On the myth of science vs religion

John Lennox revisits two iconic incidents: Galileo and the Huxley-Wilberforce debate.



John Lennox revisits two iconic incidents: Galileo and the Huxley-Wilberforce debate.


I do believe when you take a balanced view – I’m not an expert historian of science, but I’ve read quite a lot about this – that on balance, Christianity as such, that is, the doctrines of Christianity, were an enormous stimulus to science. I think when this question often arises, people immediately say, but half a minute, look at the way the church treated Galileo, look at the infamous Huxley-Wilberforce debate in Oxford. But the very interesting thing is, when you examine these two iconic incidents, as historians of science have done, you find a very different story.

For instance, people talk about Galileo as if he were some atheist and the church was so obscurantist they ignored what he was saying and in suggesting that the earth moved this was absolutely desperate, because the Bible taught that the earth stands still. Now the interest of that is that, number one, Galileo was a believer in God before all this started, and he was a believer in God when it finished.

 Number two, Galileo was not first attacked by the Catholic Church, he was first attacked by the Italian philosophers, because in claiming that the earth moved, Galileo was treading on the toes of Aristotle. And Aristotle for centuries had been dominant in Europe, in teaching that the earth was fixed in space. The church had jumped on the Aristotelian bandwagon because they felt that the Bible supported Aristotle. And here’s the irony. Here was Galileo, who did actually believe the Bible, who was challenging a reigning philosophical and scientific paradigm on the back of which the church had jumped. So it’s completely false to suggest that this was the church, first of all, being obscurantist and challenging Galileo. The philosophers, all the experts, agreed with the church, because they’d been there first with Aristotle. So that’s the first completely distorted image we get. 

Thirdly, Galileo was not the wisest of men. First of all, he wasn’t good at PR. He wrote a book where he put the arguments he was refuting, and the arguments of his erstwhile friend who was now the pope, into the mouth of a man whom he called Simplicius, the fool. Well that wasn’t calculated to make him friends. Then, he insisted on writing in Italian when everybody knew at the time that the best language to write science in was Latin. And then, this was at the time of the reformers, when sympathy was being shown to Copernicus and so on. So there were huge social, theological, all kinds of other issues – but the conclusion of that is that scholars are agreed that the one thing you cannot use the Galileo story for is to say there’s an essential conflict between science and religion. Galileo’s Daughter is a very interesting book by Dava Sobel that is well worth reading on this.

And then you come to the Huxley-Wilberforce debate, which took place just a few hundred metres from where we’re sitting at the moment. And there again, the descriptions of it do not match the historical reality. This was “Darwin’s bulldog”, Thomas Henry Huxley, who was acting, so to speak, as the defender or proclaimer of evolutionary theory. And the story goes that Wilberforce was an ignorant cleric who used theological arguments to bash Huxley and so on. But if you read the actual report of the event, which I have done, you discover that Darwin himself said, he has discovered – of Wilberforce, he’s discovered all the weak points of my argument.

But the most interesting thing to read is Wilberforce’s own writings, that … it’s available. And right near the beginning he said, I’m not going to use theological arguments. I’m not going to stoop to that, I’m going to use scientific arguments. So that’s another complete misreading. And the only record I think that remains of it said the honours were about equal between the duelling partners. Now that’s not the impression people have. 

The real situation was, Huxley wanted to get rid of amateur clerics meddling in natural science, even though some of them were utterly brilliant, like Wilberforce. And he wanted a church scientific, you know, and the worship of the goddess Sophia and all this kind of stuff. And he and his followers presented a totally distorted thing. So that, for instance, Colin Russell, who headed up the History of Science department at the Open University here in the United Kingdom, said that these are caricatures, and what needs to be explained as to how these stories possibly came into being and were used to give the public the idea that science and religion … we must not use these stories anymore. 

And so there’s a lot of very important historical work has been done in showing that what seems to be an iconic case of Christianity being obscurantist and meddling with science is not true. Now that’s not to say there’ve been no spats and so on. But, you know, Alfred North Whitehead wrote about this, and I think it was he who said that in 1500 Europe knew less science than Archimedes did centuries before, but by 1700 Newton’s Principia Mathematica had been written. 200 years of vast explosion – what is that to be attributed to? And he said the medieval insistence of the rationality of God as creator.

And Calvin, Melvin Calvin who won the Nobel prize for biochemistry, I think, said as I look back and try to think about this fundamental idea that’s central to all of science, this intelligibility of the universe, I trace it back to an idea discovered (as he puts it) by the ancient Hebrews, and that lies at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. So I think that although there will be individuals who will of course be obscurantist, the actual tradition at the highest level has supported the development of science in a very big way.