Whenever argument breaks out over science and religion, those who emphasize tension between the two almost inevitably turn to the story of Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church. But David Lindberg, professor emeritus in the history of science at the University of Wisconsin, says that people may not know the real story—and that this may be partly responsible for misconceptions about the relationship between faith and science.
Lindberg is the author of The Beginnings of Western Science. With Ronald L. Numbers, he is the coeditor of God and Nature, the forthcoming eight-volume Cambridge History of Science, and Battlefields of Science and Christianity Revisited: From Augustine to Intelligent Design.
Is Galileo's story a good example of the relationship between science and religion?
The Galileo case has been taken as symbolic of the relationship between science and the church. But it wasn't. In fact, the Galileo case was exceptional.
Many Christians have grown up with the idea that there was this terrible encounter in which the oppressive church stamped out science.
There is another view circulating within the Christian community. Namely, that Christianity provided fundamental assumptions without which modern science could never have occurred. This notion is that the human intellect was designed to be able to comprehend this nature that God had created.
I think both ideas are equally false and misleading.
The relationship between science and Christianity goes back to the beginning. The early church fathers found the Greek classical tradition, including Greek science, dangerous in a number of respects. It contradicts Scripture at a number of points, so there were skirmishes that continued through the Middle Ages.
At this time, there was a strong scientific movement at the centerpiece of the medieval university education. There were several occasions when scientific tradition and Christian theology attempted to occupy the same intellectual ground, and there was conflict.
There was also competition in addressing the same issue with different answers. These participants prefer peace to warfare, so they looked for means of accommodation and compromise, and they found them. In general, they found those means in either reconsidering their scientific view or reinterpreting the Bible. So, actually, a peaceful coexistence was worked out by these medieval scholars.
And they supported the idea that the sun revolves around the Earth?
Fundamental to the educational system of Europe was a description of the way the universe was arranged. This cosmology placed the Earth at the center—and the earth was a sphere. That was the view of Aristotle.
In 1543 Copernicus, who was not a Catholic priest as is often maintained, encountered an ancient idea of a heliocentric universe. He looks at this carefully and finds certain advantages in it.
Copernicus argues that the sun is, in fact, in the center and the Earth is a planet orbiting around it. Copernicus published that theory in 1543 but it was not widely accepted.
Galileo was learned in astronomical matters, but not a particularly good mathematician. There were two reasons he joined the fray over heliocentricism. One was the quest for patronage. Second, I also think the arguments that Copernicus had presented influenced him considerably.
What was happening within the church at this time?
Before Galileo came along, you could hold any view you wanted on a cosmological issue. Nothing could be less significant than that because the church had big problems. That was the tiniest of the tiny problems. The church had just lost half of Europe through the Protestant Reformation.
This led to a change in the Catholic Church. The church made a rapid move towards a centralized authoritarian government—an organization with the literal interpretation of Scripture as an important emphasis.
How did the church respond to Galileo's theory?
There was a committee established called the Holy Office, which had the responsibility to determine the truth in matters of faith. Charges were leveled against Galileo, and so the heliocentric question came before them.
We don't know much about what went on in their considerations. But it's important to look at the whole picture. And one part of that picture is that the scientific community is overwhelmingly opposed to Galileo. That is, the evidence that Galileo has is not particularly powerful. It's not overpowering. He was looked on as a crackpot by lots of scientists.
If we combine this picture with the authority of the Catholic Church to interpret the Bible—and their new attention to literal interpretation—it's just clear what the answer is going to be. They're not going to violate their own hermeneutic exegetical standards in order to adopt this crackpot minority opinion of the scientific community.
So then he goes before a papal court. It wasn't his science that was on trial, though. What was he tried for?
Obedience was the only issue in the trial. And he was guilty. Everybody could tell he was guilty because Galileo doesn't just discuss the pros and cons of the theory, he just advocates all the way. It was a blunder on Galileo's part.
Galileo then recants. Why?
He had two choices. There was the threat of imprisonment or he could recant. Everybody knew it was a formality, so he didn't cost his cause anything to recant.
How did the theory of the sun as the center of the universe finally get accepted by the church?
Once Newton's theory of gravitation came along, you had overwhelming arguments in favor of heliocentrism. The church says, "Okay, now we've got proof, so now we will reinterpret the Bible."
By the end of the 17th century, the church was on board, though Copernicus's book stayed on the index of prohibited books until 1835. This geocentric model remained an albatross around the Catholic Church's neck.
How did this become an area of focus for you?
Religion has been part of my life since I was born. I grew up in an intensely religious evangelical home. My father and both grandfathers were members of the clergy.
I went to Wheaton College, where I majored in physics. I then went on as a graduate student in physics at Northwestern University. But as I proceeded with my education, I became disillusioned with physics when it ceased to deal with the world that I could see and feel. It became abstract mathematics.
I encountered history of science at that point, and went back to graduate school. I became a historian of medieval and early modern science. But in the early 1980s a colleague approached me about organizing a conference on science and religion. This was not a topic I had really worked with, but it struck a chord because of my own religious background. The conference led to a book, God and Nature. Really, I've now spent the last 20 years mainly thinking about the historical relations of science and religion.
How do you reconcile the struggle between religion and science?
I follow St. Augustine on the issue. Augustine says in one of his works that if you want to know astronomy, do not go to the Bible. Find yourself an astronomer. It seems to me that is the kind of attitude we're just going to have to take.
This notion that the scientist leaves his culture and all of his other beliefs at the door of the laboratory when he goes in is just silly. It's scientific propaganda, but it's not true. All of us have a large, complicated belief system, which is there to influence whenever it's relevant.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Virginia Stem Owens's lead story in the Fall 2002 issue of Christian History examined "Galileo and the Powers Above." It also included an interview with David Lindberg (not yet available online). Other articles in the issue, which was about "the Christian face of the Scientific Revolution," focused on Johannes Kepler, the Reformers' views of Copernicus, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, and others. The fully illustrated print issue is available for $5.
In October 2002, PBS's Nova program examined "Galileo's Battle for the Heavens." In Christianity Today's sister publication Books & Culture, Virginia Stem Owens reviewed the book upon which the television program was based, Galileo's Daughter.
Those interested in the relationship between Christianity and science may also be interested in Christianity Today's December 1999 article "The Gift of Science," by David N. Livingstone.
Visit DickStaub.com for audio and video of his radio program (4-7 p.m. PST), media reviews, and news on "where belief meets real life."
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