’t have to do it this way.

Just because I believed I needed to do that then, I don’t need to keep doing the same thing now.

When you say “common decency” or “loyalty” or “family” demands I do X, do I really?

Why is your definition/way of doing things/standards better?

Do the threatened consequences actually have the power to destroy everything in my life?

Your potential anger/disappointment/hurt doesn’t have to dictate all the terms.

No matter what happens, this one episode/relationship is not my sole defining moment.


Thoughts like this are every bit as profane as what Galileo or Darwin put forward. Somewhere in our lives, we all need a secret B Notebook, a place where we can safely explore the possibilities that might scare the Dickens out of ourself or those close to us. They won’t all be good ideas and we won’t act on them all, but repressing notions, trying to cow ourselves into submission utilizing an Armageddon-like warning for giving such notions even a bit of oxygen, well that’s the true tragedy.


As the beneficiaries of all the freedoms Western civilization has bestowed upon us, Re-booters owe it to ourselves to muster the courage to think our heretical thoughts, be they personal, familial, religious, political, or societal. We owe it to those brave thinkers who came before. Once you start to repress your ideas—no matter how modest or revolutionary–the world gets smaller, darker, and a far more fearful place to be.


Homework assignment: I want you to give yourself permission to allow your most heretical thoughts to float through your mind. Where are the red lines in your life? Just who is setting the standards you resist and threatening dire consequences? Are you imposing such norms on others? What possibility are you most afraid of? Why?


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