Ted Davis podcast about Galileo and the Church

I found that one just fine. But the key word here is “were.” They were indeed. As for today, I still think too much of Christianity is about power and manipulation. And in the Catholic church, this is something which varies with the area of the world in question. The top down authoritarian structure is particularly prone to this problem but the Catholics are hardly unique in this. I certainly see much of this here in Utah with the Mormons, though you probably discount them as being a part of Christianity a little more than I do (I would still call them pseudo-Christian). But it is part and parcel of the same human habits which Christians are not in any way exempt from.

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Thank you for correcting my frail memory; I had obviously confused what you said about Copernicus and thought you were discussing Galileo’s work. Copernicus’ work was merely suspended. While Galileo’s work was, as you affirm, banned in 1633.

It is good that you address “the larger question, should any legal entity have the authority to shut down any specific scientific inquiry?” But I think you should make a greater effort be more impartial in your assessments. I find it difficult to accept you as an impartial judge when you so subtly re-frame the entire discussion:

You and I were discussing religious authorities; you respond by asking what about “any legal entity”, where you are comparing a church’s power to imprison (if not execute) based on one’s published words,


a civil government’s power to imprison (if not execute) based on the same thing.

Do you think that is fair, @TedDavis? Hasn’t history already judged this matter? The Italians retrieved their civil authority from the Pope in 1871. While the Pope still rules all within the Vatican, it is much easier to move out of the Vatican than it is to move out of Italy. There is really no comparison between a government and a church. The former is intended to have police authority; the latter is not.

And we haven’t even invested any time in drawing the more obvious distinctions between doing astronomical research versus creating Life Itself!

If you want to defend the Catholic Church, defend their admirable position in support (more or less, for Evolution) … and point out that other denominations seem to have stepped forward against any number of sciences - - with less authority and also with less compelling logic.

Dear Michell,
Thank you for this and seeing into the point that I actually raised. I am not looking at the academic question, did Copernicus hold back his publication out of fear? The point that I wanted to make clear is that historians in general minimize the the oppressive environments that people are forced to live under, and how that impacted their decisions and especially how they came into this power in the first place.

George, I haven’t claimed complete complete impartiality on these matters, and I’m glad you don’t hesitate to challenge my opinions.

I’m actually as modern as you are, George, insofar as we agree that religious groups shouldn’t have civil authority to imprison or execute based on one’s published words.

Perhaps a government shouldn’t have that authority either, at least in most instances. The First Amendment addresses that, doesn’t it? (Maybe a government should be able to lock up someone for publishing on twitter repeated threats of physical danger to individuals or groups of people, such as threatening to bomb a school or shoot up a church. We might agree on this, too, but it’s not really germane here and I’ll not say more.)

However, before you dismiss my re-framing of the question, let me explain that Galileo wasn’t working in a modern context. He wasn’t. You seem to refer to this yourself, when you ask, “Hasn’t history already judged this matter?”

In the 17th century, in general (with perhaps rare exceptions that I can’t think of right now), Europeans didn’t have complete intellectual and political freedom, any more than they had full religious freedom. Before books were published, a license often (hardly always) had to be granted by civil and/or religious authorities. It was called an “Imprimatur,” a Latin words meaning “it may be printed.” Online definitions strongly tie this with Catholic officials, but it was broader than that. In England, e.g., Boyle had to obtain an Imprimatur to publish some of his works (but not others), even his non-religious and non-political thoughts about alchymical principles–I’m thinking of the Imprimatur from the second (1680) edition of his “Sceptical Chymist.” Interestingly, long after his death, the printer of the 1782 edition of Boyle’s tract on the “Degradation of Gold” had to obtain an imprimatur. I wish I knew the answers to the obvious questions people might ask about why this and not that? The point stands that intellectual freedom didn’t exist.

So, it’s hard to render an historical verdict against the Catholic church censoring various ideas, when at that time European authors just didn’t have intellectual freedom. That’s how things were done there then. We can certainly ask larger, meta-historical questions about whether that should have been the case, or whether religious authorities should have behaved like civil authorities, but we can’t easily answer those questions historically.

Even today, as you may know, George, the UK has something called the official secrets act, which means the government can actually prevent certain things from being published, before the fact.

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I thought the topic was Shawn’s anti-Catholicism.

I have no idea whatsoever whether Shawn has any anti-Catholic sentiments. I do not know him that well. I only know that I don’t see any such thing in this particular thread.

I certainly have none. I have often said that even though I like the Eastern Orthodox position on several doctrinal issues and also think they are closer the original church, I still like the Roman Catholic church better. That conservatism just doesn’t hold much attraction to me. I am an evangelical after all - and a rather liberal one at that. That of course means that I am also a Protestant – 5 solas and all. But I really don’t like the anti-Catholic sectors of Protestantism. Just because I am an evangelical doesn’t mean that I am blind to the fact that some of the worst of Christianity also flies the same flag.


I think that is correct and squares with what Ted Davies has said on the broadcast as well. The past is a foreign country is a nice way to think about it. Intellectual freedom existed no where in the time of Galileo. But another difference between that past and now is the power the church exercised in the role we are used to seeing exercised by the state. So while it is probably true (I’m not really in a position to state a more definite opinion) that Galileo was in no mortal danger from the church, it is still true that he had plenty to lose. While the Catholic church had power over a larger swath of europe, other denominations of Christianity wielded a similar range of powers where they were dominant (if I’m understanding the speaker correctly). You might even say, the RD basically conducted itself as any Christian hierarchy would given the mores of time.

So I would hope that one take away from studying the role of religion at this time would be a consensus that the powers of the state are best left out of the hands of any church. The mission of a church is better aimed at affecting people’s moral/spiritual lives and then see that reflected in the decisions a people make concerning their own governance. I say that in a very self interested way as a non-Christian but I would hope to find much agreement among my Christian neighbors on this, or at least those educated in history.


I neglected to thank Ted Davis for directing discussion of the podcast to Biologos and additionally for interacting with the members here on the points raised there. I am a newish, non-Christian member of the forum but I have learned a lot here and my esteem for this forum’s mission and Christianity generally has grown my leaps and bounds in my time here. I very much appreciate getting the benefit on your learning and insights, Mr. Davis.


Ted Davis mentioned it first.

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I did indeed charge you with holding anti-Catholic attitudes, but I should have spelled out more clearly why I said it. But, first I apologize for implying without any real basis that you an anti-Catholic person, i.e., someone harboring resentment or intolerance for Catholics. My wording was poor. Please accept my apology.

I was responding (too hastily, to be frank) to the views you expressed about Copernicus (mainly) and Galileo. In particular, the claim that Copernicus was fearful of Church censure or even persecution if he publicly stated his cosmological model (with the earth revolving about a stationary Sun) is one with a long, sordid history of its own. Very often, it is used as a weapon by people with strong anti-Catholic agendas. A D White, probably the most influential advocate of that view, certainly harbored a very low view of Catholicism, but he also held low views of all other traditional Christians (by “traditional” I basically mean anyone who believed in the affirmations of the ecumenical creeds, including the Deity and Resurrection of Jesus). In his view, Christian theology (whether Catholic or Protestant) had to be thrown under the bus in order to make social and intellectual progress in the USA. Christian moral attitudes of love for God and neighbor, on the other hand, were crucial truths that had to be retained and cultivated. White’s general attitude toward Catholicism is best captured by one of his favorite pejoratives, the word “medieval,” which for him equated with ignorant superstition. When he spoke of “medieval” theology, he was intentionally dismissing pious Catholics as stupid dupes who held back the progress of knowledge.

John William Draper went even further. For him, the Catholic Church represented the nadir of Western Civilization. He was personally a vitriolic anti-Catholic, and he is responsible for propagating many anti-Catholic myths, especially the one (invented earlier by others, including Washington Irving) about Columbus and the flat earth. That particular chestnut has always had a powerful anti-Catholic overtone: the idiots who threw Scripture in the face of Columbus in defense of a flat earth were Catholic theologians who refused to consider the facts. Well, the facts are that no learned European of the 15th century believed in a flat earth, and the earth’s spherical shape was assumed by everyone involved with Columbus’ efforts to persuade the Spanish crown to fund his crazy voyage—crazy, because Columbus insisted that it was 3000 miles from Spain to Japan, while his opponents knew he was badly mistaken and the sailors were never going to survive such a long voyage.

Anyway, bogus stories about Columbus, Copernicus, Galileo (that he was tortured, imprisoned, or even burned to death in some versions), and other shapers of the modern world have circulated widely, very often in concert with anti-Catholicism in England and the USA. Even Thomas Jefferson mentioned a ridiculous story about Galileo (that he was tried for defending the sphericity of the earth) in his book about Virginia, as a way of dissing Catholicism.

Thus, Shawn, when you mentioned one of these common anti-Catholic myths, followed immediately by dots connecting it with Rome—the type of language that Dan Brown, a genuine anti-Catholic who creates anti-Catholic myths of his own, uses in his novels—I responded with that charge. I should rather have said only that you were stating a common anti-Catholic myth, without implying that you personally harbor any anti-Catholic sentiments. We’ve never met, I don’t know anything about your personal life, and I apologize for going further than I should have.

Further conversation about the ideas I explained in this comment is of course encouraged.



You’re very kind. Thank you for expressing appreciation. We welcome your participation here.


First of all, as a fan of skepticism (and as a person who feels libertines contribute to the spiciness of life) I, feel a desire to call Calvin out on his hard-nosed fogeyism. What a stick in the mud! I can’t recall liking a single thing the man has written/uttered. So maybe my prejudices are entering into things here…

It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to assume that Calvin refers to Copernicus in the above quote. After all, it was a hot topic in his day. And I think we’ve all heard sermons that digressed into mini-rants about this or that. So the broader context of his homily can hardly indicate the meaning of every sentence contained within. Plus, “the sun does not budge, and that it is the earth that bestirs itself and that turns around” is a little too on the nose.

True, this is far from conclusive, but, given what you’ve provided here, it seems plausible that Calvin might have opposed Copernicanism. I’m glad to say that I’m no Calvin scholar, so I will leave the matter for the experts to sort out. But anyone who advances the claim that Calvin might have opposed the Copernican model certainly isn’t pulling stuff out of thin air (except for the White example you gave, of course, that was apparently pulled from thin air).

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Luther did allude to Copernicus, didn’t he?

The link Matthew provided above to the article “History for Atheists” by O’Neill (and that Ted was favorably impressed by) provides an answer to your question. I’ll paste the relative material from that below:

It is often noted that no less a religious authority than Martin Luther rejected Copernicus on purely religious grounds, but the evidence for this is thin and actually not entirely certain. Luther’s comment is found in the collection of his “table talk” – a compilation of anecdotes and reported comments and sayings taken from notes made by students between 1531 and 1544 and then published as the Tischreden in 1566. Luther is reported to have referred dismissively to Copernicus:

“There was mention of a certain astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving. [Luther remarked] ‘So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth’ [Joshua 10:12].”

This seems at first glance to be an open an shut case of a purely religiously-based rejection of Copernicanism by no less an authority than the father of Protestantism. But closer inspection shows that it is not quite this simple. The anecdote is recorded by Anthony Lauterbach and dated to 1539. Of course, this puts it four years before De revolutionibus was published and even two years before the first edition of the Narratio . Since we have good reason to believe that the Commentariolus was not in circulation in Wittenberg at this time, this comment is – at best – based on hearsay about Copernicus’ theory, not any considered objection to the (as yet unpublished) theory. It is also, by Luther’s usual standards, a very mild and off-handed dismissal, given that when the great reformer really wanted to make his disapproval known – about, for example, dirty revolting peasants or “lying Jews” – he was more than capable of issuing hundreds of pages of thundering condemnation. Then there is the problem that the “astrologer” in question is not named. So Luther could be referring to some second hand report about Copernicus, but given that the theory this person is supposed to have proposed is not heliocentrism but a revolving earth, it could also be a reference to Nicole Oresme, Jean Buridan, Nicholas of Cusa or any other pre-Copernican who had discussed the movement of the earth.

I think (and it sounds like @vulcanlogician (Dillon) would agree) that it seems likely that Luther would have rejected Copernicus’ theory if or when he would have eventually read of it (if he ever did). After all, if only a small handful of luminaries from that time thought that the earth actually does move as Copernicus thought, it seems unlikely that any given clergyman (leader though he be) of the day would have cast their lot with something that was a radical idea even among the natural philosophers of the day. After all what reason would Luther, Calvin, or anybody else of the day who wasn’t directly concerned with Copernicus’ mathematics - what reason would they have to cast off everything (including the best established science of the day) and run with a fringe notion like this?

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While I an certainly not a Calvinist myself and so find it quite easy to resonate with your “disinclination” regarding Calvin, nonetheless, you should probably read more before you decide he offers nothing you would admire! I highly recommend this Biologos article to all interested here about both Luther and Calvin.

After all these words are also attributed to Calvin:

For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.
(on commenting the text of Genesis 1:6)

While I realize you don’t claim to be a theist necessarily and probably have no dog in this fight, I find some of Calvin’s attitudes toward Scripture and God’s creation to be quite commendable and perhaps even ahead of most in his day. He opposed astrology, for example! All this is to say, I hate to deprive any historical figure their due credit.


The evidence is too thin to conclude anything. After all, according to the podcast, his remarks on the matter were recorded by one of his followers who heard him refer to Copernicus over the dinner table.

As one might expect, I’m opposed to religion meddling with science (or having a presence in science classrooms) at all. But I also find it troubling that historical accounts were perhaps blown out of proportion. To me, there is no such thing as “good misinformation” so I appreciate the efforts of those who would set the record straight.

Even if Luther himself opposed the Copernican revolution, it says a lot that one of its pioneers was himself a Lutheran (which, if I’m not mistaken, I learned from the podcast.) To me this shows that religiosity in its barest form does not begrudge science at all. It is perhaps only religious institutions whose worldly aims are constrained by science that would ever truly oppose science. Hence, inasmuch as the Catholic Church tried to stifle science in Galileo’s time, I take issue with the Church. Inasmuch, as fundamentalists attempt to inject design into science classrooms (because it fits their narrative) I take issue with the fundamentalists. Otherwise, I don’t wish to see religion as something that is essentially at odds with science… because IMO, it isn’t.

I hope that clears up my view on Luther and others.



And it is hard to render an “historical” verdict against some of the great men of Science, or against some of America’s founding fathers, because a great many otherwise-fine men and women owned slaves, right?

I’m not trying to be facetious here. I know people in America’s “South” who sincerely want to know where we can draw the line on the question of slavery? Why does Thomas Jefferson get a “free pass”, but Jefferson Davis doesn’t?

I do have an answer to that question: the answer is: “When did the English speaking world awaken to the inhumanity of slavery? The line is crossed when good men decided to go to war to preserve this inhumanity!”

So, for me, the “line in the sand” is drawn with the secession of the Southern states… if not a year earlier.

ONE: “The Somersett Case in 1772, in which a fugitive slave was freed in England with the judgement that slavery did not exist under English common law and was thus prohibited in England, helped launch the British movement to abolish slavery.”
TWO: “Though anti-slavery sentiments were widespread by the late 18th century, the colonies and emerging nations that used slave labour continued to do so: Dutch, French, English, Spanish and Portuguese territories in the West Indies; South America; and the Southern United States. After the American Revolution established the United States, northern states, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780, passed legislation during the next two decades abolishing slavery, sometimes by gradual emancipation.”
THREE: " Massachusetts ratified a constitution that declared all men equal; freedom suits challenging slavery based on this principle brought an end to slavery in the state. Vermont, which existed as an unrecognized state from 1777 to 1791, abolished adult slavery in 1777. In other states, such as Virginia, similar declarations of rights were interpreted by the courts as not applicable to Africans and African Americans. During the following decades, the abolitionist movement grew in northern states, and Congress regulated the expansion of slavery in new states admitted to the union."
FOUR: “Great Britain and Ireland and the United States outlawed the international slave trade in 1807, after which Britain led efforts to block slave ships.”
FIVE: “Britain abolished slavery throughout the British Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, the French colonies re-abolished it in 1848.”

So we might ask when we think a similar rubicon was reached in Western Civilization regarding Science and the Pursuit of Knowledge (setting aside, for the time being, manipulations of embryonic life and related genetic factors).

@TedDavis, do you have a nomination for such a line in the cosmic sand?

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And we should note (as I’m sure you are well aware), that fundamentalism is a very recent (and American) phenomenon on [compared to] any Catholic history time-line. So it would seem that Catholics have largely already well-learned historical lessons that some Protestants are still in the throes of … not learning yet as the case may be.

On a related note, here is an article: “The Great Copernican Cliche” by Dennis Danielson that I shared on Biologos a long time ago. It is worth posting here again, though - and worth the hour or two of reading you may invest. I’m also a bit curious what @Shawn_Murphy might think about Danielson’s thesis too. But any of you curious about the impact of Copernicism, not just to his near-contemporaries, but in subsequent centuries now as well would do well to read this to help dispel a lot of unhelpful mythological lore that still circulates (especially among anti-religious folks) today.

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I would supplement this reference to Rheticus with an even more significant one: Kepler. He became a Copernican as a Lutheran theology student at Tubingen, partly b/c he believed that the Sun-centered universe placed the symbol of God the Father (namely, the Sun) in the center of the world, with Christ symbolized by the starry heaven and the Holy Spirit by the intermediate space. In other words, for Kepler the Copernican theory made it possible to claim that the universe itself was a physical representation of the Trinity–a belief he not only held for the rest of his life, but placed prominently in the first textbook of Copernican astronomy ever published. For details, see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14746700.2011.547004?src=recsys&journalCode=rtas20

This particular example gives the lie, in a big way, to those who say that theology never influences the development of science in positive ways. Without Kepler’s Trinitarian beliefs, there might not have been Kepler’s laws, b/c he might never have been a Copernican at all; without Kepler’s laws, there’s no Newtonian gravitation; etc. I don’t present this as a necessary conclusion, but simply as a defeater for bad arguments about the dangers of mixing theology and science, such as those advanced by Neil Degrasse Tyson or Carl Sagan. It ain’t necessarily so that ideas about God can only do damage to scientific thought.


Not quite. Yes, he wrote an early, little-known treatise against “judicial” astrology, the type that assumes that the stars actually control human affairs. However, other types of astrology, such as in medicine or prophecy, were not objectionable.


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