Reconcilable Differences

Book cover
Galileo Goes to Jailby Edited by Ronald L. NumbersHarvard Univ. Press. 320p $27.95

The history of science,” John William Draper wrote in 1874, “is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.” That science and religion are locked in a fight to the death, and that science will eventually be victorious, is the main message of Draper’s influential book, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. In 1896 Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell University, published a two-volume work whose title makes explicit the same thesis. He called it A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom.

The “conflict” approach to science and religion fostered by these two 19th-century works has seeped into scientific journalism, newspaper reporting, popular presentations of science and most recently the “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. It is an idea that many academics and students still swallow whole.


But Ronald Numbers, the eminent historian of science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and editor of this enjoyable and informative collection of essays, will have none of it. A self-styled agnostic himself, he states bluntly that “White’s and Draper’s accounts are more propaganda than history.” The accomplished younger generation of historians of science and other experts Numbers has assembled here agree. Galileo Goes to Jail lays bare some of the many “myths” (in the sense of false claims) associated with the belief that science and religion are essentially irreconcilable ways of understanding the world.

One of these myths is that Galileo was physically tortured and thrown into a dark prison cell by the Inquisition. Not so. Although threatened with the typical instruments of torture, Galileo was not subjected to the rack, nor was he incarcerated in Rome (with the possible exception of three days in 1633). While awaiting his trial, he was put up in his prosecutor’s six-room apartment, attended all the while by a servant. Later he moved to the Villa Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany’s sumptuous Roman palace. On his way back to Tuscany after the trial he dallied for five months under house arrest at the comfortable residence of his good friend the archbishop of Siena. Thereafter he paid for his heliocentric heresy by becoming a permanent guest in his own villa in Arcetri overlooking Florence.

So writes the eminent Galileo scholar Maurice Finocchiaro, refuting Voltaire’s claim that Galileo “groaned away his days in the dungeons of the Inquisition,” and challenging Giuseppe Barretti’s equally influential assertion in 1757 that the great scientist “was put in the inquisition for six years, and put to torture, for saying that the earth moved.” Although the fragmentary records available to Voltaire and Barretti may have suggested torture and imprisonment, recent historical scholarship has put to rest the “myth” that Galileo suffered physical penalties and wasted away in prison.

This is only one of many false claims and rumors that still make religion seem inherently hostile to science in the minds of many scientists, scholars and students. Contrary to Draper and White, readers of this collection will learn from the historian David Livingstone that Christianity was not responsible for the demise of ancient science. For example, unlike the interpretation of history popularized by Carl Sagan and many others, the murder of the Alexandrian mathematician and philo-sopher Hypatia, supposedly by a mob of Christian zealots, “had everything to do with local politics and virtually nothing to do with science.” Nor, as many previous historians have assumed, were Augustine, Basil and Tertullian opposed to classical science, since they borrowed heavily from current views of nature in setting forth their own theological positions.

Livingstone also rejects Charles Freeman’s recent claim that Christianity is responsible for “the closing of the Western mind,” arguing that “no institution or cultural force of the classical period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church.”

The historian of science Michael Shank likewise disputes Draper’s claim that medieval Christianity’s theological worldview “became a stumbling block in the intellectual advancement of Europe for more than a thousand years.” Medieval universities were not fixated on theology anyway, and only a few students were deemed qualified to study it. Instead most formal education focused on law, logic, natural philosophy and mathematics, disciplines that could hardly have impeded the rise of modern science.

Again, Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins University rejects Draper’s blanket declaration that Roman Catholicism and science are “absolutely incompatible.” Questioning narrowly Anglocentric theories about the emergence of science, such as the “Merton thesis” that science is a product of Puritanism, Principe points out that the scientific revolution goes back to foundations laid long before the Reformation. Medieval theories of optics, kinematics and astronomy, along with the establishment of universities, the practice of intellectual disputation and the rigor of Scholastic thought in philosophy and theology—all of these contributed to a climate essential to the birth and shaping of modern science. Principe characterizes Draper’s book, therefore, as “little more than a thinly-disguised anti-Catholic rant.”

Noah Efron of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, on the other hand, disputes the equally one-sided myth that Christianity gave birth to modern science. Obviously Christianity was a contributor, but so also were ancient Greek philosophy, Islam and other historical, political, technological and economic influences.

Other myths fall hard at the hands of the highly qualified stable of authors Numbers has gathered here. A sampling of topics includes the beliefs that medieval Christians thought the earth was flat, that Islamic culture was inhospitable to science, that Giordano Bruno was a martyr for modern science, that Newton’s mechanics left no room for God or final causes, that Darwin destroyed natural theology, that quantum physics demonstrates freedom of the will, that creationism is a uniquely American phenomenon, that modern science has secularized Western culture and that Einstein believed in a personal God. Although there may be a fragment of truth in several of these myths, careful research is now making important corrections.

Galileo Goes to Jail is not a defense of theism, religion or Christianity. In fact, some of the authors are nonbelievers and have no stake in apologetics. The book is simply an honest attempt to set a distorted record straight. Its accessibility and frankness will make it a valuable text for students of intellectual history, religion, the history of science and those taking courses dealing with science and theology. It will also appeal to a wider range of readers. Let us hope these will include not only subscribers to America but also devotees of Scientific American.






Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 2 months ago

Lawrence Principe, mentioned by Professor Haught above, has authored Teaching Company Courses on the history of science.  In one he devotes two 30 minute lectures to Galileo and his problems.  It turns out that the so called "Galileo Affair" had little to do with either science or religion.  It was mainly about politics as the Inquisition Trial of Galileo took place in the middle of the Thirty Years War.  Urban VIII was Galileo's friend and admirer and had encouraged Galileo's publication and might have even suggested the title and emphasis of the content (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.)  

Urban apparently was resisting the efforts of the Habsburgs to get the Vatican involved in the war which pitted the Habsburgs against France and the German princes and the Swedes.  There were efforts to have him deposed because of this.  One of those trying to have him deposed was Galileo's sponsor from Florence, Ferdinando II de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who published Galileo's treatise when it could not be published in Rome as originally planned.  Thus, Galileo published his treatise under the seal of someone who was trying to depose Urban and then put Urban's suggestions for the treatise in the words of Simplicio who was considered the foolish one in the discussions.  Hence Galileo betrayed his friend, mentor and spiritual leader.  He was treated lightly as Professor Haught has indicated probably because of his friendship with Urban.  The good guy in this episode was the pope and the bad guy was Galileo.

There is more to it than this as much of Galileo's science was actually bad and the heliocentric issue was not proved till 200 years later when the parallax issue was solved.  Tycho Brahe's data which supported geocentrism, though later shown to be wrong, actually fit the data better than did Galileo's data at the time.  Galileo essentially was the founder of modern physics with his work on gravity and it was on his shoulders that Newton stood.  But as far as his publication on heliocentrism, he was less than honorable.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.

Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019