Freethought Almanac

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June 22: Galileo Recants (1633)

galileoIt was on this date, June 22, 1633, that Florentine-Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (15 February 1564 to 8 January 1642) was compelled by the Roman Catholic Inquisition to recant the theory he held that the earth travels around the sun. What seems obvious to us today was unscriptural, and therefore by definition untrue, in Galileo's day. The ecclesiastical notion that the earth was the center of the universe was supported by passages from Joshua, Psalms and Ecclesiastes.* Galileo was supported only by his observations and calculations. Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, met with Galileo when he was summoned to Rome by Pope Paul V in February 1616 to answer charges of heresy. Galileo was 52. The 73-year-old Jesuit produced a copy of a letter Galileo had written to a friend and former student, Benedetto Castelli, in which the theory that Copernicus had framed as only a mathematical hypothesis, was held by Galileo as a fact.

The fossilized theology of Pope and Church would have none of it: on 26 February 1616 Bellarmino delivered the verdict, namely, that

The first proposition, that the sun is the center and does not revolve about the earth, is foolish, absurd, false in theology, and heretical, because expressly contrary to Holy Scripture.

The second proposition, that the earth is not the center but revolves about the sun, is absurd, false in philosophy, and, from a theological point of view at least, opposed to the true faith.

Galileo could have been more cautious: he well remembered the burning of Giordano Bruno for heresy only 16 years earlier. Some kind of agreement was reached between the theologian and the theorist, although the document Bellarmino had Galileo sign was not the document produced when the Inquisition called him to Rome again, 17 years later. But in the interim a few things had changed. By 1633, his friend, Maffeo Barberini, had been elected Pope Urban VIII and seemed to respect his science work; Galileo had felt it safe to publish his Dialogue on the Two Principal World Systems, again promoting a sun-centered cosmos; Cardinal Bellarmino had died; and the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) between Catholic and Protestant Europe was making Catholic doctrine most inflexible.

In 1633, Galileo was nearly 70 years old, going blind, and in frail health. It took little to bully him into recanting the sun-centered theory. On his knees he was forced to say:


I, Galileo Galilei,... abjure with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies. And I swear that for the future I will neither say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion...

He remained under clerical supervision the rest of his life. It wasn't so much that Galileo sought confrontation with the doctrines of the Church; instead, he discovered facts which contradicted what the Church taught. What to do? Profess to believe what he no longer could? The one thing Galileo chose not to do was to stay silent – and to allow truth to approach superstition on its knees (an example of this kind of thinking can be found here) – until he was forced to profess what he did not believe. Galileo's recantation on this date in 1633, if it demonstrates anything, demonstrates that you cannot choose what you believe, or be compelled to believe. You can be compelled to lie, to everyone but yourself, but the story of Galileo shows that you can believe only what you must.

And yet it does move.

Joshua 10:13- “And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. ... So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.”

Psalm 93:1- “The world will surely stand in place, never to be moved.”

Psalm 104:5- “You fixed the earth on its foundation, never to be moved.”

Ecclesiastes 1:5- “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”

A longer essay on the “War on Galileo” can be found at this link.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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Religion vs. Science – The Classic Struggle

The conflict of the Roman Catholic Church against Galileo is an apt illustration of the inescapable irreconcilability of theological doctrine and science. It also shows how bullies destroy benefactors.

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