Dividing Lines

As I travel from book store to book store in cities around the country, I find that my talk of Copernicus's Sun-centered cosmos quickly raises questions about the relationship between science and religion. Last week in New Hampshire a pamphleteer deemed Copernicus's ideas "anti-God." This week a Denver resident attacked science more broadly, bringing evolution into the discussion of heavenly revolutions. Copernicus himself conceded he feared censure from people who might twist scripture to discredit him. As a canon of the Catholic church, he could hardly have considered his own theory irreligious. Rather, it was non-religious--separate from theology. As he declared in the opening pages of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, "Mathematics is written for mathematicians." At the same time, he bowed to an omnipotent creator. "Thus vast," he wrote later in that same book, "is the divine handiwork of the most excellent Almighty."

Nothing in Copernicus's faith prevented him from trying to understand natural philosophy on its own terms. Nor from insisting that faith alone was insufficient for probing the mysteries of the universe. Galileo, another Catholic, shared that conviction, quoting a quip by a cardinal friend of his: "The Bible is a book about how to go to Heaven--not how the heavens go."

Kepler, who was so true to his Lutheran faith that he moved to another town to avoid forced conversion, agreed with Copernicus and Galileo on questions of science and religion. Kepler warned against "wantonly dragging the Holy Spirit into physics class."

An op-ed piece in The New York Times on Tuesday (October 18), "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason," added a valuable current perspective on science and religion. Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens-- a physicist and a historian, both affiliated with Eastern Nazarene College--rue the anti-intellectual rhetoric of most Republican presidential candidates. As men of faith, the authors distance themselves from fundamentalists who insist the Bible trumps all other sources of information. "When the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas," they write, "we must not be afraid to speak out."

Last night (October 19) in Milwaukee, I found another hopeful sign during the event Boswell Book Company arranged for me at Discovery World Museum. A man asked me to inscribe a copy of my book for his brother: "To Peter, who follows science and respects faith." I was happy to do it.