Home > Cosmology, History > Was Galileo Persecuted By Religion?

Was Galileo Persecuted By Religion?

Yesterday I recounted our reasons for homeschooling and briefly described the two primary history books we are using.  I generally agree with Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World more than V.M. Hillyer’s A Child’s History of the World, which was written almost a century ago.  But yesterday we read Bauer’s version of the story of Copernicus and Galileo.  I was very disappointed to find that Bauer has bought into the view that Galileo represents the hero of science standing up against the villian of the dogmatic and anti-intellectual church.  And most people would probably agree with her.  Personally I think we’ve been sold a bill-of-goods.  Though it is a convenient myth for those who would attack the Christian faith, Galileo’s trial was not about the conflict between science and religion any more than OJ’s trial was about racism toward an African-American.  Bauer describes the story this way:

Galileo was ordered to repent of his mistaken ideas.  And he wanted to obey the church.  So he agreed to say that the sun could be going around the earth.  Even though he believed the church to be wrong, he was unwilling to say in public that the leaders of his faith were making a mistake.  But he did write a book about three imaginary scientists having an argument.  One insisted that the earth was at the center of the universe.  The second insisted that the sun was at the center.  And the third scholar listend to both and asked questions.

When this book was published, church leaders asked Galileo, “Why are you supporting the theory of Copernicus?”  Galileo protested, “I’m not!  I didn’t say which theory was true.  I jsut described each one!”  But his book was also added to the list of books that Catholics should not read.

There are three problems with this telling of Galileo’s story, problems I was first made aware of in Philip J. Sampson’s 6 Modern Myths (IVP, 2001).  First, the main problem with Copernicus and Galileo was not that they were going against church teaching, but that they went against the prevailing Aristotlean geocentrism.  Through the theology of Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Catholic church accepted most of Aristotle’s teachings, including metaphysics and cosmology.  But it was really the scientific establishment that looked disfavorably on Galileo’s attack on Aristotle’s views.  The scientific consensus of the time was that heliocetrism was simply a feeble attempt to resurrect Pythagorean views that had long before been discredited.  Rather than reading Galileo’s story as an example of religion vs. science, it would be more accurate to read it as an example of one scientific paradigm vs. another paradigm along the lines of Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific progress.

Second, as any other real-life situation, there were lots of factors involved in banning Galileo’s book.  The primary reasons were political.  The first scientist in Galileo’s book, the one that held to a geocentric view, was essentially a straw man of Pope Urban VIII.  Galileo put cheap versions of Urban’s arguments into this scientist’s mouth, only to have them crushed by the scientist that supported heliocentrism.  The banning of Galileo was about the pope silencing a personal attack, not an attack on religion.  In fact, the pope granted that Galileo had made some good observations.

Third, it was Galileo, not the church, that pushed the issue of reconciling heliocentrism with the Bible.  The issue was not the heliocentrism conflicted with biblical theology, but that Galileo insisted putting forth untraditional interpretations of scripture in light of his experience.  Today we might accuse him of eisegesis, or reading into the text what he wanted to be there instead of what the text actually said.  In post-reformation Roman Catholicism, it seemed quite like a heretical Protestant hermeneutic.  Thus the story of Galileo exemplifies anti-Protestant polemic at least as much as it does anti-intellectualism.

Categories: Cosmology, History
  1. zeynel
    November 17, 2008 at 6:39 am

    “I was very disappointed to find that Bauer has bought into the view that Galileo represented the hero of science standing up against the villain of the dogmatic and anti-intellectual church.

    Galileo’s trial was not about the conflict between science and religion. . .

    The main problem with Copernicus and Galileo was not that they were going against church teaching, but that they went against the prevailing Aristotelian geocentrism.

    Through the theology of Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Catholic church accepted most of Aristotle’s teachings, including metaphysics and cosmology.

    Thanks for writing about this. I agree with all of the above. I believe that Galileo was turned into a hero of physics by Newtonian physicists who wrote their version of history and has been marketing it as truth.

    But what can we do to change this mythology?

  2. November 17, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    No problem. I get probably one to two searches coming to this post a week, so I’d like to think that in some small way I am doing my part. I like to think that’s what blogging is all about. You and others can spread the word by blogging more about it.

    Of course I wouldn’t object if you would perhaps like to link to me here.

  3. jiim young
    April 26, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Are you a f—ing idiot? Trying to apologize for the disgrace of the church. You are next going to chime in with Hannity and Limbaugh and tell us that McCarthy was just a good American who was trying to save us from communism with a brief case of Whiskey, Or that FDR really started the GD and only ww2 pulled us out, by the way for all you idiots who say FDRs government spending did not help the GD, WW2 was nothing more than MASIVE GOVERNEMNT SPENDING!!!!! So the next time you tards say FDR did not help by spending government $ but ww2 saved us, it was only because the Government bought tanks, and planes, and hired millions to put on the uniform. So your idiot banter is as usual meaningless except for being red meat to the room temp. IQs.

  4. May 22, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    Sooo… are you trying to say you disagree? Please don’t be so guarded with your opinions.

  5. Arceb Ulned
    March 16, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    I know this is an old thread but I have a fair question:

    Can you clear up these contradictions for me — it’s honestly some of the few things that keeps me into the mindset that what you’ve stated is in fact a revision of history while claiming history was revised.

    1. The Bible OT and NT make direct claims even in Rev that the Earth has four points… now the argument around this is that the Bible was meant for the bronze age people but this is in Rev and is post Hellenistic and accepted by the Greek Orthodoxy.

    2. Why did the Pope apologize for the persecution of Galileo (I think it was Paul) and why did the church even put him on Trial if it was the scientific community even more so the secular scientific community that objected to his claim?

  6. April 12, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Arceb, sorry for the delay. I don’t mind you commenting on an old thread, but I’m not always on the ball to comment right away.

    First off, let me say that I write as an interested amature, not a studied scholar on the matter. Second, I don’t have any particularly vested interest in being right on this. I wrote this post because I believe it is true, but I would have no problem “recanting” if the received view is correct and I have been mislead. With that said, here are my responses to the points you bring up.

    1. Be careful about reading the book of Revelation too literally. Apocalyptic literature is intended to be understood symbolically, much like reading a political cartoon today. But also, beware of over-literalizing a figure of speech even in non-symbolic literature. We all speak regularly about the sun “rising” without thinking that such language commits us to a geocentric worldview. But most importantly, the church was not committed to a flat-earth reading of this text (or others like it). The quintessential Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 1200s that, “the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round.” (Summa I-I.1.1)

    2. On my view, Pope John Paul II was right to apologize for the church’s treatment of Galileo. They had persecuted him unjustly. My point is that Aristotelianism and political concerns were the primary reasons for condemning Galileo, NOT something inherent in religion against science. I also argued above that the main problem with Galileo’s writings in the eyes of the church was not his heliocentrism, but his efforts to read his heliocentrism into the Biblical texts.

    • Arceb Ulned
      July 26, 2011 at 1:36 pm

      I see, well thank you for the reply.

      So in reverse:

      2. It wasn’t the secularists but rather the religious operating under sociopolitical pretenses which by extension makes their agenda secular motivated and not religiously.

      1. Yes, so but what was cannon as an explanation by the church at that time for things like gravity and the cosmos were essentially geocentric ideas which were irreconcilable with the heliocentric perspective of the time. In fact the proper way to answer the question of why we don’t fly off the earth to the moon back then would have been: “because god holds us here.” A constant supernatural assumption later discovered as unnecessary by Newton through the efforts of Galileo. Further I would think that by my stating that I viewed those books to be made for bronze age eyes I would give away that the metaphors were being considered through a similar thought.

      Extension: For example the seven headed beast not being a reference to an actual beast but to the Roman empires conquest of the Philistines as at the times the Latins were culturally identifiable by the seven hills of Rome. So I don’t believe context evades me here. Anyway thanks for the response.

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