December 21, 2000 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Galileo's Daughter

On this day, December 21, 1614, a Florentine priest from the church of Santa Maria Novella took to his pulpit to denounce Italian astronomer Galileo as one of the "enemies of true religion." Galileo's crime: He dared to suggest that, based on what he could see through his crude, homemade telescope, the earth was not at the center of the solar system.

That discovery contradicted official teaching of the Catholic Church and set off a contest between religion and science that continues to this day.

Dava Sobel's best-selling book, Galileo's Daughter, explores Galileo's scientific quest and his painful conflict with religious dogma. Church inquisitors forced him to recant his views, a reminder that Christian leaders often have betrayed their own principles for dark and dubious reasons.

Nevertheless, this familiar story is more than a tale of church politics run amok. Sobel's account rightly underscores Galileo's own religious beliefs, and his lifelong struggle to hold on to them. It will come as a surprise to some that Galileo saw no conflict between the Bible and the discoveries of science. "Holy Scripture and Nature," he declared, "are both emanations from the divine word."

Lost in our contemporary debates over the Bible is the fact that thinkers like Galileo strove to keep science a sacred study. Bacon, Kepler, Copernicus, Pascal-most of the fathers of modern science took the Bible seriously. Their belief in a rational Creator fired their quest to make sense of the physical world. Their faith in God as a Lawgiver guided their search for natural laws that governed the universe. Isaac Newton never doubted that his discoveries revealed God's handiwork. The universe, he reasoned, "could only proceed from the counsel…of an intelligent and powerful Being."

Too many skeptics have forgotten the massive historical debt they owe to the Jewish and Christian belief in an orderly cosmos: They cast religion as the enemy of science and progress, when in fact it was a religious world view that helped launch the scientific revolution over three centuries ago.

Science is surely a path to knowledge about the universe, but not until recently did scientists hail it as the only path. True, the idea that angels might make public-service announcements or that God would appear in human disguise-to many it seems like the stuff of supermarket tabloids. But as Galileo said in another context, "Facts which at first seem improbable will…drop the cloak which has hidden them and stand forth in naked and simple beauty."

Science may begin the task of pulling away that cloak, but scientists do no injury to science if they sometimes-just sometimes-allow faith to finish the job.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Originally aired on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" (12/21/00)