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Galileo’s legacy: Catholicism, Copernicanism, and conflict resolution

Four hundred years ago on 26 February 1616, Galileo Galilei was ordered by the Catholic Church to abandon his promotion of Copernican theory due to its perceived contradiction with certain biblical passages. His adherence to Copernicanism would later lead to his arrest for heresy. This famous historical conflict of ideas has been used by many as an example of the natural antagonism between scientific thought and organised religion, but is it that simple? In the extract below, Thomas Dixon explores the complex and often contradictory relationship between these two major powers in his book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction.

In Rome on 22 June 1633 an elderly man was found guilty by the Catholic Inquisition of rendering himself “vehemently suspected of heresy, namely, of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture”. The doctrine in question was that “the sun is the centre of the world and does not move from east to west, that the earth moves and is not the centre of the world, and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined as contrary to Holy Scripture”. The guilty man was the 70-year-old Florentine philosopher Galileo Galilei, who was sentenced to imprisonment (a punishment that was later commuted to house arrest) and instructed to recite the seven penitential Psalms once a week for the next three years as a ‘salutary penance’. That included a weekly recitation of the particularly apt line addressed to God in Psalm 102: “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands” Kneeling before the ‘Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General’, Galileo accepted his sentence, swore complete obedience to the ‘Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’, and declared that he cursed and detested the ‘errors and heresies’ of which he had been suspected – namely belief in a sun-centred cosmos and in the movement of the earth.

It is hardly surprising that this humiliation of the most celebrated scientific thinker of his day by the Catholic Inquisition on the grounds of his beliefs about astronomy and their contradiction of the Bible should have been interpreted by some as evidence of an inevitable conflict between science and religion. The modern encounter between evolutionists and creationists has also seemed to reveal an on-going antagonism, although this time with science, rather than the church, in the ascendancy. The Victorian agnostic Thomas Huxley expressed this idea vividly in his review of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).

“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain.”

The image of conflict has also been attractive to some religious believers, who use it to portray themselves as members of an embattled but righteous minority struggling heroically to protect their faith against the oppressive and intolerant forces of science and materialism.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans,1636. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans,1636. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Although the idea of warfare between science and religion remains widespread and popular, recent academic writing on the subject has been devoted primarily to undermining the notion of an inevitable conflict. As we shall see, there are good historical reasons for rejecting simple conflict stories. From Galileo’s trial in 17th-century Rome to modern American struggles over the latest form of anti-evolutionism, known as ‘Intelligent Design’, there has been more to the relationship between science and religion than meets the eye, and certainly more than just conflict. Pioneers of early modern science such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle saw their work as part of a religious enterprise devoted to understanding God’s creation. Galileo too thought that science and religion could exist in mutual harmony. The goal of a constructive and collaborative dialogue between science and religion has been endorsed by many Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the modern world. The idea that scientific and religious views are inevitably in tension is also contradicted by the large numbers of religious scientists who continue to see their research as a complement rather than a challenge to their faith, including the theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne, the former director of the Human Genome Project Francis S. Collins, and the astronomer Owen Gingerich, to name just a few.

Does that mean that conflict needs to be written out of our story altogether? Certainly not. The only thing to avoid is too narrow an idea of the kinds of conflicts one might expect to find between science and religion. The story is not always one of a heroic and open-minded scientist clashing with a reactionary and bigoted church. The bigotry, like the open-mindedness, is shared around on all sides – as are the quest for understanding, the love of truth, the use of rhetoric, and the compromising entanglements with the power of the state. Individuals, ideas, and institutions can and have come into conflict, or been resolved into harmony, in an endless array of different combinations.’

 Featured image credit: Solar System. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Allan Hayes

    There is more to this: Kepler had published in 1609 his first two laws:
    – planets orbit in ellipses round the sun at a focus
    – the line from the sun to the planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times His third relating average distance from the sun to periodic time was published in 1619.

  2. angie lin

    so what exactly is the compromise

  3. Robert Poole

    The conflict was not simple or absolute, but Galileo was not planning to burn his critics alive, which is what faced him if he failed to back down. Introduce that into today’s debates and we’ll see how robust some of these carefully nuanced arguments are.

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