New Galileo book raises religious, science issues

DALLAS (Reuters Life!) - The current struggles between religion and science in areas such as evolution and “intelligent design” are thrown into sharp relief in a new book about the Italian astronomer Galileo and his trial by the Roman Inquisition.

Author Dan Hofstadter described the Galileo affair as “the great religion-science clash of 1633 that in some form has persisted into our time.”

The focus of the trial was the scientist’s embrace of the Copernican view that the Earth revolves around the sun - a view informed by the observations Galileo made with his famous telescope.

Christians had been ordered not to teach or promote the Copernican take on the solar system. It was essentially for this reason that Galileo found himself in hot water with the clerical establishment.

Hofstadter spoke with Reuters about his book “The Earth Moves: Galileo and the Roman Inquisition,” and the relevance of this 17th century episode today.

Q: You describe Galileo’s trial as the “the great religion-science clash of 1633 that in some form has persisted into our own time.” Can you elaborate?

A: “It has persisted into our own time in two ways. First the whole question of what a scientific theory is was raised at that time and it has been raised again by those who support intelligent design. It’s essentially the same quarrel.

“The other point is that although Pope John Paul II said in 1992 that it was the error of the theologians of the time to think that, and I’m quoting now, ‘our understanding of the world’s physical structure was imposed by the literal sense of sacred scripture’, the current Pope, Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger said in March of 1990 that the church was more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and went on to claim strangely that geocentricism, the idea that the Earth is at the center of the solar system, was correct.

“That’s a very odd notion to claim nowadays. For that reason ... professors at the University of La Sapienza in Rome brought a protest letter in January of 2008 to Benedict XVI and cancelled his visit. So this whole issue has blown up again and it’s analogous to the controversy over evolution in many ways.”

Q: You raised the intelligent design movement, which critics contend is creationism by another name. On this topic, one would be hard pressed to find a fundamentalist Christian in the United States today who does not accept that the Earth revolves around the sun, but many reject out of hand evolution. Why do you think that is the case?

A. “People, of course, accept the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun but many, and not only in the United States but in a great many countries, surprisingly find themselves unable to accept the theory of evolution.

“The similarity here between what happened with the edict in 1616 against Copernicanism and the struggle against the Church of England’s rejection of Darwinism in the 1860s, which in some sense persists worldwide to this day, the similarity has to with the failure to understand the notion of a scientific theory, and the inability to understand what it is to perceive nature, to know nature, which was really very understandable in 1616 ... But (it) is much harder to understand or sympathize with now ... The creationists do not understand the notion of a hypothesis.”

Q: How do you think Galileo would react to today’s conflicts between religion and science?

A. “I think he would react to (it) in much the same way as he did to the conflict then ... Galileo’s response was to say that the aim of scripture is not to teach science but to teach salvation.”