On June 22, 1633—388 years ago this week—the Catholic Church handed down the following order in a heresy trial against the astronomer Galileo:
We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo . . . have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world.
Galileo thus became the first great man to be persecuted by Christians for his faith in science. Scientists eventually had the last word, though, for three centuries later, at a ceremony in Rome before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II officially declared that Galileo was right, and the church was wrong.
That’s the story you may have heard about Galileo Galilei. But that’s not the true story.
Galileo thus became the first great man to be persecuted by Christians for his faith in science. But that’s not the true story.
The real story is not about an enlightened scientist being persecuted by a narrow-minded Catholic Church because that story is mostly a myth. It’s not a story about a great scientific genius either, though he mainly was that. It’s also not a story about someone being reincarnated with the soul of the old astronomer as in the song by the Indigo Girls that, for a few weeks in 1992, I thought was almost profound. And I should point out, this is not an original story, for this version is cribbed together from various sources.
But like many old stories this one provides a mostly valuable lesson for today. Before we get to what we can learn, though, we need to set the story straight.
Taking Down the Aristotelians
In Galileo’s day, the predominant view in astronomy was a model first espoused by Aristotle and developed by Claudius Ptolemy, in which the sun and planets revolved around the earth. The Ptolemaic system had been the reigning paradigm for over 1,400 years when a Polish canon named Nicholas Copernicus published his seminal work, On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs.
Copernicus’s heliocentric theory wasn’t exactly new, nor was it based on purely empirical observation. While it had a huge effect on the history of science, his theory was more of a revival of Pythagorean mysticism than of a new paradigm. Like many great discoveries, he merely took an old idea and gave it a new spin.
Although Copernicus’s fellow churchmen encouraged him to publish his work, he delayed the publication of On the Revolution for several years for fear of being mocked by the scientific community. At the time, the academy belonged to Aristotelians who weren’t about to let such nonsense slip through the peer review process.
Then came Galileo. The prototypical Renaissance man, he was a brilliant musician, mathematician, and scientist. But while he was intelligent, charming, and witty, the Italian was also argumentative, mocking, and vain. He was, as we would say today, complicated. When his fellow astronomer Johann Kepler wrote to tell him that he had converted to the Copernican theory, Galileo shot back that he had too—and had been converted for years (though all evidence shows it wasn’t true). His ego wouldn’t allow him to be upstaged by men who weren’t as smart as he was. And for Galileo, that included just about everybody.
But while he was intelligent, charming, and witty, the Italian was also argumentative, mocking, and vain.
In 1610, Galileo used his telescope to make some surprising discoveries that disputed Aristotelian cosmology. Though his findings didn’t exactly overthrow the reigning view of the day, they were warmly received by Pope Paul V and the rest of the Vatican. Yet instead of continuing his scientific studies and building on his theories, Galileo began a campaign to discredit the Aristotelian view of astronomy. His efforts would be akin to a modern biologist trying to dethrone Darwin. Galileo knew he was right and wanted to ensure everyone else knew the Aristotelians were wrong.
A Matter of Interpretation
In his efforts to cram Copernican heliocentrism down the throats of his fellow scientists, Galileo managed only to squander the goodwill he had established within the Catholic Church. He was attempting to force the church to accept a theory that, at the time, was still unproven. The Catholic Church graciously offered to consider the Copernican view as a reasonable hypothesis until further proof could be gathered. Galileo, however, never came up with more evidence to support the theory. Instead, he continued to pick fights with his fellow scientists, even though many of his conclusions were being proven wrong (e.g., that the planets orbit the sun in perfect circles).
Galileo’s biggest mistake was to move the fight out of the realm of science and into the field of biblical interpretation. In a fit of hubris, he wrote the Letter to Castelli in order to explain how his theory was not incompatible with proper biblical exegesis. With the Protestant Reformation still fresh on their minds, the authorities in the Catholic Church were in no mood to endure another troublemaker trying to interpret Scripture on his own.
But to the church’s credit, it didn’t overreact. The Letter to Castelli was twice presented to the Inquisition as an example of the astronomer’s heresy and twice the charges were dismissed. Galileo, however, wasn’t satisfied and continued his efforts to force the Catholic Church to concede that the Copernican system was an issue of irrefutable truth.
In 1615, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine politely presented Galileo with an option: put up or shut up.
In 1615, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine politely presented Galileo with an option: put up or shut up.
Since there was no proof the earth revolved around the sun, there was no reason for Galileo to change the authorities’ preferred interpretation of Holy Scripture. But if he had proof, the Vatican was willing to reconsider its position. Galileo’s response was to produce his theory that the ocean tides were caused by the earth’s rotation. The idea was not only scientifically inaccurate but so silly it was even rejected by his supporters. (Isaac Newton would explain 72 years later that tides result from the gravitational attraction of the sun and moon on the oceans.)
Galileo’s Tactics: Insulting the Pope and Lying
Fed up with being dismissed, Galileo returned to Rome to bring his case before the pope. The pontiff, however, merely passed it along to the Holy Office that issued the opinion saying the Copernican doctrine is “foolish and absurd, philosophically and formally heretical inasmuch as it expressly contradicts the doctrine of Holy Scripture in many passages.” This verdict was quickly overruled by other cardinals in the Church.
Galileo wasn’t about to let up, though, and to everyone’s exasperation, pressed the issue yet again. The Holy Office politely but firmly told him to shut up about the whole Copernican thing and forbid him from espousing the unproven theory. This was more than Galileo was willing to do.
When his friend Maffeo Barberini, a man knowledgeable in matters of math and science, took over the papal throne, Galileo thought he would finally find a sympathetic ear. He discussed the issue with newly named Pope Urban VIII and tried to use his theory of the tides to convince him of his theory’s validity. Pope Urban was unconvinced and even gave an answer—though not a correct one—that refuted the notion.
Galileo then wrote A Dialogue About the Two Chief World Systems in which he would present the views of both Copernicus and Ptolemy. Three characters would be involved: Salviati, the Copernican; Sagredo, the undecided; and Simplicio, the Ptolemian (the name Simplicio implying “simple-minded”). And here is where we find our hero making his biggest blunder yet: he took the words that Pope Urban had used to refute Galileo’s theory of the tides and put them in the mouth of Simplicio.
The pope was not amused.
Galileo, who was now old and sickly, was once again called before the Inquisition, a tribunal of the Catholic Church charged with the suppression of heresy. Unlike most suspected heretics, though, he was treated surprisingly well. While awaiting his trial, Galileo was housed in a luxurious apartment overlooking the Vatican gardens and provided with a personal valet.
While making his defense, Galileo tried a peculiar tactic. He attempted to convince the judges that he had never maintained or defended the opinion that the earth moves and the sun is stationary and he had, in fact, demonstrated the opposite by showing how the Copernican hypothesis was in error. Members of the Holy Office, who knew they was being played for fools, condemned him as being “vehemently suspected of heresy,” a patently unjust ruling considering that Copernicanism had never been declared heretical.
Galileo’s sentence was to renounce his theory and to live out the rest of his days in a pleasant country house near Florence. The exile apparently did him good, because it was there, under the care of his daughter, that he continued his experiments and published his best scientific work, Discourses on Two New Sciences. He died quietly in 1642 at the age of 77.
As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “In a generation which saw the Thirty Years’ War and remembered Alva in the Netherlands, 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.”
Our World Revolves Around the Truth
What can we learn from this tale? Galileo’s example provides different lessons for different groups of people.
For scientists it shows that if you are in agreement with most of your colleagues, you will most likely be forgotten while history remembers some crank. For advocates of non-consensus positions, it teaches that claiming your theory is correct is no substitute for backing it up with experiments and data (even if you are right). For aggressively self-confident people, the lesson is that sometimes being persistent and believing in yourself will just get you into trouble. For Roman Catholics, it provides an example of why you shouldn’t insult the pope (at least when there is an Inquisition going on).
There are likely many more lessons that can be gleaned, but I find the real moral is not so much in the story but in the fact that the story even needs to be told again. While I first heard the story of Galileo in elementary school, it wasn’t until about a decade after I had graduated from college that I finally learned the truth. No doubt some people are just now hearing about it for the first time. How is that possible?
I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that for centuries people like Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Carl Sagan, Bertolt Brecht, and the Indigo Girls have been passing on the myth. I don’t think any of them were intentionally lying. In fact, I doubt any of them ever bothered to examine the facts. They didn’t need to. The story fit what they already believed—that science and religion were natural enemies—and that was all they needed to know.
It would be easy to mock such gullibility and intellectual laziness. But the reality is that most of us are guilty of doing the same thing quite often. We are prone to confirmation bias (the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values) because we prefer simple explanations that fit with our preferred narrative. Indeed, almost everyone involved in Galileo’s story, as well as the myth that sprung up about it, is rooted in confirmation bias.
Christians should fight confirmation bias because we don’t have the option of favoring whatever position we already prefer. We have a higher duty to the truth than our secular neighbors because of the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). That is why the enduring lesson of the Galileo myth is the simple admonition to conform what we believe (and what we’ve been told) with the truth (Prov. 23:23). We should always strive to side with the truth since that is the side God will be on (John 14:6).
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