How Critics of Christianity Often Distort the Story of Galileo

by Charlie Campbell

Someone asked me a while back, “How do you justify the Catholic Church imprisoning and torturing Galileo for teaching that the Earth revolves around the Sun? That seems to me to be a prime example of people who take the Bible seriously standing in the way of scientific progress!”

Well, first off, I don’t try to justify what the Catholic Church did to Galileo (1564–1642). And neither does any Christian I know. Even the Catholic Church has apologized for their treatment of Galileo.[1] But it would be good to make sure we have our facts straight about what actually happened to Galileo.

Despite Carl Sagan’s statement about him being “in a Catholic dungeon” where he was “threatened…with torture”[2] or the Indigo Girls singing, “Galileo’s head was on the block,”[3] Galileo “was never in a dungeon or tortured.”[4] This is widely acknowledged today in biographies on Galileo, history books, the Encyclopedia Britannica, etc. Galileo was sentenced to a rather comfortable house arrest in his villa near Florence, Italy.[5] He was allowed to continue working and writing, and the Catholic Church even continued giving him his pension[6] until he died “peacefully in his bed”[7] nine years later at the age of 77 in 1642. Don’t misunderstand me—I disagree with how Galileo was treated. No one wants to have their ideas rejected and be confined to their home. So, I’m not seeking to justify what happened, only to lay to rest some of the legends about the Catholic Church supposedly torturing Galileo in a dungeon.

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But something else needs to be pointed out. The Catholic Church’s opposition to Galileo is only part of the story. Do you know who else rejected Galileo and his discoveries? The brightest intellectuals, secular philosophers, and academic professors of his day![8] I never see this mentioned on atheists’ websites. And I think I know why! It takes all the wind out of their “Christians were standing in the way of scientific progress” propaganda.
Galileo’s scientific arguments (which built upon and advanced Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentric Sun-centered hypothesis published in 1543) threatened the all-pervading view held by the academies. They held to the geocentric understanding developed by Aristotle (384–322 BC) that said the Earth was at the physical center of the universe[9] and Ptolemy’s (AD c. 100–c. 170) view that the Earth was stationary and the Sun revolved around it. This Aristotelian-Ptolemaic geocentric view was entrenched everywhere and it had been for 1400 years. So, it wasn’t just the Church that opposed Galileo’s discoveries! The brightest thinkers of the day disagreed with him, including the “secular philosophers who were enraged at his criticism of Aristotle.”[10] Even Tyco Brahe (1546–1601), the greatest astronomer of the period disagreed with Galileo.[11] This widespread opposition is a hugely important part of the story that is conveniently left out whenever atheists tell the story…

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