Faithless Fairy Tales Part 1

By Jeff Laird

This is the second in a series of articles examining how inaccurate, warped versions of real historical events are misused in order to attack Christianity. These Faithless Fairy Tales may satisfy "once upon a time" appetites, but they don't represent the truth. These are some of the more common anti-religious historical myths thrown at Christians, debunked by means of the actual storylines.

Whenever science and religion are discussed, those with an anti-spiritual axe to grind are all but certain to mention Galileo. His troubles with the Catholic Church have become the stuff of legend, in no small part because what's told is usually more fantasy than reality. Biased caricatures sound good to the skeptical ear, but the truth is more complex and much less convenient. In reality, Galileo discussed his ideas openly with Catholic scholars for years. The lynch pin of the debate was actually scientific, not religious, and Galileo himself always maintained a belief in Biblical inerrancy. It was a poorly worded book which really got him into trouble.

Pop culture usually summarizes the Galileo affair something like this: Galileo proved the earth orbited the sun, which directly contradicts the Bible. Christians refused to accept this, so they excommunicated him, imprisoned him, and suppressed his discoveries.

In reality, Galileo promoted the idea that the earth orbited the sun, on the basis of his observations, which he saw as perfectly compatible with the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) cited known errors and contradictions in his model, as well as prevailing beliefs about physics, and chose not to overturn established ideas without hard proof. Works promoting the conflicting view were prohibited. Some years later, a new Pope asked Galileo for a balanced representation of the two sides. The resulting work was widely interpreted as implying the Pope was an idiot for questioning the sun-centered model, and Galileo was placed under house arrest.

Galileo's telescope helped him discover the moons of other planets and the motions of heavenly bodies. He interpreted what he saw as supporting heliocentrism: the view that the Sun, not the Earth, is the orbital center of our planetary system. This wasn't Galileo's original idea; scientists like Aristarchus and Copernicus had suggested it long before. He shared these observations with others, including Catholic scientists, as early as 1610. Technology being what it was in the 1600's, however, there were still disparities between actual observations and Galileo's model, such as stellar parallax.

Parallax is the change in observed position, or motion, based on relative distance and changing lines of sight. Predominant 17th century assumptions about stellar distances and rudimentary technology meant, so far as observers could tell, this stellar parallax was not occurring. In short, something which Galileo's model predicted was not being observed. It would be two centuries, in fact, before technology advanced enough for that evidence to be detectable.

Even further, and more problematically, the model proposed by Galileo conflicted with Aristotelian physics, which ascribed different causes to the motion of different bodies, and which was the prevailing view of that era. Galileo's general body of work was the first time empirical observations really brought Aristotelian physics into question. Isaac Newton wasn't even born until 1642, the year Galileo died, so nobody on either side of the controversy was operating under what we could call a "modern" view of physics. Galileo's heliocentrism implied not just a re-interpretation of a few superfluous scriptures, but a repudiation of a system of physics which had been dominant for millennia. Catholic scholars were reluctant to change established views in light of a theory which was incomplete and self-contradictory; more on this below.

This is exactly the same approach taken by modern science: long-established ideas are not thrown out on a whim, nor are new ideas immediately accepted without some speculation. Einstein's general relativity, for instance, wasn't fully embraced until nearly 70 years after he first proposed it, some 20 years after his death. The Big Bang was resisted by physicists and mocked — by atheists — for decades until being confirmed by multiple, separate empirical observations.

On that note, we have to keep in mind Galileo's humanity: he was just as prone to bias and dogmatism as anyone else. For example, he developed a theory that ocean tides were caused by the combination of earth's rotation and orbit around the sun. Of course, this would only explain a single daily tide. But Galileo was so convinced of heliocentrism that he doggedly defended his tides theory, even in the teeth of disproof. He took a similar approach to the shape of planetary orbits, insisting they were circular, not elliptical. Also, his stance was that the sun was the center of the entire universe, not merely a few planets. These details are not raised in order to disparage the man's scientific brilliance, by any means. They are meant to augment the historical injustice of the prevailing myth, which implies Galileo was a perfectly objective, perfectly accurate scientist, armed with hard proof, at odds with an ignorant and indiscriminating priesthood armed only with dogma.

Further, Galileo himself expressed a belief that the Bible deserved the benefit of the doubt when conflicts arose. He suggested that anything contradicting accepted scriptural interpretation should be proven beyond doubt before being accepted:
As to the (physical) propositions which are stated but not rigorously demonstrated, anything contrary to the Bible involved in them must be considered undoubtedly false and should be proved so by every possible means. [1] —Galileo Galilei
This view of interpreting scripture, cautiously and conservatively, in view of recent discoveries was shared by Cardinal Bellarmine, one of those first assigned by the Vatican to examine the Galileo controversy in 1615. Bellarmine has been credited, not without controversy, with a more scientific approach to the issue than even Galileo, in that Bellarmine noted appearances were not always a complete explanation of actual facts. He appreciated the elegance of Galileo's ideas, but needed more than efficiency to warrant doctrinal changes. Bellarmine was amenable to reconsidering interpretations of scripture, but only on good grounds, saying:
If there were a real proof that the Sun is in the center of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion false which has been proved to be true. But I do not think there is any such proof since none has been shown to me. [2] —Cardinal Bellarmine
A devout Catholic, Galileo never saw his observations as contradicting scripture. [3] In fact, he considered it important to harmonize the Bible with scientific observations:
In religion Galileo considered himself a good Roman Catholic, to whom "the Holy Scriptures cannot err" whenever their true meaning is understood. But he maintained that the Bible cannot and should not always be interpreted literally, and he asserted that when Scripture seems to contradict the conclusions reached by scientific investigation of the universe, "it becomes the office of wise expounders to labor till they find how to make those passages of Holy Writ concordant with these conclusions." For this reason he has been regarded by some as contributing to the growth and development of religious rationalism. [4]
Roman Catholic scholars had mixed opinions on Galileo's work. Of course, there were those who dismissed it out of hand because of perceived contradictions to Scripture, to Aristotelian physics, and its failure to match observations. And yet, others within the Catholic Church supported it. Secular philosophers, in particular, objected to Galileo's work, not only because he questioned Aristotelian physics, but also because he wrote his publications in the "vulgar" common-man's language of Italian, rather than the traditional and scholarly Latin. These scholars produced most of the early controversy aimed at him. That's a critical point to remember: Galileo was opposed as much, if not more, by the secular scientific community as he was by elements of Catholicism.

Galileo confidently pressed the issue, buoyed by those positive voices within the RCC's scholarly circles. One way or another, Galileo thought data in favor of a Sun-centered model was strong enough to endorse the view, despite the empirical flaws.

In the end, though, geocentrism won the debate, with the RCC citing a lack of proof as their primary reason. In 1616, Galileo was ordered not to teach heliocentrism, other than in a theoretical or mathematical sense, though dialogue continued among Catholic philosophers. Works promoting heliocentrism "as a fact" were prohibited, an injunction not overturned in principle until 1758, and not really dropped in practice until the mid-1800s. As decades turned into centuries, even Catholic scholars accepted heliocentrism and taught it as a scientific reality. In 1992, Pope John Paul II admitted the decision of the investigative committee was in error.

Note, however, that while conflict with scriptural interpretation was part of that decision-making process, it was not the only, or the most influential factor. The bulk of the resistance to Galileo was due to the admitted disconnect between his model and available observations, and the model's conflict with Aristotelianism. Non-Catholic scientists likewise disagreed with his conclusions, for non-religious reasons. The "heresy" aspect of Galileo's troubles came, both logically and chronologically, after the scientific debate was over.

Galileo's friendship with two successive Popes had greatly aided his case. This changed when he published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. The book was formally requested by the RCC, to present a complete and balanced representation of both sides. What Galileo produced, intentionally or not, was a provocative, even insulting composition. Galileo placed certain arguments, which the Pope specifically asked to be included, in the mouth of a character named Simplicio, which implies "simpleton" in Italian. The book further made Simplicio out to be a dolt, and his arguments for geocentrism were obliterated by the other two characters. In essence, Dialogue... made geocentrism, the position of the RCC, and the Pope all targets of ridicule. This was the mistake that actually resulted in Galileo's prosecution by the RCC.

After Dialogue... was published, Galileo was brought up on charges of heresy. This is the sticking point for many critics, who only see one frame of the full reel: charges of heresy in response to a book advocating heliocentrism. They fail to consider the entire sequence of events leading up to that moment. They fail to note this trial occurred more than twenty years after Galileo first discussed the issue with Catholic scientists, sixteen years after first being told the RCC would not change its stance, and only after insulting the Pope, though this last item was likely unintentional. They miss the secular, scientific, and political issues that combined to create the incident.

Decades before, at the 1546 Council of Trent, the RCC decreed that anyone holding interpretations of scripture contrary to the "official" Church position was dealing in heresy. Galileo's heliocentrism had been rejected by the RCC. As we've seen, though, this conclusion was the result of examining Galileo's model from many different perspectives, and rejecting it primarily on the basis of scientific reasoning. Granted, that science was incomplete, and partly in error, but then so was Galileo's. The charges Galileo faced were religious, and the reasoning given for those charges was religious, because the actual offense in question was religious! The scientific debate was literally over and done with by the time Galileo really got in trouble, and the charges were not academic, but ecclesiastical.

Galileo was not instantly whisked into prison for daring to question the Bible. He stepped in a hornet's nest, at a time when the Papacy felt marginalized by a perception of weakness. He was a famous, high-profile figure, who seemed to be openly challenging the Papacy. So the Roman Catholic machine kicked into high gear. He was not, contrary to popular myth, excommunicated. Nor was he tortured. His sentence was a life of house arrest, with a continued pension, where he continued his research, producing some of his most historically valuable work.

Was the Roman Catholic Church wrong in their treatment of Galileo? Most people would say so, especially given that his punishment was, truly, in response to something personal. And, banning books is hardly the practical way to counter ideas one disagrees with. That said, actual history makes it clear Galileo's sentencing was the result of politics and personality, not religious persecution of science. In fact, the evidence was discussed and debated for more than twenty years prior to Galileo suffering any personal consequences. Scientific theories which overturn established ideas always experience resistance, most of it from fellow scientists. And this wasn't a scenario where clear proof was rejected in favor of dogma. In truth, the model and proofs Galileo offered were flawed, and came nowhere near proving what he so confidently believed. Non-religious voices protested his heliocentrism as much as anyone else.

It's also crucial to remember that Galileo found his discoveries perfectly compatible with Biblical inerrancy. The Reformation had formally begun more than a century before this episode, and a large contingent of Christians were outspoken in their displeasure with Catholicism's overly inflated sense of authority. So, blaming his mistreatment on religion in general, or Christianity in particular, is not only shallow, but historically inaccurate, not to mention unfair.

Even more noteworthy is that the Galileo incident represents the exception, rather than the rule. Critics invoke it frequently for that very reason: there aren't many such incidents to mention. Galileo himself would disagree with the attitude that religious faith and science are incompatible. And, he would probably be the first to say his real troubles were about attitude, not astronomy.

1. The Faith of Our Founding Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, A Mott Media Book, 1987; 6th printing, 1993), p. 48.
2. Full text of the letter can be found here.
3. Full text of his letter to Duchess Christina can be found here.
4. Douglas, Comfort & Mitchell (Douglas, J. D., Comfort, P. W., & Mitchell, D. (1997, c1992). Who's Who in Christian History. Illustrated lining papers. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.)

Published 6-18-14