"Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."
Copernicus: The Man Who Turned the Universe Inside-Out
I should give you a little background information. As early as the 3rd century B.C. Aristarchus developed a theory that explained the daily rising and setting of the sun by the daily rotation of the earth on its axis. Unfortunately, Aristotle and Ptolemy favored an earth-centered model, and that's the model that stuck for the next two millenia. Then, 1800 years later, on May 24, 1543 Nicholaus Copernicus revived Aristarchus's theory when he published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium ("Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres"). It was a momentous occasion to be sure, but this, I am afraid, was only the beginning of the debate. How was it recieved by the religious establishments of the day?
Martin Luther, the German Priest who started the Protestant Reformation, called Copernicus,
"the new astronomer who wants to prove that the Earth goes round, and not the Heavens, the Sun, and the Moon, just as if someone sitting in a moving wagon or ship were to suppose that he was at rest and that the earth and the trees were moving past him. But that is the way nowadays, whoever wants to be clever must needs produce something of his own, which is bound to be the best since he has produced it! The fool will turn the whole science of Astronomy upside down. But, as Holy Writ declares, it was the Sun and not the Earth which Joshua commanded to stand still."
"'The world also is established that it cannot be moved.' Who will venture to place the authority of a Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?"
"The first proposition, that the sun is the center and does not revolve about the earth is foolish, absurd, false in theology, and heretical, because expressly contrary to the Holy Scriptures. The second proposition, that the earth revolves about the sun and is not the center is absurd, false in philosophy and from a theological point of view at least, opposed to the true faith."
What Can We Learn From This Tragic History That Can Help Us Today?
Luther, Calvin, and the Catholic Church all agreed that Copernicus's heliocentric model contradicts the Holy Scriptures; and the truth is - they were right! Psalm 93:1 does in fact say, "the world also is established, that it cannot be moved." In contrast, Copernicus was saying that the earth is in constant motion. And Joshua 10: 12-13 does descibe Joshua commanding the sun to stand still, and the sun obeying this command. According to the Copernican view, Joshua had it all wrong. So, I guess that settles it. The Bible is the ultimate authority, so Copernicus must have been wrong. And somehow, all of the astronomers in the 500 years since Copernicus have been wrong. Their evidence? Fraudulent, I guess. Who knows? But the word of God is quite clear, and who can argue with that?
Luther, Calvin, and the Catholic Church all agreed that Copernicus's heliocentric model contradicts the Holy Scriptures; and the truth is - they were right!
However, we are left with an important question. What are we supposed to do when the Bible and science seem to contradict one another? Does a person who loves science have to hate the Bible? Or does a person who loves the Bible have to hate science? Absolutely not.
The Bible doesn't claim to be an authority on scientific matters. It describes the natural world according to the limited understanding of the authors and their societies in the time that its various books were written. These men were not scientists, and they didn't put pen to paper with the hope of answering complicated scientific questions. They had an entirely different purpose in writing, and they took their societies' assumptions about the natural world for granted.
For example, from the perspective of the Psalmist, the earth does not appear to be moving. Well, the earth is moving. It is spinning at over a thousand miles per hour. And it orbits the sun at an average speed of more than 67 thousand miles per hour. Still, if you go out and stand in your front lawn, the earth feels solid and completely stable beneath your feet. Even though the Psalmist was factually incorrect, we can appreciate how he would percieve the earth as a relatively stable place. To me, his point about the apparent firmness and stability of the earth becomes infinitely more interesting when you consider that we are hurling through space at over 67 thousand miles an hour.
Herein lies the key to navigating any debate between the proponents of science and religion. Don't claim more authority for the Bible than it claims for itself. Today, Luther and Calvin and the Catholic Church's arguments are just painful to read. What was the main problem with their interpretation? (1) They were WAY too literal, and (2) they tried to use the Bible as the ultimate authority in scientific matters. That's just not the point of the Bible. Clearly, the Church's intolerance and contempt for new scientific findings had severe consequences for Galileo and Bruno. But that might not even be the saddest part.
Perhaps the saddest thing about this story is that the minds of countless thousands of people were kept from gaining new light and knowledge on these subjects. Not only does this stifle scientific progress, and the resulting quality-of-life gains that science and technology produce. This kind of intolerance and closed-mindedness is also detrimental to our own spiritual wellbeing. As I learn more about God's creation through science, I feel closer to him as I grow in my appreciation of his works. Those who refuse to open their eyes and look up can hardly appreciate the beauty of a sunset, or the wonder of a starlit night sky. That is essentially what people are missing when they refuse to look at the scientific evidence. They are missing out on a significant portion of the beauty of God's creation.
The contradictions that Medieval Christians saw between the Bible and the Copernican view were every bit as real as the contradictions that modern Christians see between the Bible and evolution... How do we know that Christian's Bible-based arguments against evolution aren't going to look just as ridiculous as Luther's argument against the heliocentric model?
How do we know that Christian's Bible-based arguments against evolution aren't going to look just as ridiculous as Luther's argument against the heliocentric model? Is it possible that we are making the same mistake as Luther? Will later generations quote us as a way to make our whole religion seem outdated or obsolete? Actually this is already happening. We cannot help the cause of Christianity by turning a blind eye to science. We are not defending the faith, we are waging unwinnable wars and opening the door to well-deserved ridicule.
With the exception of Richard Dawkins, every scientist with whom I have become acquainted has no interest in disproving the Bible.
The strength of Christianity lies in its message of redemption for wayward souls; its gospel of hope for those who have been beaten down by a hard life, or felt the sting of death; its ensign of peace for a world that is weary with war; its standard of love and compassion for all of God's creations - which is the only balm capable of healing the sadness, the hate, the injustice, and the suffering that is endured every day by God's children around the world. It is these messages that will keep Christianity credible and relevant in the 21st century. The anti-science message is a waste of breath, or worse. Metaphorically speaking, we have to stop persecuting Galileo. (1) because it is morally wrong to persecute people for their beliefs, (2) because it is morally wrong to fight against the truth, (3) because its just terrible PR for Christianity, and (4) because we are missing out on the joy of scientific discovery and the wonder of scientific enquiry. Do we really need more reasons than this?
*I should note that most members of the scientific community of the day rejected the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, and Bruno (at least publicly). In light of this, I suppose one could argue that this really never was a debate between the scientific and religious communities. The more important point to understand, however, is that there were no separate scientific and religious communities. These things were all wrapped up with one another. And the scientists of the day approached the subject of astronomy with preconcieved notions largely derived from the ideas of prominent theologians. Then, of course, if someone had an original thought that ran contrary to accepted Church teachings, they were intimidated into silence. Religion may not have been the only thing that prevented astronomers from seeing the heliocentric light. It is always difficult to chart your own course apart from the conventional wisdom (whatever the roots of society's conventions). Still, I think it's safe to say that fundamentalist religious interpretation was the main factor that prevented people from seeing the light. After all, it was a religious institution that burned Bruno at the stake.
*Robert B. Downs, Books That Changed the World, 173-185.