What Happened to Galileo?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The Galileo affair has often been put to work to demonstrate that religion has always been at war with science.  But what really happened to Galileo?  Does what happened to him prove that religion – Christianity in particular – has always been in conflict with science?

Philosopher John Lennox thinks not; he provides some unique insight in his book God’s Undertaker.  The story of Galileo is not nearly as simple as many people think.

First, Lennox notes that Galileo believed in God.  According to Lennox, “Galileo was a firm believer in God and the Bible, and remained so all of his life.  He held that ‘the laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics’ and that the ‘human mind is a work of God and one of the most excellent.'”

Galileo, Lennox notes, was initially endorsed by the Jesuit educational institution, the Collegio Romano.  So where did his opposition first originate?  Galileo himself claimed “that it was the academic professors who were so opposed to him that they were trying to influence the church authorities to speak out against him.”  Lennox explains that the secular philosophers of the day were incensed by Galileo.  Why?  Galileo’s science was threatening the Aristotelian scientific paradigm that dominated the academic institutions.

Aristotle’s astronomical speculations were left in “tatters’ by Galileo’s telescope and the academic elite of the time would not have it.  Therefore, there was increasing pressure put on the church to quiet Galileo since the church also supported the Aristotelian scientific program.

Lennox comments additionally that Galileo “developed an unhelpfully short-sighted habit of denouncing in vitriolic terms those who disagreed with him.”  A good example would be when Galileo mocked Pope Urban VIII (an erstwhile supporter and  friend of Galileo) in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Principal Systems of the World by placing the Pope’s words in the mouth of a dull-witted character in the book.

Galileo was, finally, placed under house arrest, mostly in “luxurious private residences belonging to friends,” by the Roman Catholic Church.  Lennox points out that Galileo was never tortured, contrary to popular belief.

So, does the story of Galileo prove that Christianity is opposed to science?  Obviously not.  Instead it proves that scientists who challenge the scientific majority of their day may face serious censure.  Lennox concludes, “What is clear, in Galileo’s time and ours, is that criticism of a reigning scientific paradigm is fraught with risk, no matter who is engaged in it.  We conclude that the ‘Galileo affair’ really does nothing to confirm a simplistic conflict view of the relationship of science to religion.”

  • Anonymous

    Bill, you are extremely skilled at defeating straw men. Congratulations, you’ve taken down another one.

    No one cites Galileo’s personal religious beliefs as evidence that the Christian god does not exist. And obviously many people in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were indeed Christian. The point is, Galileo happened to be a Christian who collected observational data and drew conclusions about reality from that data. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, “supported the Aristotelian scientific program” as you say — which had very little if any data behind it, and was originally based on Aristotle’s musings about the way he personally felt physics probably worked. (You accurately call these “speculations”. Not very scientific!) Aristotelian physics happened to coincide with the Catholic interpretation of the Bible at the time, so they picked that and wanted to stick with it. They were more interested in the preservation of their dogma than they were in the implications of Galileo’s actual *evidence* to the contrary. That’s the point being made when people bring up his story.

    I’m also unfamiliar with people claiming that Galileo was tortured. Perhaps this is “popular belief” among someone, but I have no idea who. I just Googled this chronology from Rice University, which says that in June 1633 he was “formally threatened with torture” by Inquisitors and then imprisoned by them. That seems plenty forceful enough.

    You ask, “So, does the story of Galileo prove that Christianity is opposed to science?” and answer yourself, “Obviously not. Instead it proves that scientists who challenge the scientific majority of their day may face serious censure.” You neglect to add, *by religious authority figures.* Galileo wasn’t interrogated, threatened, and imprisoned by fellow scientists in a rival research team. This persecution was carried out by people claiming to have direct knowledge of God’s will and claiming that their interpretation of the Bible was truth. Christianity isn’t by definition opposed to science, but it sure is interesting to note how many Christians end up being vehemently opposed to evidence-based assessments of reality when they happen to conflict with their religious ideas.

  • Anonymous


    Very well said. I was thinking about responding to this post, but you’ve nailed it perfectly.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Yup, ditto.

  • Todd

    Ditto, indeed.

  • Tsela

    //Bill, you are extremely skilled at defeating straw men. Congratulations, you’ve taken down another one.// NFQ, congratulation for your extreme skilled at defeating straw men too… sorry, Bill’s article have almost nothing to do with your post. he did not prove nor try to show that God exist writing this article as you seeming to think, nor Galileo’s religious affairs as the main theme… he only shows that science and religion are not in conflict in any case with Galileo…. as most people thinks it was.

  • Anonymous

    The problem isn’t Christians who view the world through a grid that includes God. As you correctly note Mary, many theists have proven to be exceptional scientists. The problem is Christians who view the world through a grid that includes a magic book whose authority must be upheld even when the conclusions that scientists reach through reason and observation show it to be scientifically inaccurate.

  • Anonymous

    You assume that a person can’t believe that the Bible is the Word of God without it making him a bad scientist, Vinny. That isn’t true. Scientists of the past such as Newton and Pascal proved that isn’t true. Scientists of the present like Jim Tour, Hugh Ross and John Lennox prove it isn’t true.

    The Bible is not a book of science, but neither is it an impediment to science when understood properly. The fact that some people have misinterpreted it and used it incorrectly reflects badly on them, not on it.

  • Anonymous

    I hunted out my notes from Francis Schaeffer’s How Shall We Then Live as I recalled him discussing the issue of Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church in it. Here’s what he said:

    “When the RCC attacked Copernicus and Galileo, it was not because their teaching contained anything contrary to the Bible. The Church thought it did, but that was because Aristotlelian elements had become part of church orthodoxy and scientists were discovering that Aristotle had made mistakes regarding natural phenomonen; Aristotle had been science’s chief authority.”

    Therefore, Galileo’s ideas didn’t conflict with God, the Bible or Christianity. They conflicted with Aristotle. The Roman Catholic Church had gotten so far away from the Bible that it didn’t even know what it said. Nor did they realize they were defending Aristotelian philosophy, not the Word of God. The RCC’s ignorance of the Bible was one of the reasons for the Reformation, but that’s another discussion altogether.

    Schaeffer also noted that Galileo defended Copernicus using the Bible. I think that, down through the years, people have gotten this idea that the Bible stands in the way of scientific endeavours when, in actuality, it hasn’t, but few people study the history of science so the myth prevails.

  • Anonymous

    I make no such assumption Mary. The problem is normally not the scientists who believe in the Bible who create the problems. It is non-scientists who feel compelled to defend the superiority of revealed truth to conclusions that are reached by applying reason to evidence.

  • Anonymous

    The empirical evidence was sufficient to force the Catholic Church to rethink its understanding of the Bible in order to eliminate the perceived conflict between scripture and Galileo’s conclusions. Until it did, the conclusions of science were attacked as heresy. In our present day, the empirical evidence has been sufficient to force many Christians to rethink their understanding of the Bible to eliminate the perceived conflict between scripture and the theory of evolution, although large numbers are still unwilling to do so and the conclusions of science are attacked as a moral evil. The Bible need not be an impediment to science as long as Christians are willing to reconsider what constitutes a proper understanding of the Bible as the empirical evidence warrants. I think would be much simpler just to abandon the notion that the Bible is a magic book.

  • Anonymous

    VinnyJH wrote: “I make no such assumption.”

    My apologies, Vinny, for misunderstanding you. There are certainly all kinds of people, Christian, atheist, New Age, Muslim, Mormon, agnostic, etc. whose knowledge of science is so slim that they cannot assess information that comes to them. In fact, there are a lot of people, theists and atheists alike, who have no real understanding of the worldviews they hold and whether they’re reliable or not. They frighten me!

    My problem with science is this: Many people act as if it has all the answers. It doesn’t. It can’t because it’s limited. It cannot deal with the non-material, things like beauty, joy, morality, the meaning of life and even human consciousness. The latter is real, but it’s invisible. If the atheist can accept its reality, why is it so difficult to accept a consciousness named God that also happens to be invisible?

    Science isn’t fallible simply because the people behind it aren’t infallible. There have been many mistaken scientific beliefs that people accepted as absolutely true for long periods of time, only to find out that they were wrong. For example, there’s Descartes’ view of how the pain message gets to the brain. He assumed that if you stuck your finger in a fire and burned it, the pain message shot from your finger to your brain. We now know that all pain messages go to the Dorsal Horn in the lower back and are then relayed to the brain.

    It’s a simple example, I know, but the reality is that some of the scientific beliefs held to be true today because of “empirical evidence” may turn out to be equally false.

    It’s a dangerous thing to make science one’s religion. And I’m not saying that you do that, Vinny, because I don’t know you well enough to make that statement. But I have encountered some atheists who do. They frighten me, too!

  • Anonymous


    I don’t think that science provides all the answers, but I think that the answers it does provide tend towards objectivity in ways that neither those provided by philosophy nor theology ever do. Moreover, science is self-correcting in ways that philosophy and theology cannot match. Where scientific understanding has been wrong, the reason we know it was wrong is because scientists figured out it was wrong by applying scientific methodology. I don’t think that revealed truth ever identifies errors in the understanding of revealed truth. As a result, while I think it is erroneous to make science a religion, I don’t think it is nearly as dangerous as attributing divine authority to ancient mythologies

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  • Galileo wasn’t interrogated, threatened, and imprisoned by fellow scientists in a rival research team. This persecution was carried out by people claiming to have direct knowledge of God’s will and claiming that their interpretation of the Bible was truth.

    Thanks for that. That one sentence alone handily demolishes these venal self serving apologetics.