On how we get Galileo wrong

Alister McGrath complicates an historical stereotype.



Alister McGrath complicates an historical stereotype.


I think since about 1850, Galileo was very often singled out as the leading, most luminous example of science vs religion, the “conflict thesis” – that in fact there is an inexorable, inevitable conflict between science and faith. Galileo didn’t see it that way, and I think it’s very important that we step back into history and look at it as it was.

Galileo’s argument was that the right interpretation of the Bible was that, in effect, the earth orbited the sun. And his argument was that a misunderstanding of Scripture had arisen, and initially Galileo gained much support within the church. Then politics intruded; the Protestant Reformation began to become much more influential, the church began to become frightened about certain interpretations of the Bible that they felt were slightly left field, and began to close down discussion. And Galileo was, in effect, a victim of this – the power shifted within the church from a faction supporting Galileo to a faction opposing him.

Now, you can easily retell that story as that of blind faith opposing science. But it’s not like that. And happily that complete misunderstanding has now been corrected by scholarship. But there is a million miles between the world of scholarship, where we understand these things, and the popular presentation of this – both in the media but sadly also in a New Atheism which wants to keep this older stereotype because it knows that the scholarly interpretation of this just doesn’t fit their rather neat little vision of things.