The triumph of heliocentrism over geocentrism marked the beginning of the end of Christianity. Not the end of Christianity as a cultural force or even as a moral force, but the end of Christianity as an intellectually serious way of understanding the world. Its premise is no longer rationally defensible. To claim that the world was created by, and is governed by, a God who loves us is to be in denial. Christianity is disconnected from both cosmological and moral reality, and has been for centuries. This is not to say that it lacks adherents: there are reportedly some 2.2 billion Christians around the world. Like Addie Bundren’s surviving family in As I Lay Dying, they wander through the backcountry, lost and confused, the buzzards circling overhead. They don’t know what to do with the body.
Since the days of Copernicus and Galileo, there have been two major scientific discoveries that Christianity found threatening, and with good reason: far from being at the center of the universe, we are an insignificant dot in the cosmic hinterlands; and far from being specially created beings, separate from the animal kingdom, we are the descendants of primates and, ultimately, of single-celled organisms—one of many products of the never-ending struggle for biological advantage.
The second truth is the one that fundamentalists try so hard to deny, but the first is actually more damaging because it renders implausible the central Christian claim—that God has a deep and abiding love for every human being. If the earth is the center of the universe, a motionless body circled by the heavenly spheres, then it is easy to suppose that God’s attention is focused on us. If, as described in Genesis, we are the apex of Creation, then he must care a great deal about us. But if, instead, we are one infinitesimal part of a galaxy which itself is one among billions—if, far from being center stage, we are just one of countless cosmic sideshows—then the notion that he has a special concern for our well-being seems ridiculous: anthropocentrism gone mad.
Geocentrism claimed that the earth was immobile, with the heavenly bodies all revolving around it. It was defended with mathematical and astronomical rigor by Ptolemy, and had the benefit of conforming to our everyday perceptions: it seems clear to us that the earth on which we stand is neither spinning like a top nor speeding through space, just as it seems clear that the sun and moon and stars revolve around us. Over many centuries, however, there were certain kinds of astronomical data that geocentrism had difficulty explaining. So in 1543 Copernicus offered an alternative model. The heliocentric hypothesis—in Greek mythology, Helios was the sun god—argued that the sun, not the earth, was the center of our planetary system. The earth rotated on its axis every 24 hours and revolved around the sun every 365 days. Heliocentrism, however, had its own conceptual difficulties, and for the next seventy years most astronomers rejected it. Then came Galileo’s groundbreaking work on the development of telescopic lenses. The data that they provided, including observations of the phases of Venus, could be explained only under the heliocentric hypothesis.
At this point the Catholic Church, already reeling from Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, stepped in. Regarding the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, church leaders cited certain passages from scripture, especially Joshua 10:12-13, where God made the sun stand still in the sky. That meant it was the sun, not the earth, that moved, and to claim otherwise was heretical. Having argued in defense of heliocentrism, Galileo was brought before the Inquisition in Rome. With his age, ill health, declining eyesight, and growing mental distress, he was deeply afraid of being punished, so he renounced and repudiated his former claims. He thereby escaped prison, though he spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest.
The church and the Inquisition had the power to delay the widespread acceptance of heliocentrism, but only marginally. In an era of scientific ferment, neither the words of scripture nor the authority of Rome could stop the tidal wave that was coming. Heliocentrism was the beginning, but only the beginning. The discovery of the laws governing planetary motion, the measurement of interstellar distances, and the demonstration that the sun was just another star—these were followed by the discoveries that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, and that the universe is almost 14 billion years old. Though no one in the seventeenth century could have imagined these latter discoveries, some contemporary observers realized that the cosmic stature of planet earth was in free fall. Buonamici, a friend and supporter of Galileo, described our abode as a “minuscule terrestrial globe,” while Kepler, even more sharply, said that the earth “is quite despicably small.” Ouch.
The radical reevaluation of the size and age of the universe carried within it, like a seed, the radical reevaluation of our place within that universe. As it became vaster, we became smaller. As it became older, we became younger. Our cosmic significance collapsed like a desiccated pumpkin. With each scientific breakthrough we became less important in the cosmic scheme of things. We became a cipher in space and time. To call humanity a speck would be to overstate our significance. We are a speck of a speck of a speck of a speck. At best.
Placed in the context of the heliocentric theory and the cosmological breakthroughs it spawned, the story of Creation, Revised Factual Version, becomes something like this: the earth, far from being the centerpiece of Creation as suggested in Genesis Chapter 1, did not actually come into being until 9.3 billion years after Creation. And if God wanted to make men and women in his image, well, it must not have been high on his cosmic priority list, because that didn’t happen for 13.8 billion years. Genesis says man was created on the sixth day, but in fact we didn’t make an appearance until about the five trillionth day (13.8 billion years x 365 days). The point is not that Genesis is factually incorrect (though of course it is); the point is that Genesis gives us a preeminent place in God’s Creation that we simply didn’t have.
Our spatial position in the Creation is as insignificant as our temporal one. The earth, instead of having a place of cosmic centrality, is one of eight planets orbiting our sun, which is one of at least two hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of at least two hundred billion galaxies in the observable portion of the universe. These are conservative numbers, but even so they suggest a minimum of 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe. To put it another way, we inhabit one of eight planets orbiting one of the universe’s forty sextillion stars.
This is not the cosmos of the ancient Jewish prophets. In the small earth-centered universe they inhabited, God’s devotion to human well-being seemed plausible. But as we moved from a geocentric universe to a heliocentric universe to an expanding universe, that plausibility gradually eroded, worn away over the centuries by wave after wave of cosmological discoveries. The knowledge about the cosmos that we have acquired in the last four hundred years has made Christianity intellectually irrelevant. The notion that the Creator of this incomprehensible vastness is preoccupied with the minutiae of human behaviors and human needs seems absurd. After all, how much time and attention can the Creator devote to one species on one planet in one solar system when he has forty sextillion such solar systems to oversee? The idea of God watching over each human being with boundless love—guiding us, comforting us, protecting us—is a surviving relic of the earth-centered universe that was debunked and discarded long ago. Christianity is the fossilized remains of a dead cosmology.
The triumph of heliocentrism over geocentrism represented the triumph of the scientific method over appeals to the purported Word of God. The patina of divinity could no longer shield the claims of Christianity from rational inquiry. Middle Ages out, Enlightenment in; deference out, skepticism in; scholastics out, scientists in; chalices out, telescopes in. Despite the claims of Genesis and Revelation, we were not around at the beginning of time and we will not be around at the end. Perhaps some day the universe will contract and collapse on itself, perhaps not. Either way, it has nothing to do with us. We will be no more important at the end times than we were at the Creation. From the perspective of our planetary home, the end times may come in about a billion years, when overheating caused by chemical changes in the sun will make the earth uninhabitable. In any case, the notion that judgments of human wickedness and righteousness have anything at all to do with the end of the cosmos or the end of time betrays an inflated sense of human importance that is utterly divorced from reality. We are ciphers in the cosmic scheme, and if some day there is a climactic cosmic event, it will have nothing to do with apocalyptic visions generated by mystical prophets on this puny planet. The inconceivable scale of the cosmos has exposed our delusions of grandeur for what they are—delusions. Genesis notwithstanding, we know now that no Creator was so fixated on human affairs as to grant us a place of cosmic centrality. Instead we are denizens of the cosmic backwaters, as insignificant as a colony of microbes clinging to a spinning grain of sand.