Galileo the Nonbeliever?

When someone mentions Galileo, one of the first things to come to mind is his fight with the Catholic Church about the motions of the Earth and the centrality of the Sun. The Galileo Affair has been one of the keystones on those arguing that science and religion tend to (or naturally) come into conflict. Many historians have rightly contextualized the events, pointing out the political and personal levels that brought the great Italian scientist before the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for promoting the theories of Copernicus. Also a big part of the contextualization has been to show how Galileo was a devout man, a Catholic, and had no wish to fight religion but if anything better understand it and the Bible.

However, a recent biography by historian David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, has an intriguing argument to change this stance that has been a consensus position for centuries. Wootton notes that plenty of less than pious figures in this time would display affirmations of belief and the necessary genuflections, but privately they could be skeptical of various dogmas. There were obvious social repercussions to publicly speaking against the Mother Church or the Christian faith more broadly. The example of Giordano Bruno is an obvious case of what happens when one publicly denies the divinity of Christ. So there is some degree that Wootton has to make his position an argument from silence: a lack of piety or mention of religious matters in the voluminous surviving writings of Galileo. On its own, that may be curious but hardly compelling.

However, Wootton has a particular avenue for arguing his new position. One of the friends of Galileo, Benedetto Castelli, wrote to him in 1639 upon hearing the news that Galileo had given himself to Jesus. This is in the last years of life of the famous scientist and well after his trial before the Inquisition. Castelli writes as if Galileo is making an 11th hour conversion like one of the thieves crucified with Jesus. Castelli had been a close friend and student of Galileo for a long time, so he should have been in the know if Galileo was at heart a heretic or Catholic with odd views of the solar system.

This revelation also makes sense of some recent documentation that has been rediscovered showing that Galileo was also going to be accused of denial of transubstantiation, the Catholic dogma that the bread and wine of mass literally becomes the flesh and blood of Christ. The charge seems to be based on Galileo’s belief in a sort of atomic theory, one that made the argument (based on Aristotelian categories) for the truth of transubstantiation nonsensical. Elsewhere, Galileo has a sort of creative force or anima mundi. Such a physical model would do away with the need of an omnipotent creator.

Now, this is compelling but it shouldn’t be considered an air-tight proof. If we had a letter from Galileo saying Jesus was a mere man or and there is no revelation in the Bible besides that supplied by the natural senses of the authors, then this would be a done deal. However, we don’t have such definitive evidence, and the public statements or actions of devotion can reasonably be thought of as a cover for working in a Catholic society. Perhaps the evidence is overall a wash. To make the case stronger, more evidence and analysis would be needed, especially evidence coming from Galileo’s closest friends and family.

Consider this: perhaps some things can be made sense of , given Galileo as a nonbeliever, in the correspondence between Galileo and his daughter, Virginia, who became a nun and renamed Maria Celeste. Maria was very close to her rather, and she seems to have been helping him in preparing his manuscript for his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. We have a number of the letters she wrote to her father, but the reverse is not true–those letters were most likely destroyed when Maria died in 1634 or not long after. However, in one of those letters there is something that caught my attention. After Galileo’s trial and house arrest he was forced to do penance and had to do specific prayers every week. The seven psalms Galileo had to recite was instead taken up by her daughter according to her letter from October 3rd, 1633. Obviously she is trying to do something helpful for her father the only way she could, but perhaps this is in part because she thinks he would otherwise not do it or not want to do it?

Here is how she describes why she took on the prayers:

I believe that prayer accompanied by the claim of obedience to Holy Church is effective, and then, too, to relieve you of this care.

This suggests that she thinks her father is not obedient to the Church and why she will do the praying, and she seems to believe that this is a relief to Galileo. That is suggestive in light of what else Wootton has argued.

Again, I dare not say this case is air-tight, but it seems reasonable to entertain the idea that Galileo was not a Christian, let alone a devout Catholic. Wootton does not think he was an atheist but more a deist, and that seems the best modern category to try and place him in if the arguments hold up. Nonetheless, this has the potential to put Galileo’s theological writings and arguments, not to mention his approach to science and philosophy, in a new light that could be rather interesting and helpful in understanding why he became the man he was.


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