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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