Faithless Fairy Tales Part 1

By Jeff Laird

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Continued from Page One

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.

In the next installment of "Faithless Fairy Tales", I'll examine the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial", made infamous (and warped beyond recognition) by the play and film Inherit the Wind.

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

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.)

Image Credit: Galileo's illustration of the Copernican system of the universe from Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief world Systems, Ptolemaic & Copernican; 1632; Public Domain

TagsControversial-Issues  |  History-Apologetics  |  Science-Creation

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Published 6-18-2014