This year is the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin (1809–1882), and it’s no accident that assorted atheists are making sure that everyone knows that. But they have some competition from those wanting to name 2009 as the “International Year of Astronomy”, because it’s the quadricentennial of the first use of the telescope by Galileo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei (1564–1642), usually known by his first name only. Not to be outdone, the atheists have long used Galileo as a story of “science versus religion”. So what are the facts?1
Many historians of science have documented that the first to oppose Galileo was the scientific establishment, not the church. The prevailing ‘scientific’ wisdom of his day was the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic theory—an unwieldy geocentric system, with the earth at the centre of the universe and other heavenly bodies in highly complex orbits around the earth. And it had its origins in a pagan philosophical system.2
Galileo challenged all that, when he promoted Copernicus’s earlier idea that the Earth moved around the sun, i.e. the heliocentric or geokinetic theory.3 And much like the evolutionary establishment today, the Aristotelian establishment reacted furiously. As Arthur Koestler wrote:
“But there existed a powerful body of men whose hostility to Galileo never abated: the Aristotelians at the Universities…. Innovation is a twofold threat to academic mediocrities: it endangers their oracular authority, and it evokes the deeper fear that their whole, laboriously constructed intellectual edifice might collapse. The academic backwoodsmen have been the curse of genius … It was this threat — not Bishop Dantiscus or Pope Paul III — which had cowed Canon Koppernigk [i.e., Copernicus] into lifelong silence.
“The first serious attack against Copernicus on religious grounds came also not from clerical quarters, but from a layman — none other than delle Colombe, the leader of the [ardent Aristotelian] league.”4
To show that it was not mainly “religion vs science”, an example of the Church’s early attitude was shown by their top theologian, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. He said it was “excellent good sense” to claim that Galileo’s model was mathematically simpler, and:
“… If there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion false which has been proved to be true. But I do not think there is any such proof since none has been shown to me.”5
Actually, Galileo had not proven his case at the time—indeed, his best “proof” involving the tides is now known to be wrong. It is unfair to judge the church according to knowledge they couldn’t have possessed at the time.
Unfortunately, Galileo was largely a victim of his own arrogance and insulting writing style, as well as his unfortunate friendships. Galileo was once a close friend of Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII (1568–1644), who was a great admirer of this work, and shared his high self-opinion. But this mutual adulation came to a bitter end when Galileo wrote his classic 1632 book, The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo). This was an imagined debate about the geocentric v geokinetic systems. The former was defended by the character “Simplicio”, who was made to look foolish, and Urban recognized his own arguments in Simplicio’s mouth. Urban was outraged at the seeming betrayal by his close friend, and he was the one who initiated the trial while the Inquisitors were apparently indifferent.
Furthermore, Galileo’s own arrogance towards other astronomers didn’t help, e.g.:
Unfortunately, the church was led astray by the scientific establishment, so tried to read the then current model into Scripture, although, as shown below, the Bible doesn’t teach it. So they actually made the same mistake as the churches that now try to read the modern “scientific” fads of evolution and long ages into the Bible.6
This included hijacking the Psalms and reading the establishment model into them. But the Psalms are clearly poetic (not historical like Genesis), so were never intended to be used as a basis for a cosmological model.7
Take Psalm 93:1–2: “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” The next verse says that “[God’s] throne is established of old.” Here the same Hebrew word (כּוּן kôn) is translated “established” [i.e., stable, secure, enduring, not necessarily stationary, immobile]. Also, the same Hebrew word for ‘moved’ (מוֹט môt) is used in Psalm 16:8, ‘I shall not be moved.’ Surely, even skeptics wouldn’t accuse the Bible of teaching that the Psalmist was rooted to one spot! He meant that he would not stray from the path that God had set for him. So the earth ‘cannot be moved’ can also mean that it will not stray from the precise orbital and rotational pattern God has set for it.
Furthermore, there is no error in physics either. All motion must be described with respect to a reference frame. And you can choose any one you like. The Bible was simply using the earth as a reference frame, just as we do today. Even a modern astronomer will say, “Look at that beautiful sunrise (or sunset)” rather than, “Look at the way the earth has rotated to place its curvature directly in the light path of the sun.” And we always talk about a “stopped” car, meaning stopped relative to the ground. Only a pedant would point out that it’s travelling at about 1670 km/h due to the earth’s rotation on its axis,8 and orbiting 108,000 km/hr around the sun, as well as 900,000 km/h around the galaxy. Speed limits are likewise set relative to the ground.
Many antitheists praise Galileo for removing man from the centre of the universe, supposedly curing man’s arrogance. Typical is physicist Lawrence Krauss, “Galileo removed us from the centre of the universe: how much greater a fall could we have?”9
However, this shows complete ignorance of the historical context. The old geocentric view, i.e. with Earth at the centre, was not at all edifying. For much of church history, the centre was regarded as the lowest place to be. At the lowest was Hades at Earth’s centre, and the abode of man on Earth’s surface was the next worse, quite corrupted compared to heavenly perfections. The further away from the centre, the closer to heaven you were thought to be.
The moon, as fairly close to Earth, was regarded as a transitional place. The sun was in a higher plane, planets were pretty good, in their spheres made of the imperishable fifth element (quintessence), but not as exalted as the distant fixed stars, while the firmament was depicted as beyond even the stars, and God’s realm was further beyond that.
So moving the earth away from the centre was, in the context of the middle ages, actually exalting it.10 Rather, what really upset the establishment was Galileo’s discovery of blemishes on the sun (sunspots), precisely because it undermined the idea of perfect heavenly bodies.
Even the antitheistic publication New Scientist admitted, “Galileo’s Catholic faith was completely unshaken by his discovery,” and wondered whether this counted against his greatness. Furthermore, he was merely building on the thoughts of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), a Canon in the church. Johannes Kepler11 (1571–1630) made Galileo’s theory match observations when he worked out that the planets move in ellipses, and famously said his scientific research was “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” Sir Isaac Newton12 (1643–1727), who worked out the laws of motion and gravity to explain all this, wrote more to defend the Bible’s history than he did about science. Note also, all four were young-earth creationists!13
Dr Thomas Schirrmacher summarized in an excellent article in our Journal of Creation:
Further, the difference between the two systems was merely a matter of reference frames, as Sir Fred Hoyle (1915–2001) affirmed:
Finally, the claim that Galileo humbled Earth by removing it from its central position is diametrically opposite to how everyone thought at the time.