Window On History

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Galileo myths

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That there is a clash between the scientific and the religious views of life is widely accepted today.

However, there is no scientific view of life. Some or many scientists may be atheists, but that has nothing to do with science nor can their beliefs be supported by science.

On the other hand, there are many different religious views of life – Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu and so on. They cannot all be lumped together as “the” religious view of life.

Often those who claim a clash between science and the Catholic view quote the case of Galileo. It’s a huge theory to hang on one episode, but they can produce no other cases to support their argument.

They also ignore the close involvement of the Church in the development of science since St Albert the Great in the 1200s. Even the Galileo case has to be twisted and distorted to make it fit the “science versus religion” argument.

Blogger and atheist Tim O’Neill recently debunked some of the myths surrounding this case.

Myth 1: Galileo proved the earth went round the sun (heliocentrism), not the other way around.

In fact, Copernicus (1473–1543), a Polish priest, had proposed a heliocentric model 32 years before Galileo was born and astronomers had been debating it since it was published in 1539.

Galileo added to this debate via his observations using his telescope, but the scientific problems with the theory were not conclusively solved until long after Galileo’s death.

Myth 2: The Church rejected science, condemned heliocentrism and was ignorant of the science behind Copernicus’ theory.

In fact, in 1533 Pope Clement VII asked Johann Widmanstadt to deliver a private lecture on Copernicus’ theories in the Vatican. Clement was so intrigued and delighted by the lecture that he rewarded Widmanstadt.

Many of Galileo’s staunchest defenders were churchmen and many of his attackers were fellow scientists.

Indeed centuries earlier the Catholic Church had accepted the argument that since God was rational, his creation was rational and so could be apprehended by rational inquiry. This laid the foundations for the rise of modern science.

Myth 3: The Church condemned heliocentrism because it believed the Bible had to be interpreted literally.

The Catholic Church did not and does not teach that the Bible had to be interpreted literally. Biblical literalism arose in the US in the 19th century and is exclusively a fundamentalist Protestant idea.

Long before Galileo the Church had changed its interpretation of passages in Scripture when the evidence showed the passage should not be taken literally.

But it would not change until the scientific evidence was conclusive and its objection to Galileo was that he had not produced such evidence, a point made by Cardinal Bellarmine in his 1616 ruling on Galileo’s writings.

The Church was, in fact, following the scientific consensus of the times.

Myth 4: Galileo was imprisoned in chains, tortured and threatened with being burned at the stake.

Versions of this claim were made by Voltaire and in recent times by militant atheists Stephen Fry and Sam Harris among others.

In fact, such claims are nonsense, a perversion of the truth. Galileo spent all of his trial in 1633 as the honoured guest of various senior churchmen in Rome.

He willingly and even enthusiastically co-operated with the inquiry and was never tortured nor was he ever in any danger of being executed.

Rather, he was sentenced to house arrest in his villa in Florence where he remained for the last nine years of his life, completing several of his most important works.

Myth 5: Galileo was condemned simply for using science to question Church teachings.
The Church never objected to scientific research. In fact, most of those who would now be called “scientists” (a word first coined by William Whewell in 1833) were also churchmen.


Rather, for the Church Christian revelation and the revelations of reason all came from the same divine source. If they seemed to be in conflict, it was human understanding that was the problem.

The Galileo case was far more complex than anti-Catholic secularists present it today. It included major scientific difficulties, petty academic jealousy by other scientists, Galileo’s own arrogance, and a Pope who took offence too easily.

It resulted in the Church siding with the majority scientific view of the time and condemning Copernicanism. But in due course this was seen to be an over-reaction and was reversed.

There was no intrinsic reason why the Church, in different circumstances, could not have accepted heliocentrism without any clashes over science at all.