Galileo Affair: Faith Versus Reason/Science?

In the past, I liked to play a Role-Playing-Game (RPG) called Diablo.  Like other RPG games, players need to overcome many opponents.  So I had to fight with many characters in the game in order to win.

However, a strange thing about the game is that the characters that I had defeated could never die.  They kept coming up again and again.  And I had to fight them over many times.

Interestingly, such a strange phenomenon also happens in real life.  This past week, a local social activist and politician wrote a Facebook note that criticised the Christian community to the effect that our faith is unreasonable.  He pitted our faith against reason or science.  And the example he gave was the “Galileo Affair”.

The “Galileo Affair” is the name given to a series of events surrounding the issue between the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and Galileo Galilei in the 17th century.  What happened was that Galileo’s famous book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems challenged geocentricism (the earth is the centre of the universe), which was the accepted understanding in the academia at that time and of which the RCC followed.

Galileo, in following the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, argued for heliocentrism, that the sun is the centre of the universe.  As a result, the RCC took upon itself to interrogate Galileo and had him recant of heliocentrism.  As we now know, based on current astronomy, indeed heliocentrism is true.  Galileo was right. 

Since then, this affair has been used by many people to criticize not only the RCC but the whole Christian community in general as against reason or science. The latest came from this social activist,

“…throughout history where science has conflicted with church teachings, the church has strived to stamp out the new knowledge made available by science even to the extent of torturing their discovers. Recall the papacy’s treatment of Galileo who showed that Earth was not the centre of the universe: he was forced under torture to recant and the papacy apologised only 300 years later. […] the evidence of church history is that faith does not transcend reason, it constrains it.”[1]

There is much historical inaccuracy in the statement.  First, Galileo was not tortured at all. Richard Blackwell, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Saint Louis University, who has published a few academic books on the “Galileo Affair”, wrote:

“Galileo scholars now agree that no torture occurred, nor could it have occurred, given his age and poor health, according to the rules of the Holy Office itself, and Galileo would have known this.”[2]

Likewise, Maurice A. Finocchiaro, an authority on the “Galileo Affair” wrote:

“In view of the available evidence, the most tenable position is that Galileo underwent an interrogation with the threat of torture but did not undergo actual torture.”[3]

Second, the “Galileo Affair” is not a case of conflict between faith and reason or science. Geocentrism was not only accepted by the Christian community but by most people in the academia of the 17th century.  Although there were theologians who pointed out some Bible verses to support the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe, yet it was not the case that their appeal was to Scripture alone.

Geocentrism was talked about by Aristotle in the 3rd century B.C.  This notion was developed further by Ptolemy four hundred years later.  Hence, geocentrism is better known as a ‘Ptolemaic system’.  The academia and churches in the 17th century simply inherited geocentrism as accepted science of the universe.

On the other hand, neither Copernicus nor Galileo were the first to talk about heliocentrism.  Aristarchus of Samos has proposed the heliocentric model in 250 A.D., more than 1,200 years before Copernicus and Galileo were born.  Heliocentrism was a theory much less accepted than geocentrism back then.  Therefore the “Galileo Affair” was not faith against reason or science, but a less-accepted science against a much-accepted science.[4]  And the RCC has betted on the wrong side.

Despite historical works showing the contrary, the “Galileo Affair” keeps coming up as the epitome case that Christians are against reason.  This falsehood is so entrenched among those who are against the faith that it is irresistible to historical reality.  Pretty much like the characters in RPG games that keep coming back despite being defeated many times.

[1] Vincent Wijeysingha, ‘My Reply To Archbishop William Goh,’ Facebook Note, dated 4 July 2014. Emphasis added.

[2] Richard J. Blackwell, Behind The Scenes At Galileo’s Trial: Including the First Translation of Melchior Inchofer’s Tractatuc syllepticus (USA: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 23.

[3] Maurice A. Finocchiaro, ‘That Galileo Was Imprisoned And Tortured For Advocating Copernicanism,’ in Galileo Goes To Jail: And Other Myths About Science And Religion, ed., Ronald L. Numbers (USA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 78.

[4] See the discussion in chapter 1 of John C. Lennox, Seven Days That Divide The World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (USA: Zondervan, 2011).


Author Name: