The Politics of Evolution and Creation: A Look Back to Galileo

Justus Sustermans – Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1636

Back in the spring of 2009, Conservative Minister for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear, a conservative Christian, was asked by The Globe and Mail whether he believed in evolution. When he expressed reluctance to answer the question on religious grounds, then subsequently proclaimed belief in evolution (albeit unconventionally defined), critics were quick to sound the alarm. Though the Prime Minister’s spokesperson assured the media that creationism was not part of the government agenda, at least a few scientific leaders were aghast at the possibility that the politician in charge of setting the course for Canadian scientific research might deny the theory of evolution.

Watching the controversy unfold reminded me immediately of a letter sent some four hundred years ago by the famous scientist Galileo Galilei (photo (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons) to Grand Duchess Christiana of Tuscany. It’s a letter I use regularly in several history courses to illustrate the relationship between natural science and revealed religion during the period of the Scientific Revolution, and I thought it spoke fairly directly to the Goodyear creation-evolution brouhaha.

Feeling especially brave (foolhardy?), I wrote an op-ed piece for The Calgary Herald, which they published on March 22, 2009. Though the political controversy around Minister of State Goodyear’s stance on evolution soon died down, many conservative Christians continue to feel a great deal of tension about the relationship between their faith and science.

Here again is the article:

Goodyear and Galileo

By Kyle Jantzen, For the Calgary Herald

Published: March 22, 2009

Gary Goodyear, Conservative member of Parliament for Cambridge, Ont., and secretary of state for science and technology, finds himself in the middle of a public controversy over his religious convictions and the extent to which he may or may not believe in creation, evolution or some combination of the two.

On the one hand, Goodyear’s defenders assert that asking a government minister about his Christian beliefs amounts to an attack on religious faith (a “witch-hunt”?), even while admitting that Goodyear’s response was somewhat confusing and that his attempts to clarify have only muddied the waters. They have also pointed out that Goodyear would not likely have been asked that question if he were a Jew or liberal Protestant rather than a conservative Christian. On the other hand, Goodyear’s opponents have argued that the personal scientific opinions of the secretary of state for science and technology are entirely relevant to the manner in which he manages his portfolio, and that Goodyear should be expected to wholeheartedly endorse an evolutionary perspective on science.

Goodyear might have learned from Galileo Galilei, the 17th-century Italian astronomer who ran afoul of the Roman Catholic Church on account of his heliocentric view of the universe. (The Church subscribed to an Aristotelian geocentric view.) Accused of heresy, Galileo was placed under house arrest. His writings were then banned, including the Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, which had originally been published with the support of the pope. Since that famous trial, Galileo has grown into one of the primary witnesses trotted out in the ongoing debate between creationists and evolutionists, cited as proof positive that Christian faith and scientific truth are mutually exclusive, even contradictory notions.

History, however, tells a different story — one which Goodyear would do well to read. Galileo was neither a raving atheist nor even an agnostic who had no use for God in the midst of his relentless scientific quest to explain the physical universe. Rather, he was a loyal son of the Church who respected not only science and reason, but also faith and revelation.

In a 1615 letter to Christiana, the grand duchess of Tuscany, Galileo explained his views on the relationship between science and the Bible. His starting point was the problem of explaining the biblical passages that seem to suggest that the Earth does not move — a key point to be overcome if the geocentric view of the universe was to be displaced by a heliocentric view. Galileo asserted that both the Bible and Nature (understood according to scientific methods) were sources of truth given by God. As such, they could never contradict each other, since God was consistent and would not speak out two different versions of truth.

The problem, according to Galileo, was that the Bible was frequently hard to understand and necessitated interpretations which appeared at times to differ from the “bare meaning of the words.” Nature, on the other hand, was “inexorable and immutable,” never deviating from its laws. Thus, whenever dealing with questions relating to the physical universe, Galileo advocated looking first to science (“sense experiences and necessary demonstrations”) and only afterward to Holy Scripture.

That said, the famous astronomer still held the Bible in high esteem, pointing out that science could not explain many mysteries of life. In these matters, he asserted, our only hope for understanding was the direct revelation of divine truth through the Holy Spirit in the form of Scripture.

“But,” as Galileo concluded, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”

Such an intellectual approach might help Goodyear and other religiously minded leaders tasked with engaging the world of science and technology. Indeed, there are distinct advantages for someone in Goodyear’s role to combine religious faith and scientific reason. As Canadians, we’re probably better off with a secretary for science and technology who does not subscribe to an unchecked faith in the powers of science. All too often, the wonderful improvements in human life produced by scientific research and applied technology have come with partially hidden costs left unconsidered by an excited public or its government regulators. We need only to remind ourselves of the negative environmental impact produced by our uninhibited adoption of 19th-century industrial technologies to remember that all scientific progress comes with a price attached.

People with strong religious convictions, who regularly consider their lives in relation to an external moral code, are the most likely to recognize the need for careful debate about the many ethical quandaries generated by the current state and future potential of scientific discovery. From genetic manipulation to the increasing control we posses over the beginning and end of human life, our society is in greater need than ever of an open discussion about the limits within which science should work on behalf of our legitimate human needs (though not, perhaps, in support of our wildest utopian dreams). Political leaders with religious faith and a willingness to participate in democratic debate are a tremendous asset in navigating these ethical minefields, so that we can make decisions about science that are good for all Canadians. As secretary of state for science and technology, Gary Goodyear the Christian should both champion scientific research and facilitate public debate about its potential impact for good and ill.

Science and religion are not opposed to one another, and it is perfectly acceptable to hold strong convictions about the creative role of a God who brings order out of chaos and the functional role of natural selection within an evolutionary understanding of the natural world. It’s just too bad Goodyear couldn’t explain that as well as Galileo.

KYLE JANTZEN, PHD, IS ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AT AMBROSE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE IN CALGARY

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald 2009

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