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Dr Marc Crislip

For a while there I had wondered if I was the only one who noticed the current attempts of theistically motivated historians and philosophers to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair. But no, greater minds have come to a similar conclusions. I picked up this quote from Marc Crislip on the most recent podcast of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe:

“Galileo was a man of science oppressed by the irrational and superstitious. Today, he is used by the irrational and the superstitious who say they are being oppressed by science. So 1984.”

So true.

Last year was the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating in part Galileo’s original use of a telescope to observe heavenly bodies. An important celebration for science.

But it was also taken up by Christian apologists, historians and philosophers. A number of books were published rewriting the history in a way more sympathetic to the church. Opinion pieces were written and the apologist blogs eagerly leaped on the bandwagon. An all too common atmosphere of martyrdom was spread. George Sim Johnston, wrote recently on the Catholic Education Resource Centre blog that “the Galileo case is one of the historical bludgeons that are used to beat on the Church.”

Galileo and Sakharov

Andrei Sakharov – credit Wikipedia

So there you are – the Church was the victim in the Galileo affair! Bloody hell – that’s like say the Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev was being persecuted by Andrei Sakharov when this great scientist and Nobel peace Prize winner (Sakharov) was exiled to the city of Gorky for criticising the Soviet government. And that history should be rewritten to reflect that interpretation!

So the honest history of the Galileo affair offends the church. It must be rewritten? The orders have gone out. Faithful historians, opinion piece writers and bloggers have followed their commands.

So we get claims that actually “Galileo was wrong!” That because of Einsteinian relativity one cannot detect a difference between a heliocentric and geocentric solar system! (That will have Einstein spinning in his grave.)

That Galileo was wrong about his support for heliocentricism because his detailed attempt to explain the tides was incorrect (so was everyone elses – gravitational theory had yet to appear).

Galileo was wrong because somebody thinks that an experiment he referred to using the leaning tower of Pisa may have been done by student or been a “thought experiment.”

Or that genuine historians are persecuting the church because they are perpetuating a myth that the church had tortured Galileo and imprisoned him.

A Clayton’s myth

This later myth is really a “Clayton’s myth.*” A myth you have when you don’t have a myth. Because no-one of any understanding promotes it yet those who wish to present themselves as victims claim it is being used as a bludgeon.

Maurice A. Finocchiaro puts this myth into context. He has investigated the available documents thoroughly and in his chapter of the book with the same name,  ’Myth 8: That Galileo was imprisoned and tortured for advocating Copernicanism,’ he concludes:

“We should keep in mind, however, that for 150 years after the trial the publicly available evidence indicated that Galileo had been imprisoned, and for 250 years the evidence indicated that he had been tortured. The myths of Galileo’s torture and imprisonment are thus genuine myths: ideas that are in fact false but once seemed true–and continue to be accepted as true by poorly educated persons and careless scholars.’

That is this myth gained traction initially because the only document available was the Inquisition’s sentence which implied torture had at least been threatened if not used and that he was to be imprisoned. Many years later, with our access to more material, no serious historian appears to be perpetuating the myth.

But apologists are perpetuating their own myth that they are the victims of misrepresentation.

The basic question

There is a sense in which popular understanding of the Galileo affair is not quite right or incomplete. When one peruses the documents we find that the real issue was not a conflict between Galileo’s support for  a heliocentric solar system and the Catholic Church’s insistence on a geocentric solar system. It was actually more basic than this.

Galileo’s crime in the eyes of the church was his temerity in holding a belief which the church had decreed he should not. They saw this as an intrusion into theology, and in arguments strikingly similar to those being used today against some atheist scientists, they charged that Galileo was intruding into forbidden territory. He should have left theology to the theologians. Sound familiar?

Galileo had effectively been arguing, as a faithful Christian himself, that when there was a conflict between evidence based ideas and scripture the evidence based ideas should be held as correct. Scripture being far more abstract required interpretation and these conflicts just meant that more interpretation of the scripture was required.

The predominance he gave to evidence and testing ideas against reality rather than scripture was a necessary step in the scientific revolution leading to modern science. This makes the history of the Galileo affair important for our appreciation of scientific progress today. It is this basic aspect, rather than Galileo’s’ support for Copernicanism, which needs more historical research and presentation.

And none of this is helped by religious apologists promoting their own myth – that they are the victims and the truth about the affair is being used as a bludgeon to beat on them.


* A local saying derived from the advertising campaign for a non-alcoholic drink – “the drink you have when you’re not having a drink”.

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