The Galileo Myth: Does History Support a Conflict Theory Between Christianity and Science?
I knew it would happen, I just didn’t know when. Sometime during a college semester, I could usually count on one of my professors standing up and telling a story similar to this one:
The dark ages was a time of backwardness and superstition. Religion held back progress and enlightenment. The quintessential example of this oppression was Galileo. He challenged Christianity with his telescope. The Church thought the telescope was bewitched and would not even look through it. They persecuted him and silenced him.
This is often used as an example of why religion and science should be segregated. The problem with the story is that it’s a myth, apparently told by people who have little knowledge of the relationship between science and religion in history. But, it has just enough truth to sound plausible. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying, “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”
Such a view, which I’ll call the “Conflict Hypothesis” portrays science and religion as mortal enemies, locked in combat for the right to say what is true about reality. After all, “religion is about faith and science is about facts” so the cliché goes. The problem with this theory is that it does not describe much of what has happened historically. This view is less a product of history than a result of some unbelievers who are trying to impose an atheistic Weltanschauung upon society.
The Conflict Hypothesis
The Conflict Hypothesis is recent, given the long relationship between science and religion. Although hostility toward Christianity flared during the Enlightenment, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century when the Conflict Hypothesis surfaced. Two prominent books that propagated this view were History of the Conflict between Religion and Science by John William Draper and History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White.
Today, both books have been discredited, but their underlying thesis continues to have a long shelf life. As Dinesh D’Souza has recently said, “historians are virtually unanimous in holding that the whole science versus religion story is a nineteenth century fabrication.” (1) Recently, scholars have brought in a richer body of knowledge than just the old Enlightenment apologia and have argued for a more complex picture of the relationship between religion and science historically.
This “Complexity Hypothesis” appears to better explain the facts surrounding one of the most popular myths told by those supporting the Conflict view: the drumming that Galileo received from the Catholic Church in 1633. The Complexity Hypothesis presents a more complicated relationship between science and religion, one that reveals both cooperation and tension.
Any good hypothesis should provide a reasonable explanation of the known facts of history, yet the Conflict Hypothesis falls woefully short of an explanation especially for the events surrounding Galileo and the Catholic Church.
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Conflict v. Complexity: an Analysis
The Conflict Hypothesis poorly assesses the relationship between Christianity, science, and the theories of the time pertaining to the earth’s motion. Those that promote the Conflict Hypothesis normally ascribe the teaching of geocentricism (the view that the earth is stationary and the center of the universe) to Christianity (“the Bible”) while ascribing heliocentricism (the view that the sun is stationary and the center of the universe) to “science.” The problem with this view is that the Bible does not “teach” geocentricism. The Bible uses phenomenological language to describe conditions within nature. Today, we still do this when saying things like “the sun is setting.” In fact, Galileo believed that the Bible supported the Heliocentric Theory and used the Bible in defense of his position. Galileo quoted Job 9:6 as a defense of the mobility of the earth. Galileo cites the "Commentary on Job" (1584) by Didacus a Stunica who said that the mobility of the earth is not contrary to Scripture. So, both those that advanced geocentricism and heliocentricism claimed that the Bible supported their position.
Galileo believed the Bible was true. He said, "I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the Holy Bible can never speak untruth -- whenever its true meaning is understood." (2) Galileo believed that the Bible should be interpreted metaphorically in matters pertaining to nature. A further problem for the Conflict Hypothesis is that this belief came from the Catholic Church. Galileo’s famous statement that “the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go” was not original with him, but was the brainchild of Cardinal Cesare Baronius (1548-1607). (3) He, like other Catholics taught that the “Book of Nature” was for the common man, but that the “Book of Scripture” was written metaphorically at times so that the common man could understand it. Furthermore, the belief was that the Bible had to be filtered through Church tradition and teaching before it could be disseminated and taught to the people. A Catholic, Bible-believing Galileo does not square with the basic assumptions of the Conflict Hypothesis.
So, the roots of Galileo’s beliefs pertaining to heliocentricism were rooted, in part, in his Catholicism, and not just within observational science. In fact, Galileo’s views about heliocentricism were hardly grounded in observational science at all. The attraction of the heliocentric theory to men like Galileo was not because of the preponderance of physical evidence supporting it (the physical evidence of the time actually supported geocentricism); rather it was because of the predictive power of the theory.
Next, the Conflict Hypothesis assumes that the Christian religion is the great and natural nemesis of empirical science. However, today’s great suppresser of scientific inquiry is not the Roman Church, but rather is what Steven Jay Gould called “Darwinian fundamentalists” (a reference to Richard Dawkins). In fact, these Darwinian zealots find themselves in the same boat as the Catholic Church of old in that both suppress the teaching that the Bible as the final authority on all matters. The last thing that the Roman church wanted taught was that the Bible was the final authority. The hegemony that the Catholic Church held on science in Christendom is unimpressive compared with the grip that a handful of Darwinists exercise on the community of science today.
The story of Galileo and the Catholic Church as told by those that espouse the Conflict Hypothesis is in bad need of a retelling, a retelling that adds more data than what the Conflict Theory leaves out. The story is a complicated one and certainly is not worthy of the clichés that some secular academics have heaped upon it. Many do not know, for example,
- at the time that Copernicus (and later Galileo) was advancing the heliocentric theory, the evidence supported the geocentric view that the earth was stationary.
- Galileo, while right about the earth moving, was wrong about its rotation. Galileo believed wrongly, like Copernicus, that the planets moved in a circular motion. During Galileo’s day, Johannes Kepler had demonstrated that the planets moved in an elliptical orbit. Galileo, believing the contrary, rejected the hypothesis that the orbit of the earth around the Sun was elliptical. In the words of Colin Russell, “Even Galileo did not actually prove the earth’s motion, and his favorite argument in support of it, that of the tides, was a ‘great mistake.’” (4)
- modern science was berthed within Christendom. Many that pursued scientific studies were churchman. In fact, many of the churchmen who were contemporaries of Galileo were themselves either amateur scientists or followers of scientific progress. When Galileo was censured by the Church, the pope, Urban VIII, had been an admirer of Galileo, even writing a poem about him.
Even the story surrounding Galileo’s teaching of the heliocentric theory and his censure are more complicated than what are commonly portrayed. It is true that Galileo was censured for teaching heliocentricism, but Galileo had complicated the matter by making a commitment, in writing, that he would not teach heliocentricism as true, a pledge he later violated.
Perhaps Galileo should never have made such a commitment or the Church should have never demanded the censure, but this is hardly any worse than the many teachers who are attacked by the current Darwinian establishment for teaching Intelligent Design in the classroom. Scholars like Richard von Sernberg, Caroline Crocker, Robert J. Marks, II, and Guillermo Gonzalez have had their reputations besmirched by careless Darwinian headhunters. (5)
So, where did we get the idea that Galileo was a martyr of empirical science? Where else?—television. Just as many people view the Scopes Trial through the lens of Inherit the Wind, so also people see Galileo through a 1975 film called Galileo which was based on a play by the same name written by Bertolt Brecht in the 1930s. In this film, Galileo is portrayed as a martyr of science and being oppressed by religion. However, Arthur Koestler in The Sleepwalking, said “I believe the idea that Galileo’s trial was a kind of Greek tragedy, a showdown between blind faith and enlightened reason, to be naively erroneous.” Some Darwinists have tried to paint Galileo in such a fashion, like some kind of “secular saint.” As a story, this is fine; as history, it’s not.
In the end, the Conflict Hypothesis fails as an adequate explanation of the historical relationship between science and religion in the west. It fails to account for how modern science was berthed in Christendom. The Church itself was not an intellectual wasteland, but was the locus of scholarship. When it comes to Galileo, the Church approached the question of the earth’s motion in an empirical fashion, keeping in mind that the bulk of available evidence to Galileo & Co. supported geocentricism. Furthermore, the Conflict Hypothesis fails to account of how that some of the greatest scientific minds like Bacon, Galileo, Faraday, Newton, Kepler, and Carver were theists, some Christian.
A question “Who used both religion and empirical observation, but was squashed by the scientific elites of his day”? If you were to say “Galileo” you’d be wrong: Galileo’s lean toward heliocentricism was not rooted in empirical data. But, if you were to say “Guillermo Gonzalez” you’d be correct. Ironically it is today’s Darwinian fundamentalists that use power to squash opposition to their views and close their eyes to the evidence before them. As for Galileo, Alfred North Whitehead probably summed it up best: “the worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honorable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.” (6)
(1) Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great about Christianity? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2007), 104.
(2) Galileo in a letter to Madame Christina quoted in Stillman Drake, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957.
(3) Richard J. Blackwell, “Galileo Galilei.” In Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, Gary B. Ferngren, ed. , (Baltimore, MD: the Johns Hopkins University Press 2002), 111.
(4) Colin A. Russell, “Science and Religion: Conflict or Complexity.” In Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction Gary B. Ferngren, ed. (Baltimore, MD: the Johns Hopkins University Press 2002), 18.
(5) The attack on these scholars is presented in Ben Stein’s documentary: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.
(6) Alfred North Whitehead, quoted in Dinesh D’Souza’s, What’s So Great about Christianity? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2007), 104.