10 October 2009

Galileo was tortured and other myths about science and religion

Some few HancAquam Followers have suggested that I begin a book review column, maybe once a week or so.  Though this is a good idea, I doubt very seriously that most of my readers would want to read reviews of Subjectivity, Objectivity, and Intersubjectivity, or Philosophical Dialectics:  an essay on metaphilosophy, etc.  Anyway, I read one fascinating book this summer that I think a number of you might enjoy.  Below is an excellent review from Mark Kalthoff posted at First Things:

Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion
edited by Ronald L. Numbers
Harvard , 302 pages, $27.95

We all know the aphorism—“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, but what you think you know that just ain’t so.”

Now, thanks to the historical sleuthing of eminent science historian Ronald Numbers and his cadre of two-dozen “myth-busters,” we have ample evidence that much received wisdom concerning the historical relations between science and religion has caused real intellectual trouble because it just ain’t so. The book’s title names one of the iconic myths from a canon of false claims in the history of Western science. The volume contains twenty-five such guffaws in all, each with its own brief chapter devoted to defusing the myth. One by one they fall, beginning with the “greatest myth,” the notion that the history of encounters between science and religion is a tale of “constant conflict.”

The volume’s careful organization and execution reveal the kind of planning and teamwork absent from too many edited collections, but which have come to be expected from Numbers. Each chapter of Galileo Goes to Jail begins with two or three epigraphs that clearly convict scholarly and popular literature of perpetuating the myth in question. Most authors then explore the nuances of the myth, its origin, complexity, and longevity, before telling the “rest of the story.”

Was Galileo imprisoned and tortured for advocating Copernicanism? Of course not, despite the fact that the clueless and ignorant persist in recycling all those long-ago discredited accounts.

Nor did medieval Christians teach that the earth was flat, nor did Copernicanism demote humans from the middle of the cosmos. Further, Darwin neither destroyed natural theology nor inspired Nazi biology nor converted back to Christianity on his deathbed. And depending upon the company one keeps, some think they know that Christianity gave birth to modern science while others are sure that the scientific revolution liberated science from religion. Neither happened.

From the Church Fathers’ encounter with ancient science to the recent attempts of new-age mystics to coopt quantum physics, this volume has something to intrigue and instruct both popular and academic readers, whatever their theological tradition.

While a couple chapters do little more than tear down mythical straw men and another is overly derivative from previous publications, these are minor weaknesses. Numbers and his colleagues have successfully called propaganda by its real name and demonstrated, in the words of one contributor, that “history fails to be reliable whenever it neglects to show us the world as it looked to the historical actors themselves.”

—Mark A. Kalthoff


  1. In fact Galileo's punishment was to say the penitential songs. He got permission for his daughter who was a nun to say them for him instead.

  2. Re: The "myth" of "some think they know that Christianity gave birth to modern science."

    This seems suspicious to me. It seems that Aquinas's insistence that reason and faith are compatible (truth is truth) is what gave the green light to the advance of modern science (where other religions might be hostile to inquiry). It may be quibble over what "birth" might refer to, but certainly Christianity could be considered at the least the midwife of modern science.

  3. Actually, the idea that true things - whether empirically observed or theological - cannot be in genuine conflict predates Aquinas by quite a bit. I seem to remember Augustine saying something like that somewhere around 400 AD. Of course, there are many who would maintain that this can easily be derived from St Paul writing 'test all things, and keep that which is good' (yeah, like I'm gonna remember the reference) since goodness and truth are inextricably intertwined.

  4. Anonymous2:50 PM

    It is entirely appropriate that George LemaƮtre SJ who proposed the Big Bang theory was both a priest and a physicist.
    Web site at University of Louvain

  5. I am happy to hear that such a book already exists. In my research at Harvard University for a new book on Galileo "The Physics, Philosophy and Religion of Galileo (which will be published in India by the year end in India) I found so many myths about Galileo. His eyes were gauged out, he was excommunicated, as he stepped outside of the chamber of Inquisition seemed to forced his heel on the ground and exclaimed "still it moves" etc. Numerous are the myths. Great such a book is already out.
    Mathew Chandrankunnel, CMI

  6. Guy Consolmagno SJ (from the Vatican Observatory) regularly speaks on this topic. Gregor Mendel (genetics) was an Augustinian - if you want more examples.

    I do find it ironic that many Catholic in the pews remain so ignorant and fearful of science. Anthropogenic climate change comes to mind and adult stem cell research come to mind! (No, climate change is not a neo-pagan conspiracy...and alas, inducing adult cells to revert to pluripotent stems cells uses reagents from embryonic stems cells.)