The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The Suppression of Astronomy

The scientific discovery that it was the earth which orbited the sun and not vice versa is easily one of the most important and revolutionary contributions of the science of astronomy. But the Christian churches, always claiming themselves as the proponents of "truth" persecuted those who discovered it.

We have seen earlier that the Bible, in no uncertain terms, supported the geocentric theory. There are verses in Chronicles and Psalms that mention the earth standing firm on its foundations (I Chronicles 16:30; Psalms 93:1;96:10;104:5) and there is a passage in Joshua that had him commanding the sun to stand still (Joshua 10:12-13) implying, of course, that it was the sun which rotated around the earth.

The revival of the heliocentric theory was initiated by the Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). Copernicus felt that the traditional geocentric theory of Ptolemy was inadequate and wrote down his ideas in his book On the Revolution of Heavenly Bodies which was published a few days before his death. Copernicus set the path for Kepler (1571-1630) and Galileo (1564-1642) to gather the evidence that eventually overthrew Ptolemy's geocentricism. [1]

Copernicus' ideas were condemned by the Christian churches. They were not at all concerned about the scientific correctness of the theory. What troubled them was its direct opposition to the Bible and Christian theology. According to them, God created the universe for man. Man, as the crowning glory of all creation, being made in God's image, was placed, appropriately, in the center of the universe, around which all the celestial objects revolved. In the Copernican scheme, man has lost his place in the center of the universe; he is reduced to merely living on one of the planets circling the sun. Obviously Copernicus' ideas were dangerous to the authority of the church and its theologians. [2]

It was the Protestant churches, with their fundamentalist views on the sole authority of the scripture, that took the lead and started the barrage of attacks on Copernicus and his ideas. John Calvin (1509-1564) lent his voice to this condemnation and cried out: "Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?" Martin Luther (1483-1546) joined in this vituperation against Copernicus calling him "an upstart astrologer" and " a fool." [3] Luther's condemnation was, of course, based on the authority of the Bible as he himself said:

That is how things go nowadays. Anyone who wants to be clever must not let himself like what others do. He must produce his own product as this man [Copernicus] does, who wishes the turn the whole of astronomy upside down. But I believe in the Holy Scripture, since Joshua ordered the Sun, not the earth to stand still. [4]

Luther's disciple Melanchthon (1497-1560) had this to add, "Now it is in want of honesty to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce to it." [5]

The Roman Catholic Church did not seriously get into the act of condemning the Copernican ideas until the seventeenth century. [a] Through the Inquisition, the church condemned the new theory as "that false Pythagorean doctrine utterly contrary to the holy scriptures." In 1616, Pope Paul V (1552-1621) issued a bull which condemned the Copernican system as heretical. It called the theory "more scandalous, more detestable, and more pernicious to Christianity than any contained in the books of Calvin, Luther and of all other heretics put together." In 1620, the Inquisition banned all publications that taught the Copernican system. [6]

Whether it was by design or by coincidence, Copernicus was lucky because he died a few days after his book was published for he escaped the fate that was to befall many of his supporters. One of them was the Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). By all calculations, Bruno was an advanced thinker. He repudiated Aristotelian philosophy and held that absolute knowledge is unattainable. He was arrested by the Inquisition in 1592 for his assertion that it was the earth that moved around the sun. For nine years Bruno was interrogated, tortured and tried. Then, in the year 1600, he was burned at the stake as a heretic. [7]

The person who finally amassed enough evidence for the Copernican theory was the Italian astronomer, physicists and philosopher, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). As a supporter of the Copernican system, Galileo was continuously in trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities. He used his telescope to observed things in the heavens never before observed by man: craters in the moon, sunspots and the moons of Jupiter. All these findings rocked the religious world. The first two seemed to show that heaven was not perfect: another favorite teaching of the theologians was threatened! A Dominican friar attacked Galileo for his observations. He pointed out that there was an apt quotation in Acts 1:11. The setting was Jesus' ascension; after he disappeared from the view of his apostles, an angel appeared and told them: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking at the sky?" In the Latin translation of the Bible, the lingua franca of the Bible then, the first two words of that passage was Viri Galilaei. Galileo's family name was Galilei. The monk thus thundered that this was God's warning to Galileo not to peer at the heavens with his telescope! [8]

Things took a turn for the worse when Galileo published his book Dialogues on the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. The general verbal condemnation turned into direct persecution. He was summoned by Pope Urban VIII in 1633 to appear before the Inquisition in Rome. Galileo, already seventy years old and in ill health, was forced to make the journey in the chilly winter of February 1633, from Florence, where he lived, to Rome. There under threat of torture, Galileo was forced to recant. The old and ailing man was also forced to read the following declaration:

I, Galileo Galilei ... aged seventy years, being brought personally to judgement, and kneeling before you Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord Cardinals, General Inquisitor of the universal Christian republic against depravity ... swear that ... I will in future believe every article which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome holds, teaches and preaches ... I held and believed that the sun is the center of the universe and is immovable, and that the earth is not the center and is movable; willing therefore, to remove from the minds of your Eminences, and of every Catholic Christian, this vehement suspicion [of heresy] rightfully entertained against me, ... I abjure, curse and detest the said errors and heresies,... and I swear that I will never more in future say or assert anything verbally or in writing, which may give rise to a similar suspicion against me ... But if it shall happen that I violate any of my said promises, oaths and protestations (which Go averts!), I subject myself to all the pain and punishments which have been decreed ... against delinquents of this description. [9]

Galileo was then sentenced to life imprisonment in a Roman dungeon. This was later commuted to placing him under house arrest. The great scientists died in 1642, a blind and broken man. Galileo's memory was not left in peace by the Inquisition. Galileo's manuscripts were destroyed and even his right to be buried on consecrated ground was disputed. [10] Thus was how Christianity treated one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known.

But it was too little, too late for the Catholic Church, for Galileo's ideas had spread throughout Europe and it was discussed freely in countries where it did not have an influence, such as England, which was to be the birthplace of the great Isaac Newton (1642-1727) who, using Galileo's discoveries, came up with his theory of gravitation.

The Catholic Church, after appointing a committee to study the issue for thirteen years, only "forgave" Galileo in 1992. More than three centuries after his ideas had proven true!

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a.It has been suggested that the Catholic Church showed a more "reasoned" response to the Copernican theory that did the Protestant Churches. To a certain extent this may be true. However it should be borne in mind that there were many other factors which caused the Catholic Church to initially refrain from condemning Copernicus outright and to finally condemned the system only more than half a century after the death of the Polish canon. As the historian Daniel Boorstin suggested, the seafaring adventures of explorers such as Columbus (c1451-1506), John Cabot (1450-1498) and Ferdinand Magellan (c1480-1521) had shown how much the secular world had to say about the vastness of the world and its oceans undreamt of in Christian geography. This may have made the Church a little reticent to condemn Copernicus initially. Indeed they would have been contented to have the Copernican system remain "a hypothesis", to be considered but not believed, had it not been for the invention of the telescope. Now the proponents of the Copernican ideas, especially Galileo, have ways to prove their theory by observations-short circuiting as it were the theologians exclusive claims to the heavens. It was then they had to clamp down on such ideas. [11]


1.Brancazio, The Nature of Physics: p43
2.Ibid: p63-64
3.Kline, Mathematics and the Search for Knowledge: p72
4.Kearney, Science and Change: p101
5.Boorstin, The Discoverers: p302
6.Boorstin, op.cit: p302-303
Kline, op.cit: p73,84
Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p267
7.Colin, History of the World's Science: p331-332
Rucker, Infinity and the Mind: p22
8.Asimov, The Planet That Wasn't: p73
9.Beckmann, History of Pi: p81
10.Ibid: p82
Boorstin, op.cit: p325-326
11.Boorstin, op.cit: p302-303, 324

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