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Reason for Faith

The two ideals need not be rivals.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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Galileo Goes to Jail

And Other Myths about
Science and Religion

Edited by Ronald L. Numbers

Harvard, 320 pp., $27.95

The past few years have brought a revival of a largely 19th-century phenomenon: the attempt to deploy science to discredit religion. We've seen Richard Dawkins use evolutionary biology to explain away our God Delusion while Victor Stenger co-opted physics to explain that God is The Failed Hypothesis and Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Daniel Dennett went to work Breaking the Spell to show Religion as a Natural [not supernatural] Phenomenon, while Sam Harris wrote A Letter to a Christian Nation noting The End of Faith. We've been warned about The Theocons and the Christianists, today's theocrats attempting to set up an American Theocracy.

The story is always the same: a battle between irrational faith and rational science, in which the latter defeats the former. Of course, the real force behind these books is politics, especially where it intersects with morality. The new atheists aren't really concerned about baptisms or bar mitzvahs; they simply deplore the moral, political, and cultural values advanced by traditional Jews and Christians, and readily denounce all religious believers in an effort to discredit them. And of course, science is manipulated as the weapon of choice.

None of this is new, really. As the editor of this volume, Ronald Numbers, points out, "the greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict." Numbers knows this territory well; he's a distinguished scholar who has served as president of both the History of Science Society and the American Society of Church History. He points readers to 19th-century polemics--such as John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew D. White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896)--to explain how most Americans came to believe so many tall tales about the history of science and religion. Of these myths, the collection of essays in Galileo Goes to Jail aims to debunk 25 of the most prominent.

Though it is written by academics from Harvard, Oxford, Johns Hopkins, Chicago, and the like, the book is intended for nonspecialists. In about 10 pages per myth, the contributors explain the myth's content, how so many people have come to believe it, and what the historical evidence shows to the contrary. The authors necessarily spend the bulk of their time debunking attacks on religion in the name of science, but they also clear the muddy waters left behind when pro-religion forces try to obscure the scientific record.

So, for example, readers discover that Galileo never really was imprisoned (nor was he tortured), that Giordano Bruno was not a martyr on behalf of science (though he was persecuted for his heretical theological views as a defrocked monk who denied the doctrine of the Trinity), that "every important medieval thinker" rejected the flat-earth theory and held fast to a spherical-earth theory, and that "no evidence supports the notion" that Christianity opposed the use of anesthesia in childbirth.

Likewise, claims that the evidence for organic evolution rests on circular reasoning, that Darwin was complicit in Nazi biology, and that "Intelligent Design" mounts a scientific challenge to evolution are all thoroughly explored and roundly rejected.

We also learn that neither the atheists nor the evangelicals are right on Darwin: Evolution didn't lead him to reject Christianity (the untimely deaths of his father and daughter, coupled with the doctrine of eternal damnation, did), nor did he undergo a deathbed conversion. Likewise, despite attempts to list Einstein in the "pro-God" column, he didn't believe in a personal god or favor any traditional organized religion (his many statements on religion showing him to be more of a Spinozist). And regardless of what Inherit the Wind might have us believe about the Scopes "monkey trial," William Jennings Bryan triumphed on the stand and was widely hailed as a hero upon his death shortly thereafter.

In the grand scheme of things, some of these myths are rather unimportant, but it is always useful to get the historical record clear. Among the more interesting myths, though, are those involving Copernicus, Descartes, and Newton. In the popular telling of the tale, Copernicus knocked humanity off its pedestal at the center of the universe, Descartes invented the "ghost in the machine," and Newton's mechanistic cosmology eliminated any role for God. The popular tales are wrong on all three counts.