Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Galileo Goes to Jail, and Other Myths about Science and Religion
edited by Ron L. Numbers

Contrary to popular thought, science and religion are not antithetical to one another. Nor are gifted scientists all rabid atheists, looking for ways to disprove the existence of God. It is fair to say though, that many scientists (both throughout history and in the present) cannot relate to the ultra-personal God who is involved in every aspect of our day each and every day of our lives that some religious extremists believe is the only possible God that could have created us and given us life. Galileo Goes to Jail takes 25 long held myths about conflicts and conflations of science and religion and systematically breaks them down until we can see that they are not the hard bitten truths we have believed them to be.

Each essay is written by a different luminary in the field of either science or history of science, so the writing is a little uneven - some of the pieces are just more accessible than others to the non-scientifically trained person. However, as a whole the book is fun and thought provoking. The de-bunking of certain myths is a bit of a stretch when the writers rely on semantics to make their point. For example, the writer of the essay about whether or not Galileo was tortured at the hands of the Catholic church boils down to "Well, he was not tortured because he recanted his scientific findings. The Church did not torture him because he did what they said. They only threatened torture." OK, fine, but I don't know that that "proves" much. Were they prepared to actually do the deed if Galileo did not give in to their demands? We will never know for sure. And don't even get me started on what constitutes torture, a debate that continues to occupy the minds of ethicists, military leaders, and politicians of our day.

That is a minor quibble, though. The overarching message of the book is that people do not have to be either/or as far as religious faith and scientific discoveries go. Each discipline is searching for a different truth, and sometimes (gulp) they even back each other up! Another gift of the book is that it shows us that neither science or organized religion is entirely free of blame in the "culture wars" that have been going on for centuries now. Each discipline at time as been (at best) dismissive and (at worst) destructive of the other. However, it need not continue to be that way. There will always be extremists from both groups that believe the other is total hogwash. For the vast middle, though, both engaged dialogue and respectful peace are possible. As we move into a new phase of the faith/science relationship, I look forward to the ways that we can strengthen and inform each other.

Reverent Reader


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