Book Review: Galileo Goes to Jail
Galileo Goes to Jail:
And Other Myths about Science and Religion
by Ronald L. Numbers
Review by Denae O’Neil
Ronald L. Numbers, professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, states that “The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, he debunks this notion by compiling articles grounded in historical evidence that dispel twenty-five common myths about science and religion.
“Myth” is not used in its sophisticated academic sense, but rather to designate a claim that is false. The twenty-five myths in this book are arranged in chronological order, and the distinguished authors range in background from atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Each myth is preceded by historical or literary quotes depicting the secular or scientific views supporting the myth. Then the authors explore the nuances of the myth, its origin, complexity, and why it has persisted, before revealing, through historical evidence and explanation, the fallacy of each myth.
Numbers explains in the introduction that, “Discussions of the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ originated in the early nineteenth century, when students of nature first began referring to their work as science rather than as natural philosophy (or natural history). Before that time there were occasional expressions of concern about tension between faith and reason, but no one pitted religion against science or vice versa.” He lays responsibility for “myth-making” on two nineteenth-century American polemicists, Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper, who each had a scientific or theological axe to grind and whose accounts are more propaganda than history.
While most of the articles debunk attacks on religion in the name of science, others show how pro-religion forces have tried to obscure scientific records. Nearly half of the twenty-five authors self-identify as agnostic or atheist, and over half of the unbelievers, including Numbers, grew up in devout Christian homes, but subsequently abandoned their faith. “I suspect,” Numbers says of this fact, “it tells us something about why we care so much about setting the record straight.”
A perusal of some of the chapter titles indicates the breadth of misinformation that abounds in mainstream media as well as scholarly journals. The topics and style of writing appeal to all types of readers, but students of both science and religion will find this essential reading. The chapters are independent and can be read in any order.
Chapter titles include:
That the Rise of Christianity Was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science / That Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat / That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism / That René Descartes Originated the Mind-Body Distinction / That Evolution Destroyed Darwin’s Faith in Christianity—Until He Reconverted on His Deathbed / That Huxley Defeated Wilberforce in Their Debate over Evolution and Religion / That Einstein Believed in a Personal God / That Quantum Physics Demonstrated the Doctrine of Free Will / That “Intelligent Design” Represents a Scientific Challenge to Evolution / That Creationism Is a Uniquely American Phenomenon / That Modern Science Has Secularized Western Culture
Galileo Goes to Jail
Nov 01, 2010