The New Copernicans

Michael Metzger

In writing about revolutions of celestial orbits, Copernicus didn’t think he was starting a revolution. But he did. Research indicates Copernicus had “strategic intuition,” what religious “nones” also seem to enjoy. They might be the new Copernicans.

There’s a great deal of research on the rise of the religious “nones.” When asked their religious preference, these individuals check the “none” box. In the realm of religions, nones are the fastest growing category, now comprising 20 percent of the US population. But categorizing them as “nones” is not helpful. Checking “none” only tells us what an individual does not believe. It doesn’t indicate what she or he believes.

Copernicus’ story provides a better category. In the spring of 1543, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus lay on his deathbed in Frombork, Poland. He was 71 years old. His followers brought straight from the press the first printed copy of his life’s work, On the Revolutions of Celestial Orbits. On that same day, May 24, Copernicus died.

His book launched the scientific revolution. But it didn’t produce what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift until a century and half later, when Isaac Newton published his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687. As Kuhn noted in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Copernicus had a “flash of insight.” He didn’t have a theory in mind when he postulated about planetary motion. He had a new picture in mind, what William Duggan of Columbia University calls “strategic intuition.”1

Copernicus imagined Aristarchus plus trigonometry plus Ptolemaic data to arrive at a new picture of the solar system. Neuroscientist Berry Gordon calls this “intelligent memory” where you “connect dots to form a picture.”2 This is the sequence for a paradigm shift – intuition, seeing new angles, and much later, a theory. In this case, 150 years later with Newton. This is the sequence Descartes and the Enlightenment reversed.

With the advent of the Enlightenment, people began to speak of theories or concepts as the initial – not final – step in discovery. Concept is a 16th century term from the Latin conceptum for “abstract.” In some cases it was a refashioning of conceit, a word with negative connotations. Concept is the Enlightenment conceit that we can discover things without getting our hands dirty. Just sit around and entertain abstract conversations.

Theory is also a term derived from the Enlightenment. From the Greek word for observing, theorists purport to explain things having merely recorded observations from a distance. This is not how we learn. Genuine knowledge begins with hands-on practice as well as intuition, which is why Copernicus never spoke of a theory or concept.

This is how religious nones are feeling their way along. I call them the new Copernicans. They desire to do what Copernicus did – connect dots to form a picture. I recently spent two days with hundreds of them. I was in New York City attending the “Future of Storytelling” conference. Over 550 cultural creatives were there, including visual artists, biochemistry professors, architects, CEOs, neuroeconomists, motion picture directors, and so on. Google was there, as well as Second City Chicago. They came from Cal-Berkeley, MIT, and Columbia. They were religious nones, so I conducted a small experiment. I asked a few if they felt like new Copernicans. Across the board, yes.

Andrea, a professor from Amsterdam, got very excited. For years she has urged students to be a “new Columbus.” Hearing the new Copernicans, she saw how Columbus conjures images of a destination – the New World. After that, he disappears. Copernicus isn’t a destination but a better orientation to the heavens, or what Andrea called “Deos,” Latin for the gods. She asked if I had written on this. I have.

Made in the image of God, many religious nones feel the world has become too flat and shallow. Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary and a professed agnostic, feels it. He describes how neuroimaging is putting together more dots, pointing toward the existence of “the Other.” This is a grand opportunity for people of faith.

In his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor urges Christians to create common ground with those apart from the faith, a space “not coloured by either a believing position or an unbelieving position.” Few Christians are doing this. Few were in attendance at the “Future of Storytelling.” For me, common ground is reframing religious nones as the new Copernicans. It offers a better orientation to life. But what do you think?

Next week I’ll describe what is required to capitalize on this common ground.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 William Duggan, Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Intuition (New York, Columbia Business School Publishing, 2007)
2 Berry Gordon and Lisa Berger, Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory that Makes You Smarter (New York: Viking, 2003), pp. 8-9.


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  1. Mike,
    I like this perspective a lot. We have seen too much of people formulating theories, rallying supporters, and only later learning that the theory was wrong. (Rather than rile up opinions on one or another, I’ll just say that I can see examples both along theological lines and in the sciences.) In many cases, the supporters are so committed to the theory that they no longer are willing to change their views, even in light of facts to prove its invalidity. The whole process results in segregating people based on whether one is willing to support the theory or not, often based on one’s tolerance for faith in a particular area. There are not enough facts on the subject to generate meaningful debate or discussion. The result in something of a “religious” argument around what the different sides “believe.” Looking at the “nones” as the new Copernicans validates and encourages them to make observations that might move beyond the “religious” arguments bases on unsubstantiated theories. It could be a good thing both for our churches, schools, and other institutions. It might also lead them to see past religion to see life and God as they were meant to be understood and known. Thanks for the insightful post. Mark.

  2. Good stuff, Mike. But a few thoughts…

    First, I wonder why one has to be a “none” to be a new Copernican. If the essence of being a new Copernican is to visualize a completely new way of seeing things (or a thing), then what is required is the freedom that is only possible in a free society, which itself is only possible in a society guided by the Christian principle of knowing and loving God, and loving (agape love) your neighbor as yourself.

    Second, I would say that while we Christians should ‘create common ground with’ the nones, we should resist the notion that believing or not is beside the point. Connecting the dots REQUIRES faith. Believing otherwise sends scores of people, even whole countries and cultures, down massive and time-talent-and-treasure-consuming rabbit holes.

    Every worldview requires faith. And for all but one, the kind of faith required is the blind kind. Christianity alone connects the dots from faith to reality every single time. It alone among all other worldviews coheres exactly with reality.

  3. John: Good points. I agree that you do not have to be a “none” to be a new Copernican. I should have been clearer on that. In fact, next week I’ll suggest many of the so-called “exiles” in the Christian community also qualify as new Copernicans. It looks like a wonderful overlap, creating some new possibilities for common ground.

    Second para: I agree. The divide is not between those who believe and those who do not. Rather, as Chesterton put it, it is between those who think seriously about life and those who are indifferent.

    Third para: I disagree. Worldviews require faith, but I don’t know of many that call for blind faith. Every faith system gets part of the story correct.

  4. “Worldviews require faith, but I don’t know of many that call for blind faith. Every faith system gets part of the story correct.”

    Well, since they get part of the story correct, but not all, sooner or later, they end up without any substantial evidence that their view is correct. So they have to blind themselves to that truth, and just believe in spite of the lack of evidence.

    Think of Darwinian evolution. It started out with so much promise, but the weight of the evidence has shown the theory to be pretty threadbare. Yet many continue in the faith, blindly.

    Communism starts with the noble idea that everyone should have a fair share. But it falsely believes that resources are finite, and redistributes them. The poor get stuff by the rulers stealing it from the rich, and everyone ends up worse off.

    Secularism believes that man is the highest authority, but since we are all basically selfish, the idea falls apart when we realize we have no way to decide WHICH men are our highest authority.

    So I would be hard pressed to find ANY worldview that connects all the dots. And when they fail, adherents must either abandon the faith, or blind themselves to the evidence.

    Wouldn’t that be the essence of what blind faith is?

  5. John, I think your case is logically and Biblically defensible but not Biblically wise. While I understand that my neighbor who does not yet embrace Jesus or have a Christian worldview is “blind” I also know that is not the only thing true about them. Usually, loving him involves discourse in a way that does not attempt to show his and every other non-Christian worldview as completely false. This is the method of Christianity’s harshest and most insecure opponents.

    The scripture metaphor of blindness usually shows man’s inability to see their need for God’s grace and our inability to come to a true understanding of God without the work of the Holy Spirit through God’s word.

  6. Two weeks ago I was handed a paper called THE RISE OF THE NEW COPERNICANS by John Seel. The 24 pages was an interesting read. Back in 2006 I published a little book called POMO: 7 Traits of Children Born After 1989 (republished in 2013): I was relieved to see that someone was thinking in a quantum way about the similar, albeit, simple observations I had made in education. Enlightening…

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