Templeton Report
News from the John Templeton Foundation
May 28, 2009

Myth-Busting, from Galileo to Heisenberg

Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2009).
Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2009).

"The idea that Galileo was tortured by the Catholic Church for his views on astronomy encapsulates for many people the history of science and religion," says Ronald Numbers, a leading historian in the field and a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The editor of a new volume called Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Numbers explained to the Templeton Report that Galileo, in fact, was never subjected to the Inquisition's harsh punishments. He was treated during his trial like an "honored guest, not some low-down heretic."

The book, published by Harvard University Press and based on a 2007 conference supported by the Templeton Foundation, includes essays by twenty-five historians and philosophers of science, each of whom tries to set the record straight on some widely believed "myth" in the complicated relationship between science and religion.

Michael Shank, a colleague of Numbers in the history of science department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, challenges the idea that the medieval church suppressed the growth of science. By 1500, he notes, there were sixty universities throughout Europe and "30 percent of the medieval university curriculum covered subjects and texts concerned with the natural world."

Which is not to say that Christianity was somehow solely responsible for the development of modern science. As Noah Efron, who chairs the program in Science, Technology, and Society at Bar Ilan University in Israel, observes in his essay, scientists like Johannes Kepler and Copernicus "owe a great debt to their Greek forbears" and also "benefited from Muslim and, to a lesser degree, Jewish philosophers of nature."

James Moore, a historian at the Open University in England and co-author of a best-selling biography of Darwin, takes on the myth that evolution destroyed Darwin's faith, until he reconverted on his deathbed. The idea was popularized, according to Moore, by a number of "untutored evangelicals." In fact, Darwin's faith faltered slowly over the course of his lifetime, and he told his family, a few years before his death, that he was "content to remain an agnostic."

Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg (clockwise from upper left)
Clockwise from upper left:
Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg.

Nor did Darwin's ideas destroy philosophical arguments for God's existence, writes Jon Roberts, a professor of intellectual history at Boston University. After Darwin, theists simply broadened the scope of their argument to say that it was not the pattern of living things that proved the case for God but rather "the intelligibility of the natural world as a whole."

Matthew Stanley of New York University examines Albert Einstein's declarations about the divine and concludes that he did not believe in a personal God. "To Einstein," Stanley writes, "divine judgment and the efficacy of prayer seemed completely implausible in light of the consistency of science." And Daniel Patrick Thurs, the author of Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Popular Culture, shows why various 20th-century mystics are mistaken in trying to find "room for spirituality" in the "jostling and overlapping possibilities" of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

For Ronald Numbers, the point of the essays is not to defend one or another side in these heated historical disputes. "I don't have a dog in this fight," he told the Templeton Report. "I'm not defending science, and I'm not a religious believer. I just want people to know what happened."


Templeton on YouTube

Christopher Hitchens

The Foundation has now posted on YouTube more than fifty video clips from recent Templeton Book Forum events, Big Questions events, interviews with Templeton Prize laureates, and other lectures and discussions. The most viewed videos so far include a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete on the Big Question "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" and an interview with author Dambisa Moyo about her new book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. To see these and other videos, visit the John Templeton Foundation YouTube Channel.

In Character in the News

In Character

In Character, the Templeton Foundation's thrice-yearly "Journal of Everyday Virtues," was recently the subject of a glowing feature article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Carlin Romano. He described In Character as combining "a magazine's pizzazz and bold graphics with a scholarly journal's intellectual heft and authority."

Romano visited Templeton headquarters just outside of Philadelphia, where he spoke with the Foundation's executive vice president Arthur Schwartz and In Character editor Charlotte Hays. "These virtues are perennial," Schwartz told him. "We thought it would be nice to shed light on them." Hays explained: "What I want to do with this magazine is to make virtue as interesting as vice. Not to preach virtue, but to examine it."

Romano highlighted the journal's "feisty roundtables that have asked tough questions." The fall 2008 "forgiveness" issue gathered nine intellectuals, including Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza, to debate, "Must We Forgive the Unforgivable?" The "courage" issue brought together NYU Islam expert Irshad Manji, Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Paul McHugh, Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse of Harvard, and others to ponder, "Were the 9/11 Terrorists Brave?"

World Science Festival 2009

World Science Festival

The World Science Festival will take place in mid-June in New York City for its second year, again with major grant support from the Templeton Foundation. Declared "a new cultural institution" by the New York Times and "unspeakably cool" by Time Out New York, the multiday event will feature a Templeton-funded Big Ideas series, with five panels:

The inaugural World Science Festival in 2008 attracted over 120,000 people to 44 events and 22 venues located throughout New York City. For more information about this year's Festival or to buy tickets, visit http://www.worldsciencefestival.com/

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