Past present: Mind over matter

Published September 6, 2014

In the 16th century, Europe confronted religious, social and political conflict. This is not necessarily a bad thing as historians believe that conflict is a leitmotif of change. It awakens society from slumber and stagnation and leads to the creation of new ideas and thoughts with the passage of time.

When Martin Luther challenged the Catholic Church and its outdated institutions, the church became divided. In turn, the Catholic Church launched the Counter- Reformation with an aim to reform the church and restore Catholicism in Europe.

In 1618-48, the Thirty Year War ravaged Germany along with other European countries like Sweden, France, Spain and Austria when the Roman Catholic Church attempted to curtail the activities of the Protestants, sparking a rebellion. At first the Catholic Church authorities underestimated the extent of the Reformation but when they realised that the movement was spreading from one country to another, they decided to take action to defend and reform themselves.

The Inquisition, which was a group of institutions within the judicial system of the Roman Catholic Church, took harsh steps against heretics to check any deviation from faith in order to retain its unity.


From the time of the Greek philosophers to the present day, faith and knowledge have been in a love-hate relationship


The most effective challenge that the Church faced was the emergence of new knowledge which contradicted the Holy Scripture, the very basis of their faith. Until now, the Catholic Church firmly believed in the Ptolemaic idea that the earth was stationary while sun revolved around it. When Copernicus (d.1543), the Polish scientist presented the heliocentric theory that the earth revolved while the sun remained stationary, the Catholic Church responded with fury. The manuscript by Copernicus was included in the index of prohibited books, which was published by the Church mentioning the books which were not allowed to be read by devout Catholics. The argument of the Church was that in the Old Testament, Joshua prayed to God to let the sun remain in the sky until the war was over. The interpretation being that if sun was stationary why would Joshua pray for it to stand still? On this basis of it, it was considered heretical to oppose it.

Despite the opposition by the Church, scientists and philosophers continued to discuss this issue. It was a time when Italian universities were academically active and Italian aristocrats and nobles were also interested to learn about nature and to unfold its mysteries.

The first philosopher to face the charges of heresy was Giordano Bruno (d.1600) who propagated his idea that earth moved and there were a number of galaxies behind the sun. The Inquisition arrested him and tried him as a heretic. It was the practice of the Inquisition to torture its prisoners and force them to plead guilty. Giordano Bruno endured the torture but refused to reject his ideas. Finally, he was taken out of prison, paraded in the streets as a heretic and burnt at stake.

In 1610, Galileo a prominent scientist and philosopher published Sidereus Nuncius presenting his startling astronomical observations in which he recorded the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter. With these observations he promoted the heliocentric theory of Copernicus. Galileo’s initial discoveries were met with opposition within the Catholic Church, and in 1616 the Inquisition declared heliocentrism to be formally heretical. Responding to mounting controversy over theology, astronomy and philosophy, Galileo was tried in 1633 for heresy and sentenced to indefinite imprisonment. He was kept under house arrest until his death in 1642.

The insult and humiliation did not dampen his spirits. He continued to work, and secretly sent his new manuscript on the theory of motion for publication to France.

He also received some visitors such as Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, and Milton, the English poet, despite the strict ban. Towards the end of his life he became blind and died in 1642 while still under house arrest.

The Church hence closed all doors for the creation of new knowledge, relegating the Catholic world into backwardness. On the other hand, Protestant countries free from such religious restrictions created new knowledge and progressed politically and economically.

Though many scientists and philosophers were condemned by the Church, the new knowledge discovered by them overpowered the extremist religious views and transformed the world. In 1992, some 350 years after his death, the case of Galileo was reopened by the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul acknowledged the error on part of the Church authorities and declared Galileo right in his views. This was a triumph of knowledge against faith, even if it came several centuries too late.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 7th, 2014

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