Galileo: Religious or Secular Saint?

In the New York Times Science section, Rachel Donadio reports on a museum in Florence that treats Galileo as both a “secular” and “religious” saint; the curators thus commingle two concepts (the secular/religious) that were being developed during the Renaissance and which reached fruition during the Enlightenment:

The Galileo case is often seen starkly as science’s first decisive blow against not only faith but also the power of the Roman Catholic Church. It has never been quite that simple, though. Galileo was a believer, devastated at being convicted, in 1633, of heresy for upending the biblical view of the universe.

Now a particularly enduring Catholic practice is on prominent display in, of all places, Florence’s history of science museum, recently renovated and renamed to honor Galileo: Modern-day supporters of the famous heretic are exhibiting newly recovered bits of his body — three fingers and a gnarly molar sliced from his corpse nearly a century after he died — as if they were the relics of an actual saint.

“He’s a secular saint, and relics are an important symbol of his fight for freedom of thought,” said Paolo Galluzzi, the director of the Galileo Museum, which put the tooth, thumb and index finger on view last month, uniting them with another of the scientist’s digits already in its collection.

Today, we tend to think of “religion” and the “secular” as natural and timeless categories.  The story is not of course so simple, and anyone who studies “the evolution of religion” needs to attend closely to the intellectual history of these ideas, which depend on one another for support and are connected in ways that can be difficult to perceive.  The “secular” and “religious” are neither natural nor timeless categories.

For those interested in these issues, a good place to start is with Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity and Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, both written by the anthropologist Talal Asad.  As William Conolly has aptly observed, Asad “complicates terms of comparison that many anthropologists, theologians, philosophers, and political scientists receive as the unexamined background of thinking, judgment, and action as such.”  To this list, I would add evolutionary psychologists.

Although many books have appeared over the past decade which purport to account for or explain “religion” in evolutionary terms, not one of them deals with this important issue or questions whether earlier forms of supernaturalism — such as shamanisms — can properly be fitted within the modern concept of “religion.”

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2 thoughts on “Galileo: Religious or Secular Saint?

  1. Adult Child

    I noticed you read Evolving Thoughts (as well as Missives From Marx — you’ve got good taste!) and this post made me think of a blog post John linked to a while back. It was a takedown of Galileo, by The Renaissance Mathematicus, for being (putting it diplomatically) disproportionately praised throughout the history of science. Although I’m sure you’ve read it already, I offer it here nevertheless because I think it is quite an elegant response to the Galileo myth!

  2. admin Post author

    Thanks! I have not read that yet but will do so shortly. I took a glance and it looks good; it also seems like a blog that is perhaps deserving of a link.

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