Next up: science and religion

This is something I haven’t done in nearly half a year, but I’ve decided to try it again: writing a chapter of the book by making each section a blog post. In this case, for the specific purpose of rewriting the discussion of science that I’ve been agonizing over. Here it goes.

Science and religion haven’t always gotten along. That much should be obvious to anyone who knows about Galileo and the evolution-creationism controversy. This doesn’t, by itself, show that religion in every form is wrong. There’s room for religious believers to insist that their version of religion is perfectly compatible with science.

But what amazes me is how many religious believers, and even nonbelievers who would like religion and science to get along, aren’t willing to leave it at that. I’m not referring to creationists, here. I’m referring to people who may be friendly to science, but who want to minimize the problems we’ve had in this area, or even deny that things like creationism or the prosecution of Galileo had anything to do with religion.

Take, for example, the anthology Galileo Goes to Jail: and Other Myths about Science and Religionedited by respected philosopher of science Ron Numbers, which was published with the clear aim of showing that the conflict between science and religion isn’t as bad as many people think. The title of the book comes from a chapter by Maurice A. Finocchiaro dedicated to debunking the myth “That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism” (pp. 68-78).

It turns out that the chapter has an interesting story to tell about how misinterpreted documents relating to Galileo’s trial led people to believe for a long time that Galileo had been tortured by the Inquisition when in fact he probably wasn’t. But as an attempt to show the conflict between science and religion isn’t so bad, this rings hollow. As Finocchiaro tells it, historians have realized that Galileo probably wasn’t tortured for over a hundred years.

And frankly, I’d never even heard the claim that Galileo was tortured until I heard defenders of religion making a big deal about how Galileo wasn’t tortured (Dinesh D’Souza also does this in his book What’s So Great about Christianityp. 73) The real story, the version I’d always heard, is damning enough: Galileo was forced to recant his scientific views and live the rest of his life under house arrest even after recanting. Furthermore, Finocchiaro makes clear that Galielo was threatened with torture.

Even stranger than this damning of the Catholic Church with the faint praise that at least it didn’t torture Galileo are the claims that the Galileo affair wasn’t about religion at all. For example, Thomas Dixon, in Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (part of Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introductions series), writes (p. 31):

Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily a dispute about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge.

I see no problem with the claim that the Galileo affair was about a political question, but to treat this as an alternative to viewing it as a time when science and religion came into conflict is bizarre. The Galileo affair was political, all right, but it was a political dispute where one side consisted of religious authorities claiming the power to force a scientist to recant his scientific views if those views were found to be religiously problematic.

In this series, I’m going to be looking at a number of areas where science and religion come into conflict. I’m going to be doing this partly as a response to those who deny that they ever come into conflict, who deny that they could possibly come into conflict. But even religious believers who merely claim that their version of religion is compatible with science may be surprised to see just how hard these conflicts are to avoid.


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