Modern Myths #2: The Persecution of Galileo

There are numerous claims in the modern myths about the rise of science. One of the most famous is the case of Galileo. It is true that Galileo was brought before the inquisition, and censored; but there are a number of other problems with the analysis.

 

Here are a few myths and perhaps outright lies related to Galileo. Some are simple, there is no evidence that Galileo was tortured, that he was poorly treated, and he was not put into exile until his death; he instead continued to live on a church stipend until his death.[1] Similarly, Cardinal Bellarmine did not refuse to look through a telescope, as is often portrayed.

 

  1. Galileo did not prove the Heliocentric Solar System.

 

It is often asserted that Galileo proved the Heliocentric solar system (which means that the sun is the center of the solar system), or that he further demonstrated the correctness of the Copernican view (and sometimes the heliocentric view is known as the “Copernican Revolution.”) The problem is that neither Copernicus nor Galileo proved or demonstrated their theories to be correct – in fact, their theories were wrong; instead of the Copernican Revolution we should be speaking of the Keplarian revolution, because it was Kepler, not Galileo or Copernicus that actually put forward a model of a heliocentric world that actually able to provide a better predictive model than the ptolemic model.

 

  1. Galileo did not contradict the Bible, he contradicted Aristotle.

 

It is commonly asserted that Galileo contradicted the Bible. Actually, though, the passages questioned do not present a view of the solar system, they typically refer to the appearances we see around us, thus it is no different than a news report that speaks of sunrise in the mornings. What Galileo actually contradicted was the Ptolemic theory as put forward by Aristotle, and was accepted in most of the West through Aquinas. While it is true this led to Biblical and theological questions with both the reformers and the Roman Catholics, for Galileo a larger issue might be that his discussions of Scripture are similar to Calvin and Augustine’s.[2] This in point of fact is one of the real issues for Galileo . The Roman Catholic church reserved for itself all right of interpreting the Scriptures, and in stepping into interpretational waters, it was to a specific Catholic doctrine that he was found to be in error.

     

      It became common to portray both Galileo and Newton as revolutionary humanists who opposed Christian faith and religion as superstitions. It makes a great story for propaganda but this was ultimately an invention of the French Philosophe’s. Similar elements such as stories of mistreatment are embellishments. It is important to note, Galileo was a convinced and confirmed Catholic, despite the mild reprimand he received.[3]

 

  1. Galileo’s issues were political

 

Galileo had previously been supported by the pope and by Bellarmine. However, in publishing his controversial work, Dialogue Concerning the Chief World Systems he ran into problems. The Council of Trent had essentially argued that the Aristotelian view should be held until there were observational evidences present to disprove it. This is something that Galileo could not supply. To make his case weaker, he insulted the Pope by putting the generally accepted argument suggested by Pope Urban VIII into the mouth of his foil, the dim-witted Simplicio. Galileo’s rather acidic personality meant that the academy also took the opportunity to chime in against him.[4]

 

Some people will immediately argue that this was religious politics – but politics are not ultimately about the doctrine itself, politics is an infiltrator of a religion; as Rodney Stark notes, there is the church of power and the church of piety in religious organizations, and these are often in conflict. Politics is a universal problem, intrinsic in all institutions and a great bane to theology and science alike, but lets not confuse it with religious sentiment.

 

 

[1]Sampson, 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization, 38-9

[2]Sampson 40-42

[3]Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, 165.

[4]Rodney Stark, 163-5

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