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Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion Hardcover – April 30, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Defining myth as just “a claim that is false,” editor Numbers and 24 other scholars debunk 25 falsehoods about science and religion. The most familiar—that the church imprisoned and tortured Galileo, that medieval Islam was hostile to science, that medieval Christians thought the earth was flat, that the church fought against anesthesia—have long been discredited, yet the briefs on them so admirably distill their history that Wikipedia should swipe them. Others—that the church suppressed science, prohibited dissection, and martyred Giordano Bruno for his scientific work—still have their propagandists. Some remain quite lively, such as that Christianity birthed modern science (see Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God, 2003), that intelligent design challenges evolution scientifically, and that creationism is a strictly American phenomenon. Many are known primarily, perhaps, to specialists, and one or two may startle those who thought themselves in the know about such figures as Descartes and Newton. The pieces on all 25 have been written and edited for accessibility, making the book excellent for ready reference as well as recreational reading. --Ray Olson


An illuminating study of the relationship between science and religion...This book features the contributions of a team of 25 scholars that includes agnostics, atheists, and Christians. Their collective objective is to dispel the "hoary myths" of the supposedly bellicose relationship between religion and science. Readers will be fascinated by the evidence that for advocating Copernicanism, Galileo was not imprisoned (as commonly thought) but interrogated--albeit under the threat of torture--and set up in an apartment. Other misconceptions concern the connection between Darwinian thought and Nazi biology, Einstein's belief in God, and Islam's alleged hostility toward scientific enquiry. (C. Brian Smith Library Journal 2009-03-02)

A revealing book...Using "myth" in the popular sense, to mean falsehood, Galileo Goes to Jail debunks widespread misconceptions. (Douglas Todd Vancouver Sun 2009-05-15)

A splendid book. (Christopher Howse Daily Telegraph 2009-06-06)

As a collection, these myth-busting arguments work to soften the wedge responsible for the schism between science and religion. The topics and writing style will appeal to all readers, but students of science and religion should consider this essential reading. (J. A. Hewlett Choice 2009-07-01)

Informative and thought-provoking reading. (Ernan McMullin The Tablet 2009-10-10)

The volume's careful organization and execution reveal the kind of planning and teamwork absent from too many edited collections, but which have come to be expected from Numbers...Each chapter of Galileo Goes to Jail begins with two or three epigraphs that clearly convict scholarly and popular literature of perpetuating the myth in question. Most authors then explore the nuances of the myth, its origin, complexity, and longevity, before telling the "rest of the story." (Mark A. Kalthoff First Things 2009-10-01)

The authors necessarily spend the bulk of their time debunking attacks on religion in the name of science, but they also clear the muddy waters left behind when pro-religion forces try to obscure the scientific record...As Numbers points out in his introduction, fewer than half of the contributors are religious believers at all; and of those, there are only two evangelicals, one Catholic, and one Jew. In other words, they have no axe to grind, and their only agenda is to set the historical record straight. Given all of the polemics published today, this is a breath of fresh air. (Ryan T. Anderson Weekly Standard 2009-10-19)

[Ronald L. Numbers] is a religious agnostic whose scholarship on the history of American religion and science is marked by meticulous accuracy and impartiality...[This book was written] with ordinary readers, not specialists, in mind, making this a truly rare book: where else can you find such authoritative scholarship delivered so accessibly and fairly on such an important subject? (Edward B. Davis belief.net 2009-08-28)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (March 31, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674033272
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674033276
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #730,930 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
"Galileo Goes to Jail" is a collection of twenty-five essays detailing the misconceptions (or "myths" as used in the popular, not academic, sense) about the encounters between science and religion throughout Western history. Written by authors who are acknowledged experts in their respective fields, many myths are dispelled with thorough research and an unbiased, critical eye. Although amateur historians (Charles Freeman, Rodney Stark), professional historians (Richard Westfall, Jonathan Israel) and scientists (R.C Lewontin, Richard Dawkins, S.J. Gould) are cited as purveyors of some of the myths, the common thread of these essays is that the myths originated with the two late-nineteenth century Americans - John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White.

As is typical with any collection of essays, some are not as good as the rest. In this book, Myths #22 and 23 are disappointments in an otherwise enjoyable and thought-provoking collection of essays. Myth #22 doesn't really argue against (or for) "Quantum Physics Demonstrated Free Will". Indeed, Daniel Patrick Thurs writes simply, "And its spread is due to a very good reason. It is in one sense, absolutely true," and then he writes, "If the historian as historian has any role, it is to expose the roots of such controversy rather than to leap into the fray and parrot the arguments of one side or another" (p. 197). And so the essay goes on - not really saying much of anything of interest or insight. I don't know why this essay was included. The intention of Myth #23 is to refute the claim that intelligent design is scientific.
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I really had high hopes for this book. There are indeed a number of myths that are commonly held to be true by our popular culture: that religion and science conflict, that Christians are or were flat earthers, that the Church prohibited dissection, that Galileo went to jail for his beliefs, that science displaces faith, and so forth.

The book addresses each of these topics (and more), which is great. What isn't as great is the mixed quality of the essays. Many of them seem to take at face value all the myths - except the one they are refuting!

It's frustrating seeing a Marxist scholar write the title chapter on Galileo Goes to Jail, for example. While he refutes the myth that he went to jail, he basically accepts the rest of the Conflict Thesis uncritically - the theory by Draper and White that the rest of the book disproves.
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I do recommended this book and I applaud, as mentioned in the intro, that all of the authors of this book, which includes many atheists, wanted to get the correct version of history out there. As both a history guy and an Engineer this subject greatly interests me, so I was very excited to read this book. Though I may be a conservative and believe strongly in God, I like many of the authors, do want to see history be fair and balanced or be taught without any bias and by the facts. However, this is very difficult with most of the history books, professors, and media out there being very left of center. With that said this book does a very good job in destroying some of the religion vs. science myths that unfortunately have permeated our society for a long time.

The Good: The book does a very good job at getting at the myths that have been created by men such as Draper, White, and Gibbon and have unfortunately been retold over and over again in classrooms around the world. These articles clearly and concretely made the case that the mythical "Dark Ages" never happened, that no one believed the Earth was Flat in the Middle Ages, the fact that the Catholic Church, Christianity and the Noble rulers of Europe have greatly supported science both financially and rhetorically and also by setting up universities and societies, that the Galileo story and its circumstances are greatly over exaggerated and untrue, that religion has played a very important role as the driving force in the lives of many of humanities greatest scientists, that Bruno was not killed for his science but for heresy, and that human dissection and other medically linked issues were not banned by the Church.

The Bad: I do have a problem with 3 myths in the book.
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Of the 25 chapters in this book, three are really effective, debunking the myths that medieval thinkers believed the earth was flat, that Darwin had a deathbed conversion, and that Darwin contributed to the rise of Nazi ideology. Even these are flawed. The flat earth chapter notes briefly that Dante described a spherical earth, but fails to note the far more damning criticism that Ptolemy, who supposedly shut medieval astronomy in a strait-jacket, explicitly stated that the earth was a sphere. The chapter on Darwin and the Nazis fails to note that Mein Kampf never mentions Darwin once, something a simple word-count could uncover. The chapters on the church and dissection and Einstein's belief in God are also informative. Too many other chapters rebut myths that no informed person believes anyway. One hardly needs a chapter in a book to dismiss the ideas that the Scopes Trial defeated anti-evolutionism or that creationism is a solely American phenomenon. The chapter defending Islam and its approach to science hammers away on the contributions of Golden Age Islam to science, something that no historically literate person questions anyway, but ends the discussion before delving into reasons for the decline of Islamic science. The chapters on the ancient and medieval world lump vast spans of time into a homogeneous mass, as if someone were to write about "modern times" and not distinguish between steam engines and jet aircraft. But the most disappointing chapters are those on Galileo and Bruno. The titular chapter on Galileo deals with the narrow question of whether he was actually imprisoned or tortured, when what is really needed is a discussion of church politics and Galileo's attacks on other scientists, as part of a wholesale demolition of the "martyr to science" myth.Read more ›
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