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. Read the rest of this entry »