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An Atheist Fable: Reopening the Galileo Case

Posted by Tony Listi on December 19, 2007

The following is drawn from Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity.

As historian Thomas Kuhn notes, there were lots of people who proposed and advocated the heliocentric theory, but they were ridiculed and ignored. The scientific data at that time and common sense were against Galileo Galilei of Florence. Most educated people held the geocentric view of Ptolemy, not the heliocentric one of Copernicus (who was never in bad standing with the Church and actually dedicated his 1543 book, in which he advanced his heliocentric theory, to the pope ).

Moreover, it is necessary to keep in mind that Galileo’s contribution to the heliocentric theory was significant but not decisive. His new, more powerful telescope and thus his new observations about the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, and the spots on the sun supported Copernican theory. The Jesuit astronomers agreed with the implications of his observations but did not think that they in themselves were enough to prove heliocentrism or shift the balance of evidence in its favor. (Yes, the Church funded and supported scientific research! In fact, there were several Church-sponsored observatories and universities.) Indeed, the greatest astronomer of the era, Tyco Brahe, agreed with the Jesuits that Galileo’s observations were insufficient. So great was Brahe’s reputation that it was only after his death that many astronomers converted to Copernicanism. Judging Galileo by the science of the time, he had theories but no substantial proof for them.

Would it surprise you to know that the pope and Cardinal Bellarmine, head of the Inquisition, were admirers of Galileo when he came to Rome in 1616? Galileo received much fanfare and a celebrity’s welcome with many receptions given by various cardinals and bishops.

Listen to what Cardinal Bellarmine had to say about Galileo’s heliocentric theory: “While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still, if there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe…and that the sun does not go around the earth but the earth around the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.” Wow, that sounds reasonable and sensible! The God of the Bible and the God of Reason are one and the same and cannot contradict each other.

Given the inconclusive evidence and religious sensitivities surrounding the issue, Cardinal Bellarmine issued an injunction to Galileo that he should not teach or promote this theory. Galileo agreed to this and obeyed for several years while continuing his experiments. But when Pope Urban VIII assumed the Office of Peter, Galileo thought he could be more open in his advocacy of heliocentrism because the new pope was a scientific progressive who had fought to keep Copernicus’s work from being placed in the index of prohibited books. The new pope was a fan of Galileo’s and actually wrote a poem eulogizing him. But while Urban thought science was very useful for earthly measurements, he did not think it could give knowledge that only God could know (I mean, how could a person of that time know for certain which astronomical body went around the other without a “God’s-eye view,” so to speak?).

Galileo published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. He claimed to have demonstrated the truth of heliocentrism mainly by way of explanation of the tides. The rapid motion of the earth around the sun caused the tides. (Today, of course, we know his “proof” to be dead wrong! The tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon, not the rotations or revolutions of the Earth.) There were several problems with the work. First, his tidal theory was questionable even at that time (science is not on solid ground when it uses one mystery to try to solve another). Second, he assumed that the planets moved in concentric circles, even though by that time Kepler had demonstrated that they have elliptical orbits. Third, Galileo embarrassed and mocked the pope in the work. It featured two characters in a dialogue in which one character represented Galileo himself and the other represented the pope. The pope character was named Simplicio, which means “simpleton” in Italian. Fourth, Galileo did not confine his thoughts and observation to the scientific realm. He ventured into theology arguing that the Bible is largely allegorical and required constant reinterpretation to determine its true meaning (As an aside, there is no “true” meaning to any such thing at all if it is to be constantly reinterpreted, especially if such interpretations are contradictory or semi-contradictory.). The Jesuits warned him not to wander into such speculations, but he rejected these admonitions. Lastly, the Protestant Revolution was in full swing and Pope Urban VIII was eager to demonstrate the Vatican’s fidelity to Scripture, and geocentrism was the official position of both Catholics and Protestants. Had circumstances been different the whole Galileo affair might not have happened and the pope might not have allowed the trial to go forward.

Galileo returned to Rome in 1633 to be interrogated by the Inquisition. Church records were found of Cardinal Bellarmine’s injunction that was filed over a decade earlier and that Galileo had not told anyone. Now it seemed to Galileo’s judges that he had deceived the Church and failed to keep his word not to promote heliocentrism. They advised him to confess that he had broken his word with Cardinal Bellarmine and to show contrition. Incredibly though, Galileo asserted that he had not defended heliocentrism: “I have neither maintained or defended in that book the opinion that the earth moves and that the sun is stationary but have rather demonstrated the opposite of the Copernican opinion and shown that the arguments of Copernicus are weak and inconclusive.” Perhaps he made this statement out of frustration, weariness, and nerves. But the inquisitors had every reason to believe he was a liar now too. Such an incident would have destroyed any defendant in a modern court of law. They believed he did hold heliocentric views and demanded that he recant them. Galileo did and was sentenced to house arrest.

Galileo was never charged with heresy or tortured in any way. In fact, his was given over to the custody of the archbishop of Siena who housed him in his palace for months and was then permitted to return to his villa in Florence. He was allowed to continue his scientific work not relating to heliocentrism. The notion that he said, “And yet it does move!” on his deathbed is legend and fiction. There are no reports of this. He died of natural causes in 1642.

According to historian Gary Ferngren, “The traditional picture of Galileo as a martyr to intellectual freedom and a victim of the church’s opposition to science has been demonstrated to be little more than a caricature.
According to historian Thomas Lessl, the Galileo case was an “anomaly,” a “momentary break in the otherwise harmonious relationship between Christianity and science. Of course, considering the scientific opposition to Copernicanism at the time, it seems that the case was also more of a conflict within science than one between science and religion. Galileo’s impetuousness and impudence did not help either.

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9 Responses to “An Atheist Fable: Reopening the Galileo Case”

  1. […] silence their opposition.  Such academics cite Galileo (another confessing Christian, by the way) and the largely propagandized tale of his persecution by the Church as an example of religion being hostile to science.  But how is their own behavior any different […]

  2. […] could be measured, studied, recorded, even manipulated. The story of Galileo has grown into an atheist/agnostic myth over time. There is no real conflict between science/reason and Christianity.  Humanism, divorced […]

  3. realist said

    If the “holy church”was so deeply involved with the science, why did they released only now after more than 300 years of silence,by admitting that the Galileo`s theory was true?

  4. […] their opposition. Such academics cite Galileo (another confessing Christian, by the way) and the largely propagandized tale of his persecution by the Church as an example of religion being hostile to science. But how is their own behavior any different from […]

  5. […] The ultimate sentence of burning was rare. Other types of sentences included mild reprimand, public demonstration of penance, barring from public office, banishment from the city, flogging, confiscation of goods, and incarceration (which was often merely house arrest like in the case of Galileo). […]

  6. Sagredo said

    There are a few problems with the way you’ve presented things here.
    Chiefly, you have ignored the fact that Dialogues was published with permission from the Church. In fact, Urban gave feedback on the contents of the book before it was published, and the Inquisition required edits before publishing as well. You have presented the sequence of events as though the contents of the book are what brought about the conflict between Galileo and the Church, but that is not the case – both the Inquisition and the Vatican were well aware of the contents before the book was published. In fact, the title was changed at the Church’s request because Galileo had initially intended to mention the tides in the title of the book but this was seen as too overtly supporting one view over the other.

    Furthermore, Simplico was not a character based on the Pope. He was very closely based on two of Galileo’s contemporaries who rigorously opposed his theories at the time. However, in incorporating some of the Urban’s feedback into his work, Galileo used a – single – direct quote from the Pope in one of Simplico’s lines. The Church, knowing the contents of the book ahead of time, did not object – and most historians agree that this was not intended as a weapon to malign the Pope, and that after the book was published, it was a suprise to both Galileo and to Urban that the public got that impression.

    However, the fact that public outcry could so easily cause the Church and Inquisition to turn on Galileo, despite their previous approval of the book and its contents, is certainly worthy of criticism. True, there was no torture, and his sentencing was extremely light, especially for the time. [Although vastly overreaching by modern standards] But the fact remains that the mere fact he was brought to trial at all was a display of enormous hypocrisy and pettiness on the part of the Church.

    Further still, I suppose you are technically correct that Galileo was never charged with heresy, but only technically – he was charged with “suspicion of heresy” and found “vehemently suspect of heresy.”

    This ought not to be surprising, since Galileo’s Inquisition Qualifiers delivered a unanimous report saying that the heliocentric theory was “formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.”

    Lastly, your objection to Galileo’s comments about the Bible just seems silly. His comments about the need to re-examine interpretations of Scripture are almost identicle Cardinal Bellarmine’s comments which you quote two paragraphs above it.

    Again, the similarity between them ought not to be surprising, since the Church was well aware of the contents of the book before it was published. Neither the Inquisition nor the Vatican found them to overreaching – and why should they? The idea that seeming contradictions between observable fact and the Bible ought to be resolved by admitting that our understanding of the Bible is flawed is an eminently reasonable position, and one of the notable differences between modern Catholicism and the rising Protestant fundamentalists.

    Overall, I think we can agree that the story of Galileo is frequently mis-characterized and exaggerated. But it’s still a pretty shining example of how a divine institution like the Church can be subject to the petty vices of its human side. It was a regrettable affair, one from which we can still take lessons.

    • Tony Listi said

      To be honest, there’s not much for me to disagree with in your comment. It’s a great comment. I’ve recently learned more of the facts that you cite. http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0005.html

      However, it still seems that Galileo had no real proof for heliocentrism and, on that flawed basis, disobeyed the Church’s legitimate authority to restrict what he could teach and promote while under the Church’s sponsorship and that he lied to the Church about what happened at the first trial with Bellarmine’s injunction. I think his arrogance propelled him to promote a theory without proper evidence and proof. Galileo was lucky he turned out to be right, that future scientists proved his weak theory at that time to be true. Such disobedience, apart from accusations of heresy, was blameworthy and merited punishment of some kind.

      • Sagredo said

        I’m more sympathetic to Galileo than I was before. He may have been arrogant, but he was battling an extremely intractable intellectual elite – by which I do NOT mean the Church. [Quite the opposite, as Urban was often a supporter of Galileo in his conflicts with the secular scientific establishment] One of the characters upon whom Simplico is based was famous for doggedly maintaining the geocentric view of the universe so blindly that he refused to even look into a telescope.

  7. Tony Listi said

    Galileo was put under house arrest (nothing more) more for his dishonesty toward the Church, which sponsored his research, and his usurpation of the Church’s authority. From the very beginning, the Catholic Church expressed its willingness to change its approach to astronomical claims in the Bible if more solid proof could be offered. Galileo could not do so, yet he still wanted to push his theory, biting the hand that sponsored him.

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