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.

While the birth of heliocentrism certainly changed man's understanding of his place in the cosmos, it did so by "simultaneously [enhancing] the cosmic status of both earth and sun." The problem is that we read into the historical record assumptions that simply didn't exist back then; namely, that the center is somehow a privileged position. But the Jewish philosopher Maimonides argued that "in the case of the Universe .  .  . the nearer the parts are to the center, the greater is their turbidness, their solidity, their inertness, their dimness, and darkness." And the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas agreed that precisely because earth lay (as he thought) at the center, it was "the most material and coarsest (ignobilissima) of all bodies." In other words, the center was no privileged position.

But even if Copernicus had demoted the earth--notably, this spin wasn't proposed until a hundred years after his death--it wouldn't have been a problem for anyone who declared with the Psalmist, "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him?"

Just as antireligion polemicists thought the demotion of the earth would be a fatal blow to traditional faith, so too did they think that attacking the ghost in the machine would do away with conceptions of the soul. The problem here is that Descartes explicitly rejected this image of how he thought the immaterial mind related to the material body, "asserting that mind and body are 'intermingled' so as to form a 'unitary whole.' "

Furthermore, traditional Christianity never took the dim view of the body that the polemicists, in rejecting Descartes's putative views, assumed it did. The strong Christian accent on our identity as embodied beings who hope in the resurrection of the body seems to have escaped them. Equally baffling are claims that Newton was a Deist who set up the Clockmaker God, for this conception of Newton "is more than just badly mistaken: it is precisely the opposite of the truth. It cannot simply be corrected; it must be utterly repudiated."

While Newton promoted a mechanistic physics, he held that "God governed the world actively and constantly." Newton explained this governance by appeals to alchemy--a part of his intellectual legacy (along with his lengthy biblical and theological treatises) that is constantly overlooked by popularizers of science history.

When one steps back to consider all the myths together, one notices a thread running through about half of them: the role that religion played, for better or worse, in developing the life of the mind and fostering scientific practice.

On the one hand, antireligion proponents argue that the birth of Christianity did away with ancient science, that medieval Christianity explicitly suppressed the beginnings of science, that Islamic culture was inhospitable to the scientific mindset, and that at the dawn of modernity, Catholics contributed nothing to the scientific enterprise.

On the other hand, some argue that Christianity alone--with its emphasis on God as Logos and the rational structure of creation--actually gave rise to science: Why is it, they ask, that across time and space, science only fully developed in one culture?

As both sets of myths are debunked, there emerges a rich tableau of the characters and scenes that helped produce modern science: the ancient Greek predecessors; the Islamic reception, development, and transmission of Greek thought; the Christian emphasis on the unity of truth in God and thus on investigation into the book of God's word (the Bible) and the book of God's work (nature); and the financial support of the institutional church, which founded the modern university. While Christianity wasn't the only factor that gave rise to modern science, it was certainly no hindrance. As one scholar put it, "The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably all other, institutions."

A book advancing such claims could easily have devolved into a slipshod production by pro-religion apologists. But Galileo Goes to Jail is nothing of the sort. Published by Harvard, it is rigorously researched and well footnoted, and written by 25 of the leading historians in the English-speaking world. And as Numbers points out in his introduction, fewer than half of the contributors are religious believers at all; and of those, there are only two evangelicals, one Catholic, and one Jew. In other words, they have no axe to grind, and their only agenda is to set the historical record straight.

Given all of the polemics published today, this is a breath of fresh air. Its organizers at the Templeton Foundation should consider producing a companion volume that focuses on more current debates, particularly on the philosophy of science, the philosophy of religion, and their intersection. It could bring together scientists, philosophers, and theologians to examine their respective disciplines' limits and potential areas of overlap.

It could remind us that natural science can reveal how the physical world works but not how we should act in it or what might exist above and beyond it; that, while physics is important, it is silent about metaphysics; and that those who look to the Bible for details on biology or cosmology had better look elsewhere.

Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good.

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