Monday, May 7, 2012


Tim O'Neill, who describes himself as "Atheist, Medievalist, Sceptic and amateur Historian" answers "What is the most misunderstood historical event?" with "The Galileo Affair." The material in this article was already familiar because a colleague with whom I taught a 9th grade TAG class — a science teacher and, like this author, an atheist — had included it in lectures to that class. Although the false narrative is the generally accepted one, the story told here is apparently well known to students of the history of science. The myths addressed by "The Galileo Affair":
Most people understand the trial of Galileo Galilei as a key example of religious bigotry clashing with the advance of science and the textbook case of "Medieval" ignorance and superstition being superseded by reason and science. In fact, the whole rather complex affair was not the black-and-white "science vs religion" fable of popular imagination and the positions of both Galileo and of the various churchmen involved were varied and complex. The popular conceptions of the Galileo Affair are marked by a number of myths:

1. "Galileo proved the earth went around the sun and not the other way around."

Actually, he did not. ....

2. "The Church rejected science, condemned heliocentrism and was ignorant of the science behind Copernicus' theory."

This is also a myth. ....

3. "The Church condemned heliocentrism because it believed the Bible had to be interpreted literally."

The Catholic Church did not (and does not) teach that the Bible had to be interpreted literally. ....

4. "Galileo was imprisoned in chains, tortured and threatened with being burned at the stake."

In November 2009 the comedian and actor Stephen Fry joined the late Christopher Hitchens in a televised debate with two Catholics on the question of whether the Catholic Church was "a force for good in the world." Fry and Hitchens won the debate hands down, but at one point Fry referred passionately to "the fact that [Galileo] was tortured" by the Inquisition. In his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris seems to be trying to refer to Galileo when he talks of the Church "torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars". Voltaire famously wrote of how Galileo "groaned away his days in the dungeons of the Inquisition" and the idea that Galileo only backed down because of his (understandable) fear of being burnt at the stake is a mainstay of the fables about the Galileo Affair. All these ideas are nonsense. ....

.... A careful examination of the evidence shows that the modern fable that is most people's understanding of the Affair bears little resemblance to historical fact. Fables make for nice, neat stories with cute morals at the end. But history is not neat and rarely fits into morality tales. True rationalists are interested in what actually happened and why, studied as objectively as possible, not cute stories. Many of my fellow atheists, especially the ones of the more outspoken variety, would do well to brush up their history when it comes to Galileo and to tread carefully when invoking this subject. [more, in which each of the points above are elaborated]
Tim O'Neill's answer to What is the most misunderstood historical event? - Quora