Book Review: Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion by Ronald L. Numbers

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper wrongly proposed that science and religion exist in a perpetual state of conflict. (One is reminded of Stephen Gould’s famous demarcation between science and religion as two non-overlapping magisterium.) Historians and scientists who adopted the White-Draper thesis consequently misread several famous episodes in western history in their attempt to confirm the thesis. Although White and Draper’s credibility as researchers has long been discounted, their thesis has proved resilient, filtering down into the popular conception through constant textbook repetition and oft-cited historical “myths” proposing a clash between church and science.

Historian Ronald Numbers (author of The Creationists) has gathered an impressive list of scholars to set the record straight through their exploration of twenty-five “myths” concerning the relationship between science and religion. Interestingly, twelve of the twenty-five contributing authors are atheists or agnostics; one is a Jew, one a Muslim, one a Buddhist, and one a Spinozist. The book can hardly be dismissed as creationist propaganda. The twenty-five myths discussed are as follows:

Myth 1. The rise of Christianity was responsible for the demise of ancient science.

Myth 2. The medieval Christian church suppressed the growth of science.

Myth 3. Medieval Christians taught that the earth was flat.

Myth 4. Medieval Islamic culture was inhospitable to science.

Myth 5. The medieval church prohibited human dissection.

Myth 6. Copernicanism demoted humans from the center of the cosmos.

Myth 7. Giordano Bruno was the first martyr of modern science.

Myth 8. Galileo was imprisoned and tortured for advocating Copernicanism.

Myth 9. Christianity gave birth to modern science.

Myth 10. The scientific revolution liberated science from religion.

Myth 11. Catholics did not contribute to the Scientific Revolution

Myth 12. René Descartes originated the mind-body distinction.

Myth 13. Isaac Newton’s mechanistic cosmology eliminated the need for God.

Myth 14. The church denounced anesthesia in childbirth on biblical grounds.

Myth 15. The theory of organic evolution is based on circular reasoning.

Myth 16. Evolution destroyed Darwin’s faith in Christianity—until he reconverted on his deathbed.

Myth 17. Huxley defeated Wilberforce in their debate over evolution and religion.

Myth 18. Darwin destroyed natural theology.

Myth 19. Darwin and Haeckel were complicit in Nazi biology.

Myth 20. The Scopes Trial ended in defeat for antievolutionism.

Myth 21. Einstein believed in a personal God.

Myth 22. Quantum physics demonstrated the doctrine of free will.

Myth 23. “Intelligent Design” represent as scientific challenge to evolution.

Myth 24. Creationism is a uniquely American phenomenon.

Myth 25. Modern science has secularized western culture.

Generally the chapters are balanced. Intelligent Design theorists will take umbrage especially with Michael Ruse in chapter twenty-three where he rejects Intelligent Design Theory as science. Ruse assumes a thoroughly materialistic definition of science, rejecting the injection of supernatural activity in the natural world. He is particularly offended by the Kansas State Board of Education’s 2005 definition of science as “a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.” (213) He prefers limiting the domain of science to what Charles Krauthammer calls “naturalistic explanations for what we observe in the world around us.” (213)

Creationists are likely to find fault with Nicolaas Rupke’s rejection of the claim that evolutionists employ circular reasoning (Myth 15). A standard creationist argument concerns reciprocal dating patterns in geology and animal fossilization; evolutionists use fossils to date the rocks and rocks to date the fossils. Rupke counters this objection with the claim that a stratigraphic column existed in geology as early as 1820, a generation before Darwin proposed his theory. Fossils were therefore never used to date the geological column, but were discovered in previously dated layers. Rupke could have strengthened his argument had he demonstrated both how the column was dated in the 1820s, and whether the 1820s version has stood the test of time.

The majority of the chapters strengthen the case for Christianity. David Lindberg demonstrates in chapter one, that the Christianization of the Roman empire coupled with an overturning of pagan philosophies that were inimical to Christianity did not constitute a categorical rejection of classical philosophy, mathematics, and science. Further, critics of Christianity have appealed almost exclusively to Tertullian as an iconoclast of science, while ignoring significant endorsements of the scientific enterprise by numerous other church fathers.

Similarly, in chapter two, Michael Shank laments, “the crude concept of the Middle Ages as a millennium of stagnation brought on by Christianity has largely disappeared among scholars familiar with the period, but it remains vigorous among popularizers of the history of science—perhaps because, instead of consulting scholarship on the subject, the more recent popularizers have relied upon their predecessors uncritically” (20). Ironically, it was the medieval period that gave birth to the university where most of Christianity’s critics now reside.

In chapter three Lesley Cormack answers one of the most persistent myths in the history of science: the notion that medieval man believed the world was flat. This myth was not invented by medieval thinkers but nineteenth-century scholars who projected it backward on the medieval mind in an attempt to discredit Christianity. The myth flatly contradicts numerous ancient and medieval documents, as Cormack carefully demonstrates.

Dennis Danielson’s defense of Copernicus in chapter 6 is delightful. In the history of science and religion no scientist’s legacy has been hijacked and maligned by atheists quite like Copernicus’. Supposedly, Copernicus attempted to demote man from the special place he occupied at the center of God’s universe. God, if He even existed, was so remote and the universe so large that He must care nothing for man. The modern atheist leaves the impression that Copernicus was “one of them,” a crypto atheist, a materialist in disguise.

Danielson demonstrates that the standard atheist interpretation is off by 180 degrees. The medieval mind never suggested geocentricism equaled theological centricity. Geocentrists placed earth at the universe’s center because of its density (dense objects were associated with evil). As the heaviest object in the universe, it fell to the middle (Think of a bowling ball on a trampoline—only in three dimensions). Thomas Aquinas argued the earth was central because it is the “most material and coarsest (ignobilissima) of all bodies.” (53) Dante “placed the lowest pit of hell at the very midpoint of the earth, the dead center of the whole universe.” (53) Ironically, Copernicus’ cosmology was thought originally to improve the earth’s position! Copernicus brought about a promotion rather than a demotion of the earth in God’s creation. Galileo rejoiced that “it [the earth] was not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera collect.” (55) Kepler argued that the revolving earth enabled our greater discovery of God’s handiwork: “[Man] could not remain at rest in the center . . . [but] must make an annual journey on this boat, which is our earth, to perform observations. . . . There is no globe nobler or more suitable for man than the earth.” (55-56) Danielson concludes the “Copernican cliché”, that is, Copernicus’ supposed demotion of man and earth, did not appear until a century after his death.

Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion should be a welcome contribution in the rewriting and improvement of the science narrative that was hijacked by partisan scholars in the nineteenth century. If you question whether you can be a good scientist and committed Christian, read this book.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Brenton Cook holds a PhD in Church History and teaches undergraduate courses in Philosophy, Apologetics, and Worldview at Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC. He also teaches graduate courses in Church History in BJU’s Seminary and Graduate School of Religion.

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Brian Auten is the founder emeritus of Apologetics315. He is also director of Reasonable Faith Belfast. Brian holds a Masters degree in Christian Apologetics and has interviewed over 150 Christian apologists. His background is in missions, media direction, graphic design, and administration. Brian started Apologetics315 in 2007 to be an apologetics hub to equip Christians to defend the faith.

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