Of Science and Religion

    Tomorrow night on PBS, NOVA will present a program that can stimulate some valuable discussion and reading. If Christians handle it wisely, it might give us a chance to correct the popular misconception that Galileo, the seventeenth-century astronomer, was the victim of religious suppression of science. This is important, because critics have always used the Galileo story to unfairly paint the Church as anti-science. Allegedly, theologians in Galileo's day were unwilling to consider any evidence that contradicted Ptolemy's theory that the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus's and Galileo's hypothesis that the earth revolved around the Sun, the story goes, was brutally suppressed. But history is not all that simple. Dr. Owen Gingerich, who appears on tomorrow's program, has devoted much of his life to studying Copernicus and Galileo. As research professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science at Harvard and senior astronomer emeritus at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, he has spent years studying questions like this. He's convinced the primary issue between Galileo and the Church wasn't whether the earth revolved around the Sun -- the heliocentric theory. Instead it was "a turf battle over who had the keys to the truth, one that was especially exacerbated at that time because of the Catholic battle with the Protestants over the way to interpret Scripture." The primary issue was not heliocentrism, but "how literally Scripture should be interpreted." Gingerich reports, "About two-thirds of the copies [of Galileo] in Italy were censored and essentially none elsewhere . . . [T]he rest of the world saw that exercise as a local Italian imbroglio, and they were having none of it." The truth is that Pope Urban VIII had a strong interest in science. Although he accepted the view that Earth was the center of the universe, he authorized Galileo to write a book to explain the alternatives. If Galileo had simply presented his view, everything would have been fine. Instead Galileo presented the competing views as a drama for three actors. The character espousing Pope Urban's view was named Simplicius. Gingerich observed, "Galileo has arranged the dialogue to make Simplicius's words sound like the dying gasp of a man whose arguments had been drowned in a deluge of contradicting facts . . . The choice of words, and the context in which they were set, made Urban look like a complete fool." Urban was a powerful enemy, and Galileo was put on trial. But he wasn't convicted of heresy, as everybody thinks. Galileo was convicted of teaching heliocentrism, when he had been forbidden to do so. It was a case of insubordination. We really don't know whether the NOVA documentary will have an anti-Christian bias and present the old myth that the Christian Church was -- and is -- opposed to good science. But in light of some of the things Dr. Gingerich has said in the past, you may want to tune in. Keep in mind it probably has some spin -- the media can't resist it. But if Gingerich's views are offered, it could help offset the reductionist "science or religion" interpretation often associated with the Galileo controversy. Christians need to have the facts and correct the legends. NOVA, on Tuesday night, just might give us an opportunity to do that. For further reference: "Galileo's Battle for the Heavens," NOVA, Public Broadcasting Corporation, to be aired October 29, 2002 at 8:00 P.M. Check local listings as dates and times may vary. Eric Charles Barrett and David Fisher, Scientists Who Believe: 21 Tell Their Own Stories (Moody, 1984). Owen Gingerich, "The Galileo Affair in Contemporary Perspective," Scientific American, August 1982. Also reprinted in Owen Gingerich, The Great Copernicus Chase and Other Adventures in Astronomical History (Cambridge, 1992). Article about Galileo in Isaac Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, second revised edition (Doubleday, 1982), 100-105. David Fisher, "A Lifelong Quest: Tracking Copernicus," (biographical sketch of Owen Gingerich), Newsletter of the American Scientific Affiliation, September/October 2002, 5 (requires free Adobe Acrobat Reader). Owen Gingerich, "The Censorship of Copernicus's 'De Revolutionibus . . . ,'" Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 33, no. 1 (March 1981): 58-60. Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection (InterVarsity, 1985), chaps. 1-5. Dan Falk, "Harvard Professor Owen Gingerich Sees Religious Roots of Astronomy,", 22 September 2000. Owen Gingerich, "Is the Cosmos All There Is?", Reflections, Center of Theological Inquiry, 2002. Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, Developing a Christian Worldview of Science and Religion (Tyndale, 1999).


Chuck Colson


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