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Did Galileo battle in the war between science and Christianity?

Updated: Jun 19, 2019

The following is originally posted on 22 November 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz called “Conflict for the Copernican Controversy” It is part of the series on “Is Christianity at war with Science?” and discusses the controversy that the Christian church had with Galileo over the heliocentric model of the solar system.

Today the perception of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is of a brilliant thinker, unjustly persecuted and condemned by the church who are the enemies of scientific progress. He was a champion of truth disgraced and forced to recant by religious dogmatists, ever a hindrance to true knowledge of the world. Serious historians however refuse to view the case as one of “science versus religion.” History is never so simplistic. It defies white-hat/black-hat renderings, as adherents of the conflict thesis try to make it out to be. For more on the conflict thesis, which is a false idea about the relationship between science and religion, see “Is Christianity at war with science?

To get a better understanding of Galileo and his actions we should look to the volatile backdrop of the counter-reformation in the early decades of 17th Century Italy. By stridently defending the heliocentric model of the solar system that was originally proposed by Copernicus, with both observational and scriptural data, he embroiled himself in dispute with the Catholic Church. Catholicism had made itself the protectors of the Aristotelian philosophy and the Ptolemaic view of geocentricism,[1] and at the time was reacting against the innovations of Protestantism that were undermining the church’s traditional magisterial authority. Conceding to Galileo’s new biblical interpretation was to undermine their strongest polemic that tradition was unchangeable, which would lend credibility to the Protestant movement.[2]

His major defence of the Copernican theory was initially received with sympathy within certain circles in the church, partly because Giovanni Ciampoli, who was a papal favourite, held him in high regard. Galileo lost support when Ciampoli fell from power in Rome, and this opened the door for Galileo’s condemnation.

Part of the problem was Galileo’s prickly personality, but the crux issue at stake was how the Bible should be interpreted. The official response was based on two considerations. First, by affirming the Bible should be interpreted according “to the proper meaning of the words.” In other words, with a more literal approach instead of an approach of “accommodation.”[3] Each method of interpretation had had a long history of use and was considered legitimate, but the debate now came to bear on certain passages which, according to tradition, were thought should be interpreted literally. Second, by affirming that the Bible should be interpreted “according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and of learned theologians.” The argument here was that no one else of note in the past has adopted this new interpretation.[4] Thus Galileo’s interpretation was dismissed as an innovation.

McGrath points out;“Appreciation of this point is thought to have been hindered in the past on account of the failure of historians to engage with the theological (and more precisely, the hermeneutical) issues attending the debate. In part, this can be seen as reflecting the fact that many of the scholars interested in this particular controversy were scientists or historians of science, who were not familiar with the intricacies of the debates on biblical interpretation of this remarkably complex period.”[5]

The affair is one which historians and philosophers of science still debate regularly. However, there is now general agreement that, though Galileo’s views were eventually vindicated, he was overstepping the line by insisting his model was the way reality really was. At the time he did not have the evidence to support that claim, so the church wanted to moderate his idea as one interpretation that equally explained the phenomena, rather than the one interpretation that was right.

Galileo may have been branded a heretic but his sentence was reduced to house arrest, which amounted to a comfortable retirement where he could entertain guests, carry on his scientific research and publish further works that solidified his place in the pages of history as the founder of modern physics. Not an altogether bad way for a 68 year old to spend the remaining ten years of his life.

This is no more than a brief summary of Galileo and his role in the Copernican controversy, but enough has been said to conclude that painting the affair as one battle in the war of “Science versus Religion” is inadequate. History is often a far more complicated and tangled web than is made out to be, and is not suited to oversimplifications such as those given by proponents of the conflict thesis – as Galileo might call them, Simplicio.[6]

Footnotes:

  1. David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 150
  2. Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 12
  3. As a nursemaid accommodates a small child by scooping him up to reach what is on the table, so the Bible accommodates with its language to speak so that every one can understand.
  4. In 1615 the Carmelite friar Paolo Antonio Foscarini published Lettra sopra l’opinione de’ Pittagorici e del Copernico (Letter on the opinion of the Pythagoreans and Copernicus) which argued that the heliocentric model of the solar system was not incompatible with the Bible. Galileo adopted a similar approach of “accommodation”
  5. Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 12
  6. Meaning “Simple-minded.” Galileo put the words of Pope Urban VIII into the mouth of a character of that name, a thinly veiled criticism of a very powerful supporter. His famous work Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was a attack on Aristotelian geocentricism and advocated the Heliocentric worldview.
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