Faithless Fairy Tales Part 1

By Jeff Laird

Faithless Fairy Tales:
Part 1: Galileo
Part 2: The Scopes Trial
Part 3: The Crusades
Part 4: The Spanish Inquisition

Galileo Single Page/Printer Friendly

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

Continue to Page Two

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.

Image Credit: Justus Sustermans; Portrait of Galileo Galilei; 1636; Public Domain

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Published 6-18-2014