Nicolaus Copernicus was a 16th century East Prussian astronomer who was asked by the Vatican’s Fifth Lateran Council to assist in updating the Roman Calendar, as, after several centuries, the position of the sun had evolved to be at such great variance with the calendar as to make it nonsensical. Copernicus’ conclusion, reflecting a lifetime of detailed study of well accepted preceding astronomical theories of both Aristotle and Ptolemy, and use of a new instrument, the telescope, in his own extensive celestial observations, was as simple as it was radical. That was, the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than vice versa. The proposition was so dramatic that it literally up-ended human understanding of the known universe. The Copernican thesis provided an order to the positions of the Sun and its revolving planets that solved the problem with the Roman Calendar, as well as numerous unresolved issues inherent in previous, well established astronomical theories about the movement of the planets and sun in the solar system. More important to the Vatican, Copernicus’ theory contradicted the Bible’s Old Testament, and thus was considered heresy by the Catholic Church. Copernicus was warned via a Papal Injunction not to articulate, circulate or publish his conclusion. Years later, after one publisher refused to print it, the thesis was published by another in the name of a student as “On The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies“, with an extended defensive statement by the publisher inserted after the title page stating that the theory was merely a hypothesis, and did not exclude other potential theories. Copernicus died shortly after publication of “Revolutions” in 1543 and so did not suffer retribution by the Vatican, but fear of heresy charges sidelined his findings for almost a century, until Galileo, a century later, adopted and expanded it with further astronomical analysis in “Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World, Ptolemaic and Copernican“, published in 1630. Galileo was subjected to a formal Papal Inquisition, tried at the Vatican in Rome in 1633, convicted of heresy, and sentenced to home arrest until his death in 1642.
Orthodoxy is defined as “Conforming to the approved form of any doctrine, philosophy, ideology, etc., especially religion”. But as demonstrated by the examples of Copernicus and Galileo, it was critique of established beliefs, based on observation of their inconsistency with the world around them, along with development, publication and exchange of ideas, that led to evolution of new established beliefs, which themselves eventually become subject to critique and modification. The tension between orthodoxy and advancement of human knowledge is not limited to that between religion and science, however; it applies to all areas of intellectual endeavor. In philosophical terms, this is Hegel’s “dialectic”: thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis; repeating ad infinitum. In scientific terms, it is the “scientific method” – observe; hypothesize; test; prove or disprove; re-hypothesize. In more common terms, this is reason; the power of the human mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic. This intellectual process, presumably, leads to improved human knowledge, with potential for improvement of the human condition. So it follows that constraint of this process, in the form of rigid orthodoxy, and strict reliance on ancient texts, retards the process of improving human knowledge, and thus the potential to improve the human condition.
The orthodox mindset affects primary issues in the political realm, including the organization and management of the economy; and the development and application of the law. Religious orthodoxy, because of its most ancient roots; its very personal nature; its irresolvable theological mysteries; its reliance on faith rather than reason; its deep societal and cultural influence; and its role in the foundation of much of civilization; carries with it a mindset that impels strong moral pressure in other areas of intellectual inquiry; it is a mindset that seeks guidance from, and adherence to, well established, institutionally endorsed beliefs, especially those with a basis in ancient texts.
There are three doctrinal pillars in the American political system that are so closely associated that they seem like conjoined ideological triplets. These are Christian fundamentalism; free market economics; and “Constitutional Originalism”. All rely on revered ancient texts – the Bible; Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations“; and the U.S. Constitution. All three texts are foundational documents – the Bible for the Christian faith; Adam Smith’s treatise for the market economic system; and the Constitution for our democratic system of government. For the orthodox mindset, the extent of adherence to these texts provides an objective measure of truth; a validation of compliance with foundational standards; an irreplaceable guide to decision making; and a basis for the proper organization of society. In all of these areas of religion, economics and law, orthodoxy is self-validating, not easily subjected to reasoned critique; and leads some modern intellectuals to reach back through generations – even centuries – of evolved human knowledge, to the fundamental wisdom of retrieved ancient texts.
The orthodox mindset in these areas seems to have expanded steadily over the past three decades. Ironically, this coincides with the rapid acceleration – the exponential growth – in the proliferation of information generally. I cannot help but wonder if the two dynamics are connected. The public is increasingly inundated with information, and continually challenged to segregate real from false or misleading information, which is aggressively presented at hyper speed, expertly crafted to create the appearance of validity, and increasingly targeted to receptive demographic subsets. The result may be that some of the public, overwhelmed, might seek simpler, more fundamental, pre-existing truths that provide them guidance in making decisions in their everyday lives. When conflicts arise between core beliefs and new information from the modern world, the healthy mindset may maintain skepticism of new information, at least until it becomes validated and generally accepted; but the orthodox mindset may seek security in traditional beliefs and simply avoid new information altogether.
In any case, what happens when our institutions of government are led by those who reject the evolution, the progress, of human knowledge? How does our society address new information, newly considered societal standards, and changed circumstances? The answer is through the long, gradual, democratic processes – evolving societal beliefs and standards; extended public debate; proposed, compromised legislation; administration of public policy by law; and judicial review. So who is performing the judicial review and how does their belief system affect their conclusions?