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"Religion vs. Science?" with Dr. Lynn Mitchell
Jul 1, 2009

Lynn Mitchell PhD is a Professor of Religious Studies, the director of A.D. Bruce Religion Center at the University of Houston. He has been teaching a course entitled “The Bible and Modern Science” for the last nine years. The lecture notes of the course will soon be published. We talked with Dr. Mitchell about the history of the relationship of science and religion.

M&B: Dr. Mitchell, you have been teaching your course on the Bible and Modern Science for the last nine years. Could we start with the contents of this course and why you were interested in teaching it?

Dr. Mitchell: I've been teaching this advanced course in the religious studies minor since 2000, and it's been a longtime interest for me. Since I started teaching at universities in 1974, I have included a study of the relationship between science and the Bible in almost all of my courses because I think that is probably the least understood controversy.

With the attempt to have a little epistemological humility-that is, I am not a scientist, I don't claim to be a trained scientist-I am not trying to convert anybody, whether they are atheist or Christian to any particular point of view. My primary approach to this topic is to help both Christians and atheists to read the Bible because I think a lot of the confusion and a lot of the controversy about science and the Bible is the result of somebody not sitting down and explaining to people how to read the Bible. This debate is very heated in America. It splits families, it splits schools, and it splits churches.

So the course is unashamedly an attempt to help people incorporate what they are learning about science with their Christian faith, or with their faith, whatever it is. In a sense I lean in the opposite direction to some of the science teachers, in that many of them tend to lean toward mocking or making fun of the faith of people who believe, for instance, some of the more recent writers like Dawkins and Hitchens. I feel my job is to be a person on the campus who offsets that influence. So, first of all I focus on how to read the Bible. But the importance of learning how to read the Bible arises because the history of science in Europe and in the United States has been based on a conception of what science is and what faith is and how to relate the two which is really not based on knowledge; it's just based on some poorly known incidents between Galileo and the Church.

M&B: Historical experiences?

Dr. Mitchell: Yes, historical experiences. One of the things I read when I was at Rice University was W.T. Stace's Religion and the Modern Mind. The conclusion he came to is one that I think is very important for people to know-that among the basic things that were discovered in the Scientific Revolution, there was nothing which should have had the slightest tendency to either prove or disprove faith, or even the existence of God. So, the fact that in the West, there was an Age of Faith, followed by an Age of Reason, then an Age of Unbelief is not for any scientific reason. It's because of a psychological transition that took place, or because people misunderstood what was really discovered in the Scientific Revolution.

The modern conception, or the modern myth, is that Christianity and other religions just went along through the Middle Ages being totally ignorant of science, which of course is a historical nonsense. If they had been totally ignorant of science, there never would have been a Scientific Revolution. People believe that science was actually suppressed so much by the Middle Ages that it took an explosion of unbelief in order for modern science to develop. So, I make sure that people understand that all of the revolutionaries of modern science were religious believers and the idea that somehow some atheist dropped out of the sky and won the battle with the Church is nonsense. There was no battle between science and the Christian faith in history. The only battle was a battle that occurred among Christians about how the Bible should be read in the light of modern discoveries. And that continued for a long time.

M&B: What was the nature of the conflict that occurred between Galileo and the Catholic Church?

Dr. Mitchell: The battle within the Catholic Church was not primarily over the Bible or over faith; it was a political battle based on the fact that the Catholic Church knew that it was then losing its hold over the entire Christian faith and was also losing its control primarily over political power.

That's what scared them, and so when they talked about being afraid of what Galileo said, it wasn't primarily because they necessarily disagreed with it. It was because of their fear of the confusion that it would cause among the faithful, the Christians who were not well-educated. But they obviously could not hold that back. It was going to burst. But a part of the Roman Catholic church, a very small part of the Roman Catholic church, namely the Pope and the Office of the Inquisition, treated Galileo very badly. There are some things that people need to know about Galileo, and one is that he was a very ornery person, very difficult to get along with. That's one of the reasons they had a problem with him. The Pope was a friend of his and didn't necessarily disagree with him; he just thought that he was being obnoxious. Galileo would never recognize the description of him as this giant anti-Christian, anti-faith person who stood up to the Church and the Church punished him for it. He considered himself to be a good Catholic, he considered himself to be in conformity with all basic Catholic doctrine. The only reason he wrote was to try to show Catholic people that they did not have to reject the new knowledge that was coming about. Not only that, the main battle was not over the Bible; it was over Aristotle. The Pope and the Inquisition did not try to punish Galileo because he was a Christian or a Catholic or because of the Bible. They tried to punish him because he was too hastily critiquing and trying to do away with Aristotle, and Aristotle had become the scientific philosophy of the medieval Church. Now, Aristotle is not a Christian, and I take a little time to point that out. So, they were fighting about Aristotle's view of the universe, not the biblical view because the Bible doesn't have a scientific description of what the universe is. That's the reason why we Christians, just like Muslims, started working on science; they adopted Aristotle because Aristotle was the scientist, and Ptolemy too. One of the main points I'm trying to get across is that there never has, in the history of the world, been a battle between Christianity and science.

Also, I like to remind people that Copernicus was published by the Church, and that Galileo was published by the Church. There was nobody else to publish their works. Indeed, the foreword to Copernicus was written by the Pope-though a different Pope than Galileo's. There is no doubt that there were ignorant people and hostile people, but they were all Catholics arguing. It wasn't science versus faith. The same thing happened with Protestantism, as science in the west was transferred primarily through Protestants because the people in England and Holland and places like that who carried on the scientific tradition were the Puritans. The Puritans were the ones who carried science forward. In other words, to put it bluntly, science is a gift of religious people to the modern world. Religious people should know that so that they do not think that they have to be reactionary. In fact, we don't ordinarily think that way. I would say a good portion of the people who teach science, and even philosophy, at the universities in the area where I live are faithful people.

Now, as for specific areas that Galileo dealt with, he told some folks, for instance, that he had a telescope that could see that there are more than seven planets. According to the story, Archbishop Bellarmine refused to look through it because the Bible says there are only seven planets. In fact, the Bible doesn't discuss the subject. It was Aristotle who said there were only seven planets. Again, that was a fight between Galileo and Aristotle. But some of the Bible people would throw out things like a passage in the Book of Joshua which is taken from a poem from the Book of the Wars which we don't have. The only thing we have from this book are quotations like the one in Joshua, and it's poetry. In this poem in the Book of Joshua, it says that the sun stood still in the valley of Aijalon, and then Joshua was able to complete his battle against the enemies of God. Well, some of the Bible people said, "Well, that's just absolute scientific proof that the sun moves around the earth." But there were a lot of medieval theologians who knew that wasn't the way you should interpret the Bible. So, Galileo did a lot of speaking on that subject when he wrote his letters to defend his case, particularly his letter to the Grand Duchess.

A lot of people today think that one of the things that bothered the Church at the time of Galileo was that they believed that the earth was flat. The Church did not believe the earth was flat at the time of Galileo or at the time of Columbus, but that's still the street talk. In fact, Thomas Aquinas knew of only one theologian in all of the history of the Church who argued that the earth was flat. Thomas Aquinas said that he was an ignoramus because Aquinas believed, as did Aristotle and Ptolemy, that the world was round. The picture many people have of medieval science is as if it were done by ignorant people and that in order for modern science to win they had to overcome the ignorance of all of these medieval scientists including those in Seville. But of course that's where Aquinas had gotten his science-from the Muslims in Andalusia. That's where he'd gotten his Aristotle. So the High Middle Ages was not the Dark Ages. That's a mistake lots of Americans make, including PhDs in universities, talking about the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages preceded the Middle Ages. And that was a dark age. But the High Middle Ages was not a dark age. It was an age of the most intense intellectual ferment in human history, and certainly in contrast to every place else in the world, except the Muslim world, where the same thing was going on. So, you see, those are ideas that I'm trying to let people know about. For instance, to explain that the idea that the sun stood still in the valley of Aswan is from a poem that's taken from a non-Biblical book.

M&B: How about the genealogy of Prophets in the Bible?

Dr. Mitchell: There is genealogy in the early part of the Bible, which treats genealogy as if it were chronology, which is all you can do if all you have is genealogy. They treated genealogy as chronology. All traditional cultures have these genealogies, but they cannot really be used as chronology. First of all, their purpose is different from chronology. Their purpose is to keep the genealogy or lineage. So, for instance, there are some genealogists in the Christian Bible that say, "Jesus was the son of David that was the son of Abraham." It's a genealogy. Obviously, it is not very complete.

M&B: So, by "son," it means "grandson"?

Dr. Mitchell: Yes, it means descendant-or an ancestor-but there are other considerations. If we consider the genealogies to be scientific chronologies, then we're still thinking of the Bible as primarily a scientific book. But, whether it's true or not, it became fairly accepted by Christian geologists and others in the nineteenth century that geology certainly seemed to say that the world was older than six thousand years. At that time they thought it was maybe 200,000 years old, and every few years since then it has been pushed back. But they did not consider that change a threat to their faith because they understood that the Bible was written for a different purpose. They understood that if we spend all of our time trying to make it concordant with scientific theories, first of all, the two will never be concordant because scientific theories change every generation. Second, it would mean that the people to whom these books were originally revealed could not possibly have understood them because they would be scientific books and science is not something they were interested in; it was not something that they could comprehend. So, that argument about the sun standing still did not last very long, and even most modern-day scientific creationists do not try to argue that that poem has to be taken as a literal scientific view. Otherwise, you'd have to do the same thing to the Psalms and so forth. In fact, there are several creation accounts in the Hebrew Bible that are different from the creation account in Genesis because they're for different purposes. In fact, all creation accounts are doxological; they are praise that God is the Only One-He is the One God, that the moon and the stars and the planets are not gods, that the animals are not gods, that human beings are not gods and so forth. Even though they are not gods, they are still good. So, that's what we should have been carrying on, instead of carrying on this debate about science-especially with these ridiculous stories that are added to it.

M&B: So, it's not right to read the Bible as a book of science to draw strict conclusions.

Dr. Mitchell: The point I want to make is that both Christian fundamentalists and atheistic fundamentalists are too uptight about this question, and that is detrimental to religious faith. Some people come into my office crying because they just learned that the earth is maybe more than six thousand years old, and they say, "Professor Mitchell, I'm losing my faith," and I say to them, "What do you mean you're losing your faith?"

"Well, the Bible says the earth is six thousand years old, and my professor says it's more than six thousand years old."

"Well, you've got a Bible," I tell them, "and I've got a Bible over there, so why don't you show me where it says that the earth is six thousand years old?"

What is changing is that you may be changing a belief, and that's not the same thing as losing your faith. You're changing a belief, and if you're a forty-year-old person of faith or a hundred-year-old person of faith, you shouldn't probably have all of exactly the same beliefs that you had when you were eighteen, and that's very important to people.

To the atheists, I want to say that they should learn a little bit about history and the philosophy of science and logic, and learn what faith is, so that they have a little bit more respect for people of faith, even if they are the extremists, because every time they write about something that is going on in a school district or whatever, they act like they're in a panic. That is, they seem to think that if we allow people to believe that human beings are the creation of God, science is lost. Well, the problem for that argument is that all of the people who were scientists up until their great grandfathers or their grandfathers were people who believe that human beings are the creation of God, and science didn't die.

Yuksel A. Aslandogan is the editor of Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World: The Contributions of the Gulen Movement.