Ted Davis podcast about Galileo and the Church

Kudos to Kurt Jaros at Defenders Media for doing a podcast with me about Galileo and the Church. Here’s the link:


Thanks for sharing Ted. I have a number of questions for you to consider when looking at Gallileo that I think Jaros fails to address.

Why was it so important for the church that the earth be at the center of the universe? Copernicus was afraid to publish his work while he was still alive, because he knew he would have died for defying doctrine. Many of the early roman doctrines concentrated the power of God on Earth in Rome. Anything that questioned that Rome was not the center of the universe was a direct attack on their ability to wield God’s power.

Jaros said that the idea Copernicus was new, but the correct structure of the solar system was taught by enlightened Greeks 2,500 years ago. This is what Galileo and Schrödinger went back to discover - the holistic theoretical science of this enlightened culture.

To put it dramatically, once can imagine a scholar of the young School of Athens paying a holiday visit to Abdera (with due caution to keep it secret from his Master), and on being received by the wise, far-travelled and world-famous old gentleman Democritus, asking him questions on the atoms, the shape of the earth, on moral conduct, God and the immortality of the soul – without being repudiated on any of these points. Can you easily imagine such a motley conversation between a teacher and his student in our days? Schrödinger, Erwin. (“Return to Antiquity.” Nature and the Greeks, by Erwin Schrödinger, … Cambridge: U, 1954. N. pag. Print.)

Yes, at least one ancient Greek philosopher believed in the Solar System: Aristarchus of Samos, who worked in the 3rd century BC. The problem was–as he realized–the earth’s motion flatly contradicts ordinary observation and common sense. It’s literally incredible that the earth is spinning on its axis at several hundred mph (for the latitude of Athens), let alone circling the Sun at several tens of thousands of mph (to use the modern number; Copernicus thought it was about one-tenth of this). Furthermore, if this is true, then (as Aristarchus realized) we should be able to see the annual parallax of the stars. I discuss this in the podcast. It wasn’t until the 1830s that anyone could find that. Aristarchus and Copernicus were both forced to say that the stars must be so much further away from the Earth than anyone had previously thought, simply to save their counter-intuitive speculations with an ad hoc assumption. There’s solid reasons why almost no one thought Copernicus was right, especially not Tycho Brahe, the greatest observer in the history of astronomy: if he couldn’t see parallax, he knew darn well that no one else could, either.

This is one among many reasons that Galileo praises those few who accepted the Copernican theory, which “does such violence to our senses.” The empirical evidence simply didn’t favor it.


Please show me some evidence for this claim. I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert on Copernicus, but I’d bet the ranch that I’ve read a lot more of his work (basically all of it) than most other people, and I spent several weeks this spring and summer going through the best Copernicus scholarship available in English, preparing for a lovely visit to his haunts in modern-day Poland.

To be sure, Copernicus was fearful of ridicule. At some point, a school teacher in the general vicinity of Gdansk made fun of him in a play. Since his only student taught astronomy at Wittenberg, he probably also knew that Luther regarded him as an arrogant fool for putting the earth in motion. But, I have yet to see any hard evidence that Copernicus was fearful of any type of censure from Roman Catholic officials–the relevant people in his context. Indeed, he was badgered by various church officials to publish his ideas, which were generally known for decades before his death. Indeed, without the urging of two of his best friends–the Wittenberg professor (Georg Joachim “Rheticus”) and Tiedemann Giese, a former fellow canon at Frombork who was then Bishop of Kulm (Chełmno)–it’s virtually certain that he would have continued to work on his book without actually publishing it.

Another big problem was that he knew full well he couldn’t prove the earth’s motion. Why publish such a revolutionary notion (in fact, our modern use of “revolutionary” derives from the Latin title of his book) without hard evidence? That concern dogged him all the way along.

I suspect, Shawn, that you’re getting this idea from someone influenced by the infamous Andrew Dickson White, whose historical fiction (though he certainly didn’t think he was writing fiction) has cast an almost immeasurably large and very dark shadow on popular notions of the history of science & Christianity. In the first statement White made about the alleged “warfare” of science with Christian theology, a speech at Cooper Union shortly after the Civil War, White told his audience that Nicolaus Copernicus “had escaped persecution only by death,” a ridiculous claim that never seems to go away. No one, flat no one, took any formal action against the Copernican view per se until his book was “suspended until corrected” (i.e. slightly edited) in 1616. I discuss the circumstances leading up to that in the podcast. There just isn’t any credible evidence that Copernicus feared anything other than ridicule and being wrong.

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Dear Ted,
I am traveling for the holidays and away from my library. I know exactly where the journals are on my shelf, but it will be a few weeks for to provide them for you. I do not read White, so my comments do not come from him.

Modern people underestimate the consequences of heresy. The savior of France was burned at the stake for her heresy! Without his very close friend, Galileo would have died for his heresy. Instead he was imprisoned for the rest of his life. Never underestimate the lengths the empire will go to protect its power base. The Roman Catholics were not at war with science, just anything that threatened their infallibility and their seat of god’s kingdom at the center of the universe - Rome. Countless ‘heretics’ died who threaten this and it was their favorite tool. Create new doctrine and you create new heretics, who now you can kill. What does this have to Christianity? Nothing, but this is how Rome worked at the time of Galileo and Copernicus.

Don’t forget I want you to tell me how we can set up an experiment to communicate with a dead person. You claim that this has been scientifically proven, and one of the hallmarks of science is that you can replicate a valid experiment. (How do the dead communicate, anyway? Is any special equipment needed?)

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Have a good time! Dr Davis is a great resource–we are grateful to have his expertise as well. I look forward to your discussion.

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As I implied with my earlier comment, Shawn, White cast an enormous shadow. One need not read White to be influenced by him. My own academic discipline (history of science) was founded by a devout disciple of White, a Belgian scholar and Harvard professor named George Sarton. In the first issue of the journal Isis, which he also founded, Sarton invoked White by name and basically told readers that his journal would treat the topic of science and religion as a series of footnotes to White.



On a different note, the vitriolic anti-Catholic tone of your brief comments is very troubling. No one doubts that the medieval Roman church condemned to death many heretics: it’s a simple historical fact. But you seem to buy the general larger narrative that the Church was tone deaf to new knowledge and determined to prevent both Galileo and Copernicus from spreading opposition to Aristotle–a narrative that just doesn’t fit four centuries of interaction between science and Catholicism. No less than the secular Jewish scholar John Heilbron, formerly Vice-Chancellor of UC Berkeley, thinks that the Church was the principal patron for astronomy during that very period.

It’s this apparent hatred of Catholicism that leads you to say, “Without his very close friend, Galileo would have died for his heresy.” Which particular friend do you have in mind, Shawn? If you mean Pope Urban, keep in mind that Urban himself wanted Galileo brought before the Inquisition in the first place–and almost certainly would never have done so, had Galileo not appeared to insult him in the Dialogue. I talk about this in the podcast. Further, the whole point of an Inquisition trial is not to convict anyone of anything, in a formal sense; rather, the presumption of guilt is already there, before the trial even begins. It’s purpose is to persuade an individual Catholic to abjure the heretical opinion, do penance, and be restored to the good graces of the Church. By abandoning publicly his support for Copernicanism, Galileo put himself out of any possible danger. No one else did that for him.

The specifically anti-Catholic tone you bring is actually closer to the views and attitudes of John William Draper, even more than White. Readers who want more on Draper and White are invited to listen to this short video from the AAAS: http://www.scienceforseminaries.org/resource/origins-of-the-conflict-thesis/


I really enjoyed the podcast. The Catholic church, believe it or not, still produces apologetics concerning the whole affair-- ie. they say that Galileo was a “vulgar person” and blames him (I think a little too much) for what transpired. (I was raised Catholic and have come into contact with such apologetics on occasion.) Your presentation was much more nuanced. I especially enjoyed your extended quotes from contemporaries of Galileo. Very informative!

To the general topic of the opposition between religion and science, I think there are people on the both sides (fundamentalists, atheistic scientists etc.) who blow the opposition out of proportion. So maybe you are putting too much emphasis on White. I tend to think fundamentalists are equally blameworthy as agitants.

Also, I believe I read somewhere that Calvin thought that Copernicanism “came from Satan.” But from what you say, there is no evidence that Calvin was at all familiar with the Copernican model. I guess there is some misinformation out there.


Thank you for addressing the hateful anti-Catholic rhetoric that goes on around here. I will listen to your podcast when I get the time. People might like to know that the Vatican actually runs an observatory , run mostly by Jesuits. The director is Brother Guy Consolmagno, who has written for BioLogos in the past.

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I would speak against this too… if I saw any. But I see nothing of the sort in this thread.

RC is a fantastic church and big enough to be the most significant contributor to Christianity worldwide. We would be foolish not to learn from what they offer.

This statement by Shawn is not about Roman Catholicism but about all of Western Christianity at a particular time in history and there were some rather dark times in the history of Christianity. It is why there was a Protestant Reformation which went hand in hand with a counter reformation of the Catholic Church. Before that time, what the RC did represents what all of us Western Christians did back then.

In fact… I have to say… that this reaction to Shawn (and we are not particularly friendly) has put me off the whole thread and the OP. It makes me think that for some people here, this is really is just about the Catholic church and their image rather than an objective assessment of the history of Christianity.


Thanks for reminding me that I, as a Christian, can be equally mistaken either way. What is it GK Chesterton said when he read a newspaper query to the public about what is wrong with civilization?—“Dear Sir, I am”!


Let me help you:

"Modern people underestimate the consequences of heresy. The savior of France was burned at the stake for her heresy! Without his very close friend, Galileo would have died for his heresy. Instead he was imprisoned for the rest of his life. Never underestimate the lengths the empire will go to protect its power base. The Roman Catholics were not at war with science, just anything that threatened their infallibility and their seat of god’s kingdom at the center of the universe - Rome."


I admire the desire to “get the history right!”.

And so I would be compelled to agree with your sentence about Copernicus. But, conversely, Galileo is a different matter. He was not afraid of being wrong; he was afraid that a fallible church could really end his freedom.

And so now we come to a newly crafted hair-splitting. The Roman Church was “not at war with Science . . . but with anything that would show the Church was fallible.”

I think it is safe to say that any religious devotion that has the civil authority to imprison you is a danger to everyone.

As to your podcast, where you mention that Galileo’s work was not “banned”, it was merely “suppressed” - - this is hardly a the point if the question is the Church’s ability to shut down scientific inquiry.

What I would like to see is a good paper on how new alignments of the Protestant movement took over where the Catholic Church left off - - the Vatican becomes a more or less willing participant in the investigation of the natural world - - while it becomes the mission of some independent denominations to define what is good knowledge and what is not!

As you say, Dillon, there is some misinformation out there, but it’s understandable why this rumor circulates. See below.

Here’s that infamous passage from White’s “warfare” book:

<While Lutheranism was thus condemning the theory of the earth’s movement, other branches of the Protestant Church did not remain behind. Calvin took the lead, in his Commentary on Genesis, by condemning all who asserted that the earth is not at the centre of the universe. He clinched the matter by the usual reference to the first verse of the ninety-third Psalm, and asked, " Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?">

As one can see, White cites Calvin’s commentary on Genesis, perhaps also his commentary on Psalms (it’s unclear, isn’t it?), and then gives a “quotation” that isn’t found anywhere in Calvin’s writings, let alone in the one or two works specifically cited. Nowhere does Calvin ever name Copernicus.

Now, perhaps he had heard of Copernicus–it wouldn’t at all surprise me if he had, or if he hadn’t. There’s an interesting passage in a French sermon written ca. 1556 in which he comments on 1 Cor 10:19-24, a text wholly unrelated to astronomy. To keep it short, he denounces those “madmen” (fantastiques) who seek to diss everything and undermine the order of nature, saying even that “the sun does not budge, and that it is the earth that bestirs itself and that turns around.” Calvin goes on to say, “we must really say that the the devil has possessed them…” He goes on to give other (non-astronomical) examples of people denying the plain evidence of their senses. In context, Calvin is denouncing libertines and skeptics. Reviewing the evidence (the sermon as well as the historical context in which it was written), Christopher Kaiser (an expert on historical theology) argues that Calvin was most likely targeting some ideas in Cicero’s Academica, especially the passage about Hicetas (which Copernicus mentions, incidentally), and that (despite appearances in English translation) both references to motion in the passage I quoted refer to the earth’s daily rotation about its axis, not its motion about the Sun. What really concerned Calvin was that some people would say any outrageous (from his viewpoint, very widely shared before Galileo’s time) thing just to get attention. If he were writing today perhaps he would have mentioned Lady Gaga, if I can make jest.

There’s even more to this, but those who want that can read Kaiser, “Calvin Copernicus, and Castellio,” Calvin Theological Journal 21 (April 1986): 5-31.


I see this was already addressed, but I wanted to chime in with what looks like a well documented and researched post by Atheist blogger @TimONeill:

Grabbing one relevant quote from his post:

So it could not be more clear that the idea that Copernicus was fearful of religious persecution is pure fantasy. There is no evidence to support White’s claim that he somehow fled Rome in 1503 and he quite obviously did not keep his theory in any way “secret” – it was known to a network of scholars across Europe and, through them and his summary in the Commentariolus , to a wider group of interested intellectuals. The idea that it was fear of churchmen that inspired this mythical “secrecy” is also patent nonsense, given that both Catholic and Protestant scholars were aware of his theory well before 1543 and those who expressed great interest and admiration included several bishops, three cardinals and the Pope himself.

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This is wonderful stuff that ought to be better known. Some of the information is new to me, but most of it I am familiar with and I endorse as fully accurate.


Thank you for your podcast. It is very helpful.

It reminded me that Galileo lived in a very different world from today.

There was no such thing as science. Galileo and his colleagues were know as “philosophers” and philosophy is very different from what we know as science.

Even philosophy was not separate from theology since it is my understanding that the Church had subordinated philosophy to theology. My point is that there was no separation between science and theology which developed later in large extent it seems from this event.

You cannot read the present into the past. There were mistakes made in this affair and as far as individuals are responsible for them, they are responsible. Institutions such as the church need to learn from mistakes and are responsible when they do not.

The Church is no longer the monolith that it was because of the Protestant reformation. The Roman Church has changed but not a fast as may be it should. It still seems to think that it is the only true Church and many of its former members seem to agree.

What Luther and Calvin thought about Copernicus is interesting, but unimportant because they did not insist that everyone agree with them.

It is my understanding the conflict over the earth centered universe was more based on philosophy than theology. Aristotle I understand did believe that the sun moved around the earth and the heavenly bodies were superior to the earth.

I do not know if he believed in astrology, meaning that the stars controlled events on earth, but most Greeks did. If the stars were physical bodies controlled by natural laws, then how could they control our lives. Also belief in a cyclical view of time, which was the view of the Greeks, as opposed the Jewish view, seemed to change at this time.

I would put most of the blame for the Galileo affair on philosophy and Hellenistic tradition. The Church took the blame in that it took over philosophy and became the sole source of authority. Now we have Separation of Church and State, and Separation of Theology, Science, and Philosophy.

George, this point pertains to Copernicus’ book, not Galileo’s. Bellarmine’s committee ruled in 1616 that Copernicus’ book De revolutionibus (1543) was to be “suspended until corrected.” The “corrections,” issued in a few years later in 1620, amounted to crossing out entirely or rewriting about half a dozen sentence or chapter headings to remove the implication that the earth actually moves, while leaving the Copernican idea as a legitimate astronomical “hypothesis,” that is, a useful mathematical tool for calculating where planets will be seen on given dates. Once the corrections were made, the book was permissible for Catholics to read. In the interim, it had simply been “suspended” temporarily.

Now, Galileo’s book the Dialogue (1632) had a different fate. None of Galileo’s works were censored or banned in any way back in 1616. Galileo became involved only on his own volition, when he went to Rome, knocked on doors, and tried to prevent Bellarmine’s committee from acting rashly in haste. Obviously he failed to persuade them to slow down. His book got banned in 1633 in the wake of his trial. That ruling was eventually reversed, but it took a very long time. And, as I explain in the podcast, the politics of the situation greatly complicate any verdict we might place today on their verdict at the time.

If I understand you correctly, George, you’re really asking why the Catholic Church (or any other religious body) should have the authority “to shut down scientific inquiry.” An absolutely fair question–one example of a set of questions that seems to me a subset of the larger question, should any legal entity have the authority to shut down any specific scientific inquiry? In our own day, e.g., should the US government have the authority to prevent government funds from being used for (say) stem-cell research? Or, should any government have the authority to prevent anyone (regardless of funding) from attempting to clone human beings, or to alter the human germ-line for future generations? As I see it, the answers to those questions can come only from fundamental beliefs about human beings–political, philosophical, ethical, perhaps religious, and definitely metaphysical beliefs. Science itself (if I may speak that way) certainly can’t answer those questions; nor could science itself answer the question of censorship in Galileo’s case.

As an intermediate proposition, George, perhaps you would actually want to grant (state or federal) government(s) the authority to prevent anyone from teaching creationism in public school science classes. The Supreme Court already has done that (in the 1980s) in the USA. Is that censorship, or something else? Or, perhaps you would want to grant government the authority to prevent anyone from advancing racism in public schools. “Scientific” racism of a virulent type was in fact taught in American public school biology texts in the 1920s, and I am not aware of any direct government actions that shut that down. Eventually, that type of racism did drop out of textbooks, but while other types remained. And, of course, even today, what constitutes actual “racism” might to some extent reflect one’s personal political views and thereby skate past genuine objectivity.

With the advantage of hindsight, you and I appear to agree, George, that the Roman Church made the wrong call on this one. An astronomical model of the universe was no threat to the Bible or Christian theology–as Bellarmine should have known from his own knowledge of Augustine and Aquinas. At the time, however, Galileo’s unwavering support for an unproved speculation that defied common sense, astronomical evidence (no parallax), physical theory (about motion on the earth let alone motion in the heavens), and 1600 years of biblical interpretation seemed to threaten authority itself and pose a danger to the authority of the Bible. Given that Bellarmine’s job was to ascertain the truth and to save souls (not to confuse them with false facts contrary to what almost everyone regarded as demonstrated truth), it’s hard for me to come down too hard on him. I almost certainly would not have accepted the Copernican theory in 1616, but I hope I would not have been quick to condemn it as heresy.

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