Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion (ed. Ronald Numbers)


Ex-evangelicals, like myself, have seen just about every possible way evangelicals, and religious people in general, can misuse and abuse science and history.  Some of these are infamous:  young earth creationism and conversion therapy come to mind.  But sometimes we’ve been over-exposed – or more accurately, unevenly exposed.  It can be easy to forget, in the midst of your pain and frustration, that those on the other side of the fence are sometimes just as capable of distorting facts if it suits their tribal preconceptions.  This isn’t a comment on whose distortions are worse or more dangerous – only an observation that non-religious folks are just as human as their religious counterparts, and thus just as capable of bias and blind spots.

Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion is exactly what it says:  a collection of short essays on various myths about science and religion.  And this is not, I repeat, not some evangelical hack job.  Ronald Numbers is a respected historian of science, and in his preface lays out the point of the book:  to refute the so-called Draper-White Thesis.

What is the Draper-White Thesis?  Well, to quote Numbers:  “The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict.”  In other words, one of the few things Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins agree on.  Which is exactly Numbers’ point.

Historians of science have known for years that White’s and Draper’s accounts are more propaganda than history.  (An opposing myth, that Christianity alone gave birth to modern science, is disposed of in Myth 9.)  Yet the message has rarely escaped the ivory tower.  The secular public, if it thinks about such issues at all, knows that organized religion has always opposed scientific progress (witness the attacks on Galileo, Darwin, and Scopes).  The religious public knows that science has taken the leading role in corroding faith (through naturalism and antibiblicism).  As a first step toward correcting these misperceptions we must dispel the hoary myths that continue to pass as historical truths.

Who, then, were Draper and White?  John William Draper, author of History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), and Andrew Dickson White, author of A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), and both helped popularize the idea that religion (generally Christianity) and science are fundamentally incompatible – something which, contrary to popular lore, was not generally believed prior to the 19th century.  Both men also operated at least partly from personal animus.  White was president of Cornell University and had been hounded by critics for making the university too freethinking.  Draper was okay with Protestants but had a major axe to grind against Catholicism (probably because of his Catholic sister’s cruelty to his dying son).  Nevertheless, their narrative took off and is now widely believed by both rabid atheists and religious fundamentalists.

As Numbers says, the myths undergirding this “warfare” narrative must be exploded for the rest of the edifice to collapse.  And so in Galileo Goes to Jail, twenty-five experts (including Numbers himself) each contributed an essay debunking a different myth.  Most of these are “pro-science” myths – i.e., myths about religion suppressing science, science disproving some facet of religion, or religious people being incapable of doing science.  Some myths, however, are “pro-religion.”  Most of these were already familiar to me because they’re stock and trade in evangelicalism – for example, Darwin supposedly converting on his deathbed.

Numbers also mentions the contributors’ religious affiliations (though he doesn’t identify who’s who).  Twelve are atheists or agnostics, five mainline Protestants, two evangelicals, one Catholic, one Jew, one Muslim, one Buddhist, one “devout Spinozist,” and one of unconventional belief that couldn’t be labeled.  In addition, about half the atheists/agnostics grew up in devout Christian homes.

(Interestingly, if you pay close attention to the numbers, some of the atheists/agnostics must have debunked some of the “pro-science” myths.  There were not enough “pro-religion” myths, and too many atheist/agnostic contributors.  Thus, in case you’re a worried Christian, the atheists/agnostics are shooting at their own “side” here.)

I don’t have space here to go through every myth in the book so I’ll just hit some highlights.  First, of course, the title myth:  Galileo’s alleged imprisonment and torture by the Inquisition.

This myth at least has understandable origins, because all the written evidence concerning Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition did not emerge immediately.  The only public records of Galileo’s 1633 trial – which was, indeed, for defending Copernicanism, so that part of the story is true – were the Inquisition’s sentence and Galileo’s “abjuration” (retraction) of his beliefs.  Certain terminology in the sentence – specifically, the phrase “rigorous examination” – was legalese for torture.  Readers thus logically concluded that torture had actually taken place.  The sentence also stipulated that Galileo was to be held indefinitely in the Inquisition’s jail.  Readers thus further concluded that Galileo had actually been jailed.  Makes sense, right?  Sure.  Until more evidence came to light.

As it turns out, the Tuscan ambassador to Rome, Francesco Niccolini, wrote home with detailed reports of Galileo’s trial.  (Galileo was chief mathematician and philosopher to the grand duke of Tuscany, so the Tuscan government was keenly interested in goings on.)  This correspondence didn’t emerge until the 1770s – far too late for the myth to catch up to the evidence – and revealed that Galileo’s “imprisonment” consisted of long stays at the Tuscan embassy (i.e. Niccolini’s house), the prosecutor’s six-room apartment at the Inquisition’s palace (where he had a servant and meals twice a day), and finally the grand duke of Tuscany’s palace, the Villa Medici.  Pretty nice digs for jail.  If he ever was jailed, it was only for three days, at the time of the “rigorous examination.”  But the balance of the evidence indicates even this was probably spent in the prosecutor’s apartment rather than a cell.  Turns out the Inquisition’s a lot nicer when you’re a celebrity.

The evidence relating to the supposed torture – the actual trial proceedings – came out even later, in the late 19th century.  (Of course the myth was even more ossified by this point, so of course nobody would change their mind because of something silly like new evidence.)  Turns out, there were no minutes of a torture session (there would have been, per the Inquisition’s own rules – apparently up to and including recording the victim’s groaning…).  Nor was there any record of the other required procedures surrounding torture.  Instead the Inquisition decided to subject Galileo to “interrogation under the threat of torture” – stiff questioning, but not torture itself.  There’s also no evidence that Galileo – already sixty-nine at the time of the trial, apparently with arthritis and a hernia to boot – was in any way injured or incapacitated after the interrogation.

(It is possible that Galileo could have been subjected to what was called territio realis – an intermediate step between verbal threats and “real” torture, which could have included, say, showing the victim the instruments, tying them to them but not using them, etc.  This isn’t consistent with the actual deposition, which only shows verbal questioning, so to make this fit you have to believe the deposition is inauthentic or edited.  It’s possible, but not the most likely reading of the evidence.)

I also want to highlight two myths I had unthinkingly accepted myself, simply because I’d heard them repeated so many times:  that the church prohibited human dissection and frowned upon painkillers for women in labor.

The dissection myth was started by our good friend White – based on evidence that later turned out to be either forged or much more limited in scope than White grasped.  There’s no evidence of dissection, by either Christians or non-Christians, until the 13th century, but this was due to primitive medical knowledge, not religious objections.  And after dissections began in Italian universities, there’s no evidence of anyone ever being prosecuted for it.  Anatomists were, however, prosecuted for grave robbing when they didn’t have enough corpses and took matters into their own hands.  And the reason they didn’t have enough corpses wasn’t religious rules, but the fact that being “exhibited” (i.e. dissected with an audience) naked after death and thus unable to have a proper funeral was considered shameful.  The supply was thus restricted to criminals and people without a family (the poor in public hospitals, visiting foreigners who died, etc.).  The church, meanwhile, was actually surprisingly cool with the whole idea:

Most medieval church authorities not only tolerated but encouraged the opening and dismemberment of human corpses to religious ends:  the embalming of holy bodies by evisceration;  their division to yield corporeal relics;  the inspection of the internal organs of holy men and women for signs of sanctity;  and the operation that came later to be known as caesarean section, whose aim was to baptize fetuses extracted from the bodies of women who died in childbirth.  All of these practices give the lie to the claim that the church as an institution was committed to the integrity of the human body after death, as does the widespread practice of dividing the corpses of princes and nobles before burial.

I mean, he makes a good point.  Where did all those relics come from if nobody was allowed to take bodies apart?

The anesthesia story I have heard repeated a lot, because it’s supposedly evidence of religious misogyny.  I never looked into it in detail.  Turns out it’s not based on much – at least as regards the introduction of chloroform in the 19th century.  In fact, the script was almost exactly flipped:  it was doctors who objected, while Christians seem to have been fine with it.

The route to the myth is understandable.  Genesis says women will have pain in childbirth.  Logically, then, shouldn’t at least some Christians see painkillers as “undoing the curse” and somehow sinful?  You would think – and many early advocates of chloroform did, and wrote tracts answering the “religious objections” to chloroform.  But these seem to have been anticipatory, rather than in response to actual objections.  In reality, almost all their opposition came from obstetricians, who thought labor pains were healthy and natural and feared sedated women couldn’t communicate effectively with their doctors during the birth.  There’s no evidence of any sustained theological objections at all.

So how did this myth get embedded in our cultural consciousness, if it’s based on basically nothing?  Draper and White, of course.  Funny how they keep coming up.

The contributors don’t only pick on scientists and atheists.  They also tackle a number of myths propagated by Christians, most of which I was familiar with already.  Einstein believed in a personal God (he didn’t);  intelligent design;  the idea that only Christianity could have produced modern science, etc.  The rebuttals are interesting, but I won’t rehash them here as I already have in my own head for several years.  The only one I wasn’t really familiar with was the idea that quantum physics proved the existence of free will (though honestly, that essay was more about Buddhists than Christians).

In summary, Galileo Goes to Jail is an excellent, generally straightforward guide to some of the biggest lies, half-truths and oversimplifications you’ll encounter if you ever try to educate yourself about these topics.  Biggest rule of thumb?  Nobody’s camp is perfect…not even yours.  Whichever camp that may be.


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