Galileo vs geocentrism – what really happened?

We’ve all heard about the persecution of Galileo

The familiar, but false, version as recounted in The Persecution of Galileo:

“The Earth is firmly fixed; it shall not be moved.” – Psalms 104:5

This bible verse shackled the minds of men for thousands of years, and held back the advance of science. It was this verse that was used as evidence against Galileo, who argued for the theory of Copernicus, that the earth is not immovable, but rotates around the sun. It was for teaching this that he was called to Rome in 1633, and tried for the crime of heresy. The aged Galileo, in his 70’s, was taken down into the dungeons of the church and shown the instruments of torture that were going to be used on him if he did not recant. Fearing the torture, and fearing that he might share the fate of Giordano Bruno, whom the church burned at the stake a generation earlier for the same crime, Galileo recanted the truth. He was confined to his home under house arrest, neither allowed to leave or to receive visitors, for the last seven years of his life.

What really happened?


Over two millennia ago, Aristotle (384–322 BC) taught that the earth was the centre of a ‘perfect’ universe in which the movements of the stars were circular and never ending.

Ptolemy (AD 2nd century) expanded these ideas into what became known as the Ptolemaic system

Then in the 16th century, Copernicus (1473–1543) postulated as a better explanation that the earth and planets revolved around the sun

In the 17th century, Galileo (1564–1642), with his telescope, was able to carry out repeated and repeatable observations which refuted Aristotle and Ptolemy, and supported Copernicus. For example, he observed that the sun had spots which moved across its surface, showing that the sun was not ‘perfect’ and it itself rotated; he observed the phases of Venus, showing that Venus must orbit the sun; and he discovered four moons that revolve around Jupiter, not the Earth, showing that the Earth was not the centre of everything. In 1618, he observed three comets pass effortlessly through Ptolemy’s crystalline spheres (in which the planets and stars supposedly moved around the Earth), showing that these spheres must be imaginary.

The heliocentric (from Greek helios = sun) or Copernican system opposed the views of the astronomer-philosophers of the day, who earned their livelihood by teaching Aristotle and Ptolemy, and so were biased against change. They therefore either ignored, ridiculed, destroyed, or hostilely opposed Galileo’ ’s writings. Many Church leaders allowed themselves to be persuaded by the Aristotelians at the universities that the geocentric (earth-centred) system was taught in Scripture and that Galileo was contradicting the Bible. They therefore bitterly opposed Galileo to the extent of forcing him on pain of death to repudiate his findings.

Earth at ‘perfect’ center — clarification:

Many antitheists praise Galileo for removing man from the centre of the universe, supposedly curing man’s arrogance. Typical is physicist Lawrence Krauss, “Galileo removed us from the centre of the universe: how much greater a fall could we have?”

However, this shows complete ignorance of the historical context. The old geocentric view, i.e. with Earth at the centre, was not at all edifying. For much of church history, the centre was regarded as the lowest place to be. At the lowest was Hades at Earth’s centre, and the abode of man on Earth’s surface was the next worse, quite corrupted compared to heavenly perfections. The further away from the centre, the closer to heaven you were thought to be.

The moon, as fairly close to Earth, was regarded as a transitional place. The sun was in a higher plane, planets were pretty good, in their spheres made of the imperishable fifth element (quintessence), but not as exalted as the distant fixed stars, while the firmament was depicted as beyond even the stars, and God’s realm was further beyond that.

So moving the earth away from the centre was, in the context of the middle ages, actually exalting it. Rather, what really upset the establishment was Galileo’s discovery of blemishes on the sun (sunspots), precisely because it undermined the idea of perfect heavenly bodies.

For an indepth discussion check out The Galileo affair: history or heroic hagiography?

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