Church Against Science? Or: What Exactly Happened During the Galileo Controversy? An Audio Lecture by Derrick Peterson

By Derrick Peterson

[For the whole essay that inspired the audio lecture, click here]

Three-hundred and eighty-three years ago, on April 12th 1633, Galileo was condemned by the Inquisition (also known as the “Holy Office”) for “holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the center of the world.”[1]  If one were to make the trek to the Villa Medici, a gorgeous abode that sits bright-eyed on Rome’s Pincian Hill in Italy, next to it one can read engraved in a column “it was here that Galileo was kept prisoner by the Holy Office, being guilty of having seen that the earth moves around the sun.”[2]  The implication being, of course, that Galileo saw the truth, and so was condemned. Galileo to many is a name more or less equated with scientific genius.  Moreover, he is also representative—much like the Scopes trial is for us in America[3]—of science suffering at the hands of a backward Christian religion.  The situation is ripe for drama.  Indeed the twentieth-century German playwright Berthold Brecht took this quite literally and put it on stage in his 1938 Life of Galileo.  When the actor Richard Griffiths, who at that point had been playing the part of Galileo, reviewed a then-recent biography of the man, he wrote his oft-quoted phrase: “by stifling the truth, which was there for anyone to see, the Church destroyed its credibility with science.”[4]  

Similarly, when scientist Alice Dreger visited Italy with her mother to gaze upon several sacred objects of scientific history—Galileo’s telescopes—she recounts a very humorous (and somewhat disturbing) encounter with an object of another kind: Galileo’s mummified middle finger.  Like the relic of a saint it stood in its repellant glamor beneath glass, and she looked down tentatively at her English guidebook in curiosity at such a strange sight.  A century after his death Galileo was moved into a grander grave as his reputation grew.  During the transition, an unnamed devotee cut off Galileo’s middle digit, and another man named Tommaso Perelli provided a shrine with the engraving: “This is the finger, belonging to the illustrious hand that ran through the skies, pointing at the immense spaces, singling out new stars, offering to the senses a marvelous apparatus of crafted glass, and with wise daring they could reach where neither Enceladus nor Tiphaeus [both giants of Greek mythology] ever reached.”  Dreger notes, of course, that the middle-finger does not mean for Italians what it does for Americans and the English,

But the more I thought about it—about Galileo’s contentious nature, his belief in the righteousness of science, his ego, his burning knowledge that he and Copernicus were right, and especially about what the Church put him through—the more amusing the middle finger thrust skyward seemed.  … Eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore, I burst out laughing, dropping the tour brochure on the floor.  I picked it up and found the docent giving me a rather severe look.  But I couldn’t help myself and started laughing uncontrollably again.[5]

It will be our purpose in this brief presentation to question just this caricature.  While we will get into details in a moment, we will see that by using categories familiar to us like “church vs. science” or “reason vs. faith” we not only distort how historical actors would have understood themselves (lest we forget, for example, that even after his condemnation Galileo considered himself a good Catholic) but we also misperceive and overlook the actual issues.  Again, as we will talk about momentarily, Galileo in fact did not prove by the standards and resources available at the time that the earth rotated around the sun.  The initial opposition was not that Galileo taught such things, but that he boasted of its truth when he in fact could not demonstrate it.  As such, far from this conflict being one of theology against science in this instance, the church found fault in Galileo for not following the rigors of scientific demonstration.  This clash was as much about a conflict between differing concepts of scientific reason as it was about theological truth.


[1] For the full condemnation cf. Maurice Finnochiorro, The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History (California: University of California, 1989), 287-292. Quote on 288.

[2] Quoted in “The Contemporary Relevance of the Galileo Affair,” in John Brooke and Geoffery Cantor, Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 106.

[3] The Scopes Trial itself is not what many often make of it.  Cf. the wonderful recent study of Adam Shapiro, Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Anti-Evolution Movement in American Schools (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2013).

[4] Richard Griffiths, “Very, very frightening,” The Daily Telegraph (5th of November, 1994): 6.

[5] Account taken from Alice Dreger, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholars Search for Justice (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 17-18.