D’Souza: Debunking the Galileo Myth

Dinesh D'Souza

Dinesh D'Souza

Source: Townhall.com | Dinesh D’Souza

Many people have uncritically accepted the idea that there is a longstanding war between science and religion. We find this war advertised in many of the leading atheist tracts such as those by Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Every few months one of the leading newsweeklies does a story on this subject. Little do the peddlers of this paradigm realize that they are victims of nineteenth-century atheist propaganda.

About a hundred years ago, two anti-religious bigots named John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White wrote books promoting the idea of an irreconcilable conflict between science and God. The books were full of facts that have now been totally discredited by scholars. But the myths produced by Draper and Dickson continue to be recycled. They are believed by many who consider themselves educated, and they even find their way into the textbooks. In this article I expose several of these myths, focusing especially on the Galileo case, since Galileo is routinely portrayed as a victim of religious persecution and a martyr to the cause of science.

The Flat Earth Fallacy: According to the atheist narrative, the medieval Christians all believed that the earth was flat until the brilliant scientists showed up in the modern era to prove that it was round. In reality, educated people in the Middle Ages knew that the earth was round. In fact, the ancient Greeks in the fifth century B.C. knew the earth was a globe. They didn’t need modern science to point out the obvious. They could see that when a ship went over the horizon, the hull and the mast disappear at different times. Even more telling, during an eclipse they could see the earth’s shadow on the moon. Look fellas, it’s round!

Huxley’s Mythical Put-Down: We read in various books about the great debate between Darwin’s defender Thomas Henry Huxley and poor Bishop Wilberforce. As the story goes, Wilberforce inquired of Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his father or mother’s side, and Huxley winningly responded that he would rather be descended from an ape than from an ignorant bishop who was misled people about the findings of science. A dramatic denouement, to be sure, but the only problem is that it never happened. There is no record of it in the proceedings of the society that held the debate, and Darwin’s friend Joseph Hooker who informed him about the debate said that Huxley made no rejoinder to Wilberforce’s arguments.

Darwin Against the Christians: As myth would have it, when Darwin’s published his Origin of Species, the scientists lined up on one side and the Christians lined up on the other side. In reality, there were good scientific arguments made both in favor of Darwin and against him. The British naturalist Richard Owen, the Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, and the renowned physicist Lord Kelvin all had serious reservations about Darwin’s theory. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb points out that while some Christians found evolution inconsistent with the Bible, many Christians rallied to Darwin’s side. Typical was the influential Catholic journal Dublin Review which extravagantly praised Darwin’s book while registering only minor objections.

The Experiment Galileo Didn’t Do: We read in textbooks about how Galileo went to the Tower of Pisa and dropped light and heavy bodies to the ground. He discovered that they hit the ground at the same time, thus refuting centuries of idle medieval theorizing. Actually Galileo didn’t do any such experiments; one of his students did. The student discovered what we all can discover by doing similar experiments ourselves: the heavy bodies hit the ground first! As historian of science Thomas Kuhn points out, it is only in the absence of air resistance that all bodies hit the ground at the same time.

Galileo Was the First to Prove Heliocentrism: Actually, Copernicus advanced the heliocentric theory that the sun, not the earth, is at the center, and that the earth goes around the sun. He did this more than half a century before Galileo. But Copernicus had no direct evidence, and he admitted that there were serious obstacles from experience that told against his theory. For instance, if the earth is moving rapidly, why don’t objects thrown up into the air land a considerable distance away from their starting point? Galileo defended heliocentrism, but one of his most prominent arguments was wrong. Galileo argued that the earth’s regular motion sloshes around the water in the oceans and explains the tides. In reality, tides have more to do with the moon’s gravitational force acting upon the earth.

The Church Dogmatically Opposed the New Science: In reality, the Church was the leading sponsor of the new science and Galileo himself was funded by the church. The leading astronomers of the time were Jesuit priests. They were open to Galileo’s theory but told him the evidence for it was inconclusive. This was the view of the greatest astronomer of the age, Tyco Brahe. The Church’s view of heliocentrism was hardly a dogmatic one. When Cardinal Bellarmine met with Galileo he said, “While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still, if there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe…and that the sun goes not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.” Galileo had no such proofs.

Galileo Was A Victim of Torture and Abuse: This is perhaps the most recurring motif, and yet it is entirely untrue. Galileo was treated by the church as a celebrity. When summoned by the Inquisition, he was housed in the grand Medici Villa in Rome. He attended receptions with the Pope and leading cardinals. Even after he was found guilty, he was first housed in a magnificent Episcopal palace and then placed under “house arrest” although he was permitted to visit his daughters in a nearby convent and to continue publishing scientific papers.

The Church Was Wrong To Convict Galileo of Heresy: But Galileo was neither charged nor convicted of heresy. He was charged with teaching heliocentrism in specific contravention of his own pledge not to do so. This is a charge on which Galileo was guilty. He had assured Cardinal Bellarmine that given the sensitivity of the issue, he would not publicly promote heliocentrism. Yet when a new pope was named, Galileo decided on his own to go back on his word. Asked about this in court, he said his Dialogue on the Two World Systems did not advocate heliocentrism. This is a flat-out untruth as anyone who reads Galileo’s book can plainly see. Even Galileo’s supporters, and there were many, found it difficult to defend him at this point.

What can we conclude from all this? Galileo was right about heliocentrism, but we know that only in retrospect because of evidence that emerged after Galileo’s death. The Church should not have tried him at all, although Galileo’s reckless conduct contributed to his fate. Even so, his fate was not so terrible. Historian Gary Ferngren concludes that “the traditional picture of Galileo as a martyr to intellectual freedom and as a victim of the church’s opposition to science has been demonstrated to be little more than a caricature.” Remember this the next time you hear some half-educated atheist rambling on about “the war between religion and science.”


  1. I believe that very few people, scientists and “lay” equally, realize that many scientific “facts” or “truths” are a matter of faith. Yes, faith! They are not even conscious of the fact that one is taking another’s word. No one can repeat all experiments that have been done up till now AND perform every current experiment AND follow every current argument. We have been taught that the Earth revolves around the Sun. For most of us the motion of Earth is a matter of faith.

    How do we know that the Earth rotates?

    There is the so called ‘indirect’ evidence. For example, Jupiter and the Sun can be observed to rotate by keeping tack of the features on the surface. This would only show that other members of the solar system rotate.

    The concentric arcs traced by the stars in a time exposure of the night sky can be explained either way: the Earth spins on its axis OR the sky rotates around us.

    Foucault Pendulum is considered the main evidence for Earth’s rotation. Jean Foucault, a French scientist, performed an experiment in 1851. He used a 60 meter pendulum with a 25 kg (55 lb) mass on the end. Foucault started the pendulum swinging and observed that the plane of its motion, with respect to the earth, rotated slowly clockwise. Is this irrefutable evidence that Earth moves? Einstein admitted that a rotating celestial sphere would have the same effect on the pendulum. An anomalous precession of the plane of oscillation of a pendulum during a solar eclipse was observed. This proves that the pendulum is strongly influenced by all celestial objects and its motion can’t be solely attributed to Earth’s rotation. Same argument works against the Coriolis effect regarded as a proof for Earth’s rotation.

    • Eliot: What you say is true; but there is an even deeper problem. For example, take our sun. Everyone believes and says that it is a nuclear furnance operating on the principle of primarily fusion of hydrogen. The interior of the sun is very hot. Approximately 13 1/2 trillion degrees Kelvin. As the heat from the nuclear furnance radiates outwards, the temperature naturally dissipates so that, at the surface, it is only 5,800 degrees Kelvin. Fine; that is what one would expect. However, as it continues to radiate outwards from the surface, logic and science tell us that the temperature will continue to dissipate. But, scientist have known for a long time that the temperature in the corona, which is above the surface (sort of like our atmosphere), is as hot as it can be: namely and approximately 2 million degrees Kelvin. How does it jump from 5,800 degrees Kelvin to 2 million degrees Kelvin as it dissipates outward? Nobody knows. It is simply against the laws of thermodynamics, if they can be called laws.

      There is only one conclusion that can be reached: the corona is not heated by the fusion in the core of the sun but by something else. Several theories have been proposed over the years but none of them have panned out because they all violate the laws of thermodynamics.

      So, is the heat we get from the sun the result of the nuclear fusion at the core? The only answer based on the evidence is that it is not. It is from something else which apparently heats the corona. However, pick up any text book and it will tell you that the heat we get from the sun is the result of nuclear fusion at the core. And, all their theories about the other stars are based on our observations of the sun.

      This isn’t faith. It is a deliberate manipulation of the facts. As I was trying to tell Robin, sometimes, when the evidence does not fit the conclusion, they make up evidence, such as dark matter. At other times, when they are unable to make up evidence, they commit the unpardonable scientific venial sin: THEY IGNORE THE EVIDENCE AND DON’T ATTEMPT TO EXPLAIN IT! In the mean time, they continue to teach the nuclear engine as a fact ignoring that the fact not only does not fit the theory but actually contradicts it.

      The scientific method has become the progeny of Origen’s speculations. Nothing more and nothing less.

    • For those who wonder about whether the earth rotates, those guys standing on the moon looking at it a few years back were pretty sure.

      It is, of course, mathematically possible to pick any point you like, anywhere in the universe, designate it ‘the sacred center’ and describe everything else altogether in terms of its motion about, through or along that line. For example, we could designate whereever Fr. Hans is from the top of his head to the bottom of his right foot (not the left, no..) to be the center of the universe, and make sure he never bends just to keep things simple. No mathematical reason it couldn’t be done. We could describe the motion of the galaxies afar and the nearby planets and the sun and the tides and well, everything really, relative to that if we wanted to (and Fr. Hans had a really good GPS and never laid down…)

      If we are to accept that the simplest explanation that is in concord with all observations is to be preferred over a more complex one, then the earth rotates about a north-south line that’s tilted a bit relative to the sun (lucky south americans right now.. 12 inches of snow due here tomorrow). The moon rotates dramatically at a speed that keeps one side of it always pointed at us (now there is a freak of nature) while making a trip around us every month or so, and the sun itself and the rest of us are really cooking along relative to the other stars so fast if we hit some space junk it will not work out at all well.

      P.S. It’s possible the reason the corona is so hot has to do with the really fast moving plasma bits just after being whacked-ho upon nucleus-wise follow electrical and magnetic force lines (which their own motion generates) at near relativistic speeds and they all take a trip up there and only fall back in to the cooler bits once they rub off enough speed to slow down. Someday we’ll find a way to stay cool enough close enough to look to be sure.

      • It’s possible the reason the corona is so hot has to do with the really fast moving plasma bits just after being whacked-ho upon nucleus-wise follow electrical and magnetic force lines (which their own motion generates) at near relativistic speeds and they all take a trip up there and only fall back in to the cooler bits once they rub off enough speed to slow down.

        Harry: No it is not possible if the law of thermodynamics and reason are to be followed. The heat from the core has to penetrate the photospere (which is cooler) to get to the corona. The photosphere is uniformily cool. If the electrical and magnetic force lines were in play, then those area would be hot. They are not. Again, the photosphere is uniformily cooler. There is no explanation. It makes no sense unless the corona is heated other than through hydrogen fusion. Some have suggested a cathode/annode anology between Jupiter and the Sun. But conventional physics detests the idea that electomagnetic energy plays any factor in celestial mechanics.

        • Nick, Are we on firm ground when conventional thermodynamics are applied to conditions where general and special relativity are important effects? Experimental results are understandably meager. I’ll certainly agree we have a puzzle there. But we have plenty of puzzles and I think we’ll both agree that the more closely we look the more puzzles we’ll have. I doubt we’ll ever run out of them, so noticing puzzles remain I think will always be a part of the human condition and not really a valid reason to doubt what repeatable experiements generate — at least when living in conditions like those the experiements were conducted in….

          • Harry: We are on good ground. The anomoly about the temperature gradient and the laws of thermodynamics (energy) is contradictory and cannot be explained — so, it is ignored. Einstein never questioned in special and general relativity the law of the conservation of energy nor in the principle of entropy.

          • Nick, no he didn’t but neither do we know how thermodyanmics plays out in a setting where relativistic speeds and time bending gravity effects both exist at the same moment in a context of nuclear fusion. Maybe quantum effects are magnified.

            The main point is there will always be a new theory that explains the previously unexplained thing, experiment will move on and something will bug the Nick’s and Eliots of the world showing what the theory says can’t happen. Time passes, tools improve, a new theory happens. Repeat.

            With every cycle, more and more about what affects us is known, locked down, and if not tamed at least dimensioned and located.

            However through it all, standing the tests of time, are repeatable experiments. The same experiments that gave insights and results 100 years ago if repeated today will give the same results.

            Nobody here I think give that fact its due value. We debate shortcomings in our theories as if they were as important as what would happen if the same experiment done the same way gave different results.

        • All this talk about the outward pressure generated by the fusion of hydrogen counteracting the force of gravity is nonsense. A ball of plasma held together by gravity? What effect does gravity have on small-mass or no-mass particles? Gravity is playing a minor role because it competes with the much stronger electromagnetic interaction.

          • Ryan: Gravity does play a role here. The primordial atom (plasma to be more correct) is of infinite mass according to Einstein and therefore of infinite gravity. It does play a disctinct and unexplainable situtation role in the Big Bang. If you are talking about the sun, there is NO scientist that would attribute the coronal heating to electromagnatic forces. But, they are the only ones that make sense. However, that would disrupt and throughly call into question all celestial mechanics and lead to utter chaos in the sientific community.

  2. Time was created by the big bang Time dictates causation, without time, cause and effect are non existant. Therefore the universe was a spontaneous action. Care to argue that?

    Which is more likely: That the laws of nature have been suspended in your friend’s favor, or you are trying to deceive me (or are being deceived yourself)?

    The place to read about the natural history of the world is the world itself. Not the transmitted superstitions of stone age savages (the Old Testament).
    Not the wish-fulfillment ramblings of a near-illiterate messianic cult (the New Testament).
    Not the extortionist superstitious threats and ravings of an unsuccessful shepherd (the Quran).So forget Jesus, some big stars died so that you could be here today.

    Faith is belief without evidence, told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
    There’s a Bible on the shelf there. But I keep it next to A Christopher Hitchens book–poison and the antidote.

    • Please read Debate done, went well, post tomorrow?. If the light in your soul is not entirely extinguished you might understand something.
      Even if you believe that there is no God and no soul it might be possible that God will not leave you. Would it be too difficult for you to say once in a while “God, if you exist, come to find me!”? Ι think this does not clash with your principles or your conscience. This is valid for Robin too.

      St Nicholas of Zhicha (+ 1956):

      A timid faith is a vain faith. A timid word is an empty sound. Christ spoke as one who had authority, not timidly, like the pharisees and the sinners. Every word of Christ shines like a candle kindled in the darkness of this world. All the words of philosophers have either already gone out or else will go out. Even a light breeze is able to put them out, but there is no whirlwind either on earth or in the whole universe able to put out the candles of Christ. Precisely because He was able to say that which not a single mortal would dare say: Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away (Matt. 24, 35).

    • Science is a belief with out attempting to explain contradictions. Only hope that one day they may be explained.

      • Nick, with respect I think for Orthodox Chrisitians who are also scientists, and I know many and count myself among them at the fringes anyhow, ‘real science’ is in no way a belief system. That about which experiment is silent is at best a scientific speculation. Those who make inferences about science and operate as if experiment proves their attitude about the current state of theory and its implicaitons operate in the realm of belief or faith, mostly I suppose in the completeness of the theories as they understand them and their applicability.

        Anyhow, real science, real scientists all agree science has nothing to say worth betting who gets the last cup out of the coffee pot on if experiment is silent on the subject. The only faith those (we) scientists have is that experiments conducted the same way in all respects will deliver the same results over time. If the results differ it is because there is something different in the way or context in which the experiment was done. That’s the only real faith a scientist has, that the future must needs be like the past all other things remaining constant. I like to think that’s the actual message of the story about God’s promise and the flood. Not that no more natural disasters of epic proportions will come, but that there will be no fussing physics, you can rely on honest experiment.

        Honest repeatable experiements lead to confirming or denying parts of theories, leading to improved theories, which must to be called ‘improved’ make predictions which then are tested with further experiment as the means become available. Repeat and the thing is pure joy really, hard to explain to someone who hasn’t done it. Mostly high frustration and tedium of course, but there are moments that redeem, oh yes.

        My own favored subject is math. Do yourself a favor some day and read ‘Fermat’s Enigma’. Amazing what the one mind is yet required to do.

    • Where did the primordial mass come from. Tell me that.

      • Magic sky-daddy did it. Out of all the possible reasons for something to happen, that is the exact answer we should use at all times. Never mind there are probably thousands of reasonable explanations.

        In short, look it up. This argument of “where did that come from?” “well where did that come from?” and so on and so on is like a 3 year old asking “why” over and over again. To jump to the conclusion that anything is magic is idiotic and stops the progress of human knowledge. There are reasons. Figure them out. And quit believing in that that ridiculous self-contradictory book!

        • Mike:
          The Scripture belongs to the church and it can only be understood and correctly interpreted within the community of right faith. For those outside the church the Scripture seems to be an array of disconnected passages and stories or a “ridiculous self-contradictory book” as you say.

          On Holy Scripture by Elder Cleopa

          Holy Scripture, according to the Fathers, is bone and no one will venture with teeth fit for milk to break the strong bones of Holy Scripture – for those teeth will be crushed.

          So, Mike try to improve yourself because

          A man, as well as a people, has value to the degree to which he has understood the Gospel and can follow the teaching of Christ. – scholar Simion Mehedinti

        • Michael Bauman :

          Mike, what do you care what we believe. If it is all fantasy as you assume, why get in a snit?

          We will know for sure at the time of death.

  3. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Time was created by the big bang Time dictates causation, without time, cause and effect are non existant. Therefore the universe was a spontaneous action. Care to argue that?

    It’s statements like this that make me believe that atheism requires a blind faith.

    In terms of the history of ideas, the notion of linear time predates the theory of the big bang. The comprehension of time as a linear, as a created entity, drew from Genesis, the book of creation of the Hebrews, and then retrofitted into the theory of the big bang millennia later.

    If the term “big bang” is used here as metaphor, as a literary device to describe a creative explosion of an ordered natural world, well, it works but you are left with the problem of explaining where the directing logic came from. With no greater architect in the picture, the only solution is that the logic emerges from the matter itself.

    So, yes, you are correct: the notion of linear time is a necessary philosophical precondition for natural and human progress (causation as you call it) to occur. But by ignoring real human history, you wrest the notion out of its proper historical context (Genesis, probably compiled around 800 BC or so) and place it not at the beginning of creation as your narrative suggests, but in the late 19th century when the Darwinian narrative first found favor and when philosophical materialism (the “logic” – logos – is grounded in matter rather than language and speech) first arose.

    So what you are presenting here is not science. It is not even philosophy. It is a creation story*. As I said at the outset, it takes a boatload of faith to believe that time sprang from matter.

    *In historical terms, the notion of linear time is drawn from Genesis and retrofitted into the theory of the Big Bang several millennia later. The fact that you turn around and project the recontextualization (the “retrofit”) back to the beginning of time and creation is why your theory really functions as a narrative – a creation story – rather than science.

    Man cannot live by science alone. Narrative is the ground of knowledge (God spoke the world into existence) and every theory of origins will follow this model (call it an incontrovertible brute fact even though many people remain blind to it). If the model breaks down, it means that we have either descended into superstition or embraced the primordial chaos (nihilism) in which case culture is lost anyway.

  4. Nick: Re I was talking about the Sun, but I believe gravity can be discharged all together and replaced by electromagnetism. I believe that electromagnetic forces play a dominant role in the universe. Modern physics heavily relies on “thought experiments” while ignoring the physical reality. The ionosphere, as its name indicates, is ionized and contains a plasma. Lightning is an example of plasma present at Earth’s surface. We know that lightning is an atmospheric discharge of electricity. The method of cloud charging still remains elusive. How lightning initially forms is still a matter of debate. All sort of possible explanations for lightening are listed as possible root causes: atmospheric perturbations (wind, humidity, friction, and atmospheric pressure) (!), forcible separation (due to an unknown cause) of positive and negative charges within the cloud, or an accumulation of solar charged particles. We don’t have a valid theory for lightening but we claim that we understand the Sun.

    If we are indeed looking to increase our “knowledge” of the universe we should forget all the talk about gravity.
    All we know is that something which we call “gravity” supposedly works, but we don’t how. At the macroscopic level, the force of gravity between to objects is proportional the product of the masses of the two objects and inversely proportional to square of the distance between the objects. We don’t know what “causes” gravity at a microscopic level (Newton himself admitted this). Newton measured the force of gravity and put it into a mathematical formula but he did not explain the nature of gravity. BTW, there is a striking similarity between the electric and gravitational force formulas. Many theories rely on the existence of a Higgs boson and it is expected to be discovered at the Large Hadron Collider.

    More focus on electromagnetic forces won’t necessarily lead the scientific community to utter chaos. It would be a step towards true science, very likely compatible with the Biblical truth. That is the problem!

    • I believe that electromagnetic forces play a dominant role in the universe.

      I agree. We are in the scientific minority. But, it is the only theory that makes sense of the current mess in science. It is the only way that science will ever achieve a Unified Field Theory. Too bad they can’t see it because of their Newtonian/Einstienan prejudice. Speaking of the predominance of electromagentism, which was first proposed by Velikovsky and which Einstein continuously rejected and continued a vigorous correspondence debate with him, Einstein was found dead in his bed with Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Coillision” open and lying on his chest and some of his marginal notes indicated that he was having second thoughts. Too bad for science that he did not live a year or two longer.

  5. cynthia curran :

    Well, most people that refer to the dark ages are discussing the period from the fall of the western roman empire 473 until around 1,000 or so. A period well most of the educated people like Bede had been in clergy. So, later Western Europeans particularity after the fall of Constantinople became interested in being educated in the upper classes or the middle classes since the fleeing Byzantines made the study of Greek available more in the West since the fall of the western roman empire. Remember in Roman times, it was the Roman upper classes that learn both Greek and Latin while Greeks prefer not to learn Latin. So, a classical education rose in the west and of course some of these developments also took place in science and philosophy during the latter midddle ages as mention before,answering DeSousa about atheists and the dark ages.

  6. I love this article, because although it claims to debunk the “myth” that the church oppressed Galileo for his teaching, it actually demonstrates the oppression quite convincingly. Plus a little obvious mud-slinging thrown in for good measure. If you can’t side with the victim because of your prejudices, just oppress them even further by saying they went back on their word, call them reckless and make out that they got this right by accident.

    Of course slinging mud at Galileo isn’t going to make it stick, and the Pope eventually acknowledged the church’s error in 1979. This is no atheist myth.

    Galileo:1, Dinesh:0.

    • Graham:

      Of course slinging mud at Galileo isn’t going to make it stick, and the Pope eventually acknowledged the church’s error in 1979. This is no atheist myth.

      The Pope eventually have to acknowledge many more church’s “errors”. Read errors committed by the RCC’s leadership. Usually, the ordinary faithful had no clue about what was being done on their “behalf”. Galileo’s fate was not so terrible at all.

      Then the enraged papists used a second weapon to teach the monks a lesson. You wonder what weapon they used?! They used fire, the stake. Dying at a stake has always been a good instrument for the pope to achieve his goals. How many people died at a stake? Christ’s “representative” on earth, always used fire for those who did not obey or worship him. The fire to burn! According to their testimony: “If you do not wish to share the same faith with us, then die!

      Galileo was right about heliocentrism, but we know that only in retrospect because of evidence that emerged after Galileo’s death.

      The evidence for the billions and millions year evolution also emerged much later … . Isn’t that interesting?

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