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.