International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion

by Ronald L. Numbers

Introductory Essay by Ernan McMullin

The history of the relations between science and religion has accumulated more that its share of myth (taking ‘myth’ to imply a false claim). Ronald Numbers has brought together twenty-five of these myths, allocating 9-10 pages to each and assigning each to an expert in the relevant field. The result makes informative and thought-provoking reading. Most of the myths (not all) are negative in intent. Many (not all) had a kernel of truth to begin with. But that kernel has grown into a sweeping charge, in most cases against religion in one form or other, in a few cases against science.

The editor points to a “super-myth” that animates many of the others: that science and religion (or theology) have been in constant conflict. He traces this charge back to two books in particular, both by nineteenth-century American writers, Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper, authors who propagated this thesis widely across the English-speaking world. Each, he notes, had a score to settle, one against the Protestant theologians of New England who had opposed the creation of the secular university (Cornell) that he headed, the other against the Catholic Church to which his sister had converted against his wishes. Each writer turned history to his own polemic purposes, creating a flock of myths along the way.

The first myths here echo what might be called a “super-myth” about the Middle Ages: “That the rise of Christianity was responsible for the demise of ancient science”: “That the medieval Christian Church suppressed the growth of science”; ”That medieval Christians taught that the earth was flat”; “That the medieval Church prohibited human dissection”… all of these are false.

Bruno and Galileo figure prominently here, of course. That Bruno was “the first martyr of science” because, supposedly, his Copernican views led to his fiery death, is a commonplace myth, especially among scientist-authors. Bruno’s advocacy of the sun-centred system would, however, have been counted among the least of his theological offences. He had, after all, challenged many of the main doctrines of Christianity. Galileo never “groaned in the dungeons of the Inquisition” (as Voltaire described it), nor was he tortured. The charge against him was not for displacing man from the cosmic centre, nor for his critique of Aristotelian physics. The sentence was quite specific: he was condemned for defending the earth’s motion and the sun’s rest, which had earlier been formally (and, alas, erroneously) declared to be contrary to Scripture.

Other myths to be noted… and rejected: “That Huxley defeated Wilberforce in their debate over science and religion” (much of the story as it has come down to us is a fabrication). “That evolution destroyed Darwin’s faith in Christianity” (the agnosticism of his later life had quite other grounds). “That Einstein believed in a personal God” (he explicitly rejected this belief; his occasional references to “God” were almost certainly metaphorical, though he thought of himself as “religious”). “That creationism is uniquely American” (criticism of evolution on religious grounds is widespread in the English-speaking world generally, and even more widespread in Islamic countries).

Myths of this kind are much easier to propagate than to counter. Readers of this excellent collection will be well prepared to do their bit when an opportunity offers.