The Myth of Galileo’s Martyrdom

I used to be a scientific sort of person. I believed in God, but I didn’t like Him much. I used to really dislike religion, especially organized religion. So I bought into all the stories about the Church suppressing science to maintain their hegemony. According to the story everyone in the medieval world believed the world was flat. It wasn’t until the scientist, the new prophet, stepped forth that people became enlightened. Galileo proposed that the earth was round and circled the sun. The Church dogmatically suppressed this discovery. They called in the Inquisition and tortured Galileo. They then convicted him of heresy. Great story. It turns Galileo into a scientific martyr. How he suffered for speaking the truth at the hands of close minded, superstitious, dictators. The Indigo Girls even worked it into a song for goodness sake.

Unfortunately it isn’t true.

First off, even in the medieval world, the educated people knew the world was round. The ancient Greeks knew the world was round in 500 B.C. You can see a ship go over the horizon. The ship goes first then the sails. During a lunar eclipse you can see the earth’s shadow on the moon. It’s round!

Second, Galileo was only defending heliocentrism. He didn’t come up with it, Copernicus did that fifty years earlier. Copernicus couldn’t prove his theory, and neither could Galileo. His theory turned out to be wrong. His proof was that the movement of the earth made the waters slosh around causing the tides.

Next, the Church wasn’t afraid of science, or trying to suppress it. In fact the Church was the leading sponsor of science. They founded the universities. It was Christian monks who came up with the scientific method. The Church was open to new ideas, however they wanted proof before they contradicted what some parts of scripture seemed to be saying. Proof Galileo didn’t have. Galileo was never tortured. He was summoned by the Inquisition, but was housed in the Medici Villa in Rome. He met with the Pope and with cardinals. He was a celebrity to them. Nor was he ever charged, much less convicted of heresy. The issue was more complicated, and less exciting. He was charged with writing about heliocentrism after he had specifically pledged not to, given the sensitivity of the subject. But when a new pope was elected he went back on his word. During his trial he even denied his book advocated heliocentrism. This was a flat-out lie, and at this point even his supporters couldn’t back him. As punished he was housed in a palace, and later put under house arrest. So strict was this that he could still go visit his family and continue publishing.

Of course we now know that Galileo was right, but they had no way of knowing that then. It wasn’t until after Galileo’s death that evidence was discovered proving heliocentrism. Sure, it still seems harsh that Galileo was tried for writing about a scientific theory that he couldn’t prove. No the Church shouldn’t have done what they did, but the story has been blown way out of proportion, and is used to wrongly show how evil and close minded religious people can be. My point is that if you believe that science is all about truth, do not use a lie to make your point.

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