The number one trusted online resource for Catholic values
A+ A A-

The Galileo Legend


The extent to which people are mislead by the Galileo legend first began to dawn on me several years ago when I was teaching a doctoral seminar in the history of rhetoric my own academic field.

Galileo Galilei

One day, as I was outlining some of the positive contributions made by medieval theology to the development of modern science, a student interrupted to ask why it was, if what I was saying were true, that "the Catholic Church killed all those scientists." Stunned, and not wanting to sound defensive, I turned the tables on the student and asked him to please name some of these scientific martyrs. Of course he could not name any. To ease his embarrassment, I noted that he had probably been misled by popular misrepresentations of the fate of Giordano Bruno, an apostate Dominican who was condemned to death by the Roman Inquisition at the turn of the seventeenth century. Popularizers like to link Bruno with Galileo simply because he happened to embrace the Copernican position. But Bruno did not hold this position as a scientist, nor is there any evidence linking his Copernican beliefs to his condemnation for heresy. Although he occasionally taught geometry, he was famous across Europe as an itinerant preacher of hermeticism the pop new age religion of his day. The heliocentric model was merely a prop for his pantheistic cosmology of infinite worlds. While we may fault the Church officials who sent Bruno to the stake for cruelty, we cannot fault them for being enemies of science.

I am aware of only one scientist who was sentenced to death by public authorities prior to the twentieth century when the Nazi and Soviet governments greatly enlarged this number. That was the great chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Although the specific charges which were raised against him by the Terror were political rather than scientific, the anti-scientific tendencies of the regime which condemned him are a well guarded secret. The science textbooks our children read make free with accusations against the Catholic Church over its treatment of Galileo, but we would be hard pressed to find any that mention the Terror's closing of the Academy of Science or its death sentence against France's greatest scientist.

I've always suspected that science popularizers and educators attend selectively to every hint of conflict between science and Christianity in history, but completely block out the most egregious offenses against scientific freedom perpetrated by secular ideologies. I recently decided to explore this suspicion in a more systematic fashion. In just a few hours spent perusing such literature in local libraries, I was able to accumulate 44 different accounts of the Galileo episode, many which also mistakenly assign scientific status to Bruno. Among these books and articles I found only one reference to Lavoisier's fate, and one brief note on the mistreatment of scientists by secular governments in the twentieth century. What I did find, in the numerous discussions of the Galileo episode that turned up, were stories having all the recognizable markings of popular folklore erroneous embellishments, the omission of crucial details, and tendentious overgeneralizations which make Christianity and science out to be natural enemies.

One frequent embellishment to the story is the claim that certain clergy refused to look through Galileo's telescope, because they thought it bewitched. Actually these were not churchmen at all but two of Galileo's scientific rivals, the scholastic natural philosophers Cesare Cremonini and Guilio Libri, who embraced the then popular view that telescopic observations were a superfluous amendment to the complete adequacy or so they thought of Aristotle's physical system. Ironically, the two priests who did look through Galileo's telescope, Frs. Clavius and Grienberger, were converted by the experience to Galileo's Copernican position, but this is only mentioned in scholarly histories.

Another apocryphal embellishment is the claim that Galileo, after his forced recantation, muttered, "Nevertheless, it does move." This addition may truthfully impress upon readers the strength of Galileo's scientific convictions, but it also gives an impression of defiance that was not characteristic of his attitude toward the Catholic Church. Galileo, who remained loyal to the Church to the very end of his life and was even carried to daily mass when he became too feeble to walk clearly understood that he had been the victim of an academic feud and that the Church had been drawn in on the side of his enemies only through beguilement.

The facts that are consistently left out of this story are probably more critical to its misunderstanding than are the embellishments. The most important of these is the story's failure to acknowledge the role that academic politics played in this affair. Historians have known for some time that the sequence of events that eventually led to the Church's actions against Galileo was set in motion by secular academics, not priests, and this changes the whole complexion of the affair. Galileo's academic enemies had much more to lose than did the Church if the Copernican world view turned out to be right, and this makes them the more plausible villains of this story. Galileo's personal correspondence indicates that he shared this view.

Those who bear such tales also fail to mention that the judgment against Copernicanism came at a time when the Church was greatly preoccupied with the challenges of the Protestant Reformation. Related to this is the notable fact almost never mentioned in legendary accounts that Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbium had been in print for nearly seventy years before the Church placed any restrictions on its teachings. The Church's first formal response to the Copernican hypothesis seems to have been triggered by Galileo's Letter to Castelli, an apology for Copernicanism which advocated a figurative reading of Scripture in order to resolve the theory's apparent conflicts with the Bible. Although Galileo's approach to biblical interpretation was completely in keeping with the Catholic tradition, it had another more troubling implication. Galileo was asserting, in effect, that where scientific findings conflicted with the literal sense of the Scriptures, scientists should have the right to independently determine what the Bible means. For a scientist to assert this was tantamount to sanctioning the private interpretation of the Bible, a Protestant view expressly forbidden by the Council of Trent. Galileo had unwittingly embroiled the Copernican question in a much larger and more complex controversy.

It is not an accident that such complicating factors as this are never discussed in popular scientific accounts. Clearly those who tell this story have strong ideological interests which make the maligning of the Christian Church attractive. A big part of this seems to be the belief shared by such storytellers that the scientific way of life would operate best in a world untroubled by religious belief. In fact one of the main themes of the Galileo legend seems to be the idea that Christianity is an anti-scientific monster, now safely caged, that sought to devour science at the moment of its birth. This in fact is how the story is presented in what is perhaps the most popular treatment of science ever published, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time:

Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science. His renowned conflict with the Catholic Church was central to his philosophy, for Galileo was one of the first to argue that man could hope to understand how the world works, and, moreover, that we could do this by observing the real world.

Since the author of this passage is often compared with Einstein and Newton in the popular press, his readers (approximately nine million to date) are likely to assume that he is simply telling it like it is. But that conclusion would be wrong. Hawking's genius as a mathematician and theoretical physicist does not make him an historian of any kind. Neither does it lessen the temptation to succumb to a romantic legend that seems to lend itself to his preconceptions.

Hawking greatly overstates the degree of responsibility that Galileo had for the rise of modern science. While Galileo contributed some refinements to scientific method, enlarged the mathematical emphasis of science, and made important discoveries, science of the kind he practiced was not "born" with him. What we call "modern science" is a compilation of ideas, techniques, philosophical assumptions, and information that accumulated over many centuries and drew from a multitude of cultures. Notably, and contrary to what Hawking suggests, pivotal contributions to its growth were made in medieval Europe, when the Catholic Church was virtually the sole patron of learning. Perhaps the most notable of these contributions is the development of experimental method, something frequently credited to Galileo in popular legend. The basics of experimental design were laid out in the thirteenth century by the saintly Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste. By the time Galileo came along, four hundred years latter, such investigative techniques, now greatly refined, had found their way into universities all over Europe.

By suggesting that science sprang from the mind of Galileo, like Athena from the brow of Zeus, Hawking sets his readers up for his second sweeping claim that science (now mythically personified in Galileo) was opposed by the Church because of its novel claim that "man could hope to understand how the world works" by "observing the real world." Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the relationship between Catholicism and science in the centuries leading up to Galileo's generation, would know that this statement is fundamentally wrong. Science based on observation had been the norm in Catholic universities since the Aristotelian revival of the thirteenth century, and religious objections to science, which were much more exceptional than popularly imagined, occurred only where science's boundaries overlapped with those of theology. This was true in Galileo's case as well. The Church was generally favorable to his work. Indeed, in 1611, after Galileo published The Starry Messenger, the book which reports the discoveries he made with his telescope, the Vatican college in Rome honored him with a full day of festivities. Throughout his career, Galileo was befriended by numerous religious intellectuals. The fact that one of these was Maffeo Barberini, under whose papacy Galileo would latter be prosecuted, merely indicates that the Church's action against Copernicanism was more complex than Hawking imagines.

Neither Hawking nor any of the other writers I surveyed mentions how easy it had been for Galileo to obtain the Church's permission to publish his Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, the book which got him into so much trouble. The Church's generally positive attitude toward Galileo and his work has led scholars to conclude that the officials who decided to silence him probably acted under the influence of the extraordinary political pressures I mentioned earlier. It is equally likely that they had also been beguiled by the persuasive manipulation of Galileo's academic enemies. In the end, only seven of the ten Cardinals who tried him were willing to sign the sentence against him. After the trial it was a churchman, the Pope's nephew Francesco Barberini, who provided safe haven for the elderly astronomer in the residence of the Archbishop of Siena.

Even without such specific information as this about the circumstances of the Church's actions against Galileo, we would have reason to doubt Hawking's generalizations. A singular historical incident could hardly demonstrate claims so global as his. Moreover, to suggest that the Catholic Church of the seventeenth century opposed science on the basis of its opposition to one book written by one scientist about one theory, is simply unreasonable. This would be like characterizing the American government of the twentieth century as undemocratic simply because of the bad behavior of Joseph McCarthy. Single historical incidents seldom support the general rule.

As an examination of the many samples I have collected will show, Hawking is only one of a multitude of science writers who recite such tales nor is he the only eminent scientist among them. As a group they have succumbed not only to the delusions of the Galileo legend but to the even more pervasive myth of the "Dark Ages," the erroneous belief that the scientific revolution was brought about by a small handful of defiant geniuses who led civilization out of the valley of darkness into which it had descended with the coming of Christianity a thousand years earlier. The absurdity of what the "Dark Ages" myth supposes, never seems to dawn on the scientists who recite it. If medieval thought had been dominated by religious convictions that pointedly denied the very idea of science, why did the scientific revolution occur in the West? On the basis of what Hawking seems to assume, Europe would seem to be the last place on earth to expect a scientific revolution.

This paradox is easily resolved once we realize that this popular conception of the Middle Ages is simply a fiction. The events of the seventeenth century that are collectively called the "scientific revolution" were really products of a much longer period of "scientific evolution," an intellectual movement that was born in the very heart of medieval Europe. The science of Galileo and Newton was only possible because the scientific thinking of Aristotle had been so warmly received into Christian Europe centuries before. The discovery of Aristotle's work and that of a number of other classical thinkers, made available to Christians the most sophisticated scientific thinking that had been developed up to that point in history. But rather than suppressing this information, as the popular legends would suggest, medieval scholars immediately went to work building upon it. They did so because they recognized that Greek science was especially congenial to a biblical understandings of the world. It is not difficult to see why they would have thought so. As the Church Fathers had taught many centuries before, the view of nature that is given in revelation suggests that it might be "read" as a kind of companion volume to Scripture a book of God's Works to go along with the book of God's Word. The sudden availability of Greek science greatly enlarged the medievals' ability to begin this undertaking, and they did so with great ardor.

The absence of such a sympathetic religious framework in classical antiquity may account for science's much shorter life span during this period. Despite the monumental contributions of Aristotle and others, science never enjoyed the kind of general acceptance in ancient times that it did in Christian Europe. Perhaps this was due to paganism's tendency to regard nature as a divinity. If nature were a goddess, she might be capricious, and thus not conducive to scientific study. Worse yet, the manipulation and probing of nature might constitute hubris, an impious entry into secrets not meant for mere mortals. Medieval Christianity, by contrast, created a general framework of assumptions conducive to much greater optimism about the prospects of scientific investigation. The natural world that is revealed in Scripture shows itself to be both orderly and good. Moreover, human beings are revealed to be creatures not only created in God's image and thus capable, as Francis Bacon would latter say, "of the vision of the world" but also commanded by God to be stewards of nature. For Christians science came to be regarded not only as possible, because God had created the human intellect to comprehend the universe, but also a duty commanded by charity.

If the things I have said are true and they are easily verified why would Stephen Hawking and other thinkers of similar caliber propagate such falsehoods. Clearly we can't put this down to intellectual deficiency. There must be another explanation. In fact I believe there are two. The first is simply that the Galileo legend carries the authority of tradition and of the scientists who tell it. When scientists report the history of science in textbooks and other popular literature, they are often repeating the stories they picked up from textbooks during their own student years. In this fashion such tales are passed down from one generation to the next very much in the fashion of an oral tradition. Hawking probably believes what he has written simply because he has taken in good faith the similar tales told by other writers of great repute, such as Albert Einstein, Fred Hoyle, and Bertrand Russell. Having been repeated many times, and always with great conviction, the legend now has the authority of tradition.

If scientists lack expertise in the history of science, one might ask, why would they want to discuss it at all? This question leads to my second explanation of the Galileo legend, the fact that historical beliefs play an important role in justifying the authority that societies confer upon institutions. Science is not just an activity of investigation; it is also an institution. Complex organizational structures have been erected to support scientific work, and scientists, as the proprietors of these social structures, have a vested interest in sustaining them.

If we look carefully at the beginnings of the Galileo legend we can see how its anti-Christian posture supports these institutional interests. The circulation of this legend seems to have begun during the latter half of the nineteenth century, at the same time that scientists were struggling to professionalize their disciplines. In previous eras, science had been a solitary endeavor undertaken mostly by persons of independent means. In the English-speaking world these were gentlemen amateurs, noblemen or clergy with the means to set up their own laboratories. But this arrangement had become outmoded by the middle of the nineteenth century. Scientific work had grown so complex and expensive by this time that a whole new kind of institutional structure was needed to sustain it, and this created a movement to push the Church out of the universities so that they could be remade in science's image.

Dramatic change needs dramatic justification, and the Galileo legend provided this. By fostering the notion that the very idea of Christianity is opposed to science, it put a powerful rationalization in the hands of scientific leaders who wanted to wrest control of higher education from the Church. It can hardly be an accident that two of the most influential versions of the Galileo myth from this period are found in books by Andrew Dickson White and John Draper, two of the most prominent activists in the movement to secularize higher education. Backed by such influential interests, it is not surprising that the Galileo episode should have become the defining symbol of science's relationship to religion.

A broader reading of scientific history shows that Galileo's mistreatment by his ecclesiastical bosses was an anomaly, a momentary break in an otherwise harmonious relationship. In fact a more complete understanding of the relationship between Christianity and science has suggested to some scholars that Christian belief may have been the leaven that made the development of modern science possible. Modern science, after all, emerged in a most unlikely place, in an adolescent European culture that was only a few hundred years removed from barbarism. Nothing so revolutionary ever developed in the great civilizations of the Middle or Far East, despite their considerable antiquity and sophistication. The reason for this should be quite clear. The founding assumptions of modern science, its belief in a universe that is highly ordered and in a human mind that was created to reach beyond its finitude to grasp the mystery of this order, are premises that are secure only where monotheism has taken root.

In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that the Galileo story ought to be discounted altogether. It is a story that can teach Christians the wisdom of exercising caution in the face of scientific hypotheses that superficially might seem to challenge revelation. But removed from the larger context of history this story promotes the misleading belief that Christian faith harbors a general disposition to suppress rational inquiry. The consequences of such distortion, though hard to measure, are undoubtedly real. The Galileo myth sustains the widespread belief that the voice of the Church should never be raised in criticism of scientific claims, and it promotes the equally perverse assumption that religious resistance to potential abuses of scientific knowledge is simply a mask for obscurantism.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

Please show your appreciation by making a $3 donation. CERC is entirely reader supported.



Thomas Lessl. "The Galileo Legend." New Oxford Review (June 2000): 27-33.

This article is reprinted with permission from New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706). To subscribe to the New Oxford Review, call 510-526-5374.

The Author

Thomas Lessl is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Georgia.

Copyright © 2003 New Oxford Review

Subscribe to our Weekly Update

* indicates required