Which religious denomination jumped on the Copernican bandwagon first?
April 29, 2010 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Historians of science and/or religion: My cousin wants to know "when various Protestant denominations began to accept the Copernican model of the solar system. ... Was there any particular denomination that was in the vanguard on that? What about Jews?"
posted by scratch to Science & Nature (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Take a look at this article by Mano Singham, from Physics Today (warning: PDF). Singham writes that the Catholic Church in fact had an initially neutral or positive response to Copernican heliocentrism:
For one thing, Copernicus did not seem to fear religious opposition to his ideas. After all, he was a reputable cleric himself. He even dedicated his book to Pope Paul III with a letter in which he apologized for the seemingly outlandishness of his suggestion that the Earth moved. He explained that he was forced to his hypothesis by the inadequacy of the Ptolemaic system for constructing calendars and predicting the positions of the stars. A cardinal and a bishop were among those who urged him to publish his book. In fact, for 60 years after Copernicus’ death for just two months after its publication, De Revolutionibus was read and least partially taught at leading Catholic universities.
Singham also notes that opposition to the Copernican model "arose initially among Protestant groups." As you may know, Protestant reformers like Luther were dedicated scriptural literalists—much more so than their Catholic counterparts. It appears that the Church's turn toward anti-Copernicanism in the 17th century was a direct response to the criticisms of fundamentalist Protestants. (Singham seems to be sourcing most of his history from Thomas Kuhn; hopefully others will be able to point to some more recent scholarship.)

Sorry to say I haven't yet found anything about specific denominations, or Jewish or Muslim responses—I hope others will weigh in.
posted by cirripede at 9:59 AM on April 29, 2010

Thanks, Cirripede. (And sorry we didn't cross paths at the meetup. I'm a sometime library serf myself.)
posted by scratch at 10:15 AM on April 29, 2010

Muslims did calculations and concluded that the earth was round long before Copernicus.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:41 AM on April 29, 2010

Sorry, I will try to find something that goes into Islamic concepts of a heliocentric solar system (was thinking of Galileo rather than Copernicus).
posted by Burhanistan at 10:53 AM on April 29, 2010

Here we go. It seems that Muslims built on Greek concepts.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:55 AM on April 29, 2010

What about Jews?

Classic Jewish texts are really only interested in calculating the date of the next new moon. Ptolemaic models work fine for that, so they didn't get any further. There is no specifically Jewish tradition of investigative astronomy, although there have been many Jewish astronomers. I don't think any major historical group cared enough to make a statement one way or the other, but I know that you can find surprisingly-recent rabbinic discussions that only make sense once you realise that they assume an Aristotleian or Ptolemaic universe.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:58 PM on April 29, 2010

Cartesian physics (which incorporated a Copernican picture of the solar system*) became increasingly popular during the mid- to late-seventeenth century, until Newton's physics essentially replaced it. Geographically, the heliocentric picture of the solar system would have been fairly common at that time, at least among intellectuals, in England and the Netherlands, where a great deal of early experimental science was going on---think Boyle, Hooke, Leeuwenhoek and Huygens. By the 17th century, the Netherlands enjoyed freedom of religion and so sidestepped Catholic educational dogma. And during the latter half of the century in England, Charles II proved to be a powerful patron of science, since he had some degree of personal interest in it.

Of course, there would still have been a lot of controversy about it outside such privileged circles, not to mention in places like Geneva where biblical literalism was quite common. (Calvinists were definitely not early adopters of heliocentric theories.)

Long story short: the second half of the seventeenth century, because that's when Aristotelianism began to lose steam in favor of newer theories.

* Strictly speaking, Descartes was in agreement with Copernicus and Galileo regarding the fact that the planets orbit around the sun. However, after seeing what happened to Galileo when he published this belief, Descartes decided to gloss over the point in his treatise on physics and astronomy in books 2 and 3 of the Principles of Philosophy. (He gives a totally specious argument that although there is a sense in which the earth orbits the sun, there is a truer sense in which the earth is at rest...but his argument is pretty clearly just in there to cover his ass and avoid getting called an atheist. What's really surprising is that it worked.)
posted by voltairemodern at 9:45 PM on April 29, 2010

« Older 9/11 Pilots Union Shindig Legend For Naught?   |   Google Calendar Display Puzzle Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.