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Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths About Science and Religion

November 22nd, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Galileo Goes to Jail, edited by Ronald L. Numbers

Galileo Goes to Jail

Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths About Science and Religion, edited by Ronald Numbers (Harvard University Press 2009).

Myth is a strong word that requires a certain amount of demystification before seeing how it applies to the subtitle of this commendable collection. As a literary form, a myth is a sort of cosmic story. To be much more specific than that simply indicates what sort of myth one would be talking about. So taken, what truth one might find in a myth lies behind the story, and that truth ought to be genuinely profound. Conventionally the idea of myth tends to weigh more on the aspect of something being a story or more broadly a fiction. In this sense myths are just dressed up falsehoods, with no deep meaning to be found. In Galileo Goes to Jail, myth finds a middle way. The myths dealt with here are stories that say more about story-teller than any relation the story may have to some truth, deep or otherwise. This subtle distinction is necessary because the in the various essays, the myths dealt with are not simply false. The stories may be true, but they don’t support the moral the stories lead to, or they are mostly true, or partly true, or we really don’t know the truth of the matter. Given the state of the debate on religion and science, a bit of subtly is a welcome thing.

The myth of myths in this case is Religion and Science are at war. If one is on the side of Science, every woe of humankind and every roadblock to progress can be laid at the feet of Religion. Those on the side of Religion counter either that Science is founded on Religion or that the general depravity found in society is caused by Science abandoning Religion. The essayists Numbers assembles, deal mostly with the stories Science tells. Unlike some myths, where the story teller is lost to us, Numbers is willing finger the original Religion-and-Science-at-War myth-makers: Andrew Dickson White and particularly John William Draper. Indeed, Draper comes up in at least seven of the twenty-five myths examined. This is not to say Galileo Goes to Jail is collection of religious polemicists. Most of the contributors are not believers and few that are, are actually conventional believers. However, most are either historians, historians of science, or philosophers of science who have entered this fray more than once.

If one starts with myth number eight—“That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism”—one moves from flat-out denial (Galileo was not so much imprisoned but under house arrest) to plausible support (the records indicate the plausibility of severe integration—i.e., torture) to casting doubt on such support (the records would also indicate that it was unlikely that Galileo was imprisoned and that the same meticulous records of his state of health are inconsistent with his being recently tortured). The essay even provides a an explanation of how the myth may have come about. It would seem to started with Protestants as an argument that the Roman Catholic Church was superstitious, cruel and utterly unchristian. It would not take long for this to morph to Christianity being superstitious, cruel and unenlightened and then carried on to religion in general (and science by contrast, being enlighten and humane). This sort of careful parsing out marks all the essays in this collection.

Some myths seem to be have been inserted simply to counterbalance others. For instance, myths one through eight generally argue that neither early and medieval Christianity nor medieval Islam inhibited or suppressed scientific progress. This is followed up by myth nine “That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science.” It would seem that Numbers is not interested in presenting the false dilemma that either Christianity [or Islam, or Judaism, etc.] is opposed to science or is essential to it.

Some myths are exceedingly subtle. For instance, myth sixteen “That Evolution Destroyed Darwin’s Faith in Christianity—Until He Reconverted on His Deathbed,” argues it was not evolutionary theory that destroyed Darwin’s faith, but the existential loss he felt in the face of certain evils and certain dogmas—namely that of eternal damnation—that Darwin saw as offensive. The essayist, James Moore, is also keen to note that a number the clergy in the Church of England embraced Darwin’s theory and were on friendly terms with him. Moreover that Darwin, being rather conventional continued to support his local parish. His general lack of antagonism with the the Church of England and his connection with Elisabeth Cotton, a.ka. Lady Hope in his latter days, plus Lady Hope’s remarkably detailed account of his supposed deathbed reconversion, contributed to the latter half of this myth. We we know is that no one in Darwin’s family knew of any such conversion until after Lady Hope sold her story.

It would not do to go through all twenty-five myths, but perhaps a listing of them will be enough to pique one’s interest:

  1. That the Rise of Christianity Was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science
  2. That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science
  3. That Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat
  4. That Medieval Islamic Culture Was Inhospitable to Science
  5. That the Medieval Church Prohibited Human Dissection
  6. That Copernicanism Demoted Humans fro the Center of the Cosmos
  7. That Giordano Bruno the First Martyr of Modern Science
  8. That Galileo was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism
  9. That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science
  10. That the Scientific Revolution Liberated Science from Religion
  11. That Catholics Did Not Contribute to the Scientific Revolution
  12. The René Descartes Originated the Mind-Body Distinction
  13. That Isaac Newton’s Mechanistic Cosmology Eliminated the Need for God
  14. That the Church Denounced Anesthesia in Childbirth on Biblical Grounds
  15. That the Theory of Organic Evolution is Based on Circular Reasoning
  16. That Evolution Destroyed Darwin’s Faith in Christianity—Until He Reconverted on His Deathbed
  17. That Huxley Defeated Wilberforce in Their Debate over Evolution
  18. That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology
  19. That Darwin and Haeckel Were Complicit in Nazi Biology
  20. That the Scopes Trial Ended in Defeat for Antievolutionism
  21. That Einstein Believed in a Personal God
  22. That Quantum Physics Demonstrated the Doctrine of Free Will
  23. That “Intelligent Design” Represents a Scientific Challenge to Evolution
  24. That Creationism Is a Uniquely American Phenomenon
  25. That Modern Science Has Secularized Western Culture

Summing Up: This is a compilation with which I have only a few minor qualms. The twenty-five essays recast each myth in a more nuanced light. This is in contrast with the latest crop of polemicists who wish for nothing more than to draw a bright line between participants and to simultaneously beat down their opponents, keep true believers true, and to win the wavering with bold but flawed rhetoric. Galileo Goes to Jail has nothing for such as these. They will either scorn it as pandering to forces of darkness or cherry pick the parts they find useful. For the rest of us, however, Numbers has assembled a very cohesive, thoughtful, and thought provoking collection.