God and Galileo: What a 400-year-old letter teaches us about faith and science is an interesting, slightly muddled book looking at the intersection of faith and science. The authors, David Block and Kenneth Freeman, are both Christians and respected astronomers*, and they take as their starting point the heliocentrism that Galileo confirmed and his subsequent trial for heresy. In particular, they look at his work Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina and what it says about both Scripture and science.
The book opens with an account of Galileo’s discovery and the specific points at which it contradicted established church doctrine that the Earth was fixed in place, which I found helpful, as I’ve never completely understood what the issue was. More importantly, the authors set this in the context of the political and theological upheaval that was occurring at the time. In the early seventeenth century, the Reformation was sweeping through Europe, challenging the huge power of the Roman Catholic church. In particular, the translation of Scripture into the vernacular and the role of the papacy were being considered in depth. The pope and other senior figures within the church felt that, if Galileo’s discoveries were allowed to become adopted as the norm, it would further undermine the authority of the church. The lack of support for Galileo’s discovery stems from that much more than it stemmed from deeply-held beliefs about the earth being fixed in place. The authors make the point, as well, that the church’s insistance on geocentrism was drawn much more from Aristotle than from the Scriptures, so they really were just too worried about being seen to change their minds. The Reformation and the scientific revolution, taken together, just posed too much of a threat.
I also enjoyed a more nuanced look at Galileo. He’s been taken up as a great hero of the scientific revolution – which he was – but I’ve also seen him heralded as a kind of atheist icon, which can lead to people assuming that his beliefs were much more liberal than they were. For example, he was deeply opposed to the translation of the Bible into the language of the people (be it English, German, whatever), because he felt that common people were simply too stupid to understand and it would unsettle them. He appeared to feel pretty similarly about people having access to scientific information. It is also plain from the letter that Galileo held strong Catholic beliefs. He quotes heavily from Augustine, one of the most famous early Christian thinkers, and Galileo himself draws repeatedly on Scripture when trying to make his point. I’ve really never known anything about him except for his proof of heliocentrism (previously proposed by Copernicus), and his trial. Galileo is an important figure in both church history and the history of science, so I am glad I got a chance to know him better.
After this point, the book fell off its perch a little bit. The whole way through, I was wondering who the intended audience was, and this feeling got more pronounced as the book progressed. The historical stuff about the intersection of science and faith, along with the political context in which this particular series of incidents took place, would draw in anyone with an interest in but not much knowledge of the events – fine. That was interesting and done well. The oft-repeated thesis that the book of nature and the book of Scripture are never in conflict because they have the same author – again, fine, though they don’t actually provide proofs of their statement, or unpack it very much. That assertion – that a perceived conflict between science and Scripture means that one or the other is being misunderstood – is one of my core beliefs. However, if I had been less sure of it (on either side), I can’t say I would have found their arguments compelling, because they don’t really articulate them. And then their demonstration that scientism has become a belief system largely divorced from the scientific method, in which people are taking things purely on faith – again, I agree, but I’ve seen it done better, including by people who are not scientists. Marilynne Robinson touches on it in some of her essays, for example. If it’s aimed at challenging the kind of scientists who obnoxiously belittle people of faith for believing in “sky fairies” while wholeheartedly getting behind multiverse theory, why on earth was it released through a Christian publisher?
The test I tend to use for a book like God and Galileo is this: if a friend of a different faith or none was interested in the topic, would I lend them this? Would it articulate something novel and helpful, in a way that wouldn’t either insult their intelligence or rely on substantial existing knowledge of Scripture? Would the resulting conversation leave both of us understanding the other person’s viewpoint better? I really don’t think this book meets any part of the test, so I hesitate to recommend it. If you have a strong existing interest in the relationship between faith and science, or you want some more information about the historical context of Galileo’s scientific discovery and trial, this might be for you. Otherwise, I’d give it a miss.
*According to the blurb and their job titles, at least. I don’t know anything about astronomy.