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How a Catholic priest gave us the Big Bang Theory
American Chronicle ^ | December 28, 2007 | Alex Higgins

Posted on 12/29/2007 8:50:01 AM PST by Alex Murphy

The history of cosmology – the study of the Universe – for the last five hundred years is often portrayed as a clash between science on the one hand, and the cold hand of religious dogma on the other.

Part of this is rooted in fact – the Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation for instance was suspicious of intellectual innovation and experiment, with its harsher elements longing for the certainties of the age before Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. The desire to make the Universe fit into a pre-ordained and orderly scheme that needed no correction reached its infamous, idiotic height as the Dominican Order and the Inquisition persecuted Galileo for his accurate insistence that the Earth orbited the Sun. Galileo's fate at the hands of Pope Urban VIII was not inevitable - but for various historical contingencies, the Church might have not have set its face against him. But this is far from the only episode of a reactionary Church choosing to block knowledge and progress instead of contributing towards it.

Yet the relationship between the Church and science has not always been so bad. And if we wanted an example of an alternative model of co-operation rather than antagonism, we could take as an example the most famous theory in cosmology today – the Big Bang Theory, whose surprising origins lie with a Catholic priest toiling away in a Catholic University in Belgium.

I once attended a youth club in Colchester, a town in England where I grew up as a teenager. Run by fundamentalist evangelicals (generous, kind people incidentally), who are rare in Britain, the night's activities of five-a-side football, cricket or pool would come only after some kind of Bible-reading or an unsuccessful attempt at debunking the Theory of Evolution, which was a particular bugbear of theirs.

One night, a local volunteer was explaining why the Big Bang Theory was obviously nonsense with a cutesy, homely analogy – "If you blow up a pile of bricks, you don’t get a building, it’s stupid." In your face, Stephen Hawking!

He didn’t know why scientists might have come up with the idea of the Big Bang, except perhaps as a sneaky rationalisation for undermining Christianity. He wasn’t even clear as to why he thought it posed a theological problem for Christians in the first place, though he is not alone in thinking that it does.

The irony is extraordinary - aside from being uninformed about the Theory itself, fundamentalists are usually unaware of its religious origins, and the fact that the Big Bang Theory successfully replaced a theory much less compatible with Christian ideas about the beginning of time - the Steady State Theory.

The groundwork for the Big Bang Theory was laid in the early twentieth century by the paradigm-crunching work of Edwin Hubble (as in Hubble telescope) and Albert Einstein.

Einstein’s crucial contribution was part of the fallout of his work on gravity in Switzerland around the time of the First World War. By showing that gravity was a curve in space-time caused by the distorting impact of matter, the implication was that in a Universe where everything stayed in one place, gravity would gradually draw all matter together in an almighty collision. This meant that, contrary to the prevailing view of contemporary cosmologists, the Universe could not be static - it had to be either expanding or contracting.

Einstein didn’t much like this implication and was wedded to the notion of an unchanging Universe that had always existed. So he assumed there must be a problem with his theory, and compensated for it in his equations by inventing an artificial cosmological constant while he tried to figure out what was going on.

And on the other side of the Atlantic, from 1919 and through the 20s, Edwin Hubble was busy spending all night, night after night, making minor adjustments to the 100-inch Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson, then the largest in the world. By photographing some of the most distant objects in view he resolved an earlier debate and demonstrated conclusively that the Universe, far from consisting of a single galaxy – ours, the Milky Way – actually contained a huge number of galaxies, each consisting of billions of stars. Our collective view of the Universe had to be adjusted as people realised it was a billion times larger than previously thought.

In addition to discovering these galaxies, Hubble also discovered something significant about them. Just as the pitch of a siren on an emergency vehicle changes as it drives past us - because the length of the sound waves change as they become more distant according to the Doppler effect - so too the light from distant objects can tell us whether they are moving closer or drifting away. Together with Milton L. Humason, Hubble showed that the galaxies were moving further away from us – part of what is today called Hubble’s Law concerning the light emitted by moving galaxies. The conclusion Hubble had to draw was that the Universe was expanding, and everything in it was on the move.

But, unknown to either of them, Hubble was actually beaten to the basic idea of Hubble’s Law by a Belgian priest, Fr. Georges Lemaitre. Lemaitre trained as a Jesuit priest, served in the Belgian Army during the remorseless slaughter of World War One, and then became a student of astronomy and mathematics. He studied in Cambridge in England, then in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the Harvard Observatory and finally the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Returning to Belgium in 1925, where he worked at the Catholic University of Leuven as a part-time lecturer, his big break came two years later in 1927 when he proposed his theory of an expanding Universe to explain the movement of the galaxies, published in the Annals of the Scientific Society of Brussels.

Lemaitre was still pretty hazy about how the process of expansion could have begun. Like many scientists, he was still committed to the idea of a static Universe of unchanging size, so he proposed that it might have begun like this but then started to expand. Since his ideas were not getting very much attention, he decided to arrange a meeting with Einstein at the Solvay Conference in Brussels in October 1927.

Einstein, though interested, was largely dismissive, telling Lemaitre that, "Your calculations are good, but your physics is terrible". Einstein was also a little suspicious of the religious implications of these ideas. He declined to describe himself as an atheist (or a theist, or a pantheist) and liked to use the vocabulary of religion, most famously in his misguided rejection of much of quantum physics, "God does not play dice!" But his complex and shifting view of God was of something impersonal behind fixed laws that governed the Universe, partly influenced by the 17th century philosopher Spinoza.

Einstein had previously dismissed the work of Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedman, who had proposed an expanding universe as an abstract mathematical solution to his equations in 1922. Einstein offered Lemaitre some suggestions for further investigations but left unconvinced.

Lemaitre’s old teacher, the British astronomer Arthur Eddington, was more encouraging and published a commentary on his 1927 paper in English in 1930, describing it as a brilliant solution to some of the outstanding problems astronomers faced. In 1931, Lemaitre was invited to London by the British Association to discuss cosmology and spirituality. There he described his new solution – that the Universe had begun from a tiny and incredibly dense singularity containing all its existing matter. This he called 'the primeval atom' or a "Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation".

The Primeval Atom theory was born (or Cosmic Egg theory if you like). It wouldn’t be known as the Big Bang Theory until the British physicist, Fred Hoyle, did a radio series in 1949 in which he attempted to debunk it. He failed to change many people’s minds by then, but he did give it a better name.

Neither Eddington nor Einstein were persuaded by this idea – as Stephen Hawking, perhaps the world’s most famous living astrophysicist, has said, "few people [meaning scientists] took the idea of the beginning of the Universe seriously". But Lemaitre was a passionate and persuasive man, and he was gaining a wider audience as he began to travel the US. He decided to surprise Hubble and Einstein by turning up to meet them both unexpectedly in 1931 and push his idea again. This time he won them over, demonstrating how their work led to his conclusion. It was a dramatic event – Hawking has said that, "The basis of modern cosmology was established at this meeting. Looking back I can recognise this as the foundations for my own work". Einstein regarded his initial rejection of an expanding Universe as the "biggest blunder of my life".

The Big Bang did not gain easy acceptance. Like any dramatic new concept in science, it had to be tested against the evidence and alternative hypotheses. Opponents adopted the Steady State theory of the Universe which proposed that the Universe stayed fundamentally the same over time. Since the galaxies were clearly moving apart from each other, the theory suggested that new galaxies must be constantly formed somewhere in the Universe and propelled outwards. But Steady State theorists could not explain where many of the chemical elements we see in the Universe could have been formed, if not in the extreme conditions of the Big Bang. They also struggled to explain where the hydrogen fuel to create these elements was being formed in the Universe, and why there was so much helium in the cosmos – the leftovers of hydrogen fusion. But the Big Bang Theory could answer that hydrogen was created in gigantic quantities in the original explosion, and the helium was part of the aftermath. The jury came back in and a new consensus was formed.

The existence of God, of course, is not settled by the truth of the Big Bang Theory, nor should religion rest its case on any scientific theory. But what can be said is that the Big Bang fits surprisingly well with the religious idea that the Universe had a distinct beginning, willed by a Creator. Betraying some bemusement, the astrophysicist Robert Jastrow put it like this:

"For the scientist… the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been there for centuries."

In reality, both the scientists and the theologians are still busy hauling themselves over the mountains of ignorance. Hopefully, they will help each other out.

Sadly, we hear little of Lemaitre today. Arguably, the way the evidence was pointing in the late 1920s, someone else might have come up with the same idea, taking up where Hubble, Friedman and Einstein left off. But the fact remains that one of the best known of all modern scientific theories was his. In his own lifetime, his achievement was recognised. He received the Francqui Prize in Belgium, the highest honour for a scientist in the country, with Einstein and Eddington among his proposers and judges respectively. The Vatican chose him to be a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936 (founded that year), where he worked and taught until becoming its president in 1960.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences had its origins in an institution called the Academy of Lynxes (so-called because of the lynx’s keen eyesight), founded in 1603 under Pope Clement VIII by an Italian prince, Federico Cesi. The first president of that institution had been Galileo – an unfortunate reminder of what might have been, but for the Inquisition.

Pope John XXIII appointed Lemaitre, to his surprise, to lead the Second Vatican Council’s commission on birth control. His commission was the first ever to appoint lay people and women and to undertake a sociological investigation of the lives of Catholic families to help come to a truly fair and grounded decision. Lemaitre died before the commission completed its report – it famously recommended acceptance of the use of birth control and contraception, a view rejected by a minority report and Pope Paul VI.

Just before Lemaitre died in 1966, he learned of the first discovery of 'cosmic background radiation' – the predicted fallout from the Big Bang, and further confirmation of his theory.

It surprises me then, that many Christians still find the idea of the Big Bang problematic. They might instead try and take the credit for it and - why not? - get on with doing some science themselves.


Some Notes on Sources

Stephen Hawking's quoted statements were made in the 1997 PBS series, 'Stephen Hawking's Universe'

Robert Jastrow's quote is cited in 'Finding Darwin's God' by the Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller which is strongly recommended to readers interested in the debate over the compatibility of religion and contemporary science.

Einstein's complex views on religion, often simplified in polemics, are explored in Walter Isaacson's new biography, a summary of which he wrote here:,9171,1607298,00.html

TOPICS: Catholic; Ministry/Outreach; Religion & Science; Skeptics/Seekers
KEYWORDS: bigbang; cosmology; crevo; crevolist; origins
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1 posted on 12/29/2007 8:50:03 AM PST by Alex Murphy
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To: Alex Murphy

Interesting read.

2 posted on 12/29/2007 8:53:43 AM PST by Gamecock (Aaron had what every megachurch pastor craves: a huge crowd that gave freely and lively worship.)
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To: Alex Murphy
The worlds first modern university was set up in the middle 10th century (the “dark ages”) by the Catholic Church in Paris.

Catholicism had had a bad rap when it comes to science. Genetics was discovered by Catholic monks in the 12th century (I think, it may have been the 13th century). How Christianity has gotten this slam dunk that it is against science while building the most modern countries in the world is beyond me.

3 posted on 12/29/2007 9:00:37 AM PST by truemiester (If the U.S. should fail, a veil of darkness will come over the Earth for a thousand years)
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To: Alex Murphy
"For the scientist… the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been there for centuries."

Just love the observation.

Interesting read.

4 posted on 12/29/2007 9:34:13 AM PST by wmfights (LUKE 9:49-50 , MARK 9:38-41)
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To: Alex Murphy


5 posted on 12/29/2007 9:35:39 AM PST by VOA
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Twisting the Knife

How Galileo Brought His Troubles with the Church on Himself

By Wil Milan

If you ask people what Galileo Galilei is famous for, most will say that he invented the telescope, used it to prove the earth goes around the sun, and that the Catholic Church condemned him for his discoveries. That much is common knowledge, no?

In fact, none of those things is true.

Galileo did not invent the telescope. When and where the telescope was invented is not certain, but what is certain is that in 1609 Galileo heard about the new invention and made one for himself. Soon he turned it on the heavens, and it was at that moment that his destiny turned to fame.

Every night brought new discoveries. He discovered that the Milky Way is not a soft band of light but a cloud of millions and millions of stars, that the moon is covered with craters, that Venus has phases like the moon, even that the sun has spots on its face. (Looking at the sun through a telescope is probably what doomed Galileo to blindness later in his life.) Excited beyond measure by his discoveries, Galileo in 1610 published a little book, Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), detailing his discoveries.

The Starry Messenger made Galileo an overnight celebrity, and his discoveries did not go unnoticed by officials of the Catholic Church, many of whom were scholarly individuals with an interest in the sciences. Some of the leading cardinals of the Church were fellow members of the scientific society to which Galileo belonged and took great interest and pride in the discoveries of their most famous member.

The Church also lauded Galileo publicly. He had a friendly audience with Pope Paul V, and in 1611 the Jesuit Roman College held a day of ceremonies to honor Galileo. When in 1614 a Dominican monk criticized Galileo from the pulpit, the leader of the Dominicans reprimanded the monk and apologized to Galileo on behalf of the entire order.

What did get Galileo into a bit of hot water with the Church was a conclusion he drew from one of his telescopic discoveries: He discovered that Jupiter has four moons that orbit around it just as the moon does the earth. He was fascinated by this, and from this and from observing the phases of Venus (which indicated that Venus orbits the sun, not the earth) he concluded that the earth goes around the sun (a view known as heliocentrism), not the sun around the earth (known as geocentrism).

Today Galileo's conclusion seems obvious. But it was not obvious at the time, and the truth is that Galileo was jumping to conclusions unsupported by the facts. The fact that four moons orbit Jupiter does not in any way prove that the earth goes around the sun and neither does the fact that Venus shows phases as it orbits the sun.

A popular theory at the time (known as the Tychoan theory after Tycho Brahe, the famous Danish astronomer who had formulated it) proposed that all the planets orbit the sun, and the sun with its retinue of planets then orbits the earth. This theory explained Galileo's observations quite well, and many pointed that out to Galileo. But Galileo insisted that what he had found was proof of the earth orbiting the sun. He eventually turned out to be right, but what he had at the time was not proof.

It was that lack of proof, along with his own abrasive personality, that precipitated his troubles with the Church. Galileo was known for his arrogant manner, and during his career there were a great number of people whom he had slighted, insulted, or in some way made into enemies. In 1615 some of them saw a chance to get back at Galileo by accusing him of heresy for his assertion that heliocentrism was proven fact. And so it was that the Church was prompted to inquire whether Galileo was holding views contrary to Scripture.

It must be pointed out that at the time the Church did not have an official position on whether the sun goes around the earth or vice versa. Though geocentrism was the prevailing view, both views were widely held, and it was a matter of frequent debate among the science-minded.

Indeed, most of the resistance to heliocentrism came not from the Church but from the universities. Within the Church some believed heliocentrism to be contrary to the Bible, others believed it was not. In fact, Galileo had wide support within the Church, and Jesuit astronomers were among the first to confirm his discoveries.

So when Galileo was accused of statements contrary to Scripture, the matter was referred to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the Church's Master of Controversial Questions (quite a title, isn't it?). After careful study of the matter and of Galileo's evidence, Cardinal Bellarmine-who was later canonized and made a doctor of the Church-concluded that Galileo had not contradicted Scripture. But he did admonish Galileo not to teach that the earth moves around the sun unless he could prove it. Not an unreasonable admonition, really, but it had the effect of muzzling Galileo on the matter, because by then he realized he really did not have proof, though he still thought he was right.

And so it was that Galileo chafed under the cardinal's admonition for most of a decade, until in 1623 the luckiest event in his life occurred: Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, a member of Galileo's scientific society and a great fan of Galileo, became Pope Urban VIII.

This was Galileo's dream come true: a pope who was learned in the sciences, who had not only read all of Galileo's works but was a friend and admirer as well. Galileo was soon summoned to Rome for an audience with the Pope to discuss the latest in astronomy, and Galileo took the opportunity to ask the Pope for his blessing to write a book about the motions of the solar system.

Pope Urban VIII readily agreed to Galileo's request, with one condition: The book must present a balanced view of both heliocentrism and geocentrism. The Pope also asked Galileo to mention the Pope's personal view of the matter, which was that bodies in the heavens perhaps move in ways that are not understood on earth (not an unreasonable view at the time). Galileo agreed, and set forth to write his book.

Had Galileo written his book as promised there would have been no problem. But as he had many times before, Galileo was bent not only on arguing his case but on humiliating those who disagreed with him, and he wrote a book far different from what he had promised.

As was common at the time, he wrote the book in the form of a discussion among three men: one a proponent of heliocentrism, one a proponent of geocentrism, and an interested bystander. Unfortunately, the "dialogue" was one-sided-Galileo portrayed the proponent of heliocentrism as witty, intelligent, and well-informed, with the bystander often persuaded by him, while the proponent of geocentrism (whom Galileo named "Simplicius") was portrayed as slow-witted, often caught in his own errors, and something of a dolt. This was hardly a balanced presentation of views.

But Galileo's greatest mistake was his final twisting of the knife: He fulfilled his promise to mention the Pope's view of the matter, but he did so by putting the Pope's words in the mouth of the dim-witted Simplicius. This was no subtle jab-the Pope's views were well-known, and everyone immediately realized that it was a pointed insult. This was too much for the Pope to bear. He was furious, and Galileo was summoned to Rome to explain himself.

This time things did not go well for Galileo. He was charged with a number of offenses, and though he was not imprisoned or tortured, he was shown the implements of torture. Galileo, by then an old man, was terrified, and agreed to something of a plea bargain: In return for publicly recanting his heliocentric view, he was allowed to return home with a sentence of permanent house arrest. He lived out his remaining years in his home, eventually going blind. Curiously, it was during his years of house arrest that he wrote his finest work, a book dealing with motion and inertia that is a cornerstone of modern physics.

It's interesting to note that during all of Galileo's conflicts with the Church, other astronomers, including the equally famous Johannes Kepler, were openly writing and teaching heliocentrism. Kepler even worked out and published the equations that describe the orbits of the planets about the sun. Yet he never had the problems Galileo did, in part because he had less to do with the Catholic Church but also because he did not have Galileo's biting arrogance.

So it was that Galileo's spiteful manner, his knack for turning even his best friends into enemies, repeatedly got him in trouble. His accomplishments cannot be overstated-Galileo is truly one of the giants of science-but in recounting his famous run-in with the Church, it's also important to remember that the root of his problems were not his scientific views but his own unbridled arrogance.

Wil Milan is an astrophotographer based in Arizona.Though he is not a Catholic, he takes great interest in the history of astronomy. Some of his work can be seen on the World Wide Web at

6 posted on 12/29/2007 9:53:02 AM PST by A.A. Cunningham
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To: A.A. Cunningham

Shh... you’ll just confuse them with the facts.

7 posted on 12/29/2007 10:07:01 AM PST by sitetest (If Roe is not overturned, no unborn child will ever be protected in law.)
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To: Alex Murphy
Galileo's troubles took place almost four hundred years ago, just a few decades after Jamestown was settled. Can't people come up with more current references?

John Farrell has written a little book about Lemaitre.

8 posted on 12/29/2007 11:05:42 AM PST by Dumb_Ox (
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To: Salvation; narses; SMEDLEYBUTLER; redhead; Notwithstanding; nickcarraway; Romulus; ...
Catholic Ping List
Please freepmail me if you want on/off this list

9 posted on 12/29/2007 11:07:36 AM PST by NYer ("Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic Church" - Ignatius of Antioch)
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To: Alex Murphy; mgist; gpapa; roughman; Not gonna take it anymore; GOP Poet; Apparatchik; ...

Freep-mail me to get on or off my pro-life and Catholic Ping List:

Add me / Remove me

Please ping me to all note-worthy Pro-Life or Catholic threads, or other threads of interest.

10 posted on 12/29/2007 11:14:47 AM PST by narses (...the spirit of Trent is abroad once more.)
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To: Alex Murphy
The irony is extraordinary - aside from being uninformed about the Theory itself, fundamentalists are usually unaware of its religious origins

yeah, and telling them a Catholic priest came up with it is all the convincing they need.

11 posted on 12/29/2007 11:16:27 AM PST by the invisib1e hand (whose spirit is hillary channelling these days?)
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To: Alex Murphy
artificial cosmological constant

Like Donald Trump's hair?

12 posted on 12/29/2007 11:18:11 AM PST by the invisib1e hand (whose spirit is hillary channelling these days?)
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To: truemiester

The University ran the mail service, which is only right since everybody who could write and read either worked for the university or the church or the king and the king had his own couriers.

13 posted on 12/29/2007 11:19:28 AM PST by RightWhale (Dean Koonz is good, but my favorite authors are Dun and Bradstreet)
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To: Alex Murphy
"God does not play dice!"

No. But within the ordered universe, in this anomaly known as time, order is set temporarily on its ear. Within some easily observable bounds, that is.

14 posted on 12/29/2007 11:23:22 AM PST by the invisib1e hand (whose spirit is hillary channelling these days?)
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To: Alex Murphy
pe John XXIII appointed Lemaitre, to his surprise, to lead the Second Vatican Council’s commission on birth control.

A fitting assignment for the guy who came up with the Big Bang Theory.

15 posted on 12/29/2007 11:29:58 AM PST by the invisib1e hand (whose spirit is hillary channelling these days?)
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To: A.A. Cunningham
Glad to see you set the record straight on Galileo. The Church gets a darned bad rap about science, when in fact, it has supported science throughout its history.

One interesting historical tidbit----when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic church, and disbanded the monasteries, it turned out that he single-handedly delayed the start of the industrial revolution by almost 200 years. Historical research has discovered that a group of Catholic artisan-monks were "that close" to developing a process for making steel in large quantities. When their monastery was confiscated, their technology was lost.

16 posted on 12/29/2007 3:29:27 PM PST by Wonder Warthog (The Hog of Steel-NRA)
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To: A.A. Cunningham
How Galileo Brought His Troubles with the Church on Himself...By Wil Milan

Now trhis is interesting!!!

17 posted on 12/29/2007 6:01:07 PM PST by stevem
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To: Running On Empty


18 posted on 12/29/2007 11:19:48 PM PST by Running On Empty ((The three sorriest words:"It's too late"))
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To: Alex Murphy
Science and faith, same-same.

Guillermo Gonzales & Jay W Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place In The Cosmos Is Designed For Discovery

19 posted on 12/30/2007 9:18:58 AM PST by onedoug
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To: A.A. Cunningham

Obviously the church had too much power at that time. They should have confined their matters to those of preaching the Gospel instead of terrorizing old scientists. Galileo did what scientists did/should do and that is postulate theories. This allows all scientists to prove or disprove to their hearts content until consensus happens. For any church or church leader to imprison or threaten with torture or house arrest any person with a dissenting view only gives atheists and Satan ammunition.

20 posted on 12/30/2007 4:09:55 PM PST by BipolarBob (I've been stung by honey bees and bumblebees. I don't want no huckle bee.)
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