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Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Justin Topp

posted by Scot McKnight


Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion
Edited by Ronald L. Numbers

Harvard University Press ISBN 978-0674033276

Reviewed by Justin Topp, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biology
North Park University
Twitter: JustinTopp

Science and religion are incompatible.  It’s either one or the other.  Everyone knows this.  Which one do you choose?  If you’re educated, it is clear that science has enabled us to do away with the cancer that is religion, which only arose because of the primitive understanding of the world by our ancestors.  We are now enlightened and can move on without all that religious nonsense.  Wait a minute you say, it’s science that is the enemy.  Religion provides us with absolute truth.  Science is just the work of atheists who are trying to do without God so they can live their amoral hedonistic lives.  It’s Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris vs. Henry Morris (okay, well, his son) and Ken Ham.  It’s Bill Maher vs. Ben Stein and Kirk Cameron.  The future of our children is at stake.  Which side will you be on?   

Readers of this blog will likely be laughing or at least smirking after reading that deliberately over-the-top and clearly sarcastic paragraph about science and religion.  But hyperbole does not equate with fiction and there are many who believe that science and religion are truly enemies.  It is the fault of both the fundamentalist religious adherents and the atheists, as this warfare model of science and religion would not exist without both sides believing that war was necessary and inevitable. The mainstream media and popular books like New York Times Bestseller “The God Delusion” only serve to add fuel to the fire. 

Have science and religion always been at war?  Or has this war, like many real wars in history, been created for a purpose that has been hidden from the general public?    

Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and
Religion is a volume of 25 essays edited by Ronald L. Numbers, who is the Hilldale
Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison.  Numbers is the
author or editor of more than 20 books on the history of science, medicine, and
religion in America.  In addition
to Numbers, this book ???sports an impressive array and diversity of
authors.  There are professors with
appointments in areas including Science and Religion, History, English, Social
Sciences, Geography, Chemistry, Philosophy, History of Science, Philosophy,
Arts, and the Humanities.

 Galileo Goes to Jail was written specifically to dispel
common myths about science and religion that originated primarily as the result
of two works from the late 1800s. 
These two books “The Battle-Fields of Science”, written by Andrew
Dickson White in 1869, and “History of the Conflict between Religion and
Science”, written by John William Draper in 1874, served to promote the now
commonly held warfare model of science and religion.  And in this war… science would hopefully and finally
overcome the shackles of religion and win.   According to Numbers, however, “Historians of science
have known for years that White’s and Draper’s accounts are more propaganda
than history.”  It is apparent that
their works are written to present an attack against revealed religion and its
apparent “control” over ideas, progress, and culture.  The story behind White’s and Draper’s reasons for these
attacks is quite interesting in its own regard and is presented by Numbers in
the introduction to the book. 
Thus, one could say that the science and religion warfare model was the
result at least in part of manufacturing by White and Draper.

But the general public does not know this.  And this warfare model is now ingrained
in popular culture.

Numbers contrasts the propaganda of the “master mythmakers”
White and Draper with the authors of Galileo Goes to Jail who “have no obvious
scientific or theological axes to grind”. 
According to Numbers, 12 of the 25 contributors self-identify as
agnostic or atheist and thus are not writing this book as an attack against
atheism.  Instead, they are writing
it because of the poor research and clear agenda that they see in White and Draper.  Their goal is a more accurate view of
the history of science and religion. 
To do that, they must bust the myths that have largely developed as the
result of White’s and Draper’s influential work. 

The myths debunked range from “big” ones that many are
likely already familiar with: that Galileo was imprisoned and tortured for
advocating Copernicanism (Ch. 8), that the scientific revolution liberated
science from religion (Ch. 10), that Isaac Newton’s mechanistic cosmology
eliminated the need for God (Ch. 13), that evolution destroyed Darwin’s faith
in Christianity – until he reconverted on his deathbed (Ch. 16), that Huxley
defeated Wilberforce in their debate over evolution and religion (Ch. 16), that
Einstein believed in a personal God (Ch. 21) to myths that seem rather
insignificant to me in the larger science and religion discussion: that the
medieval church prohibited human dissection (Ch. 5) and that the Church
denounced anesthesia in childbirth on Biblical grounds (Ch. 14).  Lest it seem that religion “won” the
battle (in this book), there is also a chapter on the myth that Christianity
gave birth to modern science (Ch. 9). 
Lastly, and most relevant today are the final three myths of the book:
that “Intelligent Design” represents a scientific challenge to evolution (Ch.
23), that Creationism is a uniquely American phenomenon (Ch. 24), and that
modern science has secularized Western culture (Ch. 25).

This book clearly succeeds in the aim to show the reader
that the warfare model of science and religion does not provide an accurate
view of the history of science and religion.  While the chapters are not all created equally and readers
may feel that some myths have not been sufficiently debunked (Ch. 25 to this
reader), taken as a whole the history of science and religion is not one that
is littered with battle scenes and mass casualties.  The war between science and religion was manufactured (and
fairly recently).  That is not to
say that there have not been dustups historically, but the idea that science
and religion have always been at
conflict is simply not true.

I really enjoyed reading this book.  So much writing in the science and
religion field is polemical; this book exhibits strong scholarship and the
presentation feels objective and detached.  These authors believe history shows that science and
religion have not been at the constant and perpetual war that is presented to
the public.  Even so, the
contributors were fair to point out counter-evidence to their myth claims when applicable.  This book was well researched.  While this book is certainly academic,
it should be accessible to a broader audience with the expectation that a book
with contributions from 25 individuals will vary in ease of read. This book is highly recommended to all with an
interest in science and religion or the history of science. 

Can the findings of this book speak to the interaction of
science and religion in present day? 
If so, how? 

First, proponents of the warfare model cannot simply say,
“it’s always been that way.”  It
takes a very narrow and incorrect view of history to make that statement.   This is a recent phenomenon.  What then are the reasons that have led
many to put science against religion? 
It should be noted that just because there is not a history to the
warfare model of science and religion it doesn’t mean that the model should
automatically be discredited.  This
book is not arguing for that.  It
is instead saying that the historical relationship between science and religion
is much more nuanced and complex.

Second, I would argue that it would be beneficial then to
look at how the interaction of science and religion has actually been modeled throughout history.  If the simple model of warfare is incorrect, then what are
some other possibilities?

Third, perhaps it is time to look at constructing some new models.  Evolution, the great unifying theory of
biology, has made a profound impact not only on the myriad subdisciplines of
biology, but also other areas such as psychology, cognition, and sociobiology
(just to name a few).  Perhaps it
is time for religion to take it seriously as well.


Comments read comments(12)
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posted July 3, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Looks interesting. I have not read this book yet – but I read a similar book edited by Numbers and David C. Lindenberg a couple of years ago: When Science and Christianity Meet It was enlightening.
I think your last two points are dead on. It is useful to look at how the interaction of science and religion has actually been modeled throughout history – both in the flashpoint incidents discussed in books like these and in the ordinary writing of Christian thinkers in the context of their day and age. We won’t find acceptance of evolution in the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, or Calvin, it wasn’t on the radar yet, but we will find other issues no longer on our screen. It wasn’t a warfare model – and there are approaches we would find valuable.
We need to construct some new models.

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Joshua Wooden

posted July 3, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Just out of curiosity, if 12 of the 25 are self-described agnostic/atheists, then what of the remaining 13?

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Justin Topp

posted July 3, 2010 at 2:54 pm

From the words of Numbers himself…
“Among the remaining thirteen there are five mainstream Protestants, two evangelical Protestants, one Roman Catholic, one Jew, one Muslim, one Buddhist – and two whose beliefs fit no conventional category (including one pious Spinozist).”
The next two sentences are interesting, too…
“Over half of the unbelievers, including me, grew up in devout Christian homes – some fundamentalists or evangelicals – but subsequently, lost their faith. I’m not sure exactly what to make of this fact, but I suspect it tells us something about why we care so much about setting the record straight.”

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Joshua Wooden

posted July 3, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Thanks for the response. Very interesting mix- I’m going to have to read this now.

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Justin Topp

posted July 3, 2010 at 3:36 pm

I should mention though… and I think is a strength as an academic, but you wouldn’t know what the individual author’s religious beliefs are. So it’s not a view of the history from a bunch of different religious perspectives, but a a view from a neutral perspective to combat the warfare model.

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posted July 3, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Have you read Numbers book “The Creationists”? It is an interesting look at US history and how we got where we are today.

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Justin Topp

posted July 3, 2010 at 3:58 pm

No I haven’t. Some of the other things that I have read have given me a glimpse of the history, but I’m sure that book would be more comprehensive. To tell you the truth though, I’m kind of sick of the evolution/creationism “debate” specifically. The wording of the last sentence is very important…
Scot and I tried to get his new book (with Denis Alexander) Biology and Ideology from the publisher (for a review) but were unsuccessful. I’ll probably purchase it and do a review/short series on it as well.

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posted July 3, 2010 at 5:18 pm

This sounds fascinating. I’ll definitely be putting it on my short list of upcoming reads. Justin, I noticed that you mentioned a new book by Denis Alexander. His book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose was what gave much more confidence to argue affirmatively for the Christian evolutionary viewpoint. In a manner of speaking Denis rocked my world! And I’ll definitely be looking out for his new one too.

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posted July 3, 2010 at 5:45 pm

The Creationists isn’t so much a debate about evolution and creation as a historical account of the history of creationism, especially in the US. I found it useful because it helped me understand the current situation much better – where people are coming from and why.
In the introduction Numbers relates how his father as a Seventh Day Adventist (if I remember correctly) was one of those who debated the issue – and this history meant he wanted to treat the subject accurately and the people fairly. He also tells how in graduate school at Berkeley evidence for age of the earth among other things led him into his current agnosticism. (I give this synopsis from memory – so I hope I have it straight.)

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Justin Topp

posted July 3, 2010 at 6:12 pm

You are right, that Alexander book (Creation or Evolution) is VERY good. I read it just last month and have been thinking about doing a series of posts on it.
For me, THE book that made theistic evolution stick or I should say made my conversion complete, I suppose, was Coming to Peace with Science by Darrel Falk, which I read several years ago now. I joked with him when I met him last month that his book was like a giant hug in the midst of a MMA fight.
You are so correct in that it is good that we get a historical account of WHY people or movements are the way they are. Imagine how much better debates would be if the participants could give a 3 minute synopsis of how they got where they are today. Objective, rational thought does not occur in a vacuum of inexperience…

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posted July 3, 2010 at 7:41 pm

I agree with RJS that The Creationists gives great historical perspective. Since Numbers has a SDA background, it is particularly strong in showing how much the modern “creation science” movement owes to the visions of Ellen White. I hear the book has a second edition now with added material on the ID movement which was not yet influential when the first edition was written.
I think a big question for many on this blog is how to defuse “warfare” ways of thinking in our churches. As a scientist, it is discouraging how often I hear (including from leaders) subtle bits of warfare, like the assumption that science and scientists are pretty much all out to tear down the faith.

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Justin Topp

posted July 3, 2010 at 9:32 pm

“I think a big question for many on this blog is how to defuse “warfare” ways of thinking in our churches.”
That’s the million dollar question/issue right? Too bad we can’t tell all of our fellow churchgoers to turn off the TV and stop reading the popular media so that they can ignore all the warfare stuff. And we certainly can’t get both “sides” to stop fighting their battles in front of all of us.
I think that RJS here, BioLogos, and the other groups that have started up recently will provide a nice grassroots effort. It will take time but I’m hopeful that all of our efforts will be rewarded.

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