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January 23, 2023

Galileo and the Bible

Galileo is often associated with conflict between faith and science. The true story is both more complicated and more interesting. One of the true turning points in the history of science occurred 22 years before Galileo was born. A work by Nicolaus Copernicus, published in 1542, proposed a heliocentric system in which the earth revolved around the sun. For centuries the western world thought that humans stood at the center of the universe. It was the system inherited from Ptolemy and Aristotle. They believed the Bible, and scores of renowned interpreters of the Bible, all seemed to point toward an Earth-centered or geocentric universe. Galileo argued that the Copernican system was actually correct. He brought forth new evidence but questions remained. If the Earth moves, why can we not feel its motion? There was much the Galilean system could not explain until later work by Kepler and Newton. In the universities and even in the Catholic Church, some supported Galileo and some opposed him. Opponents cited biblical passages in which Joshua commands the sun to stand still, or where the Psalmist says the earth would not be moved. Others said those passages could be interpreted figuratively. A heliocentric view was clearly contrary to Aristotle. But was it contrary to the Bible? Galileo did not believe the Bible was explaining the physics of the heavens. He quoted a cardinal, saying the Bible teaches “how to go to heaven not how the heavens go.” Whatever the case, Galileo found himself in trouble after he published his masterwork, the "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems." Pope Urban VIII believed Galileo mocked him. Thus, the pope turned against him, and the Inquisition forced Galileo to recant and to spend the remainder of his life under house arrest.

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