One of my heroes is Galileo Galilea (1564-1642), the pioneering medieval Italian astronomer ruthlessly persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church for a discovery that challenged scripture.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use,” he once said, referring to the church’s demand that he reject his own scientific findings.
Galileo’s great discovery, aided by telescope improvements he engineered, was that the universe was far different than scripture and tradition proposed. The moon was not smooth, but cratered, he saw through his telescope, and Venus and Mercury appeared to orbit the sun, not the Earth, as scripture implied. This confirmed to Galileo that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system, and the planets orbited it instead (as Copernicus had proposed more than a century before). These new astronomical facts represented a potential critical challenge to scripture. Consider the Bible passage from Joshua 10:12–14:
“On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: ‘Sun, stand still over Gibeon, / and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.’ / So the sun stood still, / and the moon stopped, / till the nation avenged itself on its enemies. … The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!” God miraculously provided twenty-four hours of light to aid Israel in destroying their enemy, the Amorites.”
In an epoch in which believing Christians assumed that all of scripture was the unerring Word of God, to be taken literally, this was a big problem. If it could be conclusively demonstrated that the sun was the center of our solar system and the earth only one of a number of planets in its thrall, then they whole biblical conceit of earth and mankind’s centrality in the universe and God’s plan were mistaken. This was partly what unnerved the ecclesastical hierarhy of Catholicism, which at time held monolithic, almost absolute, control over Western European societies.
Galileo’s increasing Copernicanism brought him into increasing conflict with the church, which prohibited anyone but prescribed clerics to interpret new scientfic findings in relation to scripture. Eventually, Pope Urban VIII convened a special commission to investigate Galileo’s writings and ultimately recommended he be tried for heresy in 1633. He was convicted of being “vehemently suspect” of heresy and forced to recant. Afterward, he was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life at his home in Arcetri, near Florence.
In the end, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Galileo’s expansive scientific investigations as a natural philosopher, astronomer and mathematician “made fundamental contributions to the sciences of motion, astronomy, and strength of materials and to the development of the scientific method.”
Once again in history, religion proved an immovable obstacle to progress.
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