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Myth of Galileo

Joe Carter is debunking the Galileo myth. And a pretty reasonable debunking it is. I’ve read quite a few debunkings of the myth before, and such things are rather important, considering some versions of the story. I’m pretty sure someone in elementary school told me that Galileo was condemned for saying that the earth was round. That surely came from someone who misunderstood Columbus (who’s real issue was the circumference of the earth) and then confused him with Galileo. What stays in place through all these versions is that Galileo was discovering something new, and the church wasn’t anxious for him to do that.

Now Carter’s debunking, while quite good, and while drawing some very appropriate lessons, reminded me of an incident in my freshman year of college. A sociology professor who professed communism challenged me in class when I quoted 66,000,000 people killed in the process of bringing communism to the Soviet Union. I forget who calculated the number of the details, but Solzhenitsyn cites a statistician who calculated that number in The Gulag Archipelago. My teacher, every mindful of defending good communists everywhere said, “Oh, that’s greatly exaggerated. More likely there were only 40,000,000.”

The comparison here is not views of the cosmos versus killing people, but rather the idea that diminishing the damage tends to make people forget the essence of the claim. If one’s claim is exaggerated (or wrong), then even if a great wrong was done, people will start to ignore it. They remember that it was exaggerated. In the case of Galileo, I often see the result of debunking. “Oh,” says someone, “he was not treated as badly as the story indicates.” And they decide to give the Catholic hierarchy of the time a free pass.

But when exaggeration is removed, Galileo’s lack of additional evidence is considered, and any amount of obnoxious behavior on his part is factored in, we still have a scientist who was told by the church to shut up. That’s not good. Now we need to keep in mind the times as well. Comparing the behavior of the church of the time with modern standards of academic freedom is an injustice to some extent as well.

But as a Christian, I still have to ask if we shouldn’t be better than that. After all, we claim divine guidance. We claim great hope. I would not demand that reformation come instantly, or that the church be wonderfully far ahead of the world around it. I’d just ask that it be a little bit ahead, or more accurately a little bit better. (“Ahead” begs the question of whether we’re going the right way!) The same challenge faces the church today. Are we really doing anything but following cultural trends? In many cases, I think we are not.

There is a further problem with views of Galileo, and that is the unfortunate idea that the Bible should be used to provide or to test scientific answers. I will repeat what I have said before–there is nothing in the Bible that cannot be adequately understood with the cosmology of the ancient near east. There is no advance of physical science provided by divine revelation. I would ask anyone who disagrees to point to such a thing in scripture. Testing cosmology by scripture is a colossal waste of time. We should no by now that theology is not the best approach to knowledge of the physical world.

So that leaves me with two elements of the Galileo incident. First, there is a church (and state) that believes it can put someone on trial because they either believe what is false or are obnoxious. Second, that church is testing such ideas by a standard and using methods that are not capable of producing accurate results. Both of those things are terribly bad. They’re not friendly to science.

Let’s not replace the myth of Galileo the pure and righteous punished by the church with a myth of a church behaving in a fully reasonable fashion. There was still an inquisition, the decision was still wrong, the place and the method was inappropriate to their purpose, and the decision made turned out, not surprisingly to be on the wrong side of history.

Why does the myth persist? Simple. The victors write the history, and Galileo happened to be right, and the pope was wrong. He should have just sucked it up and let Galileo insult him. It would have provided a better legacy.

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4 Comments

  1. I think the notion that the disagreement was largely about religion vs science is I think mistaken. Would it be more properly viewed as science vs politics?

    (consider also the all to frequent recasting of pi as a rational number by politicians or other notion).

    Galileo’s mockery and such of the Pope threatened the political aspects of the Papacy not the religious. Now you can argue that the Church should not be in the political arena, but in the early 17th century with the Reformation and counter-Reformation going on ascribing modern relevance to their views and reactions is strained.

    1. Now you can argue that the Church should not be in the political arena, but in the early 17th century with the Reformation and counter-Reformation going on ascribing modern relevance to their views and reactions is strained.

      Certainly, applying 21st century standards to 17th century events would be questionable, except that one can look at the results of such standards in action.

      But in this case my argument is that the church should be a bit above the culture, at least. The pope’s political offense needed to be seasoned by the gospel. I don’t think he did well, not in the light of 21st century standards, but rather in the light of the person whose vicar he claims to be.

      Further, applying one time’s standards to another is going on in all versions of this myth. In telling his version, Carter suggests to modern scientists that they shouldn’t be concerned about the church attempting to block their discoveries. We would hardly be talking about this with such vigor if there was no attempt at a modern application.

      1. In telling his version, Carter suggests to modern scientists that they shouldnÂ’t be concerned about the church attempting to block their discoveries. We would hardly be talking about this with such vigor if there was no attempt at a modern application.

        You (mostly) had me until here, Henry. Carter doesn’t explicitly suggest this, and I find it hard to read him charitably implying this anywhere. When he directs lessons to specific groups (even ID proponents), he says to scientists, “it shows that if you are in agreement with most of your colleagues, you will most likely be forgotten while history remembers some crank.” I don’t see where he condones the actions of the Church, although he does try to dispel overly vilified notions about what the Church did to Galileo.

        I think Mark’s assessment of the reality being science vs. politics is at least closer than science vs. religion – although, truthfully, I think both sides were guilty of using politics against the other. The Church just had more power than Galileo.

  2. Hi, I just did another debunking of the Galileo myth at my blog in case you wanted to give yet another debunking some constructive criticism 🙂

    Mine focuses more on the science — but I agree the church was definitely misguided — I don’t mention it but I remember reading from Galileo’s letters that he though this would be a very bad move for the Church’s future credibility if they hedge their beliefs against a scientific theory that could easily change in the near future — and of course in that he was right.

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