For most people, no single episode more dramatically illustrates the conflict between science and religion than the Galileo case. In the late 1930s Bertolt Brecht wrote a brilliant play, Life of Galileo, that was made into a film in 1975 by American director Joseph Losey. Brecht’s play is the account of priestly malevolence and scientific virtue. It is a canonization of Galileo as a secular saint. And this is the place that Galileo has come to occupy in our culture today, a martyr for the cause of science.When atheist writers speak of the church’s “history” of persecution of scientists, they are usually referring to the Galileo case. Copernicus was never persecuted by the church. The freethinker Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, but as historian Thomas Kuhn points out, “Bruno was not executed for Copernicanism but for a series of theological heresies centering on his view of the trinity.” Bruno’s execution was a terrible injustice, but it has nothing to do with the conflict between religion and science. Prior to the twentieth century and the purges of Stalin and Hitler, only one noted scientist was executed by government decree. That was the great chemist Antoine Lavoisier, a devout Catholic who was guillotined by the Jacobins during the French Revolution.

So we are back to Galileo. In this chapter I want to draw on historical scholarship to reopen the Galileo case. If the atheist version of this case cannot withstand scrutiny, then the whole melodrama of science in conflict with religion is exploded as a farce. Prior to the sixteenth century, most educated people accepted the theories of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, who held that the earth was stationary and the sun revolved around it. The geocentric universe was a classical, not a Christian, concept. The Christians accepted it, though not because of the Bible. The Bible never says that the sun revolves around the earth. It is silent on this scientific question. There are a few passages that refer to the sun rising and setting, but these can be understood as a spiritual text using ordinary understandable language. (Even your local weatherman, who knows all about the earth going around the sun, employs the same colloquial terminology: “Sunrise tomorrow will be at 5:00 Am”) The reason the Christians accepted Ptolemy was because he had a sophisticated theory that was supported by common sense and that gave reasonably accurate predictions about the motions of heavenly bodies.