GALILEO REALLY PERSECUTED BY THE CHURCH?
Truth Will Shock You: It Was NOT the Church Which Persecuted
Galileo But His Fellow Scientists!
Demolishing a Modern
There is a widespread myth which almost every school
science teacher will use when he introduces his pupils to the
subject of Galileo. Let us allow Philip J. Sampson to relate it
'The plot is the war between
religion and science, and it is presented to us, not with the
facts, but through the adventures of a charismatic individual.
Armed only with a telescope and reason, plucky Galileo stood
against the might of the Church. He was tortured by the
Inquisition, condemned as a heretic, and wasted away in a prison
cell; Italian science floundered. The main drawback to this plot
is that most of it is untrue.'
(Philip J. Sampson, Six Modern Myths, ch 1, p
29-30, Inter-Varsity Press, 2000).
Outstanding 1970s philosophy of science writer Paul Feyerabend refused to be taken in by the usual myths about Galileo, writing this:
"The trial of Galileo was one of many trials. It had no special features except perhaps that Galileo was treated rather mildly, despite his lies and attempts at deception. But a small clique of intellectuals aided by scandal-hungry writers succeeded in blowing it up to enormous dimensions so that what was basically an altercation between an expert and an institution defending a wider view of things now looks almost like a battle between heaven and hell." (p. 127, 'Against Method,' fourth edition. This is the paperback version of just under 300 pages, with an Introduction from Ian Hacking, and published by Verso of London and New York).
we are going to see, the popular story about a powerful and
superstitious Church fighting against the brilliant science of
Galileo is very largely a myth of rationalist
the 'Church' which I refer to in this article is the
17th century Roman Catholic Church and some may
wonder why I would want to defend them, but I think that all
Christian Apologetics must always strive to uphold the
truth. The Galileo myth is used by modernist atheists and
scoffers to attack the record of Christianity and I really think
that we should all honestly consider the real
evidence and not popular modernist spin.
Sometimes the popular myth is embellished even
further and we are presented with the tale that Galileo invented
the telescope and was the very first man to look at the heavens
with one. In fact, of course, the telescope was invented by
Johann Lippersheim in 1605 and Galileo almost certainly was not
the first man to consult the heavens through a telescope lens, we
do not know who that was, but the Englishman Thomas Harriot
certainly observed the moon through a telescope around
Another myth is that Galileo conclusively proved that
the earth orbits the sun – but it was not yet possible to
deduce that much in Galileo's day, as several scholars are
starting to admit. In fact, Galileo's research was concerned with
sun spots, the phases of Venus and the lumpiness, or irregularity,
of the surface of the moon. Thus we see how the myths of
modernism snowball along!
the science of Galileo's day was Aristotelian in approach
and he knew that some of his conclusions would not fit in with
their approach. He published his conclusions in 1613 in
Letters on Sunspots. The Church largely accepted his
science but the universities which were steeped in Aristotle
opposed him. Many writers have claimed that Galieo feared being
branded as a heretic and therefore being handed over to the
Inquisition - J.W. Draper is typical of such writers, but the
truth is that it was the scornful rejection of his
fellow astronomers which he greatly feared. Indeed, he dedicated his book to Pope
Paul III. His book circulated for over 70 years with no
opposition from the Church, but with almost continual opposition
from his fellow scientists!!
from being excommunicated and ostracized by the Church at this
stage in his life, he became popular with several cardinals and
was befriended by the man who later became Pope Urban
much later (in 1632) Galileo wrote another book which he called,
Dialogue Concerning the Chief World Systems and in this
book he went much further and did alienate the Church. In
this book he sought to reinterpret several biblical passages but
this went against the Council of Trent guidelines which were
established by about 1565. The Roman Catholic Church of the day
did not feel it was the business of a scientist (and one rejected
by many of his fellow scientists at that), to publish works on
biblical interpretation, this being considered as interference in
the matters of the Church. To make things even worse he mocked
some ideas of the pope (Urban VIII, who had been his friend) in
this book. Before a year had elapsed from its publication,
Galieo's book was banned.
quite elderly, he was brought to Rome but his penalty was nowhere
near as harsh as some have claimed. He was detained but given his
own quarters and his own servant. He later returned home. True, he
could not travel freely but was still allowed visitors and also free to
write to whoever he chose. A.N. Whitehead wrote
'Galileo suffered an
honourable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully
in his own bed.'
(A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World,
Cambridge University Press, 1946).
the usual story about the brilliant genius Galileo fighting
against a scientifically-prejudiced, small-minded and
superstitious Church which culminated in him being handed over to
the Inquisition and finally rotting in a prison cell has almost
no association with the truth. Most of his opposition came from
fellow scientists who accepted Aristotelian cosmology. He only
got into trouble with the Church when, later in life, he went a
step too far and sought to re-interpret Scripture in a manner
which the Council of Trent had recently barred.
let it be clear that, in all of this, I am not necessarily
defending the Roman Catholic Church of Galileo's time, but we
should be clear about the facts of this because the usual
modernist myth of a hapless Galileo upsetting the Church by his
assertion that the earth was not at the centre of the universe is
really wide of the mark. The Church had little interest in his
science but generally welcomed his conclusions – it was his
fellow scientists in the universities who opposed him. Indeed,
many reading the relevant evidence may feel that Galileo brought
persecution on himself by showing a lack of wisdom in his later
the way, there is also another thing we should clarify here and
was the Aristotle that Galileo's fellow scientists greatly
revered who had taught that, in the universe, everything revolves
around the earth – the Bible says no such thing! Psalm
19:4-6 has been misunderstood in this regard. While these verses
could suggest that the sun itself moves, it is clear that this is
only a reference to the sun moving across the heavens as it
appears to us on earth. It is true that the Council of Trent
supported Aristotelian science but only because it seemed the
best understanding available at that time. As R.J. Blackwell has
pointed out, Galileo was condemned not because the Bible
conflicted with observation, but because he differed with the
Church over what authority should be used to interpret it
(Blackwell, 1991, 120ff – see sources).
Robin A. Brace, 2005.
Blackwell, R.J. - Galileo, Bellarmine and the
Bible. London: University of Notre Dame, 1991.
Dante Aligheri – The Divine Comedy. Trans,
Sayers, D.L., and Reynolds, B., 3 vols. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
Draper, J.W. - History of the Conflict Between
Religion and Science. London: Kegan Paul,
Galileo, Galilei - Discoveries and Opinions of
Galileo. Trans, Drake, S. New York: Anchor,
Langford, J.J. Galileo, Science and the Church. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971.
Moore, P. - Guide to Comets. London:
Lutterworth. And A Beginner's Guide to Astronomy. London:
PRC Publishing, 1997.
Sampson, Philip - Six Modern Myths. Leicester:
Inter-Varsity Press, 2000.
Whitehead, A.N. - Science and the Modern
World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,