Myths About Science and Religion: Galileo

by Ken Mann

Part one of three. The trial of Galileo before the Roman Inquisition is perhaps the most distorted episode in the history of science and religion. This three-part series of posts addresses the myths, complexities and lessons we can learn from Galileo’s trial. The focus of the trial, what was really at stake, was the authority of the Catholic Church. Galileo challenged the Church and the nearly unanimous scientific consensus of his time.

This installment sets the stage in terms of the historical context and events that led up to Galileo’s trial.

Critics of Christianity will assert, based on history, that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion and they use the trial of Galileo before the Inquisition as an “example” of the conflict. We’re told Galileo was tortured, forced to recant his belief in a heliocentric universe, and imprisoned for the remainder of his life for the heresy of advocating heliocentrism. This series will address how aspects of this narrative are false and others are misleading. Galileo’s conflict with the Church has been described as “… a clash of ideas between scientific claims fervently held by a small band of scientific reformers on the one hand and opposing theological doctrines supported by centuries of church tradition on the other.”[1] Galileo is described as a martyr of science because the Catholic Church was opposed to science.[2] Over the course of three posts we will see that the Galileo affair was not about science but about the authority of the Catholic Church over how to interpret the Bible. The nascent disciplines of astronomy and cosmology suffered at the hands of an entrenched and embattled institution, however the conflict was not about truth per se, but control.

This series of posts addresses the myths, complexities and lessons we can learn from Galileo’s trial. In terms of myths, there are two aspects accepted by history that are in fact false, specifically that during his trial Galileo was tortured and that he was imprisoned for the remainder of his life. In terms of complexity, there were many different factors at play that ultimately culminated in Galileo’s trial. It is simply a grotesque over simplification to assert that this incident represents the collision between science and theological doctrines. Finally, we can learn a great deal about the conflicts in our own day between theological and scientific authorities.

In order to understand these 17th century events it is worthwhile to take a step back and understand the state of cosmology[3] at that time. The Church and much of Europe, since at least the 13th century, had adopted an Aristotelian cosmology. The works of Aristotle had been reintroduced into Europe, in Latin, and were eventually integrated into Church teaching…

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Myths About Science and Religion: Galileo – The Integration of Mann