The moon and the stars, which You have ordained." - Psalm 8:5
Quoted by Johannes Kepler in the dedication of Mysterium Cosmographicum
I had a rather bizarre conversation with an acquaintance the other day which culminated in him falling back on the tired claim that religion has long been at war with science. When asked for proof, he pointed to the burning at the stake of Copernicus. This event is wholly imaginary; Copernicus was priest and he died of old age in good standing with the Church. Of course, pointing out that it never happened did not trouble him in the slightest; he simply went off in search of new data to support the conclusion he had already reached. But it was extremely odd to me, especially since this particular person is normally very well informed about history. 1
The victory of heliocentrism has taken on something of a mythical quality, and is a favored morality tale among atheists. As is often the case, the actual history of the event has been either glossed over or grossly distorted. Luckily, I'm here to set the record straight for you.
THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO, back before science had been invented, men had only Reason with which to decipher the world. Empirical observations had an influence on this process, but they were far from primary.2 Thus, the great Aristotle built up a system of the universe placing Earth in the center (as it happens, there were very good empirical reasons for this as well), and declared that all the heavenly bodies moved in perfect circles, because circles are the best shape (this really was how the reasoning went).
This astronomy worked pretty well, explaining the millions of stars, the Sun, and the Moon. Only five wandering stars3 refused to fall in line, moving backwards and forwards across the sky in a regularly repeating but bizarre non-circular pattern. In the second century AD, Ptolemy solved this problem by adding epicycles to the planets' movements, which essentially consisted of circles within circles. Using this system, he was able to produce tables that enabled one to calculate the position of the stars and planets at a given point in time with very reasonable accuracy, while still preserving the essential idea that heavenly bodies move in circles. And so his model held for well over a thousand years.
HUNDREDS OF YEARS AGO, in the early 1500s, a Catholic cleric named Copernicus quietly began working on the idea that perhaps things went around the Sun instead of the Earth. He began to formulate a manuscript explaining his theory, but being something of a perfectionist, he continually reworked it and never actually got around to publishing it. He did, however, send drafts out to other scholars, and got mostly encouraging responses back. It was the combined encouragement of the bishop of Chelmo, the cardinal of Capua, and most especially the Protestant minister who became his pupil that finally got him to publish a book which laid out his theory. It circulated around scholarly circles, but did not have a huge impact one way or the other. Copernicus died of a stroke the same year he published, and was buried beneath the floor of Frombork cathedral, hardly the kind of reception that would be given to a heretic.
To sum up so far: a priest who was literally buried in the church, thanks to the steady encouragement of three other clergymen, proposed the theory of heliocentrism. Does that sound like a war of Religion on Science to you?
It must be pointed out that Copernicus was, in an important sense, wrong. His system still assumed the perfectly spherical orbits that Aristotle demanded. Consequently, though his model was simpler than Ptolemy's, it was not more accurate. This is probably why it didn't create much of a stir; it was something interesting for intellectuals to bandy about, and perhaps even useful, but the older theory still explained things better.
The Cosmic Mystery Solved
The vital man in figuring the way our solar system works was Johannes Kepler, who began his work about 50 years after Copernicus died. While studying for the ministry, he was exposed to both the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems, and he became a devotee of the latter. Recognizing that his talents lay more in mathematics and astronomy than the ministry, the clergy overseeing Kepler's studies steered him into a teaching position for the former. And so Kepler dedicated himself to the task of figuring out how the heavens work. Because he firmly believed that God was a God of order, and that underneath the seemingly erratic movements of the planets lay a hidden harmony, he worked tirelessly to find that order, seeking explanations for not only how the planets were arranged, but why they went at the speeds they did, why they were spaced out at the distances they were, and even why there were 6 of them.4
When the Counter-Reformation came to Kepler's home town, he was presented with the choice of renouncing his Lutheranism, or leaving everything he had behind and being exiled. He chose his faith, and we should all be glad he did, because this event was what drove him into the employment of one Tycho Brahe. This partnership changed the course of history. Kepler had the genius needed to work out the heavenly motions, but he did not have the necessary data. Brahe was the only5 man with the necessary resources to gather that data.
After a great deal of work and scrutinizing the empirical data for nine years, it was Kepler who finally hit upon the realization that orbits are elliptical, not circular. This was the key that finally gave the heliocentric model better predictive power than Ptolemy's, eventually "proving" it correct. It was Kepler who gave us Kepler's three laws of planetary motion. It was Kepler who combined astronomy and physics for the first time, in the process causing the eventually separation between astronomy and astrology. And, as one of the first people to fully concern himself with checking his theories against empirical evidence, Kepler was one of the first true scientists, and one of the vital figures in setting off the Scientific Revolution. His three laws even provided the basis that Newton would later use for his theory of gravity.
What about the G-man?
You'll notice I didn't mention Galileo here, and for a good reason: he did not actually play a significant role. All he did was parrot Copernicus' theory very loudly. He did not concern himself with actually proving it correct, and refused to accept Kepler's non-circular orbits. He even mocked Kepler's (correct) idea that the tides are caused by the Moon's gravity. In the end, he took it upon himself to personally insult the Pope, resulting in the house arrest so many still have not forgiven Christianity for. You can go here for a fuller historical treatment of Galileo, which will probably differ quite a lot from the mythologized version you've heard previously.
So why is it that we hear so much about Galileo and so little about Kepler? My own suspicion is that it is simply because Galileo's story helps support the conclusion atheists already wanted to reach: religion is incompatible with science. The story of a devout Lutheran seminary student who expanded upon a theory proposed by a priest and consequently sparked the Scientific Revolution does not help that narrative. So the former story gets embellished, and the latter ignored. But this is overly-harsh; I think the more common answer is simple ignorance, as with the man who thinks Copernicus was burned at the stake.6
1 It was not the only howler of the day. He also claimed that Egypt, AKA the Cradle of Civilization, is a backwater because the land is just no good there. Later he attempted to credit Western dominance to the influence of Rome, but a quick look at a map shows the problem with that claim.
2 This mode of reasoning is still quite common. For example, when an atheist declares that religious belief is inherently incompatible with reason, they are falling into precisely this fallacy. They have their sense that religion is wrong, and this is enough for them to ignore the empirical facts of thousands of years of religious reasoning, the encyclopedias of Aquinas's writings, the entire branch of reasoning known as apologetics, the history of the development of Western ideas, and the reality that the founding fathers of Science were exceedingly devout.
3 Fun Fact: The Greek word for "wanderer" is where the word "planet" came from.
4 At the time, the only known planets were Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Don't mock; you yourself probably once thought that Pluto was a planet.
5 Well, almost the only man. At the same time, Taqi al-Din built an observatory in Istanbul which rivaled Brahe's. It was razed to the ground within a few years on the recommendation of the Chief Mufti. That event marked the end of astronomy in the Muslim world.
6 Whatever "freethinker" means, it certainly doesn't mean, "one who pauses to think about why, if his case is so air-tight, he constantly falls back on the same 400-year old anecdote to support it." After all, if he did that, he might look for more recent cases, and then he might have to confront the fact that just in this past century, his fellow atheists not only jailed but executed people for propounding such scientific theories as Mendelian genetics or the Big Bang. Odds are, the freethinker will simply be ignorant of this history as well.