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:

About Adam Lee

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

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Excellent. I cannot remember where it was I read it, but I do remember reading that Copernicus specifically sat on his theory because of the fear of persecution, and only permitted its publication once he realized he was dying.

  • Hank

    Darwin himself waited many years before publishing Origin: obviously, even in the mid-19th century (three centuries after Galileo, a century or more after the Enlightenment and a half-century or more after the Industrial Revolution) scientists *still* felt uncomfortable about publishing anything that might contradict conventional religious “wisdom”. Hell, millions of freethinkers in the US today still feel the need to keep their thoughts on certain aspects of reality a secret.

    Richards spectacularly misses the point here – or ignores it – and even tries to justify the Vatican’s behaviour!

    As usual, I’m staggered by the ignorance, apologetics and selective reading of history on display in Strobel’s “case”.

    Thanks for doing this Ebon, Sagan knows I couldn’t read this book without hurling it across the room.

  • prase

    a libertarian Catholic think tank

    Is it really possible to be a libertarian and a Catholic simultaneously?

  • ambrosia

    a libertarian Catholic think tank

    Is it really possible to be a libertarian and a Catholic simultaneously?

    Is it really possible to be a libertarian and a Catholic while being able to think?

  • Modusoperandi

    Yes. A libertarian Catholic believes that the State has no business in his bedroom, which is probably for the best as there’s precious little room left over with him, his wife and the Pope there, making sure that they’re procreating instead of fornicating.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Copernicus’ work was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books later, during the Galileo affair. It would not ultimately be removed until 1835 (!).

    The mere fact that the Index Librorum Prohibitorum existed is a stain on the record of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, let alone that it existed for centuries, and was not abolished until my lifetime. Pope Benedict XVI is quite the medievalist though; so perhaps it will be coming back soon, just as indulgences did.

    The Holy Roman Catholic Church has long maintained a doctrine of infallibility for the Pope. Catholics are quick to reassure you that this applies only to matters of faith and morals, etc. This does not get the Holy Roman Catholic Church off the hook in the Galileo affair, however, as the Papacy declared that it was a matter of faith and morals.
    A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White

    In spite of all that has been said by these apologists, there no longer remains the shadow of a doubt that the papal infallibility was committed fully and irrevocably against the double revolution of the earth. As the documents of Galileo’s trial now published show, Paul V, in 1616, pushed on with all his might the condemnation of Galileo and of the works of Copernicus and of all others teaching the motion of the earth around its own axis and around the sun. So, too, in the condemnation of Galileo in 1633, and in all the proceedings which led up to it and which followed it, Urban VIII was the central figure. Without his sanction no action could have been taken.

    True, the Pope did not formally sign the decree against the Copernican theory then; but this came later, In 1664 Alexander VII prefixed to the Index containing the condemnations of the works of Copernicus and Galileo and “all books which affirm the motion of the earth” a papal bull signed by himself, binding the contents of the Index upon the consciences of the faithful. This bull confirmed and approved in express terms, finally, decisively, and infallibly, the condemnation of “all books teaching the movement of the earth and the stability of the sun.”

    And again, what Galileo was made, by express order of Pope Urban, and by the action of the Inquisition under threat of torture, to abjure in 1633, was “the error and heresy of the movement of the earth.”

  • Caiphen

    I can’t understand this antiscientific mentality. I wonder at what stage humanity would have been if we didn’t have to face the dark ages.

    I have posted the below Catholic Canon before on another thread but I reckon it’s very relevant to the discussion. I actually really dislike posting this kind of garbage but it needs to be brought out into the daylight. It was mentioned in St Peter’s Bascillica in 1998 by Pope JP II. It goes to show us this type of Inquisition mentality is alive and well. It’s all so damn pathetically sad that science potentially still has this kind of enemy if we dare to have freethought and contradict their teaching.

    ‘In addition to these cases, whoever obstinately rejects a teaching that the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops, exercising the authentic Magisterium, have set forth to be held definitively, or who affirms what they have condemned as erroneous, and does not retract after having been legitimately warned, is to be punished with an appropriate penalty’

    Roman Catholic Canon 1436

    I wonder what they mean by an appropriate penalty.

  • Alex, FCD

    Darwin himself waited many years before publishing Origin: obviously, even in the mid-19th century…scientists *still* felt uncomfortable about publishing anything that might contradict conventional religious “wisdom”.

    To be fair, this probably had more to do with Lyell’s advice that his argument would carry more weight if he had experience in taxonomy (he published several monographs on barnacles in the interim), his desire to put the force of all available evidence behind his theory, a succession of experiments involving, among other things, pigeon breeding, and the fact that he could only work a few hours per day due to chronic illness.

  • Rollingforest

    Yes, Darwin worried about providing enough evidence for evolution because he was a very shy introvert and didn’t want people to mock him for a bad theory. But he also knew that the main reason why his theory wouldn’t be accepted was on religious, not scientific, grounds (which is the same today). The theory of evolution probably would have come out 20 years sooner had it been judged purely on scientific grounds.