Was the Medieval Church Anti-Science?

The popular myth says science and Christianity have always been at each other’s throats. Now – despite the fact that many people today promote that narrative – the truth of the matter is quite different. And historically speaking, the war thesis is simply a myth. The myth supposes that it was early scientists who represented unbiased scientific objectivity, while the Medieval Catholic church stood for ignorance and superstition.

Here’s an example of the statement of this myth:

“[The Catholic Church had been] torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars.”[1]

This quote, and many others like it, conjures up the picture of theologians resisting the early scientists as they urge them to look thru a telescope at the stars. The myth says – Christianity was anti-science, anti-progress and very aggressive.

Well – it is true that the Medieval Church did incredibly cruel and un-Christ like things to people who promoted anti-Christian doctrines from within the ranks of the church. An example of this is seen in the life of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600. His crime wasn’t a scientific one, however. It was a theological one. He tried to turn the church towards pantheism.

So what evidence exists that the Medieval Church was not anti-intellectual and anti-science? A proper look at what happened in the life of Galileo Galilei shows us that science and Christianity were viewed as complementary fields in discussion with each other. Not at war.

Who Was Galileo?

He was a well respected church official who loved God and cared deeply about the Bible. He was also passionate about astronomy. Through his telescope, he found the moon surface was not, “perfectly smooth, free from inequalities and exactly spherical (as a large school of philosophers believes concerning both the moon and the other heavenly bodies).”[2] This discovery overturned centuries of Greek Aristotelian thought. He also observed Jupiter’s moons.

Galileo was a convinced heliocentrist. That meant he subscribed to the ideas of Copernicus, who said the earth was not at the horrible bottom of the universe. Rather, it was an elevated planet in the solar system. Further, the other planets did not orbit earth, but rather they orbited a stationary sun at the centre of the solar system. Galileo was convinced of these ideas.

How Did the Church React to Galileo’s Ideas?

Was the church scared and aggressive to these ideas? Not at all. This is part of the myth that Sam Harris has fallen for. Why do we know the church was open to cosmology in the Middle Ages?

1 – Tychonic Cosmology Already Existed

At that time, Tycho Brae’s Tychonic system of cosmology competed with Galileo’s favourite Copernican system. Tycho’s observational science resulted in a cosmology that was subscribed to by the Jesuit astronomers of the Roman College. In general, the church felt Tycho’s scientific system was more likely to be consistent with observations, the statements of scripture, and long standing Greek ideas which involved a static Earth rather than the Copernican idea of a static Sun. In short – the church was onboard with the scientific discussion of the time.

 

2 – The Inquisition Was Potentially Open to Copernicanism

The head of the feared Inquisition, Bellarmine, was interested in the competition between the Tychonic and Copernican cosmologies. It was unclear to Ballarmine that a Copernican system was provable, but without this uncertainty, Ballarmine would have gone with Copernicus, and this shows he was not anti-scientific progress.[3] His uncertainty eventually led to the church deciding that Copernicanism was “altogether contrary to Holy Scripture,”[4] but was not heresy. The door was open to rethinking these ideas. But Bellarmine instructed Galileo not to pursue Copernicanism, but stay with the Tychonic system and it’s apparent consistency with their understanding of scripture.

 

YET – history records that Galileo was put thru a trial by the church. Why did that happen? The myth says it was because of Galileo’s scientific ideas. As we have found, this is clearly not the case because the church was open to and interacted with different scientific ideas. So why did Galileo face the Inquisition?

 

What Led to Galileo’s Trial?

1 – Galileo sought the Pope’s permission to write a book engaging Copernican ideas, and the Pope agreed.

2 – In his book, Galileo proceeded to insult the Pope by putting his favourite anti-Copernican arguments into the mouth of his character Simplico, meaning simpleton, who was ill informed and rude. The Pope, who was facing political turmoil in a contracting Holy Roman Empire, saw Galileo’s book as a betrayal and so Galileo was called to trial.

3 – Galileo was not tortured or put in prison before or after the trial, showing the respect that the church maintained for him.[5] He lived a comfortable existence under house arrest in his home environment overlooking Florence.

4 – During the trial, Galileo admitted to Bellarmine’s warnings not to hold or defend Copernicanism. He failed to convince the court his book did not attempt to defend or refute Copernicanism. This led to a plea bargain. “They promised not to press the most serious charge (violation of the special injunction) if Galileo would plead guilty to [a] lesser charge (transgression of the warning not to defend Copernicanism).”[6] Galileo agreed and he was found guilty of a lesser, “vehement suspicion of heresy.”[7]

5 – After his conviction, Galileo proceeded to write further important scientific works unhindered.

 

The Church Was Not Anti-Science

So – does the Galileo incident give evidence of a Medieval war between religion and science? Not at all. The church was very much engaged with scientific cosmological ideas. This incident speaks not of a war between church and science, but a battle of ideas between church tradition, and dual cosmologies, Copernican and Tychonic. Galileo’s rude and pushy insistence on the Copernican one in spite of general uncertainty, put him in conflict with the church. They required a conservative approach, leaning towards the Tychonic cosmological system. Galileo chose instead to both pursue Copernicanism, and insult the Pontiff. This led to his trial and his humiliating defeat.

The Medieval church was not anti-science. But it did violently punish some heretics within its ranks.

 

 

[1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), 105 quoted in

[2] Galileo Galilei, “Neither Known Nor Observed by Anyone Before,” in Dennis Richard Danielson, ed, the book of the cosmos, (Perseus Publishing, 2000), 147.

[3] Michael Newton Keas, Unbelievable 7 Myths about the History and Future of Science and Religion, (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2019), 81.

[4] Keas, 82.

[5] Keas, 84.

[6] Finocchiaro, “That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism,” 7, quoted in Keas, 85.

[7] Ibid.

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I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

5 thoughts on “Was the Medieval Church Anti-Science?”

  1. I completely agree that the Church’s opposition to that which we now term “the physical sciences” is very often overstated– even to the point of absurdity, in some cases. However, I do feel like I need to nitpick some things you said which are quite misleading.

    In point (3) under the section on the trial, you say that Galileo was not tortured or imprisoned and instead lived comfortably at home. However, you failed to note that he had been officially threatened with torture if he did not confess to the charges against him, that he had been sentenced to imprisonment at the end of the trial, and that his subsequent “comfortable” life at home was the result of his sentence being commuted to house arrest.

    Furthermore, while you are correct to note in (5) that Galileo published further scientific work while under house arrest, you neglect to mention that he did so in explicit violation of Church edicts which had banned both his already published works and any he might write in the future. Galileo had to reach out to people in Holland in order to get his “Two New Sciences” published, after refusals from publishers in Italy, France, Germany, and Poland.

    1. Hey there –
      Thanks for taking the time to respond. Bear in mind i’m not trying to defend the church for its un-Christ like ways of treating dissenters. Rather, I’m challenging the myth that science and Christianity have always been at war, which you seem to agree is a historically anachronistic conclusion.

      I’ve updated the blog on the house arrest front. Thanks, that was an oversight on my part…this is well documented. Because he agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge, and he agreed to stay away from Copernicanism in his future writing, he enjoyed a limited though comfortable end to his life.

      On the torture point, you may be overstating things and going into conjecture. We don’t know exactly what would have happened to him if Galileo had not agreed to the lesser charge. We do know that “Given the documents available today, we are even more confident that Galileo’s interrogation came with the threat of torture, but not actual torture. It is even fairly clear that, given his age and popularity, his accusers never actually planned to torture him.” (Finocchiaro, “That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism”, 71)

      I don’t agree at all that Galileo’s future scientific work violated Church edits. He agreed with the church to stay away from Copernicanism. So he went on to write “Discourse on Two New Sciences” which includes new insights into the science of motion. (Keas, 84) His book Discourses was banned after the trial. But I’d like to see some evidence that he was banned from publishing all further works. Particularly in light of the success of the work he DID produce. Thanks!

      1. Regarding his ability to publish following the verdict, his “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems” was banned after the trial, but his “Discourse on the Two New Sciences” had not even been written at that time. He wrote it while under house arrest and tried first to have it published in Venice, whereupon his publisher was informed by the Inquisition that all works by Galileo, including future works, were banned from publication.

        Here is the letter from the Venetian publisher where he reports as much. If you don’t read Italian, Google Translate does a passable job of rendering it into English.

      2. Discourse on Two New Sciences was 1638 and contains insights on the science of motion. He wrote it under house arrest after the trial.

        Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was 1632, and that was the one Pope Urban took a hard line on due to Galileo’s inflammatory tone in the book

        Thanks for the link – I’ll take a read

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