The World doesn’t revolve around Galileo after all – by Ian Duffield

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.

Ian Duffield (Not Galileo)

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


  1. Yes.

  2. With respect, Ian, it seems all you have managed to produce is a mealy-mouthed defence of Catholic authoritarianism. Like any reputable scientist Galileo was capable of error as you correctly say Einstein pointed out. After all Darwin too was capable of error, as for example in his assumption that myth-talk constitutes religious language – a mistake I myself have drawn attention to. Scientists like Galileo don’t place their faith in the infallibility of their conclusions. They stand by the evidence which means they are quite aware a time may come when the facts show their conclusions to be false and in need of adjustment.

    But you seem to want to ignore the fact that Galileo’s problem was political not scientific… that he had to deal with the authoritarian attitude of the Pope and of Catholicism. You blithely accept the right of the Pope to be authoritarian and pretend that European scientists in those days had a choice about being Christian or Catholic, which is simply ridiculous. Galileo was very probably not an easy man to live with but those who feel driven to question the assumptions their contemporaries have about the world are obliged to be somewhat pig-headed. Your accusation that Galileo, through hubris, over-reached himself is facile since you don’t even pretend to take on board the all-important political problem he faced: authoritarian Christianity. This enables you to spuriously claim it’s a well-worn myth Galileo was persecuted by the Church.

    Of course, if you ignore the Conservative politics of the Papacy and Catholicism it’s easy for you as a Christian to remain comfortable when reading this sordid history… pretending that somehow Christianity, as a religion beyond evidential proof, has its own unchallengeable authority… but that, my friend, is to fall into the superstition trap as I keep reminding you.

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