Galileo, the nonbeliever: Don’t believe it

December 31, 2010

Eye on Faith and Science

Was Galileo a closet atheist?

That’s the conclusion of David Wootton, a professor of history at the University of York, in his new book “Galileo: Watcher of the Skies.”

It’s a premise, however, that at least one reviewer is troubled by. Writing in a recent issue of America magazine, John Haught, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, rejects the idea that Galileo espoused anti-Christian sentiments.

Haught, a Catholic theologian with a special interest in science, takes issue with Wootton’s supposition that since Galileo advanced a Copernican view of the universe — one which doesn’t place the earth or us humans at the center of the heavens — he surely would have rejected the idea of an all-powerful and personal God who views humankind as special. It was a belief Galileo had to hide from others to stay out of trouble.

Haught disagrees and offers his own response. Here’s a bit of what he has to say:

“Suffice it to say that [Wootton’s] major premise is false, since Christianity has never formally taught that the universe was created ultimately for ‘man,’ but for the glory of God instead. It is our acknowledgment of God’s glory that glorifies us. Authentic Christian faith has always entailed the de-centralizing of our egos, and for that very reason the modern scientific disclosure of an endlessly expansive Copernican universe provides more reason than ever for glorifying the Creator.”

And Haught adds:

“More important, however, no indisputable evidence exists that Galileo’s inner life was at any point bereft of theologically orthodox sentiments. In fact, early on Galileo explicitly gave ‘thanks to God’ for allowing him to be the revealer of ‘marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.’ To suppose with Wootton that Galileo did not really mean to give thanks for God’s ‘kindness’ is condescending at best.”

In light of the conflict that evolved between Galileo and the church, Wootton would like us to think of the scientist as an early version of today’s high profile skeptics and atheists. But if there’s something we should be skeptical about, Haught reminds us, it’s Wootton’s thoughts about the famed astronomer’s inner life.

About Joe Towalski

Editor of The Catholic Spirit, husband, dad, baseball fan(atic), astronomy buff. Follow me on Twitter @towalskij

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  • Unfortunately Haught makes elementary errors where it comes to questions of fact. To get an alternative view, go to
    David Wootton

    • Via e-mail to The Catholic Spirit

      The factual error Wootton is referring to is the wrong impression I gave in my America review that Galileo’s disciple, the Benedictine priest Benedetto Castelli, was a frequent visitor to Arcetri when Galileo lived there under house arrest after his trial. For this I apologize. In fact, Castelli made a visit to Arcetri very late in Galileo’s life, and only after repeated requests to Rome for permission to see his beloved master again. But when he finally arrived at Galileo’s villa shortly before the latter’s death, Galileo did attend the masses Castelli said daily during his brief visit.

      In any case, regarding Galileo’s theological views, the fact that he seems to have become more devout toward the end of his life is really incidental. Even though Galileo was not always an “observant” Catholic, he did have sophisticated theological views earlier on, more sophisticated than Bellarmine and most other ecclesiastics at the time. These are nowhere more evident than in his “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” (whose depth and significance Wootton virtually ignores in his haste to strip Galieo of any theological gravity). Although Galileo undoubtedly consulted theologians (and perhaps Castelli also) in formulating this very important response to the biblical literalists who were suspecting or accusing him of heresy, he emphasized in the “Letter” a point made earlier by St. Augustine and one that Pope Leo XIII made official in 1893 in his encyclical “Providentissimus Deus”: Catholic Christians should not look for scientific information in the Scriptures. To do so would trivialize the biblical text which has deeper and more important truths to challenge us and transform us. And it would set up a false conflict between the Bible and science. The “Letter to the Grand Duchess,” one of the great documents of early modernity, makes no sense whatsoever apart from its author’s espousal of the depth and truthfulness of a theological worldview!

      Wootton’s whole approach, like that of the new atheists today, is one of tacitly privileging literalist interpretations of the Bible as the highest expression of Christian truth. Consequently, when Copernicus and Galileo introduced the new cosmology it could be claimed that science is opposed to religion irrevocably. To Wootton, the normative Christian doctrinal claims are inseparable from ancient cosmology and hence invalidated by new scientific ideas. He assumes that Christians throughout the ages have always been as hermeneutically simplistic and literalist as he is today: he should read the ancient church writers. Another false assumption, in addition to the one mentioned in my review, is that a nonobservant Catholic must be an atheist at heart. Galileo was a nonobservant Catholic through much of his life: therefore he must have been on the path toward modern atheism, Wootton assumes. To really get to bottom of Wootton’s own worldview and the any academics who share it, however, much more needs to said. I have tried to make a beginning in a lttlle book called “God and The New Atheism.”

      John F. Haught, Ph.D
      Senior Fellow, Science & Religion
      Woodstock Theological Center
      Georgetown University

  • Dr Haught writes: “But when he [Castelli] finally arrived at Galileo’s villa shortly before the latter’s death, Galileo did attend the masses Castelli said daily during his brief visit.” I’d be curious to see the evidence to support his claim. Galileo was under house arrest, so clearly he did not come to Castelli. Did Castelli say Mass when he came to visit Galileo? How often did this happen? Who was there? Who reports it?

    • John Haught via e-mail to The Catholic Spirit

      The source of my remarks about Galileo and Castelli is Dava Sobel (of whose book Wootton speaks approvingly), but I am away from home and don’t have the exact page. Nevertheless, I found the following in a review of her book online.

      ” ‘From Arcetri,’ the book’s final section, finds Galileo at Il Gioiello (the jewel), the home he purchased a few years earlier to be near his daughters’ convent. Ambassador Niccolini once again petitioned Pope Urban to allow Galileo to return to the hills outside Florence. Galileo, under house arrest, was allowed only to visit his daughters’ convent, but soon after his return, Sister Maria Celeste became seriously ill. The old scientist traveled each day to visit and pray with her. She died at the age of thirty-three, and Galileo sorely grieved for months.

      “Despite the injunction that he was not to entertain visitors who might discuss scientific ideas, Galileo did so. Many of his supporters were religious as well as secular academicians, among them the Benedictine monk, Benedetto Castelli, and the inventor of the barometer, Evangelista Torricelli. Through the intercessions of such devotees, his work Two New Sciences was published in Holland. Castelli offered Mass each day for Galileo, but his petitions to remove the scientist’s sentence of house arrest were futile. Galileo Galilel died on January 8, 1642, at the age of seventy-seven. Three hundred and fifty years later, after study by the Galileo Commission, the Church officially endorsed Galileo’s thought.”

      In any case, the more important task is for Prof. Wootton to demonstrate how such writings as The Letter to Grand Duchess Christina could possibly be an expression of Galileo’s alleged atheism. Wootton’s novel thesis is most unconvincing and conjectural. He seems to have little empathetic understanding of the nuanced inner lives of some thinkers in early modernity such as Sarpi and Galileo, projecting onto them, as it seems to me, the simplistic mono-dimensional world view of contemporary physicalism. I predict that very few Galileo scholars will ever accept his unconvincing portrait of Galileo’s inner life. Finally, the word science, in the sense of natural science, did not gain currency in English at least until slightly before Darwin. Instead it was known as philosophy, as I’m sure Wootton is aware, so I don’t understand the last point.

      Nonetheless, my remarks are not intended in any way to disparage the main body of Wootton’s scholarly research, from which I have learned a great deal.

      John Haught
      Senior Fellow, Science & Religion
      Woodstock Theological Center
      Georgetown University
      Washington, DC

  • Dr Haught continues to take a rather cavalier approach to questions of evidence. I refer him to p. 376 pf Sobel’s book which he did not have to hand (though it might have been prudent to wait until he did): “Upon Catelli’s return to Rome, he resumed his efforts to see Galileo’s sentence of house arrest commuted, though these proved unsuccessful. Castelli continued to say Mass for Galileo every morning (until his own death in 1643)….” So here we have the supposedly decisive evidence that Galileo attended Masses said by Castelli — what Sobel is actually describing is Castelli saying Masses in Rome while Galileo is in Florence. (The word “continued” may have misled Dr Haught, but it should not have — Sobel provides no evidence relating to a period when they were both in the same place at the same time.) What she is describing is Castelli saying prayers for Galileo’s soul each day when he said Mass — which certainly happened, for Castelli was in a good position to know how necessary those prayers were, as I show. My considerable respect for Sobel’s book does not extend to people who misrepresent her scholarship for their own partisan purposes.

    In his original review Dr Haught quoted two decisive pieces of evidence against my account of Galileo’s (ir)religion. The other was a passage from Galileo’s Letters on Sunspots — if he consults a reliable edition he will find that the passage in question fell foul of the censors who insisted it be reworded because in its original formulation it was heretical. In questions of historical interpretation, details matter, and I am not sure that Dr. Haught is wise to rely on a text judged heretical by the Church.
    Now, however, having discovered he has got his facts wrong, he wants to appeal to the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. I refer him to my book (which he seems to have read rather carelessly — perhaps he might like to reread it) where he will find the “orthodoxy” of this text clearly acknowledged (p. 305: “It should perhaps be stressed that the claim that Galileo was not a Christian is entirely compatible with the claim that the theology of the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina is orthodox” — I go on to cite a Dominican theologian) — so he isn’t arguing against me, but against an imaginary opponent
    Readers interested in an alternative Catholic viewpoint might find James Hannam’s post here interesting: