Galileo's Daughter: Can Science and Religion Get Along?

Updated: Jul 14, 2019


The volatile relationship between spirituality and science through history is uniquely captured in the relationship between Galileo and his daughter, Virginia. This is a subject explored in great detail in Dava Sobel’s book, Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. It is based on the surviving letters of Galileo Galilei's daughter, the nun Suor Maria Celeste, and explores the relationship between Galileo and his daughter. There are 124 extant letters written by Virginia to her father, composed between 1623-33. Maria Popova has an excellent article about Sobel’s book, and the relationship between Galileo and his daughter on her brainpickings.org blog.

The book will not disappoint any person interested in understanding Galileo’s place in history. It was nominated for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The Galileo Project also has an interesting piece about Virginia, and the status of women in Galileo’s time.

Galileo Galilei was an Italian polymath: astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher and mathematician. He played a major role in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. In 1633 Galileo – nearly seventy years old and in faltering health—was summoned by Pope Urban VIII to face the Inquisition in Rome. He was charged with heresy for his continued insistence that the earth rotated around the sun. Under pressure from the Inquisition, Galileo eventually recanted his belief and was sentenced to house arrest where he lived out the final nine years of his life.

The dispute between the Church and Galileo has long stood as one of history's great emblems of conflict between reason and dogma, science and faith. Interestingly though, Galileo was no secular scientist battling a backward Church. Rather, Galileo was a committed Catholic whose scientific discoveries in support of Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmology put him at odds with the prevailing Aristotelian geocentric view. Galileo had both supporters and opponents among his Catholic brethren. His official condemnation was a result of the Church leadership interpreting Scripture to support their scientific views. It is a sad and complicated tale, clouded by politics, money, prestige and wounded pride.

Centuries later, Pope John Paul II would point to Galileo as the chief culprit in what he called the “tragic mutual incomprehension” between science and religion, “Galileo's run-in with the Church involved a tragic mutual incomprehension in which both sides were at fault. It was a conflict that ought never to have occurred, because faith and science, properly understood, can never be at odds.”

In her brainpickings.org piece, Maria Popova writes, “The most palpable mystery, of course, is that of how Galileo was able to reconcile his scientific devotion to critical thinking with his daughter’s unquestioning faith, and how Virginia was able to reconcile her religious devotion with her father’s continual flirtation with heresy. Sobel argues that Galileo and Virginia themselves made sense of this perplexity through a categorically different orientation of mind and spirit — rather than seeing it as a paradox, much less a contradiction, they were able to make loving room for a simultaneity of devotions, both between and within themselves.”

Why was Galileo and Virginia able to navigate and accept their differences peacefully and lovingly, but this kind of conciliatory spirit could not be found between Galileo and the Church?

In Galileo’s time, the prevailing scientific view among Christians and non-Christians alike was that the earth did not move and that the sun rotated around the earth. Most Christians interpreted the Bible to support this view. When scientific evidence challenged their interpretation of Scripture, many clung stubbornly to it, insisting that it must be trusted over observation.

During this period, personal interpretation of Scripture was a sensitive subject. In the early 1600s, the Church had just been through the Reformation experience, and one of the chief quarrels with Protestants was over individual interpretation of the Bible.

Theologians were not prepared to entertain the heliocentric theory based on a layman’s interpretation. Yet Galileo insisted on moving the debate into a theological realm. There is little question that if Galileo had kept the discussion within the accepted boundaries of astronomy (i.e., predicting planetary motions) and had not claimed physical truth for the heliocentric theory, the issue would not have escalated to the point it did. After all, he had not proved the new theory beyond reasonable doubt.

Rather than turn this into a “he said, she said” matter between Galileo and the Church, I’d like to suggest some useful ways that science and religion might act as allies and not adversaries. I believe that the relationship between Galileo offers some hints in respect to this.

For science and religion to operate as allies there must be mutual respect. This begins with an acknowledgement that both science and religion are valid fields for exploring and understanding the nature of reality. Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. Religion is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes a set of beliefs and practices, meant to facilitate human interest in exploring spiritual, scared or transcendent reality.

The academic study of religion, which is often called religious studies, is a relatively new field that aims to treat all religious traditions even-handedly. Utilizing the tools from many other academic fields (including philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and theology itself), the academic study of religion arises out of a broad curiosity about the nature of religion and religious traditions.

Mutual respect between science and religion means that science affirms the validity of religion and the study of religion, and religion affirms the validity of science and the study of science.

The respecting of boundaries is another necessary ingredient in fostering a positive relationship between science and religion. In a nutshell, this is the recognition that science can’t do what religion does and religion can’t do what science does. Science is not religion. Religion is not science. When either one tries to do the other, it typically doesn’t go well. This is not to say there aren’t ways that science and religion crossover or even enhance one another’s understanding, but the aims of each are fundamentally different. The aim of science is not to explore or understand non-material or non-physical reality. The aim of religion is not to provide an empirically-based understanding of the physical universe.

Respecting boundaries is not an easy proposition to maintain, mainly because science too often asserts that it knows and can explain everything, and religion too often refuses to allow science to inform and even change its understanding of the universe.

Both science and religion need to confront their tribe’s fanatics. When those in the field of science speak of religion as mental illness, or when those in the field of religion accuse scientists of being atheist militants, all goodwill is lost. Yes it’s true, some people’s religious beliefs and sentiments are destructive, and some people who hold these kinds of beliefs are psychologically unstable and unhealthy. And it’s also true that some people in the field of science are fanatical atheist militants, and have their own psychological maladies. Once you acknowledge the fanatics on both sides, you basically are left with all the other people in the fields of science and religion who may understand the world differently and even have a clashing cosmology, but rather than being stuck in “tragic mutual incomprehension” can foster a space of invigorating mutual rapport. After all, there are many people in the sciences who are religious, and many religious people who are scientists, including Galileo.

But even if science and religion can play nicely together based on these dynamics, the real answer for the harmony between science and religion may be more a matter of what we find in Galileo’s relationship with his daughter, Virginia.

It seems obvious from Galileo and Virginia that the relationship and bond of father-daughter trumped their differences as scientist-nun. It’s a bit dicey to draw a universal application from this. Is it really possible to replicate that kind of loving and affectionate familial bond between people in the fields of science and religion? In other words, is PhD atheist neuroscientist, Sam Harris, going to feel this deep loving bond with PhD Christian physicist, Ian Hutchinson, to create sentiments of mutual respect and acceptance? Can they, as Popova described with Galileo and his daughter, “make loving room for a simultaneity of devotions, both between and within themselves”? Can science and religion find in its heart a love for one another like this?

It’s hard to say. A fair answer would be, probably not. Even though the highest religion notions of love such as Mahayana Buddhism’s objectless compassion and Christianity’s love for one’s enemy, encourage a universal and indiscriminate love among all people, it’s safe to say that religious people themselves have failed miserably at upholding this lofty notions of love and brotherhood.

There is a universal principle that seems to be indisputable by scientists and theologians, which is the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule or law of reciprocity is the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated. This could possibly be a way forward for science and religion to coexist peacefully and productively. But neither is this an easy path to follow because it would require some measure of humility, the constraint of ego and pride.

It seems to me that both science and religion must conclude that there is a benefit for them proceeding as friends rather than enemies. I see no downside to proceeding as friends, and see very little positive coming from proceeding as enemies.

Maria Popova also has a useful piece on her site, Carl Sagan on Science and Spirituality. Sagan wrote, “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

My suggestion for reconciling whatever bad-feelings, offenses and discord that exist between science and religion is to make a greater attempt to understand each another. Calling for a deep bond of love that would trump all enmity seems a bit unrealistic. Let's all hope this happens. However in the meantime, it might be useful to start the process of greater understanding and acceptance with those with whom we already have a significant bond, which could include family members, neighbors and people we know personally in our communities, or colleagues and peers we respect who hold different views than our own.

Let’s start there.


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