14 Errors Revolving Around Galileo, and How to Clear Them Up

The Catholic Church has always been open to science.

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Few lies so excite secular souls as the Galileo Incident. But the historical reality of the situation is so completely different than the popular version of the story as to make one think we were discussing two different Galileos. Instead of proof the Church is anti-science, it serves to prove the opposite and shows that the Church supports science when it’s governed by true scholarship, logical standards and scientific methodologies.

Atheists must harp on about the Galileo Incident because there are no other examples of the Church supposedly putting itself up in opposition to science. There are, however, plenty of examples of atheists putting themselves against science and reality, including Albert Einstein and Fred Hoyle, who both attacked Father Georges Lemaître’s Big Bang theory. Which is worse? Atheists decrying science or the Catholic Church asking Galileo to amend his reports?

In his book God Is Not Great, Chris Hitchens writes, “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always problematic and very often necessarily hostile.” He adds that medical research only began to flourish once “the priests had been elbowed aside.” This is a blatant demagogic lie meant to rally passions rather than teaching truth. Hitchens was a brilliant writer but he just simply never understood anything about the subjects of which he wrote, relying upon his feelings and manipulating those of others rather than actually researching his facts. Hitchens’ nonsense has more in common with Catholic comedian Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” than it has with actual truth.

Rather than being an obstacle to science, the Catholic Church created the only cultural environment in human history in which science could take root. Sociologist Rodney Stark explained this clearly in his For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery. In his book, Stark describes the “still-born” science in the great civilizations of the ancient and medieval world — except, of course, in Christian civilization, where science began to grow and thrive. History proves this. Empirical science and the scientific method were developed in Christian Europe and not in medieval or ancient China, India, Mesoamerica, Arabia, Japan, Greece or Rome. All of the sciences owe a great deal to the contributions of the Catholic Church and its faithful. J.L. Heilbron of the University of California-Berkeley admits this, specifically discussing astronomy:

The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.

Hitchens’ statement, “The right to look through telescopes and speculate about the result was obstructed by the Church,” is either proof of his aliteracy or sign of something by far more nefarious — an intentional, disingenuous lie meant to rewrite history for dangerous demagogic reasons. This accusation shouldn’t surprise anyone as most people recognize that Hitchens wrote with “passion” rather than realistic accuracy.

This caricature simply has no relationship to historical reality. Christianity isn’t anti-science. Rather it’s anti- scientism — the unfortunate worship of a tool pretending it’s a worldview. The absolutist, dogmatic reading of science has failed repeatedly in the past, and yet secularists refuse to learn from their past mistakes. To be clear, the most important questions asked by human beings fall outside the purview of science: What is goodness? What is justice? What is morality? What is the meaning of life? How should deal with and understand the Creator of the Universe?

The imaginary “faith-science divide” originates not with believers, but with atheists hoping to disparage the Church. It’s neither suggested in the Bible nor in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Among the many lies concerning Galileo in which atheists revel are:

1. Galileo wasn't the first scholar to theorize about the heliocentric model of the solar system. Galileo used the notes that Nicholas Copernicus wrote nearly a century earlier, which were easily available. Actually, 10 years before the Galileo Incident, Johannes Kepler ran afoul of his fellow Protestants for his heliocentric views and found a welcome reception among some Jesuit scholars who were known for their scientific achievements.

2. Galileo was told he could discuss the hypothesis of heliocentrism but not advocate for the theory. Specifically, he was allowed to offer evidence for and against it but he couldn’t claim it was more than a hypothesis.

3. The purpose of Galileo’s trial wasn’t to silence him but rather to make sure he admitted in his research that his heliocentric hypothesis was a theory and not fact. He had previously promised to do so but reneged on that promise. He had promised to not advocate the theory but he was allowed to discuss the pros and cons of it.

4. Galileo was never tortured. When he was found guilty, he was placed under very comfortable house arrest equipped with a huge library and servants. He could receive any number of visitors and could correspond with any of them.

5. Catholics take the Bible literally, but not literalistically. The Scriptures use metaphor and poetry. In the Song of Songs, God is described as riding a horse and knocking down castle doors with the pommel of his sword. This is not mean to be taken literally. Doing so would actually be blasphemy, as the true meaning of Scriptures would be sacrificed on the more selfish, literalist altar.

6. In actually, many Church prelates supported Galileo. In fact, when Cardinal Baronius defended Galileo, he was quoted as saying, “The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven; it doesn't tell us how the heavens go."

7. Geocentrism has never been a Catholic dogma.

8. The Church has never asked the faithful to choose between faith and science. In fact, most, if not all, of the modern sciences were instituted by Catholic priests and bishops and/or by Catholic faithful as discussed here and here.

9. Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), a Polish Catholic priest, developed the heliocentric theory. He was encouraged by fellow Catholics, mostly priests, to publish his ideas but he hesitated not because of pressure from the Catholic Church but rather because of fellow scientists who disagreed with him. In actuality, the Catholic Church had no problems with heliocentrism — it was Protestants who were hostile to the idea. In addition, the Thirty Years’ War, the last of the religious wars resulting from the Reformation, was in full swing and this made scientific promulgations politically sensitive.

10. Though it’s true that Copernicus’ book was put on the prohibited book index by some bishops, it was done only until ten sentences in the manuscript were corrected. The book stated that heliocentrism was a fact rather than a theory. We shouldn’t see this event through the lens of the present (i.e., presentism) because heliocentrism wasn't proven until 200 years later. It’s not a scientific fact until it’s proven — until that point, it’s only conjecture.

11. In 1623, Galileo had a friend who later would become the Pope Urban VIII. He encouraged Galileo to write a new book posing points both for and against the theory. The book was entitled The Dialogue on The Two Great World Systems.

12. Galileo was tried in 1633 for disobeying the injunction placed on him. Some cardinals defended him while others wanted to throw (his own) book at him. He was found guilty and placed under house arrest and there he wrote what some consider his best work, The Discourse on The Two New Sciences (1638). He died in 1643 at age 78, a venerable age even in the 17th century.

13. By all accounts, Galileo was a good Catholic and intended no wrong. His daughter chose to become a nun. However, he was stubborn, fiercely independent and not particularly kind to his friends. When Pope Urban VIII encouraged Galileo to write The Dialogue, he offered an argument for him to use in the book. Galileo included it but created a foolish simpleton character named Simplicio who offered the argument in the book. Instead of being kind to his old friend who was defending him, Galileo chose to burn that bridge and insult him — not a very clever or kind thing to do. It’s odd that atheists remember Galileo’s punishment, albeit incorrectly, but have no idea that Galileo threw his friend, the Pope, under the bus.

14. Considering that Galileo lied, broke his promises, insulted his scientific colleagues and the Pope and destroyed a very good friendship, the court treated him with the greatest respect and gentility.

The Church shouldn’t have put Galileo on trial, but it acknowledges that. Neither Copernicus’ nor Kepler’s nor Galileo’s books should have been banned. The Galileo Incident was an unfortunate situation which Galileo only made worse. But, it was an isolated occurrence and absolutely not indicative of an anti-scientific or anti-intellectual pattern on the Church’s part. This is easily proven because our opponents can’t name another similar situation. The Church has always been open to science and has made many real contributions to scientific progress.