Science, Religion, and Myth #6: Nikolaj Kopernik, Killjoy

Science, Religion, and Myth #6: Nikolaj Kopernik, Killjoy

Maya Bohnhoff

“Dethronement of the Earth from the centre of the universe caused profound shock: the Copernican system challenged the entire system of ancient authority an required a complete change in the philosophical conception of the universe.” — Britannica Concise Encyclopedia (2007)

The myth that Nicolaus Copernicus (Nikolaj Kopernik) “dethroned” Earth and humanity from the center of the Universe is repeated so often and in so many contexts—many in educational spheres—that it’s as reflexive as the assertion that “Columbus discovered America”.

What’s wrong with that? Turns out it’s inaccurate in a number of ways and Dr. Dennis Danielson, author of The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution undertakes to enumerate them, referring to the myth as “a perennial mold in our collective mental cupboards”.


The myth goes something like this: Copernicus (a Polish prelate) moved Earth from the central place in the solar system, which

  1. demoted the planet,
  2. dethroned mankind, and
  3. totally mucked up all religion and religious conceptions of man’s importance because it argues against Biblical (i.e. Jewish and Christian) conceptions of the cosmos.

That’s quite a lot for Copernicus’ slick bit of observation and reasoning to be credited with or blamed for.

The three points above rest on a number of assumptions about reality, such as:

  1. physical centrality is equivalent to metaphorical, spiritual, or intellectual centrality;
  2. physical centrality is good;
  3. physical centrality is essential to human ideas about identity and self-worth because religion promotes anthropocentrism and the hubris of humankind through this alleged centrality;
  4. the validity of religion depends upon a literal interpretation of Biblical commentary on the nature of the cosmos (specifically where the planet is in relation to other stuff);
  5. the Bible teaches literal physical centrality of the Earth.

Got all that?

Danielson comes at these assumptions from a variety of directions, several of which were new to me because I took the scenery along the way so for granted.

First, Danielson points out that it’s pretty clear that something does not have to be literally in the center of things in order to have importance. I might say that my faith and family occupy a central place in my life or that my writing has a central place in my thoughts. Neither of things is literally true. The books of scripture that inspire me in a variety of ways, for example, reside in a bookcase in the living room. This room is not physically central in our home. It’s figuratively central in that it’s where we hang out to do important things like hold devotions, watch baseball and Dr. Who, rehearse music, and work. It’s where we visit with friends. In other words, it is central intellectually and emotionally without being at all central physically. In fact, when I consider the idea of centrality, I can’t think of an institution in which the physical centrality of a particular building determines the building’s importance.

Obviously, then, physical centrality is not equivalent to importance, so we can tick off point one. For me, the coherence of the truism falls apart on that alone, but I think the more complex ramifications are worth a look.

Nikolaj Kopernik

We assume—for reasons that it had never occurred to me to question, really—that in this case,  physical centrality is equivalent to goodness or virtue. And this is where Danielson surprised me with new ideas and new information. Tongue in cheek, he asks if Copernicus’ work called for a market re-evaluation of the Earth’s neighborhood once he’d moved it from the downtown area to the cosmic suburbs.

What do estate agents have to say? The Aristotelian model in vogue at the time of Copernicus—and, later, Galileo—had it that the center of a system was where the gross, heavy stuff collected. In the Ptolemaic model, the center was the low point. Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1274) wrote that when it came to the cosmos,

“the nearer the parts are to the centre, the greater is their turbidness, their solidity, their inertness, their dimness and darkness, because they are further away from the loftiest element, from the source of light and brightness.”

His Christian contemporary, Thomas Aquinas, agreed that the Earth, having the central position, was “the most material and coarsest of all bodies.” He used the Latin word ignobilissima to refer to the Earth. Not a good thing.

Some theologians, in fact, rejected heliocentrism as falsely exalting the Earth by placing the Sun—a symbol of the Divine and the source of light—in the lowly spot in which “the universe’s filth and ephemera collect” (as Galileo put it) and by granting the Earth movement and a place among the stars.

This hardly supports the idea that human worth was derived from the physical centrality of the ball of dust we lived on. As Maimonides implies, the Earth was the lowly, shadowy sphere over which the illumined realm of God arched.

Growing up in a Christian household, I took the diminution of human physical worth as a given. In fact, a common argument against Christian belief is that it devalues humanity by suggesting that we may contain defects.

“When I observe Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You set in place, what is man that You remember him, the son of man that You look after him?” (Psalm 8: 3-4)

Paradox? Not really. While there are passages in all scripture that ascribe potential greatness to humankind, that greatness has nothing to do with location, location, location and everything to do with conditions inside the human being.

The Bahá’í scriptures, too, are replete with passages that make a point of the non-material nature of human value.

“If true glory were to consist in the possession of such perishable things, then the earth on which ye walk must needs vaunt itself over you, because it supplieth you, and bestoweth upon you, these very things, by the decree of the Almighty. In its bowels are contained, according to what God hath ordained, all that ye possess. From it, as a sign of His mercy, ye derive your riches. Behold then your state, the thing in which ye glory!” —Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p 250


“Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.” — Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, #68, Arabic

The conflation of intellectual concepts with their physical analogues or metaphors has dogged mankind since we first attempted to “put into words what cannot be put into words” as my colleague, Ursula Le Guin has summed up the writer’s job. We sometimes seem to have difficulty distinguishing fact from metaphor.

So, then, religious scripture—and I’m not talking about just the Bible here—makes a distinction between a physical “place” and an intellectual or spiritual one. Even as scripture takes pains to rob us of our sense of entitlement due to our address, it stresses a different type of centrality that owes nothing to location.

“Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?” — The Imam Ali

But back to the questions: Does the validity of all religion rest on the literal interpretation of a particular set of holy books (in this case, the Christian Bible)? I’d suggest that the answer to this is “of course not” simply because to insist on such dependence would be irrational.

Then there’s that last point—does the Bible, in fact, teach that the Earth is the center of the solar system? Here, again, the myth collapses, for the Bible does not give the Earth a lofty place in relation to other bodies or the generic “heavens”. As Copernicus was aware, in the Bible (as in other scripture) the Earth was symbolic of grosser material concerns. The heavens were exalted. The heavens were the throne of God. The Earth was only His footstool.

“But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is His footstool. . .” — Matthew 3:34-35a

So whence the myth? Dennis Danielson conjectures that there was a collision of a number of different world views as each new scientific discovery changed the way we see the universe. What’s fascinating to me about this is that as the telescope showed us more and more of the cosmos, two polar opposite reactions have emerged. Many religious people react to scientific discovery as theologian Cotton Mather did, by exclaiming,

“Great God! What a variety of worlds Thou hast created! . . .  How stupendous are the displays of Thy greatness, and of Thy glory!”

I have to admit that, in my own life, the more I know about the way the Universe works, the deeper my appreciation of God grows. On the other side of the aisle in perfect synchronicity, are those who see the unveiling of the universe as inimical to the whole idea of God.

It is, as with many things, a matter of perspective.

But I digress. Danielson suggests that what Copernicus did—in a staggering feat of spin—was to redefine the center of the known universe as a glorious throne for the Sun rather than a cess pit in which the basest matter collected. Possibly, later thinkers unfamiliar with the theology of the issue assumed that the center had always been a lofty rather than base location and that Kopernik the Killjoy had simply shoved a different component into the place of honor.

Whatever the reason, the first known appearance of the cliché that Dr. Danielson cites was in 17th century France when Cyrano de Bergerac wrote of geocentrism as contributing to “the insupportable arrogance of mankind, which fancies that Nature was only created to serve it.” By the end of the 17th century, the standard interpretation of Copernican cosmology was, as Bernard le Bouvier de Fontanelle wrote, that the monk’s “design” was “to abate the vanity of men who had thrust themselves into the chief place of the universe”. By the 1800s it had become a trope that Wolfgang Goethe hailed by saying that “no discovery or opinion ever produced a greater effect on the human spirit than did the teaching of Copernicus”. In his mind this “teaching” caused Earth to give up the “colossal privilege of being the center of the universe.” (Hyperbole, anyone?)

Given the opinions of some of his peers, I imagine Copernicus would be very surprised to learn that’s what he’d done . . . let alone that it would be what he’d be primarily remembered for.

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4 thoughts on “Science, Religion, and Myth #6: Nikolaj Kopernik, Killjoy

  1. Did I miss something here?Did your article,Did your scriptures’s quotations manage to debunk the “myth”?It seems that it did not.Matthew 3:34-35a really doesn’t suggest what you’ve written and the Bahai one went right over my head.Thanks for the article anyway.

    1. The idea that Copernicus dethroned the earth from this lofty station and that all Christian theologians understood this and were outraged depends upon the notion that Christian theologians believed it had such a lofty station to begin with.

      So, the quotes weren’t intended to debunk the myth, but to provide a context for the beliefs that debunk it. The point is not that I, personally, thought Matthew 3:34-35a—which casts the Earth in the lowly position of God’s footstool—indicated its humble station, but that theologians of Copernicus’s time believed it did.

      The myth is that the bulk of Christian theologians felt the earth to be in an exalted place in the universe, and that this exalted position (and therefore mankind’s exalted position) was tied to its centrality in the universe. This simply seems not to have been the case. Indeed, it would seem more likely to upset devotees of Aristotelian cosmology.

      The context for the quotes from Baha’u’llah is this introductory comment: “While there are passages in all scripture that ascribe potential greatness to humankind, that greatness has nothing to do with location, location, location and everything to do with conditions inside the human being.” Baha’u’llah’s commentary speaks very directly to that. The first quote raises the idea that if material greatness is the standard by which men are judged the earth, which possesses all wealth, is greater than any man. The second reminds the believer that we are created equal in a purely material sense and that it is our activity in the world that determines our actual greatness.

      As to the myth that the Bible teaches that the earth is the center of the universe, there is no Biblical evidence to support that idea—and at least one passage that seems to undermine that idea. I think perhaps I should have made that clearer in the article.

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