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The Galileo Affair: Emblematic or Exceptional?

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On the morning of June 22, 1633 in the hall of the convent of Santa Maria sopra Minvera in Rome, Galileo Galilei knelt before the Lord-Cardinal Inquisitors-General and publicly abjured his false opinion that the sun was the motionless center of the universe. Thus ended Galileo's personal trials; but the "Galileo affair," with its myriad attendant controversies and consequences rippling across the centuries, was just commencing. "Affair" rightly characterizes the tangled personal and political intrigues pervading this particular piece of jurisprudence.

But however thick it was with complicating and mitigating factors, in the end the Catholic Church blew it -- something acknowledged centuries later by a Pope proudly nurtured in Copernicus' homeland: "[Galileo] had to suffer a great deal -- we cannot conceal the fact -- at the hands of men and organisms of the Church" (Pope John Paul II, Nov. 10, 1979 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences). When it came to interpreting scripture in light of scientific findings the Pope observed that "Galileo ... showed himself to be more perceptive ... than the theologians who opposed him (Oct. 31, 1992 address to the PAS).

For many, the Galileo affair was emblematic of Christianity's inherent antagonism towards science and reason. Galileo was no anomaly; no aberrant outlier in an otherwise contrary arrangement. No, Galileo culminated and crystallized the undeniable and irredeemable pattern of Church/science relations. Other exemplars affirming that pattern are easily discerned: In 415, a reactionary Christian mob brutally murdered pagan mathematician and astronomer Hypatia and burned the ancient world's great center of learning, the library of Alexandria; In 1277, Doctor Mirabilis (wonderful teacher) and Franciscan monk Roger Bacon was imprisoned for asking too many embarrassing questions; in 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for his scientific views; in 1925, Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin was exiled and his writings on human evolution were (later) banned -- and on it goes.

Sadly, the "pattern" theory has a problem. It's wrong. On it does not go. The above examples pretty much exhaust the "church oppresses science" list, and each entry is either inaccurate or has nothing to do with religion and science. Let's look at them:

Hypatia's murder by a crazed Christian mob had little to do with hatred of science or scientific women. In fact, one of Hypatia's closest friends was Synesius of Cyrene, the neo-Platonist Christian Bishop of Ptolemais. Our earliest historical source, Socrates Scholasticus (5th century), attributes her murder to her involvement with Orestes, the (Christian) imperial prefect of Alexandria who was in a power struggle with Cyril, the Alexandrian Bishop. Christians believed that she was scuttling a reconciliation between the two. Did Cyril instigate the murder? Was it in retaliation for earlier violence on Christians? As best as I can tell historians still debate these and other details. What seems clear is that sectarian violence was rife in Alexandria at the time and Hypatia's murder was one of many bloody incidents Christians, Jews, and Pagans inflicted upon one another. But it was about politics and power, not science and religion (see: David Lindberg's chapter in "Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion", R. L. Numbers, ed. Harvard Press or "The Vanished Library" by Luciano Canfora, UC Press or Maria Dzielska's "Hypatia of Alexandria", Harvard Press.)

As for library-burning -- the great Alexandrian library was probably burned by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C.E. when he chased Pompey into Egypt. There may have been a small "daughter" library still housed in the Temple of Serapis in 391 C.E. (long before Hypatia's demise), whose holdings may have been largely destroyed when the temple was raised and converted to a Christian Church. But even if true (a big "if"), it says nothing about Christian attitudes toward science and learning. Instead, all it tells us is that Christians, Pagans, and Jews were doing lots of nasty stuff to each other in Alexandria at this time, something we already knew.

As for Roger Bacon: University of Wisconsin-Madison historian Michael Shank sums it up nicely:

"The assertion that Bacon was imprisoned (allegedly by the head of his own Franciscan order) first originates some eighty years after his death and has drawn skepticism on these grounds alone. Scholars who find this assertion plausible connect it with Bacon's attraction to contemporary prophecies that have nothing to do with Bacon's scientific, mathematical, or philosophical writings." (p. 21 from his chapter in "Galileo Goes to Jail").

On Giordano Bruno -- no question he was burned at the stake on the seventeenth of February, 1600, in Rome's Flower Market (see Jole Shackelford's chapter in "Galileo Goes to Jail"). But he was burned for his theological heresies, not his scientific beliefs. Bruno refused to recant his disbelief in the Trinity, Virgin Birth, divinity of Christ and other rather non-negotiable items (especially for a clergyman). Yes, his scientific/philosophic studies probably contributed to his fall from orthodoxy, but it was the fall, not the science, that the Church condemned and for which Bruno died.

Likewise with Teilhard de Chardin. His popularity with the current Pope notwithstanding, Teilhard strained the patience of his Jesuit superiors not because of his expert paleoanthropological work (he was part of the team that discovered "Peking" man) but because he turned that work into an elaborate, unorthodox, evolutionary-based theology. Luckily for Teilhard, by the 20th century, burning heretics was passé and his theological writings were simply suppressed until his (quite natural) death (see Amir Aczel's "The Jesuit and the Skull").

Galileo was indeed exceptional. Arthur Koestler pronounced this very verdict over fifty years ago in his well-regarded history of astronomy, "The Sleepwalkers": "The Galileo affair", Koestler asserted, "was an isolated, and in fact quite atypical, episode in the history of the relations between science and theology ... " (p. 523).

Even just the few cases cited above hint at Galileo's singularity. Yes, over the centuries some scholars suffered the Church's wrath; but is it not equally noteworthy that century after century the Christian Church kept producing superlative scholars? Bacon, Bruno, Copernicus, Teilhard -- even Galileo (not a cleric, but faithful to the end) -- why did the well not dry up in the face of such incessant intellectual oppression? In his book, "For the Glory of God", sociologist Rodney Stark identifies 15 clerics of the 16th and 17th centuries whom he considers "scientific stars" (pp. 198-199). Similarly, Stephen Barr's brief review easily finds over a dozen clergymen from the Middle Ages to modern times making substantial contributions to mathematics, physics, biology, genetics, and cosmology (see "Modern Physics and Ancient Faith" pp. 9-10). Is it possible that Christianity has actually been science's oldest and dearest friend?