In an answer to another question (https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/50328/8160), I mentioned Galileo as an example of religion contradicting science. Several comments criticised that.

I posted another question elsewhere (https://hsm.stackexchange.com/q/7217/7243) if Galileo's heliocentric arguments were scientifically flawed. Here I hope it can be clarified whether his trial counts as an example of the conflict between science and religion.

If that sounds too vague: With conflict between science and religion I mean cases where religion claims the authority to censor and suppress science, or at least, even if it acts benevolently to science most of the time, it demands some sort of veto right and reserves the last word on the subject for itself.

I hope the question is still on topic here; otherwise I'd be fine with it being moved.

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    The Galileo affair (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_affair) has rather complicated history and the clash of religion with science might be seen as a side effect of various topical power and personal antagonisms. The 'extent' would be mostly an interpretative issue, that is not to say ' a matter of opinion'.
    – sand1
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 20:59
  • If "Galileo's affair" was not a case of "conflict between science and religion", what does it count for this sort of conflict for you ? Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 6:52
  • The question being about the 'extent' perhaps the Affair could be compared to Darwinism or the Condemnations of 1210-77; in these cases the balance of personal elements and historical bias is different.
    – sand1
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 8:07
  • This question could be better suited to the history of science SE.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 9:15
  • It was a complex affair with many issues bearing on it. To call it a clash of science and religion is possible but not everyone sees it this way.
    – user20253
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 12:07

4 Answers 4


I believe the references provided in the comments, namely The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown and The Galileo affair: who was on the side of rationality? conflate two different issues. The validity of Galileo's scientific arguments as judged from the perch of today, and the steps Catholic Church took at the time to silence him. The former is subject to some nuance, and I addressed it in the companion post How scientifically valid were Galileo's heliocentric arguments?

The latter is much more straightforward. Catholic Church claimed authority to "censor and suppress" anything that affected "faith and morals" and these were interpreted very broadly. This authority was officially enshrined in the Council of Trent's decree explicitly invoked by Dominicans in relation to Galileo in 1614-15:

"to check unbridled spirits, [the Holy Council] decrees that no one relying on his own judgement shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which the holy mother Church... has held or holds..."

In 1616 the Inquisition's commission of theologians, known as qualifiers, found heliocentrism "foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture", and issued an injunction which ordered Galileo:

"to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it... to abandon completely... the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing."

In 1633, after publishing Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo was reminded that he was warned "if you did not acquiesce in this injunction, you should be imprisoned", ordered to "abjure, curse, and detest" heliocentric opinions, sentenced to formal imprisonment commuted to house arrest, and had Dialogue banned.

Even if Galileo's scientific arguments were completely shoddy, which they were not, this was a case of religious persecution of scientific views, for which even Vatican itself chose to officially apologize, alas only 350 years later. Against this background, the passage quoted in one of the linked posts referring to Riccioli's 1651 surmise of the debate (Galileo died in 1642) sounds almost comical:

"Seen through Riccioli's 126 arguments, the debate over the Copernican hypothesis appears dynamic and indeed similar to more modern scientific debates. Both sides present good arguments as point and counter-point."


The presentation of a conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church may have been more of a conflict in recent times than at the time it occurred motivated by attempts to disparage religion originating in the 19th century than by attempts of religion to restrict science during Galileo's time. That is, it may have been a recent propaganda tool to ridicule religious groups rather than presenting an accurate historical view of the matter.

My suspicion that the above is true is based on comments by Feyerabend, Whitehead and Plantinga.

Feyerabend is cited by https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Feyerabend as claiming:

The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo's doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.

Whitehead in Science and the Modern World compared what happened to Galileo with religious conflicts at that time. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Alfred_North_Whitehead

The worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honorable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.

Plantinga in Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism claims that the portrayal of Galileo in the way we see it today originates with Andrew Dixon White’s "rancorous" History of the Warfare of Science and Theology published in 1898. (page 6)

Plantinga admits,

Nevertheless there certainly did seem to be at least some degree of conflict between the developing modern science and Christian belief, or at any rate ideas closely associated, at the time, with Christian belief. (page 7)

However, Plantinga devotes his book to showing that the discord between science and religion is “superficial” compared to the “deep conflict” between science and naturalism.

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    Did you consider that Feyerabend, Whitehead and Plantinga were reacting to modern debates that use Galileo only as a proxy rather than to what happened historically? Wouldn't contemporaneous documents be better sources on what happened than 20th century commentators?
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 21:14
  • @Conifold Given Plantinga's information about White's 19th century book, what would most interest me now would be to pursue that line of historical investigation should I bother pursuing this any further. Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 21:42
  • While your answer is certainly helpful (+1), I can't make up my mind how to judge the views you quote in relation to the more "straightforward" arguments in Conifold's answer.
    – elias_d
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 5:30
  • 1
    A maybe relevant aside: I read somewhere that Descartes decided not to publish heliocentric material he was working on when he heard of Galileo's trial. Wikipedia seems to confirm that ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_(Descartes) ). That's just one occurence, but it looks to me like an indication that science really was impeded.
    – elias_d
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 5:45
  • @elias_d There was a superficial discord as Plantinga mentioned. rgfuller's answer seems to go into that in more detail. It does not have to do with religion as such. Turning it into a debate against religion rather than authoritarianism or even Aristotelian academics is why we associate Galileo with religion today. If one is going to look at the history of an idea I suspect Plantinga is right that that idea starts in the 19th century. Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 11:41

There is obviously a difference between the biblical or even traditional teachings of religion and the interpretations of those texts/teachings by relevant authorities. I am not sure what aspect of the Christian religion the Church at the time believed to be in conflict with Galileo's writings, but there is a long history of nonliteral interpretation of many if not most or all biblical narratives and texts in both Judaism and Christianity, up to and including the writings of some of the main accepted classical commentators on, say, Genesis. But obviously, at the time, the Church (or many of its main authorities at least) believed Galileo's view to be both wrong physically and threatening and heretical religiously.

  • A reference to the history of non-literal interpretations of biblical narratives may be interesting and provide support for your answer. Again, welcome! Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 21:59
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    myjewishlearning.com/article/… discusses Maimonides, the medieval Jewish legal and philosophical scholar. The article provides some background to his opinions about the relationship between Jewish Law and science; he argues that scientific opinions of the rabbis are not necessarily binding halacha (Jewish Law). There is a mention of another pre-modern scholar who agrees with this view.
    – Leah
    Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 19:42
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    Not exactly the same as a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis, but certainly a strong statement that contemporary science can be a source of truth and even a help, not hindrance, in interpreting religious teachings. I can find you sources re Genesis too but that article gives a good idea of Maimonides' commitment to rational inquiry within the framework of traditional religion.
    – Leah
    Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 19:44

Every battle requires it's martyrs, and Galileo has has been recruited as a martyr on the side of reason, science and athiesm against irrational, unscientific and unreasoning religion; this despite the fact that religions everywhere acknowledge the supremacy of reason, and hence science; and furthermore, despite the fact that Galileo remained a committed Catholic despite his so called 'heresy'.

It's also worth noting that in Galileos day, there was no such thing as science and hence there could not be any rivalry between science and religion; Galileo would have considered himself as a natural philosopher, as did Newton, and probably Rutherford, Poincare and Einstein. Science is a modern term, and we should be wary of anachronistically projecting back modern concerns to a different age with different concerns.

My interpretation is that the Church was concerned with the loss or the undermining of its authority, rather than a conflict between science per se and religion; after all, they were initially quite welcoming about Galileos observations. This is only natural to any institution invested with some kind of authority, whether temporal and worldly, or spiritual and unworldly or somewhere in between.

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