Kirsten Birkett helps us apply Galileo’s story to our day. First, she makes a great obsdervation–that the Protestant reaction to Galileo’s ideas shows how much this whole thing was about the politics of the Roman Catholic church linked up with Aristotelian scientists:
One aspect of the ‘Christianity versus science’ caricature of the Galileo debate is frequently overlooked. That is, we have seen above was not Christianity opposing anything; it was the story of the Catholic church, egged on by Aristotelian scholars, opposing Galileo. What happened when Protestants came across the Copernican theory gives a wider context. There was no widespread horror or outcry against Copernicanism in Protestant countries. It was accepted for what it was: an astronomical theory, of little interest to theologians, but with some technical points to recommend it to astronomers. It was not something to cause a great reaction…Those who took the trouble to study Copernicanism were inclined to be mildly in favour of it, if anything. Melancthon, who was responsible for widespread educational reform in Protestant Germany, encouraged astronomy and lectured on Copernicanism…It was possible for a member of a Protestant country to be far more enthusiastic—as was Rheticus, the German scholar who was ‘converted’ to Copernicanism with as much zeal as he gave to religion. Though he did not have many followers, he was certainly not persecuted for his ideas, and indeed continued in a respectable academic career. Later, even during the period of Galileo’s trial, the German Kepler was free to pursue his discovery of the elliptical orbits of the planets which laid the groundwork for Newton’s massive consolidation.
We do…need to widen our focus from Galileo and the Catholic church if we are to make any conclusions about ‘Christianity and science’. The Protestant reaction provides an necessary counterpoint to Galileo’s condemnation. It is not that Protestantism necessarily had a doctrinal bias towards believing that the earth moved; but if a Protestant did wish to accept and defend Copernican theory, he generally had freedom to do so. Without the strict censorship of the Catholic church, Protestant countries were ones in which information was more easily disseminated and new ideas more likely to find a hearing. Protestantism, with its fundamental tenet of individual interpretation of the Bible, did not develop in its institutions the level of control that characterised the Catholic church. Indeed, after Copernicanism had been defended by the Catholic church the story was spread far and wide in Protestant polemic against repressive Catholic institutions. All these factors gave Protestant countries an intellectual climate which could be more accepting of Copernicanism than otherwise.
Finally, Birkett makes these excellent observations, worth reading for anyone who’s engaging people in intellectual discussions on these matters today.
There is a lesson for Christians to learn from the Galileo story; one which is not often recognised. Christians should never allow Christianity to be tied to a secular system of thought. Aristotelianism was very attractive and convincing as an intellectual system, and it gave Christianity a great intellectual “boost when the two were “reconciled”; but Aristotelianism was not Christian, and Christianity should never had been made to depend upon it. The great Aristotelian synthesis left medieval Christianity irrevocably tied to an ultimately flaulty philosphy. By the time the flaws in the system were demonstrated, the upholders of the system that was presumed to be Christian were so steeped in Aristotelianism they were unable to cope with the changes. The result was thaty Christianity was discredited for something that had nothing to do with it.
The same danger lies before us with modern science. Modern empirical science is an excellent route to knowledge about our physical universe, and most likely a lot of what it promotes is true. The Bible stands independent of that and should not be tied to it. Empirical science is a system which is only ever probably true—deliberately so—for by nature it must allow itself to be open to constant revision in the light of new evidence. Science advances by rejection of the old under scrutiny of the new. That is the strength and real value of scientific knowledge.
Christianity, if it really is based on infallible revelation from God, does not need to attach itself to that system and does so at its own peril. There is nothing wrong with demonstrating that any particular scientific theory is compatible with Biblical revelation, but such a demonstration does not prove the Bible true and should never be made the grounds for accepting Biblical truth. In time, the scientific theory will change. Christians must recognise the limits of revealed knowledge, and not connect it to knowledge which is constantly under revision. That is the path to ridicule and disillusionment, when the science moves on and Christians are left behind.
The Galileo affair was not an example of Christianity against science. Christianity is not irrevocably tied to a geocentric universe and should never have been stretched to fit an intellectual system in which it appeared that way. The Catholic church was wrong to condemn Galileo, and has certainly suffered in adverse publicity ever since. It is rather unfair, however, that religion per se is criticized for an incident which was about political necessities and personal grudges far more than it was anything to do with religious issues. The dogmatism which opposed Galileo’s innovative science was the dogmatism of the universities, of Aristotelian philosophy which had reigned for centuries and bolstered the intellectual establishment. The theologians who condemned Copernicanism were wrong, but the inflexible opposition to freedom of thought was not theirs.
Yet now Galileo has become an icon of a modern dogmatism which insists on a war between science and religion, not for any sound intellectual reason but because it suits a modern ideology. If there are historical reasons to propose an inherent clash between science and Christianity, they are not found in Galileo’s trial. It is to be hoped that as the mantle of propaganda is lifted from historical truth—as has been done in this century’s scholarship on Galileo—that the debate will lose some of its partisan distortion.
I’ll end with this: In no way do I mean this to be “provocative,” but as I was reading thisfinal section of the article, I couldn’t help imagining that it was written a hundred years in the future, and every time I read “Aristotelianism,” I couldn’t help but imagine “Darwinianism” in its place. Just some food for thought.