The great world
spins forever
through the
ringing grooves
of change.
» Tennyson

Modern gay people are caught on the horns of the science versus religion debate. On one side is the modern sense of self, our respect for the individual, and acceptance of the validity of each person’s experience. On the other side is traditional Christian teaching that homosexuality is wrong and a sinful choice. Increasingly, scientific evidence comes down on the side of gay identity, with study after study linking biological factors like genetics and hormones to sexuality. Sadly, we’re back in the Medieval conundrum of whether to believe the facts or the “traditional” ways, which makes it a good time to review the story of Galileo.

Consider for a moment, the sea. If you didn’t know modern science, how would you explain the tides? We know that water stays level, so why do the oceans rise and fall? This phenomena was so baffling to ancient people they had few explanations, and the question of the tides was the central problem Galileo was trying to solve when he got into trouble.

The problem started in 1543, when Nicolaus Copernicus published Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs while working at the University of Padua. Copernicus theorized that the sun was the center of the universe, that the earth rotated on an axis, and that the earth circled the sun once a year. This was a direct assault on ancient teaching back to Aristotle, and most importantly, it contradicted the church. Tradition and religion were clear that the sun and stars moved around a stationary earth, and supporters of tradition had a strong argument on their side – common sense. Go outside. Do you see the earth moving around the sun? (This mindset continues to this day. These are the people who mock global warming because they see snow on their lawn.)

Galileo Galilei was born in 1564, studied Copernicus, came to agree with him, and proved him right in 1609 when he looked through the newly invented telescope and saw the moon and stars with all new detail. The proof of Copernicus’s theory came when Galileo stood in his nighttime garden, looking through his simple glass technology, and saw four moons circling Jupiter, proof of a miniature planetary system. A deeply religious man, Galileo gave, “infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.”

Galileo demonstrating his telescope (painter unknown)

Galileo believed that seeing facts would change opinion. He was wrong. Just as people do today, Galileo’s peers did not let facts stand in their way. They even refused to look into the telescope, their commitment to not knowing was so strong.

Galileo expressed his frustration to a friend: “My dear Kepler, what would you say of the learned here, who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp [a viper], have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope? What shall we make of this? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry?”

The church didn’t need a telescope to see what was true as God’s timeless truth is laid out clearly in the Bible:

  • The earth does not spin or move: “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” [Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, 1 Chronicles 16:30]
  • …and: “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” [Psalm 104:5]

  • The Bible is clear that the sun moves, not the earth: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.” [Ecclesiastes 1:5]
  • In addition, the skies are a covering over the earth, not a space the through which the earth moves. “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth…He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.” [Isaiah 40:22]

I love this last one. The ancients often described the sky as a tent thrown over the world at night, and the pinpricks of light are sunlight coming through the gaps in the tent’s fabric. Look up for yourself, try to forget what you know, and then look again. The stars really do look like pinpricks in the dome of the sky where light shines through from behind. Terrible science, beautiful poetry.

To Christians of Galileo’s time the earth had to be the center of the universe. The Son of God came to earth, therefore earth must be the center of the universe. To put the sun at the center of the universe was to demote the centrality of Christ.

Galileo's Inquisition Trial, 1633.

The church forced Galileo to stop talking about his observations. The order was to not think those thoughts, but if he could not achieve that, then not to teach or publish them. In submission, Galileo went silent on the subject for many years, working on other scientific projects, including his famous testing of gravity by throwing various objects off Pisa’s leaning tower.

In a cruel twist of fate, it was a new Pope’s encouragement that lead him to write his decisive book, the 500 page Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, originally titled Dialogue on the Tides, as it those perplexing tides remained the central focus of inquiry.

Galileo’s work was poorly received by the powerful, even the Pope turning against him. Now old and sick, Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition in Rome and convicted of heresy. The tribunal stated:

The proposition that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, because it is expressly contrary to the Holy Scripture.

The proposition that the earth is not the center of the world and immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal motion, is equally absurd and false philosophically, and theologically considered, at least erroneous in faith.

To save himself from life in prison, Galileo confessed to heresy and declared he had never believed all that he had believed and taught in his life. In consideration of his confessing, the sentence was commuted to house arrest, and Galileo died nine years later in the farmhouse of his confinement. The church won.

The trial of Galileo was a pivotal moment when truth was breaking through and the power structure quaked. Galileo was himself a believer. He tried to argue that one could believe the Bible as metaphorical truth while still seeing the truths of our planet. But the church said no, the Bible’s cosmology is literal truth. Truth was God’s word, not observable facts, and better not to look through the telescope.

For modern people, facts can stand for themselves, no matter what the church teaches. We call this science, and many date the beginning of science, and therefore modernity, with Galileo and the Copernican revolution. As Stephen Hawking said, “Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science.”

There are modern people who will not look at the science of homosexuality. They already know the truth, as the church has told it to them. But as Galileo is reported to have muttered after submitting to the church’s truth: “Eppur si muove.” And yet it moves.