Galileo And Religion-Science Conflict

Relations between religion and science are strained at best or combative at the worst. The idea that religion and science can not peacefully coexist is known to scientific philosophers and historians as the Conflict Hypothesis. As the name suggests, the Conflict Hypothesis claims that there is a gulf between science and religion that can not be bridged through reasoning or discussion. Rather, these two fields will always be in conflict with one and another. They cannot both stand together.

In my philosophy of science class we have used the Galilean affair in 17th century Italy as a case study of the Conflict Hypothesis. When Galileo Galilei used his telescope observations to claim that the Copernican heliocentric system was correct, he came in direct conflict with the Catholic church and their Aristotelian/Ptolemaic view of the universe. Eventually the trials and injunctions leveled against Galileo which caused him to be placed under house arrest and recant his opinions to an extent. This seems to show clearly that science and religion can not coexist peacefully, supporting the Conflict Hypothesis. However, insisting that there must be a conflict between the fields is a false dichotomy. What the Galilean affair really teaches us is that religion and science only come in conflict when members of either field attempt to infringe on the practices and beliefs of the other.

A key text in analyzing the faults of the Conflict Hypothesis is the letter that Count Robert Bellarmine sent to Father Paolo Foscarini at the beginning of the Galilean affair. Bellarmine was called in to mediate the dispute between Galileo and the church. In his 1615 letter, Bellarmine discusses the problems of Galileo with Father Foscarini. According to Bellarmine, he does not directly oppose Galileo’s work. He admits that it makes effective predictions and deals with the problems inherent in the Ptolemaic system. It is not Galielo’s mathematics or science that are the problem. Rather it is his persistency on interpreting the scriptures in a way that supports his scientific viewpoint. The ability to interpret scriptures is only to be held by the Catholic leadership. Thus, but taking upon himself a role that he is not supposed to have, Galileo has used his science to infringe upon religious practices. Religious texts are not meant to be scientific texts. Bending them to fit a scientific aim will always result in misunderstanding and conflict.

Because of this idea, the Catholic church is not completely without blame as well. In the Galilean Affair they were using only one main scriptural passage to discredit complex and useful scientific reasoning. Through one scriptural passage, the Catholic church set back scientific thought and created a precedent that we are still feeling the effects of today. It is the church’s insistence of using science to fight religion that created the illusion of warfare.


Both the church and Galileo were incorrect in their approach to the issue. Both parties stepped outside of their academic jurisdiction and caused a conflict to erupt. When religious or scientific minds step outside of their fields problems inevitably are caused. The Conflict Hypothesis is true, but not due to any inherent conflict between science and religion. Rather, it is the ignorance and misunderstanding of either party that causes the conflict.

However, strict believers in the warfare hypothesis would argue that since conflicts do come about between science and religion, there must be something inherent in each that forces practitioners to take one side or the other. Conflict does not spontaneously come about just because of misunderstanding. Science and religion both attempt to describe the universe in which we live and state that their point of view is fact. A person can not truly hold two opinions on how the universe works and how it began without favoring one over the other. Believing in religion and science at the same time requires a person to have huge amounts of cognitive dissonance. How can a biologist believe in modern anatomy and a virginal birth? How can a physicist believe that the universe started with the Big Bang and believe in a timeless eternal God? How can an anthropologist believe that the human race started with Adam and Eve in 4000 BC and study ancient civilizations twice as old? These are just a few irrevocable differences.

As difficult as those question are, strict believers in the Conflict Hypothesis misunderstand what most people get from religion. Scientists are not looking to religion in order to explain scientific hypothesis, they are looking to gain meaning and comfort for the observable universe. If the two fields are really in conflict, we would see no religious scientists. Yet for every Richard Dawkins there are countless other scientists who believe in the tenets of religion and hold them to be true. Galileo himself was religious and an effective Bible Student. Peter Higgs, who hypothesized the Higgs Boson, believes that there is no inherent conflict. Isaac Newton was famously religious. Max Planck gave lectures about the persistence of God in all things. Albert Einstein was critical of the Conflict Hypothesis. From these examples it is obvious that in practice the Conflict Hypothesis does not apply to most scientists. By insisting that a person must be religious or scientific but not both, those who hold the Conflict Hypothesis are limiting the complexity and diversity of human thought. Religion does not need to reasoned to, and does not need to be in conflict with science. As we can see, countless scientists have been able to bridge the gap between the two fields. The only inherent conflict is the conflict humans create themselves. This is what happened in the Galileo Affair and what continues to happen today.


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