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Just what did Galileo believe?

santa maria.jpg
Galileo returns to the Catholic Church

By James Dacey

Last week I found myself travelling through Rome, when I stumbled across a remider that science and religion are still battling it out in some quarters. A new exhibition at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli celebrates Galileo Galilei’s unerring faith in the Catholic Church, despite the ongoing debate surrounding this issue.

“According to dominant atheist culture, Galileo pretended to be a believer but he was really a convinced atheist. Galileo was convinced that Divine Providence could not miss nor disregard anything to do with the government of human affairs,” read one of the info boards.

It was in Rome in 1633 that Galileo was forced to stand trial and found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, mainly for his support of the heliocentric view of the universe. By publicly renouncing his opinion, Galileo managed to avoid the death penalty but was forced to spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Despite all of this, by official accounts, Galileo remained a committed Catholic right through to his death in 1642.

Whilst Catholics often refer to Galileo’s unerring faith, many atheists point out that it was very difficult to be anything but Catholic in 17th Century Italy. Their basic argument is that had Galileo not feared for his life, then he would more than likely have been an atheist.

Seeking to debunk this idea, the exhibition in the Basilica presents evidence of Catholic belief from a selection of Galileo’s personal writings. The displays draw from a recent book Galilei, Divine Uomo, written by Antonino Zichichi, Italian nuclear physicist and president of president of the World Federation of Scientists.

One of the displays referred to Galileo’s private reaction to Kepler’s study of the planetary orbits. “Galileo died convinced that Kepler’s discovery of the elliptical orbits of the Sun’s satellites was mistaken. This is the final testimony of his faith that Galileo left to us and to our descendents in the millennia to come”.

Perhaps the translation from Italian into English has added some aggression to writings, such as the greeting board which read, “The aim of this Exhibition is to make everybody understand that science means to decode the logic of He who created the world”.

In fairness, it is not just the outspoken religious camp that has tried to claim one of the great physicists as one of their own. Back in January, arch religion-basher Richard Dawkins was amongst the funders of a campaign to promote atheism through posters on London public transport. One of the posters included the quote of Einstein included is Einstein’s quote: “I do not believe in a personal God and have never denied this but have expressed it clearly”.

So, whilst direct threats of violence have been replaced with rhetoric, it seems that this battle of ideals still wages on.

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  1. It is absolutely untrue to say that Galileo would have been an atheist. He worked against Aristotelian physics but for the glorification of God. The only part of his recantation that he refused to read was that he had been a “bad Catholic”.
    Twitter: @DrStuClark

  2. Ender

    Anyone who has studied the Galileo trial knows well that the popular story is quite oversimplified. It wasn’t so much Galileo’s beliefs that worried the Church, but his disobedience to keep them at bay in times in which there was significant struggle between catholics and protestants. It was the Church’s reprehensible attitude that even if the Copernican system could be right, that was of secondary importance. What mattered was to keep people under their control. Therefore the ruling Pope (unlike the preceding one) simply wanted Galileo to keep quiet, not so much because he was wrong, but because his publications were “inconvenient” for his purposes.
    Galileo was always a pious catholic. Regarding the sentence: “Their basic argument is that had Galileo not feared for his life, then he would more than likely have been an atheist,” he didn’t fear for his life as much as feared for his soul.
    His story provides a good background about why protestant countries developed more freely than catholic ones, not just scientifically, but politically as well.
    The relevant question is whether the Holy See has learnt from its many past mistakes. While it doesn’t stick to a literal interpretation of the Bible, as many protestants still do, looking at its position about stem cell research, and many other related subjects, I’d think not.

  3. JP Munyarukato

    If the organizers of this exhibition uphold genuinely the ideal that the aim of science is to decode the logic of He/She who created the world as inscribed on their greeting board,then this is a conciliatory tone that should satisfy even those who believe in atheism in the name of science. It is a positive to hear the catholic church is celebrating Galileo’s empirical beliefs. I just wished there was a watermark of Jupiter’s moons in that greeting board! Otherwise, there is a good chance that Galileo would have kept faith in the universal God of our planetary system; the God of the evolution of stars, evolution of living creatures, genes, particles and LHC! The debate on who is worth claiming a piece of Galileo and who isn’t is a displaced one. Galileo showed the way to all…

  4. Anton Szautner

    “In fairness”, the religious camp is “outspoken”, whilst a prominent atheist is charaterized as an “arch religion-basher’.
    Is is too unfair to point out that atheists, in Galileo’s time or ours, haven’t threatened people with death because of heretical opinions nearly as often as religious institutions historically have?
    I can think of no other cultural influence that has so routinely cultivated a rabid tendency to divide people and build a wall of mistrust, suspicion and, yes, hatred against “others” who have the temerity to exercize their freedom to choose whatever they wish to believe or not to believe.
    Protestant or Catholic, their “Christianity” – the philosophy of love and tolerance as apparently worked out by the object of their veneration – leaves a great deal to be desired.
    So what if Dawkins helps fund a campaign to promote atheism? Religion has been promoted to saturation levels for millennia. If it is to be considered a nefarious activity on the part of atheists to publicly promote the idea that morality and ethical behavior can be established without a supernatural belief in a deity, then it must be equally true of the promotion of religion.
    Either that, or a superior moral and ethical sense ordained by that allegedly “nameless” (yet frequently identified) “God” evidently significantly hobbles the capacity for elementary reasoning, perhaps, by inflaming their emotions.

  5. Seems to me very suspicious that now, when the success of the Galileo new science is beyond all doubt and Pope John Paul II apologize for the misbehavior of the catolic church that the very church, now leaded by a very conservative pope decide make public this point of view.
    What a shame!

  6. David Reed

    The church is quite right to point out that Galileo considered himself a faithful catholic all of this life. This merely adds to the shame and ridicule that the Church must feel at having condemned one its faithful.
    To understand the nature of the issues between Galileo and the Church must one go back to the physical doctrines that the church promulgated…essentially as articles of the faith! No doubt Galileo ‘s attempt to set forth strictures on how sacred texts were to be interpreted represented a reach on his part and a an attempt to control certain aspects of dogma and hermeneutic, but his overreaching is trivial compared to the Church’s attempt to make belief in certain physical theories into what we would today call ‘litmus tests’ to distinguish true believers from heretics. The story is now well told by many historians from many angles. Requiescat in Pacem Galileo Galilei Linceo!

  7. I do believe that some text he has written , when being translated from italian to english was over exgerrated and misuse. It was used outside the context, he was a very good catholic , he kept the faith till the end.

  8. PoetheRaven1

    It is truly unfortunate that the Catholic Church would attempt to efface any thought that threatened their narrow theistic beliefs. Galileo, was a great and wise scientist, but rather than face certain death (I call it murder of the time), chose to recant that which he so firmly believed. It is obvious to me that Galileo was not an Atheist, nor would he ever profess to be one. It does seem to me that he had theist albeit agnostic leanings. As the majority of great minds throughout history, Agnosticism seems to the prevailing thread. Very few minds will deny the existence of a God (atheism), but those same minds do not affirm the existence of God. Most will agree that the understanding of life, science and theism are beyond human capability to understand, prove or disprove (in the sense of tangible scientific proof) the existence of God, and therefore, do not rule out either possibility.

    Thus, I believe that Galileo was a theist agnostic, seeking the verifiable proof of either concept.


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