Science and Religion​—The Birth of a Conflict

THE 70-year-old astronomer was on his deathbed, struggling to read. In his hands were the proofs of a document of his, ready for publication. Whether he knew it or not, his work would revolutionize mankind’s view of the universe. It would also trigger a heated controversy within Christendom, the effects of which are still being felt today.

The dying man was Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish Catholic, and the year was 1543. Copernicus’ work, entitled On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, put the sun, not the earth, at the center of the solar system. In one stroke Copernicus replaced the extremely complex, earth-centered system with one of elegant simplicity.

At first, there was little indication of the clash that was to come. For one thing, Copernicus had been discreet when sharing his ideas. Additionally, the Catholic Church, which had adopted the earth-centered view, seemed to be more tolerant of scientific speculation at the time. Even the pope himself urged Copernicus to publish his work. When Copernicus finally did publish it, a fearful editor wrote his own preface, presenting the sun-centered, or heliocentric, concept as a mathematical ideal, not necessarily an astronomical truth.

The Conflict Becomes Heated

Next on the scene was Italian astronomer, mathematician, and physicist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), also a Catholic. Using telescopes that he built incorporating the newly invented lens, Galileo saw the heavens in unprecedented detail. His observations convinced him that Copernicus was correct. Galileo also saw spots on the sun, today called sunspots, thus challenging another cherished philosophical and religious tenet​—that the sun is not subject to change or decay.

Unlike Copernicus, Galileo was bold and zealous in promoting his ideas. And he did so in a more hostile religious environment,  for the Catholic Church had by then become openly opposed to the Copernican theory. Hence, when Galileo argued that not only was the heliocentric concept correct but it harmonized with Scripture, the church smelled heresy. *

Galileo went to Rome to defend himself but to no avail. In 1616 the church ordered him to stop advocating Copernicus. Galileo was silenced for a time. Then in 1632 he published another work in support of Copernicus. The very next year, the Inquisition sentenced Galileo to life imprisonment. Out of consideration for his age, however, they quickly commuted the sentence to house arrest.

Many view Galileo’s conflict with the church as a great triumph of science over religion and, by extension, over the Bible. However, as we shall see in the next article, this simplistic conclusion ignores many facts.


^ par. 7 Galileo unnecessarily made powerful enemies for himself by his quick wit and cutting sarcasm. Also, by arguing that the heliocentric concept harmonized with Scripture, he presented himself as an authority on religion, which further provoked the church.

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Taken from Giordano Bruno and Galilei (German edition)

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Galileo defends himself before the Roman Inquisition

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From the book The Historian’s History of the World, Vol. IX, 1904

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Background: Chart depicting Copernicus’ concept of the solar system