The story of Galileo’s conflict with the church is often referenced as an exemplar of the science-versus-Christianity narrative. It is commonly believed that Galileo was persecuted and imprisoned by the pope for arguing that the earth rotates around the sun, rather than the sun around the earth, because his scientific discovery was contrary to a literal reading of scripture. While it is certainly true that Galileo was put on trial for his work, the story is not a straightforward case of Christians opposing science in favor of literal interpretation of scripture.
Biblical interpretation and ancient cosmology
In the Old Testament, the earth is often described as being supported by pillars, with the sun, moon and stars traveling around it. For example, 1 Samuel 2.8 reads “He raises up the poor out of the dust, and lifts up the beggar from the dunghill to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory; for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he has set the world upon them.” Likewise, Psalm 104:3-5 reads: “He makes the clouds his chariot, and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, and flames of fire his servants. He has set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.”
These description of the earth as set on pillars and immovable are usually couched in strongly poetic language, where the point being made is about God’s power and authority over the world he created and sustains. For example, Isaiah 66:1: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool”. As we explored earlier, the “literal” reading of scripture is not always the most faithful reading. While there is no reason to think that the ancient Israelites questioned the literal truth of the earth being founded on pillars, there is good evidence that even the early Christians did not take this language literally. Between the 6th and the 4th century BC, Greek philosophers like Pythagoras, Parmenides and Aristotle had argued that the earth was not flat and supported on pillars but spherical, and that the sun revolved around it. The evidence we have suggests that most of the early Christians followed this cosmology: it was the science of their day.
By the turn of the 17th century, when Galileo was advocating for the heliocentric model, the geocentric model had been taught in universities for centuries. So Galileo’s work was by no means the first challenge to biblical literalism in cosmology. In fact, the geocentric model that it replaced was more a product of ancient Greek thought than of biblical literalism.
Why did Galileo’s work cause such controversy?
Galileo was not the first scientist to propose the heliocentric model. Nicholas Copernicus had published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in 1543, and for several decades it drew little attention from philosophers or theologians. But in 1616, the book was banned for “being contrary to scripture”, after the publication of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius in 1610. So why did Galileo’s work spark such controversy when Copernicus’s work had not?
There were multiple factors that contributed to Galileo’s scientific stance becoming a flashpoint. Firstly, the impact of the protestant reformation in the 16th century, with its emphasis on sola scriporum (scripture alone) had been to bias both Catholic and Protestant theologians alike more towards biblical literalism. So there was more sensitivity to a scientific theory that questioned a literal reading of scripture than there would have been a century earlier. In his letter to his Benedictine friend, Benedetto Castelli, Galileo argued for the compatibility of the heliocentric model with a biblical worldview – citing Augustine as a reference point for the non-literal interpretation of certain biblical passages where the writers had accommodated their language to the capacity of ordinary people. But this argument was less persuasive to a church that was reeling from the protestant reformation. In fact, the Catholic church was sensitive to non-clerics assuming the right to interpret scripture, as this had been a protestant rallying cry. So Galileo’s attempt not only to champion a scientific theory that challenged the church’s interpretation of scripture, but also to ague for a particular interpretation of scripture as part of that challenge, was a controvertial move.
Secondly, Galileo’s championing of Copernicus’s work was opposed by many contemporary scientists, who were wedded to the Aristotelian view and thought that Galileo has insufficient evidence to overturn the geocentric model. Some of these scientists sought to position the heliocentric view as contrary to scripture, in an effort to defend their own model. When the church authorities dismissed the heliocentric model as “foolish and absurd” they were in line with most of the scientists of their day.
Thirdly, Galileo presented his work in a way that was perceived as directly insulting to the pope. Cardinal Maffeo, who became Pope Urban VIII in 1623, was a friend and admirer of Galileo’s and gave him permission to write a treatment of the Copernican issue, with the proviso that the work should be “hypothetical”. Galileo interpreted this in a different way to the pope’s intention, but wrote an introduction and conclusion in an effort to make it clear that the work was only intended to by “hypothetical”. The work was delivered to the pope at a time when he was under a lot of political pressure and the pope’s own perspective had been represented in Galileo’s work through the character Simplicio, which Pope Urban took to be a satirical attack. Thus, the pope went from being Galileo’s friend to being determined to see him brought to trial for heresy.
Galileo was never sent to prison or tortured by the Catholic church. The outcome of the trial was that he was ordered to abjure the condemned, heliocentric view, or face burning at the stake for heresy. He abjured, and instead of being executed, he was held under comfortable house arrest, first at a friend’s house and then in his home near Florence, where he continued to pursue his scientific work until his death.
It is undoubtedly the case that Galileo’s championing of the heliocentric view was opposed by the Catholic church, and that Galileo was condemned for heresy under his former friend, Pope Urban VIII’s authority. However, there were many political and scientific issues that contributed to the pope’s opposition to Galileo, and this was not a simple case of science overturning centuries of biblical literalism. The heliocentric view did, however, overturn Aristotelian cosmology, which had been the accepted scientific model for centuries. Galileo by no means saw himself as a secular scientist opposing a biblical worldview, but rather as a Christian scientist discovering the wonders of God’s creation. The Galileo story is often told as a triumph of secular science over Christian theology. However, it could equally be told as a triumph of Christian science over a cosmology derived from pagan philosophy.
Numbers, R.L. (ed) Galileo Goes to Jail, and Other Myths about Science and Religion. USA: Harvard University Press