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Weekend Reading: Heretics and Inquisitors

Years ago, reading Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, I got bogged down early on and stopped. Rereading it now, I can’t imagine what I found boring. It’s great! A learned crime-mystery about murders in a 14th-century Italian abbey, it deals in part with the relationship between heretics and inquisitors. What Eco relates (via his protagonist William of Baskerville) has a lot of contemporary relevance.

Intelligent design is a heresy against the backdrop of conformist evolutionary thinking, and ID proponents must ever beware of Darwinist inquisitors. (See the recent threat of censorship from the biology journal BioEssays.) Eco observes that inquisitions generate heretics, rather than stamping them out. That is true. Many of the leading ID scientists (Axe, Sternberg, Bechly, and others) came to us because they were hunted by Darwinist colleagues who got wind of their doubts about evolution. Plenty of other laymen (including me) have had our own doubts reinforced by observing how the inquisitors came after these scientific heretics. 

Eco observes that inquisitors tend to be sloppy about how they class the various heresies. And that is true again, as we know from the way ID critics habitually seek to smear design advocates by falsely equating intelligent design with creationism. 

Finally he points out that the smug, bloated nature of the establishment is a magnet for drawing out people who have felt crushed by the establishment’s burden on them and its indifference. In the case of ID, that might be the university or the media. A heresy might be true or it might be false, but part of its attraction lies in offering a rallying cry against the smirk of the mighty. 

Published in 1980, The Name of the Rose is quite timely and maybe prophetic in some ways. I first heard the phrase “politically correct” as a college student in the Eighties. PC, whether in politics, culture, or science, since then has only become increasingly smothering and inquisitorial. I understand that Eco’s book is only a novel, not a work of history. But it’s a shrewd and exciting one. Very much recommended!

Photo: Umberto Eco, in 2005, by Università Reggio Calabria / CC BY-SA.