Science Series: The Myth that Galileo Goes to Jail

1galileo-galilei-165413__180 Everyone knows the story of how Galileo was persecuted by the church: after inventing the telescope, Galileo turns the lenses to the stars and proves that the earth revolves around the sun and not the sun around the earth. This greatly upset the Christian church and he found himself arrested, thrown in prison, tortured, excommunicated, and finally killed by the Catholic Inquisition. As Italo Mereu states in his History of Intolerance in Europe “to say that Galileo was tortured is not a reckless claim.”

One problem: NONE of this ever happened.

Over the next several posts I plan on engaging the cultural belief that science and religion are at perpetual conflict.  Sometime called the “warfare thesis.”

That science and religion are at each others throats is a very widely held belief and is propagated routinely upon culture.  For example, Sam Harris, chief executive of Project Reason, a non-profit that promotes science and secularism, opined that, “the conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.”

The history of the relationship between science and religion as conflict can be summed up in one word: propaganda.  Much of what is believed about Galileo, Giordano Bruno, the church and the development of science has been a series of repeated misinformation and confusion.  In order to clear away some of this confusion let’s examine the Galileo affair.

The Galileo Affair

Voltaire wrote in 1728 that “the great Galileo, at the age of fourscore, groaned away his days in the dungeons of the Inquisition, because he had demonstrated by irrefragable [indisputable] proofs the motion of the earth.” (source) Thus began the myth that Galileo was persecuted and rotting in a dark dungeon in chains.

Others have propagated this myth: George Bernard Shaw: “Galileo was a martyr, and his persecutors incorrigible ignoramuses.” (source) Italo Mereu, “to say that Galileo was tortured is not a reckless claim.” (source)  Even PBS in 2002 reproduced this image in the two-hour program Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens with a scene depicting Galileo being locked behind a door unable to leave.

The fact of the matter,  historians of science have recognized for some time that Galileo was

. . . never placed in jail

. . . not tortured

. . . never excommunicated, and

. . . definitely not executed.

This is quite different from the image that has been built up of a courageous lone scientist standing up against the massive edifice of the church.  The problem with Galileo was that he “openly mocked the pope in [Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems] through a fictitious dialogue between two people – himself and the pope. . . . Galileo named the pope Simplicio, which means ‘simpleton’ or ‘buffoon.’  Galileo’s character was articulate and elegant as he responded to the foolish and simplistic remarks of Simplicio.” (source, p. 36)  Galileo was placed under house arrest in Florence and was able to walk free in the villa’s gardens and to travel to the convent where his daughter resided.  In fact, he received a Church pension for the rest of his life.  In short, for calling his boss stupid, he was fired, placed under house arrest in Florence, Italy (a vacation spot today), and was paid until he died.  Now if I could insult my boss in order to get fired and be able to stay at home for a full salary, I  just might be tempted to do so.

Ronald Numbers, a respected historian of science, who was asked by if the “possible” execution of Galileo was false, stated plainly that “it was highly unlikely he faced execution. In fact, I don’t know of a single pioneer in science who lost his life for his scientific beliefs.” (source)  Note that not a single pioneer of science was executed for their scientific beliefs.  Not one.

It’s time to put behind us the idea that Galileo was a martyr for science.  He neither suffered torture or imprisonment.

P.S.  Galileo also didn’t invent the telescope.  That honor belongs the Dutch lens maker Hans Lippershey in 1605.

Resources on the Galileo Affair:

Quick Quotes by the Experts:

“The trial of Galileo was one of many trials. It had no special features except perhaps that Galileo was treated rather mildly, despite his lies and attempts at deception. But a small clique of intellectuals aided by scandal-hungry writers succeeded in blowing it up to enormous dimensions so that what was basically an altercation between an expert and an institution defending a wider view of things now looks almost like a battle between heaven and hell.” (Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, 4th ed. Verso. p. 127).

“The worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honourable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his own bed.” (A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Cambridge University Press, 1926. p. 2).

“The myths of Galileo’s torture and imprisonment are thus genuine myths: ideas that are in fact false but once seemed true – and continue to be accepted as true by poorly educated persons and careless scholars.” (Maurice A. Finocchiaro, “Myth 8: That Galileo was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism” Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers. Harvard University Press, 2009. p. 78)

“For the remaining nine years of his life, Galileo was under house arrest, comfortably situated in his rented villa just outside Florence, with few restrictions on who could come and go. . . As punishment for his defense of heliocentrism, Galileo suffered neither torture nor imprisonment.” (David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, When Science & Christianity Meet, University of Chicago Press, 2003. p. 71)


Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. by Ronald L. Numbers (Harvard University Press, 2009)

When Science & Christianity Meet, David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008)

“Galileo: A Story of a Hero of Science” in 6 Modern Myths about Christianity & Western Civilization, by Philip J. Sampson (IVP, 2001)

“Are Science and Christianity at Odds?” in Is God Just a Human Invention? Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow (Kregel, 2010)

Seeing the light – of science.” by  Salon. Jan 2 2007.

The Galileo Legend” by Thomas Lessl. The Oxford Review. June 2000.

A Historical Analysis of the Relationship of Faith and Science and its Significance within Education.” (2014) by John Gerard Yegge Walden University.

Prof. Ronald Numbers, an historian of science and recipient of the 2008 George Sarton Medal by the History of Science Society for “a lifetime of exceptional scholarly achievement by a distinguished scholar,” and editor of the book Galileo Goes to Jail exposes the myth about Galileo (video is subtitled in Portuguese):