Saturday’s Times in its ‘The last word’ (p. 31) quoted Steven Jay Gould, the palaeontologist:
“A man does not attain the status of Galileo merely because he is persecuted; he must also be right”
This perpetuates the strongly-embedded cultural myth that Galileo was persecuted by the Church as a truth-telling scientist.
Rodney Stark, in The Triumph of Christianity (2011) and Bearing False Witness (2017), shows that this image is false.
Galileo’s advocacy of the sun as the centre of the heavenly bodies was not the problem, but rather his arrogance in presenting his argument petulantly without appropriate modesty.
Although Pope Urban VIII had been a supporter of Galileo’s earlier writing, he could not publicly ignore this act of disobedience, although he did ensure that his penalty was only house arrest.
By belittling the caveat or disclaimer provided for scientists that protected them from accusation, through hubris, Galileo over-reached himself and paid the price — a verdict that sounds remarkably familiar in our current politics!
In terms of being right, Albert Einstein pointed out that Galileo’s famous work was totally mistaken about the tides, even if correct about the earth moving, as other Catholic scientists had also argued.
Galileo’s status seems more attuned to general anti-Catholic sentiment and by specific anti-Christian bias by atheists.
Despite his falling out with the Pope, Galileo remained a Catholic till his dying day.
Perhaps we can all attain the status of Galileo more easily than Steven Jay Gould imagined.
Revd Dr Ian Duffield is Director of Research with the Urban Theology Union