The title is supposed to make you think of a typical article in the Daily Fail, Britain’s most obnoxious representative of the gutter press. It represents one of the dominant reactions by members of the Gnu Model ArmyTM to the Cosmos Bruno AffairTM. According to people such as Jason Rosenhouse and P Z Myer the persecution of such notable scientists as Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei by the Catholic Church has definitely hindered the progress of science and for good measure they or their supporters quote the words of wisdom of Über-Guru Neil deGasse Tyson that without religion science would be a thousand years more advanced. What an outrage, truly horrific the Church it seems has a lot to answer for, although I find it rather strange that they can’t dish up more examples than poor old Giordano and that universal symbol of Church oppression Galileo. I’m sure if they re-read their Draper-White they could manage to find some new names to beat the ignorant historians around the head with. I say ignorant historians because it was the historians complaining about the Bruno cartoon on the first episode of Cosmos that has brought out this charge by these stalwart defenders of scientific integrity.

Let us assume for a moment that Rosenhouse-Myer are correct and that the Catholic Church did in fact persecute Bruno and Galileo to block scientific progress does this necessarily mean that they were successful in their dastardly deeds? Did they truly manage to interrupt, slow down, or hinder the adoption, acceptance or acknowledgement of the heliocentric hypothesis or the belief in an infinite universe or the perception that the sun is a star or vice versa? No doubt about it, this is a serious charge and one that should definitely be explicated.

Now Myer and Tyson are both practicing scientists whilst Rosenhouse is a mathematician, all of them work in disciplines that require one, if one makes a substantial claim, to provide the appropriate evidence or proof to support that claim. What is with their claim that religion has blocked the advance of science in general or in the case of Bruno and Galileo the acceptance of modern astronomy and cosmology in particular? Have our scientific practitioners provided the necessary evidence to back up their claims? Do they provide a tightly argued historical thesis based on solid documentary evidence to prove their assertions? Can they demonstrate that if the Church had not intervened modern astronomy would have become accepted much earlier than it was? Given their outspoken support of the ‘scientific method’, whatever that might be, you would expect them to do so, wouldn’t you? Do they hell! They don’t waste one single word on the topic. No evidence, no proofs, no academic arguments just plain straightforward unsubstantiated claims in the style of the gutter press. A pretty poor showing for the defenders of scientific faith.

But could they still be right? Even if they don’t take the trouble to provide the historical discourse necessary to substantiate their claims, could it be true that the Church’s actions against Bruno and Galileo did in fact have a negative influence on the acceptance of heliocentricity and other aspects of modern astronomy and cosmology? Let us examine the historical facts and answer the questions that Rosenhouse-Myer and Tyson are apparently above answering, the truth being apparently so obviously clear that they don’t require answering.

To start with the poor Giordano, Bruno was one of those who advocated Copernicus’ heliocentric astronomy already in the sixteenth-century. He however went beyond Copernicus in a series of cosmological speculations and it is these that Cosmos thought to be so important that they devoted eleven minutes of a forty-five minute broadcast to them. I shall deal with the acceptance of heliocentricity separately later and only address Bruno’s cosmology now. Copernicus himself expressly left the question as to whether the cosmos is finite or infinite, as he said, to the philosophers, with good reason. This question was purely speculative and could not, with the evidence and possibilities available to the Renaissance astronomer, be addressed in anything approaching a scientific manner. To all intents and purposes the cosmos appeared finite and Renaissance scholars had no means available to prove otherwise. Bruno’s speculation was of course not new.

In his own times Nicolas Cusanus had already considered the question and earlier, in the first-century BCE, the Epicurean philosopher poet Lucretius, Bruno’s inspiration, had included it in his scientific poem De rerum natura. Lucretius of course did not invent the concept but was merely repeating the beliefs of the fifth-century BCE Greek atomists. All of this demonstrates that the idea of an infinite cosmos was fairly common at the beginning of the seventeenth century and nothing the Church said or did was likely to stop anybody speculating about it. The thing that prevented anybody from going further than speculation was the lack of the necessary scientific apparatus to investigate the question, a similar situation to that of the string-theorists and multiverse advocates of today.

This does not mean that astronomers did not address the problem of the size of the cosmos and the distance to the stars. Amongst others Galileo, Jeremiah Horrocks, Christiaan Huygens and Isaac Newton all tried to estimate/calculate the distances within the solar system and outward towards the stars. First in the middle of the eighteenth century with the transit of Venus measurements were these efforts rewarded with a minimum of success. It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that the first stellar distance measurements, through stellar parallax, were achieved. All of these delays were not caused by anything the Church had done but by the necessity of first developing the required scientific theories and apparatus.

Bruno’s next cosmological speculation was that the sun and the stars were one and the same. Once again there was nothing new in this. Anaxagoras had already had the same idea in the fifth-century BCE and John Philoponus in the fifth-century CE. Once again the problem with this speculation was not any form of religious objection but a lack of scientific theory and expertise to test it. This first became available in the nineteenth century with development of spectroscopy. This of course first required the development of the new matter theory throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a process that involved an awful lot of science.

Bruno’s last speculation and the one that bothered the Church was the existence of inhabited planets other than the Earth. Again this was nothing new and whatever the Church might have thought about it that speculation generated a lively debate in the seventeenth century that is still going on. We still don’t actually know whether we are alone or not.

Given my knowledge of the history of science I can’t see anywhere, where the Church hindered or even slowed down scientific progress on those things that Bruno speculated about in his cosmological fantasy. But what about heliocentricity, here surely the Church’s persecution of both Bruno and Galileo hindered science bay the hounds of anti-religious rationalism.

What follows is a brief sketch of the acceptance of the heliocentric astronomy hypothesis in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is a subject I’ve dealt with before in various posts but it doesn’t hurt to repeat the process as there are several important lessons to be learnt here. To begin with there is a common myth that acceptance of ‘correct’ new scientific theories is almost instantaneous. To exaggerate slightly, Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity in 1915 and the world changed overnight or at the latest when Eddington confirmed the bending of light rays conform with general relativity in 1919. In reality the acceptance of the general theory of relativity was still a topic of discussion when I was being educated fifty years later and that despite numerous confirmatory tests. Before it is accepted a major new scientific theory must be examined, questioned, tested, reformed, modified and shown to be superior to all serious alternatives. In the Early Modern Period with communication considerably slower this process was even slower.

Copernicus published his De revolutionibus in 1543 and there were only ten people in the entire world, including Bruno but much more importantly both Kepler and Galileo, who accepted it lock, stock and barrel by 1600. This system had only one real scientific advantage over the geocentric one; it could explain the retrograde movement of the planets. However this was not considered to be very important at the time. There were some relatively low-key religious objection but these did not play any significant role in the very slow initial acceptance of the theory. The problematic objections were observationally empirical and had already been discussed by Ptolemaeus in his Syntaxis Mathematiké in the second-century CE. Put very simple if the world is spinning very fast and hurtling through space at an alarming speed why don’t we get blown away? Copernicus had the correct answer to this problem when he suggested that the atmosphere was carried round with the earth in the form of a bubble so to speak. Unfortunately he lacked the physics to explain and justify such a claim. It would take most of the seventeenth century and the combined scientific efforts of Kepler, Galileo, Stevin, Borelli, Descartes, Pascal, Huygens, Newton and a whole boatload of lesser lights to create the necessary physics to explain how gravity holds the atmosphere in place whilst the earth is moving.  This process was not hindered by the Church in anyway whatsoever.

There was a second level of acceptance of Copernicus theory, an instrumental one, as a mathematical model to deliver astronomical data for various applications, astrology, cartography, navigations etc. Here the system based on the same inaccurate data as the Ptolemaic one did not fair particularly well. Disgusted by the inaccuracy of both systems Tycho Brahe started a new long-term observational programme to obtain new accurate data. Whilst doing so he developed a third model, the so-called geo-heliocentric model, in which the planets orbited the sun, which in turn orbited the stationary earth. This model had the advantage of explaining retrograde motion without setting the earth in motions, a win-win situation.

The first major development came with the invention of the telescope in 1608 and its application to astronomical observation from 1609 onwards. The first telescopic discoveries did not provide any proofs for either the Copernican or the Tychonic models but did refute both the Aristotelian homocentric model and the Ptolemaic model. Around the same time a new candidate, the Keplerian elliptical astronomy, entered the ring with the publications of Kepler’s Astronomia nova in 1609. For a full list of the plethora of possible astronomical models at the beginning of the seventeenth century see this earlier post.

By 1620 the leading candidate was a Tychonic model with diurnal rotation. It should be pointed out that due to the attempts of Galileo and Foscarini to reinterpret Holy Scripture in favour of heliocentricity the Catholic Church had entered the action in 1615 and forbidden the heliocentric theory but not the heliocentric hypothesis. The distinction is important. The theory says heliocentricity is a scientific fact the hypothesis says it’s a possibility. At this time heliocentricity was in fact an unproved hypothesis and not a theory. This is the point where Rosenhouse-Myers step in and claim that the Church hindered scientific progress but did they. The straightforward answer is no. The astronomers and physicist carried on looking for answers to the open questions and solutions to the existing problems. There is no evidence whatsoever of a slowing down or interruption in their research efforts.

Between 1618 and 1621 Kepler published his Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae explaining his elliptical astronomy and his three laws of planetary motion in simple terms and in 1627 the Tabulae Rudolphinae the astronomical tables based on his system and Tycho’s new accurate data. It was these two publications that would lead to the general acceptance of heliocentricity by those able to judge by around 1660. Kepler’s publications delivered the desired accurate prognoses of planetary positions, eclipses etc. required by astrologers, cartographers, navigators etc.

At no point in the 120 years between the initial publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and the general acceptance of heliocentricity in the form of Kepler’s elliptical astronomy is there any evidence of the Church having slowed or hindered progress in this historical process. To close it should be pointed out that it would be another seventy years before any solid scientific evidence for the heliocentric hypothesis was found by Bradley, in the form of stellar aberration.






Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Uncategorized


  1. According to people such as Jason Rosenhouse and P Z Myer the persecution of such notable scientists as Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei by the Catholic Church has definitely hindered the progress of science and for good measure they or their supporters quote the words of wisdom of Über-Guru Neil deGasse Tyson that without religion science would be a thousand years more advanced.

    We would need to replay the tape of the universe, and see how it works out next time.

    The academy and science are very conservative institutions. That’s conservative in the sense of resisting change. It seems to me that there has always been resistance to change, and the church is only a small part of that resistance.

    I took Jason and PZ to be presenting rhetoric, rather than history.

    In any case, a good call.

  2. MarylandBill

    Great article.

  3. M Tucker

    Rosenhouse, Myer and Tyson are engaging in crass propaganda peddling. It is because of their deeply held belief that religion is the root of all evil humanity has ever experienced. One of those evils is the supposed retardation of scientific progress. As you say, they do not present any documentation but they are not bothered by the lack of facts or evidence. If you tell a lie enough times it becomes the truth. Documentation actually gets in the way of myth building and you can’t support a lie with facts.

    This is just a continuation of a trend that has been going on for some time now. We saw it in Tyson’s explanation for the decline of Islamic science. We see it in the appalling history that appears in Freeman Dyson’s review of Mario Livio’s “Brilliant Blunders” book that appeared this month in the New York Review of Books. We see it in that worthless movie done by Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins. And we see it again in that dubious history of science book by Mitchell Stephens, “Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World.”
    Thank God for real historians!

  4. Jeb

    “I’m sure if they re-read their Draper-White they could manage to find some new names to beat the ignorant historians around the head with. ”

    Or perhaps Historia Arcana, the recent taste for tales of the black death reminds me of Procopius’s Secret History.

    I rather like the one about Cats. The catholic church thought that cats were linked to Satan, embarked on mass extermination of cats and caused the spread of the black death. Apparently this all happened in the dark ages.

    I am guessing L.K. Little missed this vital piece of story- telling when he edited “Plague and the End of antiquity: The pandemic of 541-750.”

  5. “The thing that prevented anybody from going further than speculation was the lack of the necessary scientific apparatus to investigate the question, a similar situation to that of the string-theorists and multiverse advocates of today.”

    I don’t believe there is any apparatus at all that can “test the multiverse” See Not Even Wrong:

  6. Typo throughout: it should be “P. Z. Myers”.

  7. JanetN

    But, but, but, … wasn’t the ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’ formalised by Pope Leo X in 1515 which included works by Kepler, Descartes and others, an attempt by the Catholic Church to hinder scientific ideas? Otherwise why did they bother?

  8. There was plenty of conflict in the 16th and 17th Centuries, but damned little of it was about astronomy. You could get burned at the stake for doubting the Trinity—that’s what doomed Michael Servetus, for example—but whether the sun was in the middle or not just didn’t rouse the same level of passion. The New Atheists project their own obsessions back to an era that was very different than the present. People of the time had obsessions of their own, but they didn’t revolve around the Warfare of Science and Theology. The form of modern learning that really was perilous to pursue in the Reformation/Counterreformation era wasn’t natural science, but philology since questioning the authenticity of texts was much more threatening to orthodoxy than cosmological speculations. Why get so much more upset about the travails of Galileo than the troubles of Isaac La Peyrere who pointed out that the inconvenient antiquity of Egyptian and Mesopotamian kingdoms? Spinoza’s Theologo-Political Treatise, which doesn’t have much to say about the new physics but does claim that Moses couldn’t have written the Torah, caused an enormous upset in Christendom among both Protestants and Catholics. By the time Spinoza wrote that work, the Jesuits were already switching over to heliocentric astronomy. Modern philology was a lot harder to assimilate.

    Any chance the New Atheists will ever attempt to understand the past on its own terms? I didn’t think so.

  9. History counter-factuals (here, “Can they demonstrate that if the Church had not intervened modern astronomy would have become accepted much earlier than it was?”) are always great fun and impossible to prove — if ever there was a messy, ill-defined, bristling-with-confounding-variables system, it’s history.

    One data-point, of sorts: Hinduism was far more diverse and accepting of alternate creation scenarios (see the In Our Time “Hindu Ideas of Creation” podcast, but modern astronomy arose in the West nonetheless.

  10. One statement: “[The heliocentric system] had only one real scientific advantage over the geocentric one; it could explain the retrograde movement of the planets” — strikes me as a bit odd. After all, the Ptolemaic epicycles were introduced precisely to explain retrograde motion (for the outer planets) — though I guess it depends on exactly what you consider an explanation. However, the heliocentric hypothesis explained certain regularities about retrograde motion, chief among them the fact that the “epicyclic period” (not a standard term) of the outer planets were all one Earth-year. Also it explained why the inner planets were never found in opposition. The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy by James Evans gives a fine discussion.

    • The deferent/epicycle model used by Ptolemaeus enables reasonably accurate calculation of the positions of a planet in its orbit including during the retrograde phases of that orbit. It doesn’t actually explain those retrograde phases.

      The heliocentric model explains those retrograde phases as being effectively optical illusions caused by the relative positions of the earth and the planet in question as the faster earth overtakes the slower outer planet.

      This was and is a major advance in planetary astronomy.

      • Well, yes, I basically agree. As I said, it depends partly on what you mean by explain.

        The heliocentric model is geometrically equivalent to a geocentric model quite close to the Ptolemaic model. (Some rescaling needed, and a few esoteric details.) I wonder if someone like Regiomontanus would agree with us that the heliocentric model had an explanatory advantage.

        I have in mind the old issue of theory choice. Why did the same “data base” of observation and theory convert someone like Kepler to heliocentrism but fail to convince people like Clavius and Maestlin? I think we agree that the latter were lacking neither smarts nor knowledge. The traditional answer is that they were stick-in-the-muds, with ossified attitudes. I don’t agree with this, and I’ll bet you don’t either.

      • Yes the deferent-epicycle geocentric and heliocentric models are mathematically equivalent as demonstrated by Magini in the sixteenth century and Derek de Solla Price, somewhat more formally, in the twentieth.

        The explanation of retrograde motion was in fact not recognised by the majority of astronomers in the second half of the sixteenth-century as a convincing argument and thus they didn’t adopt heliocentricity.

        I think however you made an error in your comment as Maestlin did accept heliocentricity and taught it to his students amongst whom was of course Johannes Kepler.


  12. Ian H Spedding

    I notice that over at Uncommon Descent vjtorley has posted the first part of an extended response to P Z Myers OP.

    • laura

      Thanks for the link. I’ve always assumed that the claim that Bruno had an iron spike driven through his tongue when he was burned had to be a myth but I’ve never seen it debunked. Now I know where to go to find the debunking.

      I just wish the author didn’t overstate his case with silly claims like “secularism… actively persecutes scientists who question those orthodoxies with far greater zeal than the Inquisition ever did.”

      • But that is one of their central tenets, that ID/creationism is correct only there’s a conspiracy by atheists and scientists to keep it from getting the recognition it deserves. That they are being persecuted, prevented from publishing papers on it in journals, that the orthodoxy of science is keeping them down.
        It’s all lies of course, but that doesn’t stop them repeating it all.

    • Frankly, anything they say over there is likely to be
      1) wrong
      2) self serving
      3) lies.
      It’s the “really we’re not creationists, honest” community. Can you tell I despise ID/creationists? They’re really stupid, and wrong. Did I say they were wrong? They are, wronger than the many wrong things that politicians say.

      • laura

        Yes, of course they’re wrong and ID is a sham (personally I would go so far as to say theism in its entirety is a sham but then I also know a lot of theists who are smarter than me, so I don’t say it too loudly). Which is why it’s somewhat depressing that the ID/church crowd often displays a better and more subtle understanding of history than their “skeptical” opponents, correcting for the obvious agendas of both parties.

  13. Laura, I think that you will find that there are a number of the “church crowd” who think that I.D. is a sham too. Kenneth Miller (Dover trial) Stephen Matheson and Dennis Venema come to mind.
    I also recall seeing a video where Simon Conway-Morris looked like he was going to burst his Carotid artery at the suggestion that I.D. was science.

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  17. mnbczj

    “There is no evidence whatsoever of a slowing down or interruption in their research efforts.”

    It seems like that would be proving a negative. You can’t definitely “prove” that the absence of something proves something. You can seemingly support either position with equal lack of proof (and you are certainly not neutral, as such arguments try to give the impression of).

    Nonetheless I think that assumption is self-evident. Not only were their efforts to stall free thinking (as exactly such trials) but they were also carried out for maximum effect, and since they were quite psychologically “effective” and absolutist, there can be no question that they weren’t altogether neutral or positive on how research and scholarship were conducted. What’s also noticeable is how you have to cherrypick, ignore cases or whole movements of eradication, and then overly stress a history or conditions of how a bad ending could have been avoided.

    The state of research must not be doubted in order to doubt the motivation and emphasis of such “neutral” asbolutist positions.

  18. What’s also noticeable is how you have to cherrypick, ignore cases or whole movements of eradication, and then overly stress a history or conditions of how a bad ending could have been avoided.

    Really! Where? Give real examples!

    • mnbczj

      Well, your whole unequivocal statement in this debate. If you accept that there have been prosecutions, you have to admit that the church had a negative effect on free thinking.

      My two examples would be the same you discuss. Instead you show that basically conditions haven’t been right in order to prove something as fact or that possibly they behaved in a way that let them walk into their own disaster, while the elephant in the room, around which this all revolves remains the prosecution and restrictions to free thinking, valid ideas and arguments. Maybe scientists are in this case less pedantic about the definitions of a scientif method.

      I am coming from a discussion of this in another place, so this might have escalated my tone and lowered my patience, so maybe I could have made my points more elegantly and unemotional…

  19. Michael r. Hesselbrock

    So the threat of incarceration, including death would not
    slow progress?

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