The NCSE, which does good work otherwise, is a bit too apologetic to religion for my taste. They’re bumbling all over themselves to criticize Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos because it highlighted the conflict between religion and science, which is always a no-no for the NCSE. Now it’s Josh Rosenau’s turn to complain bitterly about the historical inaccuracy of even mentioning the unpleasant fact that the church has burned people alive.
Against that outpouring of objections from historians of science and others who want to see the rebooted Cosmos live up to the highest ideals of scientific and historical accuracy…
Hang on there, that’s a bit slimy. Who is saying it was inaccurate? Rosenau cites a bunch of people claiming that Bruno wasn’t a scientist and didn’t die for heliocentrism; but the episode nowhere claimed that he was a scientist. It actually said he was a mystic. You can’t complain that the show was wrong, only that it put the Catholic church in a very bad light…which is actually what has all the complainers wound up. How dare you point out the pernicious influence of religious dogma on civilization? That has nothing to do with science!
…PZ Myers insists that we are all Missing the Point of Giordano Bruno. In PZ Myers’s reading, the point of having a science show talk about Bruno and his cosmology (which he arrived at through a mystical vision and which he set at odds with Copernicans because they did not use heliocentrism as a religious argument) was not to tell a story about the history of science and its relationship to society or religion, but to simply alert the world to the fact: “Bruno was tortured to an agonizing death for his beliefs. Full stop.” And more generally: “The Church maintained an Inquisition to torture people who didn’t follow Catholic dogma in thought.”
Rosenau’s argument is that the Bruno story was misleading and inaccurate. Is there anything inaccurate in those quotes? Here’s a fuller summary of what I was saying.
I don’t think it odd at all that the series brought Giordano Bruno to the fore. This is not at all a show for scientists, but to bring a little bit of the awe and wonder of science to everyone. I think it was a good idea to use a non-scientist as an example of how dogma oppresses and harms everyone. Bruno was an idealist, a mystic, an annoying weirdo, a heretic, and for that, the Catholic Church set him on fire.
But somehow, being a weirdo means, in Rosenau’s eyes, that Bruno must be set apart from the real scientists. The church was only burning heretics, it would be a whole different matter if they were burning scientists.
To PZ’s eyes, nothing about that segment rested on whether Bruno was the brave vox clamantis in deserto, calmly championing heliocentrism and an infinite universe. The fact that Bruno wasn’t killed for those beliefs (not, of course, that he should have been killed for any of his beliefs, nor for stating them publicly!), that he didn’t arrive at his conclusions for scientific or empirical reasons, and didn’t try to test those ideas scientifically, are all, in PZ’s telling, irrelevant.
Exactly! Completely irrelevant!
Why is this so hard to understand? How could science function in a world where theological arbiters of the permissible truth can silence anyone who disagrees with them? I should think living in a culture of fear where you could be murdered for saying something the pope didn’t like was a rather effective way of suppressing scientific progress. Kill a few idealists for saying something against church dogma, and suddenly, those scientific investigations begin to look rather dangerous.
How long would a Darwin have lasted if he’d been born 200 years earlier?
But also, I’m getting a little annoyed with these people claiming that Bruno wasn’t killed for that one specific belief about the movement of the earth. He was! We have the list of eight charges for which Bruno was condemned. Note especially number 5.
1 – The statement of “two real and eternal principles of existence: the soul of the world and the original matter from which beings are derived”.
2 – The doctrine of the infinite universe and infinite worlds in conflict with the idea of Creation: “He who denies the infinite effect denies the infinite power”.
3 – The idea that every reality resides in the eternal and infinite soul of the world, including the body: “There is no reality that is not accompanied by a spirit and an intelligence”.
4 – The argument according to which “there is no transformation in the substance”, since the substance is eternal and generates nothing, but transforms.
5 – The idea of terrestrial movement, which according to Bruno, did not oppose the Holy Scriptures, which were popularised for the faithful and did not apply to scientists.
6 – The designation of stars as “messengers and interpreters of the ways of God”.
7 – The allocation of a “both sensory and intellectual” soul to earth.
8 – The opposition to the doctrine of St Thomas on the soul, the spiritual reality held captive in the body and not considered as the form of the human body.
It’s mostly a lot of New Agey sounding bollocks, with a fascination with contradicting bizarre Catholic doctrine with new, equally bizarre nonsense. So? That the earth rotates around the sun was one of his beliefs, and he didn’t come up with it any more than Josh Rosenau or I came up with the idea of evolution—but you still don’t get to murder people for their harmless beliefs, whether they’re original or scientifically tested or not.
Here’s another example that would have really driven the apologists for religion nuts: Michael Servetus. He was also set on fire in the 16th century for ideas that the Catholic Church detested, specifically for denying the trinity (stop right there and think about it: one of the most ridiculous, unsupportable (by evidence or the Bible, even) beliefs of modern Christianity, and they’ve been killing people and committing genocide for disagreeing with it). But Servetus was an early scientist — he was the first to figure out that the heart was a double-circuit pump, identifying the pulmonary circulation.
But most people didn’t know about it, because after they set him on fire, they set his books on fire too. No one knew about this discovery until William Harvey rediscovered it a hundred years later…and the last few hidden copies of Servetus’s books (I think only 3 survived the flames) were revealed.
So he was executed for his theology. But to pretend that this had no consequences for the advancement of science is ludicrous.
Watch the show yourself and judge what point the segment is making. But if PZ is right and the point was to talk about the horrors of the Roman Inquisition, why not expound upon the Albigensian Crusade or the Hussite Crusade or Joan of Arc or Girolamo Savonarola or William Tyndale, who also were put to death for their theological heterodoxies? Why spin a misleading [assertion not in evidence–pzm] tale about Bruno, implying that he inspired and laid the groundwork for a modern cosmology in which the universe is infinite, our sun is just another star, and our planets orbit our sun as other planets orbit other suns?
Yes, let’s! How about, though, if the lackeys for religion count themselves very, very lucky that Tyson only selected one man as an example, rather than exhaustively listing all of religion’s crimes against humanity? He highlighted one example, and moved on, and still the apologists are up in arms over it.
Here’s the thing. Neil deGrasse Tyson is not a militant atheist. He has specifically said that he does not want to make atheism his cause — he has other goals in mind. And yet, even here, people are freaking out because he openly discussed the deleterious effects of dogma on science.