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Galileo Goes to Jail

An often-believed subtext in the Adventist Faith/Science conundrum is that here are two worlds in collision. From the disparaging and presumably oxymoronic epithet ‘Seventh-day Darwinians’ to the short-chronology requirement for membership in the Adventist Theological Society, contemporary Adventism struggles with the question of compatibility – can revelation be reconciled with science? And, where we presently cannot, how should we proceed?
One thing to do, at minimum, is to be sure our understanding of the religion and science interaction has an accurate foundation. False premises are unlikely to produce useful conclusions. To this end, a potential resource is a book of 25 essays edited by Ronald L. Numbers titled – Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2009. 320 pages).
The essays are written by leading academics, mostly in the History of Science, but also ranging from Geography to Philosophy and Religious Studies. The book is organized chronologically, beginning with the Patristic Era and culminating with contemporary issues.
A few of the topics are:

  • Myth 2. That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science
  • Myth 6. That Copernicanism Demoted Humans from the Center of the Cosmos
  • Myth 9. That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science
  • Myth 15. That the Theory of Organic Evolution Is Based on Circular Reasoning
  • Myth 18. That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology
  • Myth 23. That “Intelligent Design” Represents a Scientific Challenge to Evolution
  • Myth 25. That Modern Science Has Secularized Western Culture

So can a book like this be helpful in our Adventist context, as we try to sort through the often complicated and contentious Faith & Science issues? Yes certainly – but not without some caveats.
First, any book that tries to cover the breadth of history and range of topics found here will necessarily struggle with space limitations. The essays average perhaps 10 pages each. And within that scope the historical backdrop, the problem statement, the conventional conclusion and finally the myth-busting alternative – must be presented.
That is difficult enough. But there is an added challenge for the reader who is unfamiliar with the background of the issues presented. The essays all take the form: “There is some science/religion issue X that has been thought to have conclusion Y. But a better conclusion is Z.” For the reader to gain maximum traction issue X and conclusion Y should already be familiar. But that’s a lot to ask of any reader, short of being expert in the history of science.
Consider the essay ‘That Giordano Bruno Was the First Martyr of Modern Science’. How many potential readers will have even heard of Giordano Bruno or the circumstances surrounding his death? Let alone that the conventional conclusion concerning this event may be incorrect. This ‘X is not Y, but rather Z’ dimension of the book makes it less accessible.
The book is also uneven when viewed from the perspective of topical importance. Some of the essays are not philosophically consequential or even currently relevant. The Giordano Bruno essay is such an example. So is ‘That Huxley Defeated Wilberforce in Their Debate over Evolution and Religion.’ How many potential readers will have even heard of this debate? And another might be ‘That Einstein Believed in a Personal God’. This essay is interesting, as most of them are, but what difference does it make if he did or didn’t believe?
However, the majority of the essays are both philosophically and culturally relevant to our modern world – even if the historical setting is not modern. The first essay is ‘That the Rise of Christianity Was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science.’ Here the author begins by quoting Charles Freeman in The Closing of the Western Mind – The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Random House: 2002) and attempts to dismantle that book’s argument – that Christianity has always been inimical toward a scientific mindset.
Another essay is ‘That the Scopes Trial Ended in Defeat for Antievolutionism.’ Here is an historical event that has risen to mythic status – at least in America. And popular perception is heavily colored by the interpretive lens of the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind. That film had a heavy anti-fundamentalist bias and deeply distorted the facts. Consequently many think of the Scopes ‘monkey’ Trial as an event where the scientific viewpoint ‘made a monkey’ out of religionists. This essay recovers an accurate history and provides a much sounder interpretive foundation.
There is also, unsurprisingly, some unevenness in the argumentative quality of the different essays. Most make a reasonable, fair and even compelling case for reaching a different and presumably better conclusion than the former ‘mythic’ and popular views. But there are some weak essays. The weakest is Michael Ruse’s ‘That “Intelligent Design” Represents a Scientific Challenge to Evolution’. Here Ruse divides his space mostly between sketching the history of the ID movement and the recent court cases (Kansas and Dover, Pennsylvania) where he appeared as an expert witness. This is interesting and relevant, but there is almost no space given to arguments why he believes ID is not science. Consequently he never actually addresses the question at issue. The irony is that there is much that could have been said to buttress the view that ID isn’t science. So it’s not that a case contra ID cannot be made. Many such points were raised at the Dover trial that would have been helpful to have in this essay. But Ruse failed completely.
Conversely, one of the stronger essays is John Hedley Brooke’s ‘That Modern Science has Secularized Western Culture’. This perspective is a thread that runs through much fundamentalist and some political right-wing rhetoric. It is a presupposition that quickly morphs into a divisive rallying cry – to be for ‘Christian Values’ and against ‘Godless Secular Humanism’. And that both distorts and dumbs down the complexity of science and religion. Brooke notes ‘the proposition that “science causes secularization” contains elements of truth’. But then he discusses how this can be misleading, arguing from both history and logic. He also notes that the excesses of religious rhetoric have a parallel and equally extreme equivalent from some scientists who advocate for philosophical naturalism. But this argumentative and sociological complexity just illustrates how problematic the thesis is – that science bears causal responsibility for secularism.
In sum, this book succeeds far more than it fails. And some weakness is inevitable – given the ambitious scope of the undertaking. It will best serve those who bring some historical and scientific background to the reading effort, and likely will frustrate those who are looking for an initial overview of the issues and debates that today surround science and religion.

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