Was the Galileo Affair Really ‘Science vs Religion’?


The Galileo affair is quite possibly the most widely raised event in history whenever discussions surrounding conflict between science and religion are brought up. The typical understanding is usually that Galileo, the lone genius scientist, went up against the intolerant Catholic church in the 17th century arguing for copernicanism i.e. the position that the sun, not the earth, is the centre of the solar system and that all the other planets revolve around it. The close-minded church did not accept Galileo’s theory due to their religious presuppositions and thus condemned him in 1633 ultimately hindering the progress of science (it is also usually said that he was sent to prison, tortured and forced to recant his views).

Unfortunately this is a very simplistic model of the actual events that took place, and this sort of portrayal would likely have Galileo himself scratching his head asking if it really was him that we were elaborating on.

When dealing with historical matters it is very important that you draw out the proper context of the episode in focus. In today’s Western culture science and religion are usually pitted against each other and so as a result people tend to view historical interactions between the two fields anachronistically in light of our cultural climate today. This is a very unhelpful method, and in briefly unpacking some of the context of the Galileo events I hope to show why a more detailed understanding of the complexities helps us to better appreciate the Galileo ‘affair’ whilst simultaneously allowing us to move past the simple ‘conflict’ model that we usually hold it to.1

Culture and philosophy in the 16th and 17th century

Cultural and philosophical understandings in the late Medieval period were extremely different to what they are today. Firstly, at this time Galileo’s contemporaries were the inheritors of what we might call today the ‘Medieval synthesis’, that is to say that, at this time theology, history and science (called ‘natural philosophy’ in this period) had been compiled into a single (yet complexed) model that was at the heart of their understanding of the universe.

C.S. Lewis also points out a number of important factors that were typical of the medieval mind. Just to bring out the one which might be most relevant here, he stated that Medieval thinkers were credulous of books. They found it hard to believe that anything that an ancient writer had written could be untrue. Since Aristotle’s writings (held to be the greatest philosopher in antiquity) were at the heart of this Medieval synthesis it was his writings – plus the writings of sacred scripture (the bible) – which were seen as practically infallible.2 Because Aristotle’s writings and the writings of scripture had been synthesized so much one scholar has noted that “any campaign for Copernicanism would also have to be a campaign against Aristotelianism3, and in his day Galileo would have been very aware of this.

Another one of the major differences that we can contrast to today is that our method of scientific investigation i.e. experimentation had not been realized at this time. The church was still largely under the influence of Aristotelian teaching which suggested that reasoning about something was enough to deduce its truth.4

The Galileo “affair” in some context

During Galileo’s time the standard and accepted view was that of Ptolemy (or geocentrism) which stated that the earth was at the centre of the sun, stars and planets which all revolved around it. (This view did accord with common sense in that before telescopic observations were made available, it seems upon basic intuition that the earth did not move but that the sun and planets did). Also it was thought – based on Aristotle’s writings – that the universe was divided up into two main sections, the ‘terrestrial’ and the ‘celestial’ regions.5 The former comprised of everything between the centre of the earth to the moon; this stuff was imperfect and always changing whilst the latter consisted of everything beyond the moon which was perfect and unchanging.

In 1611 Galileo revolutionized the field astronomy when he, as a pioneering user of a new invention (what we now call the telescope) used it to peer into the cosmos in order to discover first-hand what was really out there. Just to mention two out of many of the discoveries made, Galileo found that the moon was not perfect but rather it was rocky with craters on it. He also saw that Venus went through phases of light and dark which suggested that it orbited the sun as opposed to earth.6

As we have discussed above, cultural standards were very different at this time and so when a committee was held in 1616 it was decided officially by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine that Galileo could not defend heliocentrism as true since his evidence was unsatisfactory.

In 1623 Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was elected as Pope Urban VIII and this to Galileo would have been excellent news seeing as Pope Barberini had been a supporter of Galileo’s work for a long time. After a number of discussions Pope Urban VIII allowed Galileo to talk about his work but only as one hypothesis amongst many others, this unfortunately is where the trouble picked up.

Galileo set off to work writing a book of which was entitled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. In this book Galileo argued strongly in favour of heliocentrism (although the entire presentation of the book was a level headed discussion overall) and this went directly against the ruling of 1616. Due to this (and rightfully so) Galileo was found guilty of promoting heliocentrism over geocentrism.

There is much much more to this story and I have really only scratched the surface in this brief account however there are two major points stand out overall in this:

  • Galileo was found guilty not for trying to observe the universe in order to discover new things, but rather, by law for doing what he was told not to do i.e. promote heliocentrism.
  • The conflict between the Church and Galileo was not one of science VS religion, Galileo himself was strongly religious and he developed his views based on the bible. Rather as historian of science Thomas Dixson states “the conflict was between two differing views within the catholic church about how to interpret nature and science, especially when they seem to disagree.”7 We could summarize this tension as a debate within the church focusing on the question ‘how should science be done?’ 


We should not be too quick to dismiss historical events between science and religion as science versus religion ‘knockout rounds’. What we can gather from an unpacking of the Galileo account is not that religion is against science but rather on the contrary, that historically the two have shared in a deeply entangled relationship in which religious commitments have actually helped to bolster the progression of science throughout the centuries.8




  • Sharratt, M., 1996. Galileo: Decisive Innovator. Cambridge: CUP. P95


  • Grant, E., 1996. The Foundations of modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, institutional, and intellectual contexts. Cambridge: CUP. P135-137


  • Ibid., P55


  • Dixon, T., 2008. Science and Religion: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP. P25


  • Ibid., P18


  • Harrison, P., 2007. The Fall of Man and Foundations of Modern Science. Cambridge: CUP




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