Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who said that the church persecuted Galileo because his scientific findings contradicted the Bible or the church’s teaching? This picture has always struck me as overly simplistic and too convenient to be true. Recently I found an article in (the now out-of-print) Kategoria magazine which confirmed those feelings with a real discussion of the history behind this story. Here’s how the article starts off:

In 1616, a board of theologians for the Roman church discussed the new Copernican theory. The result of that deliberation was an official decree stating that to say the sun is at the centre of the world and immovable is ‘foolish and absurd’ and ‘formally heretical’; and to say that the Earth moves is similarly foolish and ‘erroneous in the faith’.

Sixteen years later Galileo Galilei faced the Inquisition on charges of heresy because of his belief in that same theory. He was ordered to abjure his heretical opinions—that is, to state that he firmly believed that the Earth did not move—and was sentenced to a prison term with penance.

Galileo, the symbol of free thought and the power of science, was brutally crushed by the blind stupidity which is the inevitable consequence of an institution based on revelation rather than discovery. It was a classic and poignant example of the irreconcilable clash between the two worlds. Galileo, threatened with torture and the might of the Catholic church, recanted and stated through clenched teeth that he did not believe that which he knew to be true. Yet the spirit of free thought could not be suppressed. As he left the room with its instruments of torture, he muttered, ‘…and yet it turns’.

It is a picture that suits propagandists of many types, but unfortunately it lacks a certain element—it’s not true.

This post begins a series in which I will work through the article and try to discuss the implications of this all for us. If you’re intrigued and want to read the whole article, you can get it here. Here are the two main things I hope to see with this series:

  1. We need to be careful about ascribing past crimes to Christians, especially when we’re thinking through similar issues today. This is not to say that Christians haven’t done things wrong. It is just that we shouldn’t assume that the history people throw around is always correct, especially when they’re using it to criticize contemporary Christianity. We should be sure of what the actual history is before we make decisions today based on supposed mistakes of Christians in the past.
  2. The relationship between science and faith is not as simple as “evidence vs. belief.” The story of Galileo is a perfect example of this. It is often cited as an example of how Christians close-mindedly cling to their Bibles, or their traditions, or their power, in the face of obvious and overwhelming evidence. (Think—the current “evolution vs. creation” debate.) Sometime’s it’s people who really just don’t want to be wrong about what’s true (like some of my friends), but the story’s also used by people who think the bible’s outdated and needs to be thrown out. Interestingly enough, Galileo’s conflict with the church is totally applicable to the current “Science and Faith” discussion, but not in the way it’s usually used.

More on all this to come. For now, here’s some relevant links:

Thanks to Matthias Media (who holds the copyright for Kategoria Magazine) gave me permission to post the article and on the blog. They asked me to put this in the post: “Reproduced electronically with permission from Matthias Media. See www.matthiasmedia.com.au for further information or related products.”