The Case for a Creator: Galileo the Troublemaker

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 7

To start off his interview, Lee Strobel asks Gonzalez and Richards about humankind’s great demotion: the medieval religious belief that we were at “the center of the universe, sort of the throne of the cosmos, the most important place that everything revolved around” [p.160] and the overturning of this belief by science, which proved that we are not at the center of the universe either physically or metaphysically. Richards claims, however, “that this historical description is simply false” [p.161].

To counter this argument, Richards cites Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which “the surface of the Earth is an intermediate place” between the heavenly spheres and the circles of the underworld. In fact, he calls it a “cosmic sump”. “[C]learly, this is not the stereotype that we’ve been given that the center of the universe prior to Copernicus was the preeminent spot.” [p.162]

But what Richards has passed over is the role that Earth plays in this cosmology. It’s not, as Richards’ dismissive description implies, a place of no importance. On the contrary: according to this belief system, Earth is the axis of creation. It’s the stage where God’s plan of salvation plays out, the place where everyone’s eternal destiny will be decided, the cosmic arena where everything that’s ever going to happen happens. And let’s not forget that the most important series of events in all of Christian history – the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – took place on the Earth. Far from being unimportant, this belief system makes the Earth the place of supreme importance for God’s plan and for humankind’s ultimate destiny.

Without Strobel noticing, Richards then goes on to contradict the argument raised just several pages prior:

“It was the Enlightenment that made man the measure of all things. When you really think about it, Christian theology never actually put man literally in the center… it was never the case that everything was literally created solely for us.” [p.162]

This flatly contradicts the passage from Michael Denton, quoted by Strobel and discussed in my last entry in this series, which describes the hypothesis that “every characteristic of reality exists [to create a livable habitat] for mankind” as “very far from a discredited prescientific myth” [p.158]. Strobel passes over this contradiction without noticing or remarking on it.

Strobel next raises the question of Copernicus, Galileo, and Giordano Bruno, three famous figures who were persecuted for opposing the geocentric cosmology of their day. Unusually, Richards doesn’t adopt the usual evangelical apologetic of blaming it all on the cruel, dogmatic Catholic church. (Note that he’s affiliated with the Acton Institute, a libertarian Catholic think tank.) Instead, he tries to exonerate the church and even argues that some of the treatment they received was justified!

“First of all,” Richards said, “some claim Copernicus was persecuted, but history shows he wasn’t; in fact, he died of natural causes the same year his ideas were published.” [p.163]

This is a rather odd apologetic. If Richards wants to prove that the Catholic church refrained from persecuting scientists, it certainly doesn’t help his case. It could equally well be argued that the only reason Copernicus wasn’t persecuted is because he died before the church had the opportunity.

Indeed, the way Copernicus and his associates handled his discovery strongly suggests that they feared the church’s response. When Copernicus’ masterpiece, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, was published by his friend Andreas Osiander, Osiander added a foreword emphasizing that the heliocentric theory could be treated only as a mathematical convenience, and didn’t have to imply anything about the true nature of reality. Copernicus himself began the work by reprinting a letter from a friend, who was a Catholic cardinal, praising his observational skills. He follows this with a long, apologetic preface addressed to Pope Paul III in which he admits that his theory is new and shocking, that for a long time he wrestled with whether to publish it at all, but that he was finally persuaded to do so by the urging of his friends. (Read the text of De Revolutionibus online; see also). And despite all this effort toward placating the church, Copernicus’ work was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books later, during the Galileo affair. It would not ultimately be removed until 1835 (!).

And about that famous Galileo affair:

“As for Galileo, his case can’t be reduced to a simple conflict between scientific truth and religious superstition. He insisted the church immediately endorse his views rather than allow them to gradually gain acceptance…” [p.163]

Considering that the ID movement has insisted public schools immediately endorse their views rather than wait to gain scientific acceptance, this is a laughably hypocritical charge.

“…he mocked the Pope, and so forth. Yes, he was censured, but the church kept giving him his pension for the rest of his life.” [p.163]

First off, please take notice that Richards appears to be arguing that mocking the Pope is a legitimate reason to punish someone.

Second, it’s ludicrous how Richards tries to soft-pedal Galileo’s fate. What actually happened is that Galileo was summoned to Rome to appear before the Inquisition, where he was imprisoned for the duration of his trial before a jury of ten cardinals. When he was finally judged to be suspect of heresy, his book was banned and he was forced to recant on his knees under threat of torture; and when he had humiliated himself by abjuring his own work, he was then sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. (Here’s an excellent reference on Galileo’s trial.)

“[Giordano] Bruno’s case was very sad,” Richards continued. “He was executed in Rome in 1600. Certainly this is a stain on church history. But again, this was a complicated case. His Copernican views were incidental. He defended pantheism and was actually executed for his heretical views on the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other doctrines that had nothing to do with Copernicanism.” [p.163]

Evidently, we’re meant to take from this that burning someone for their religious ideas is somehow more acceptable than burning them for their scientific ideas.

But what Richards says here is a half-truth at best. Bruno was not a scientist like Copernicus or Galileo; his cosmological views flowed from his mystical, pantheistic religious beliefs, not from direct observation. Nevertheless, it’s striking how his ideas resemble the modern, scientific conception of the cosmos. He believed that the Sun was a star just like all the others, that the Earth and the other planets revolved around it, and that there were an infinite number of other stars each with their own planetary systems and living beings. And whether or not this was the charge that resulted in his execution, the record clearly shows that it was one of the charges laid against him at trial.

In sum, far from supporting his thesis, Richards has only undermined it: The church did insist on a cosmology that put Earth at the metaphysical center of creation, and it did persecute scientists and other freethinkers who dared to offer an alternative view. This embarrassing historical record doesn’t fit well with the story he wants to tell, so it’s no surprise that he tries to cover it up. Unfortunately for him, the facts are not so malleable nor so accommodating.

Other posts in this series:

The Graying of the Priesthood, Continued
Movie Review: The Martian
The White Man Non-Culpability Squad
Weekend Coffee: CRISPR
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.