Though, in general, the scientific community has been taking its work ahead by picking up threads from the god’s creation, but there are instances in history where religious practitioners and the scientific community had been on a collision course. The dispute over the position of the earth in the universe is one such major instance where the Church and scientific community have fought out a long dual. Traditionally, religious heads held the belief that the earth is at the center of the universe. To buttress the argument, Joshua 10:13 was cited, which says, ‘So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.’ Similarly, Isaiah 40:22 speaks of ‘the heavens stretched out as a curtain’ above ‘the circle of the earth.’ This belief was, in fact, the basis of differing opinions about the theories being propagated by mathematicians and scientists like Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo.
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It all started with famous German mathematician Johannes Kepler, which was subsequently followed by Copernicus when he put forward the theory of the planetary system. In the book ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, Copernicus proposed that the sun is at the center of the solar system and not the earth. This started a debate amongst religious heads and people with scientific temperaments. During those days, the religious bodies used to be quite powerful (Davies, 2003). And saying anything against the religiously held belief meant offending the powerful Roman Catholic Church. Galileo is considered the father of modern science and a major figure in the history of mankind. He was an Italian physicist, astronomer, astrologer, and philosopher, belonging to a small group of thinkers who influenced Western culture. In a way, his growing influence amongst the people led to his clashes with the religious clergies.
When Copernicus put forward the heliocentric, or Sun-centered, system theory, it appeared quite contrary to the firmly held belief. His theory stated that the ‘Sun is at the center of the universe and that the Earth, spinning on its axis once daily, revolves yearly around the Sun.’ Before this, not only the religious clergy but even general people and astronomers believed in Ptolemy’s geocentric universe theory. In which the Earth was told to be motionless at the center of several rotating spheres. Therefore, there was widespread condemnation of the Copernicus theory. But Galileo came out as the most vociferous supporter of Copernicus. Galileo became an ardent supporter of Copernicus theory when he discovered the Telescope and himself observed the sky.
Gradually, as Galileo started exploring the universe, his belief in Copernican theory became stronger, and he started calling upon people to come forward and see themselves the composition of the celestial system around the earth. But he was quite disappointed by the way people reacted to the theory of Copernicus. He expressed his anguish in a letter sent to Kepler in 1610. He wrote “My dear Kepler, what would you say of the learned here, who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp, have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope? What shall we make of this? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry?” It became clear that the Copernican theory had its enemies.”
Based on his encounters with stars through a telescope, in 1610, he published ‘The Starry Messenger; and thereafter accepted a position as Mathematician and Philosopher to the Grand Duke of Tuscany (and a non-teaching professorship at Pisa). Late in 1610, the Collegio Romano in Rome also certified the results put forward by Galileo after his telescopic observations. Gradually his acceptability and influence circle started touching newer heights in the scientific community, and soon in 1611, he became a member of a scientific society, the Academia dei Lincei.
In later years Galileo started taking help from his disciples for convincing the people to accept the theory of Copernicus, but soon as he started acquiring status in the society, he himself boldly started raising the issue at public forums. With his typical flamboyance, he worked hard to gain support amongst businessmen, gentlemen, princes, and Jesuit astronomers instead of the intellectuals from universities. Therefore he started working as a consultant in natural philosophy to all these general people who would listen to him. He started using behavioral language to convince people about the applicability of Copernicus’s theory. That was the time when some people started opening opposing Galileo and his approach. In 1613 when Galileo expressed his open support in the form of a book titled ‘Letters on the Solar Spots,’ he was criticized by a Dominican friar and professor of ecclesiastical history in Florence, Father Lorini (Linder, 2002). While preaching on All Soul’s Day, father Lorini said that Copernican doctrine is against the scriptures and natural laws. His contention was, ‘Scriptures placed Earth and not the Sun at the center of the universe. This provided the opponents of Galileo an opportunity to take on this popular scientist. Though father Lorini is later said to have retracted from the vociferous attack, yet the opponents seized the opportunity and started looking for opportunities to take on Galileo.
In 1632, Galileo came out with a controversial title, ‘Dialogues concerning the Two Great World Systems. But the book raised many eyebrows and invited lots of heated discussion and controversies. Shortly thereafter, the book was denounced and banned by the Inquisition, and Galileo was asked to appear before the trial court in Rome. He was accused of declaring God to be an accident and doubting miracles. Galileo tried hard to convince religious leaders like seventy-four-year-old Cardinal Bellarmine, but unfortunately, he could not convince them. The conservative society saw the Copernican universe as a potential threat to damage the social order. Therefore he was ordered to depose before the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Rome. And the Church came hard on him, holding him guilty. Though Galileo put forth his views quite forcefully, in later years, he was forced to admit that ‘he was wrong in his belief.’ Galileo could not live much thereafter. But the moot point is, ‘whatever he said is known to be factual information now.’
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It is true that while religion provides humanity with solace and peace of mind, science and its applications have revolutionized the way we live our lives on the planet called earth. Scientists have made life easier for all of us. But during those early years, it appears the battle for supremacy did not allow the scientific community to go ahead towards exploring the universe. Today we can proudly proclaim that we’ve conquered the force of gravity with space missions, but the mystery of dying stars and black holes has still kept us searching for answers; we do take pride in the fact that we’ve developed early warning systems for weather updates, but we are still nowhere near to avoid all those cloud bursts and natural calamities; we’ve indeed also developed a huge pile of nuclear arsenal having intercontinental ramifications, but are we safer? These are some of the instances where science ‘appears to have scored a few points over the supernatural power, but the fact that hurricane Katrina, Cleveland Volc,ano, and floods at many places keep happening makes us believe that there’s indeed something called the almighty. This is where we turn to religion for credible answers. Therefore, it can very well be said that while science is a reality, we still feel ‘at home’ when we visit Churches every Sunday and offer our prayers to the almighty. The only difference being there are no more fierce disputes anymore.
Davies, Edward Brian (2003). ’Science in the Looking Glass’. Oxford University Press.
Galileo Timeline. 2008. Web.
Isaiah 40:22. 2008. Web.
Joshua 10:13. 2008. Web.
Linder, Douglas (2002). ‘The Trial of Galileo’. 2008. Web.
Stanford University of Philosophy (2005). ‘Galileo Galilei’. Web.