Perpetuating the myths

Since the re-emergence of science in Europe in the High Middle Ages down to the present the relationship between science and religion has been a very complex and multifaceted one that cannot be reduced to a simple formula or a handful of clichés. Many of the practitioners, who produced that science, were themselves active servants of their respective churches and many of their colleagues, whilst not clerics, were devoted believers and deeply religious. On they other had there were those within the various church communities, who were deeply suspicious of or even openly hostile to the newly won scientific knowledge that they saw as a threat to their beliefs. Over the centuries positions changed constantly and oft radically and any historian, who wishes to investigate and understand that relationship at any particular time or in any given period needs to tread very carefully and above all not to approach their research with any preconceived conclusions or laden down with personal prejudices in one direction or another.

In the nineteenth century just such preconceived conclusions based on prejudice became dominant in the study of the history of science propagated by the publications of the English-American chemist John William Draper and his colleague the American historian and educator Andrew Dickson White. These two scholar propagated what is now know as the Conflict or Draper-White Thesis, which claims that throughout history the forces of science and religion have been in permanent conflict or even war with each other. Draper wrote in his provocatively titled, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874)

The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.

In 1876 in his equally provocative The Warfare of Science, White wrote:

In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and to science—and invariably. And, on the other hand, all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed, for the time, to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good of religion and of science.

Twenty years later White ramped up the heat in his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.

Draper’s and White’s polemics became widely accepted and Galileo, Darwin and other figures out of the history of science came to be regarded as martyrs of science, persecuted by the bigoted forces of religion.

Throughout the twentieth century historians of science have striven to undo the damage done by the Draper-White thesis and return the history of the relationship between science and religion to the complex and multifaceted reality with which I introduced this post. They were not helped in recent decades by the emergence of the so-called New Atheists and the ill considered and unfortunately often historically ignorant anti-religious polemics spewed out by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, supposedly in the name of freedom of thought. I have, although a life-long atheist myself, on more than one occasion taken up arms, on this blog, against the sweeping anti-religious generalisations with respect to the history of science spouted by the new atheist hordes.

So it was with more than slight sense of despair that I read the preview in The Atlantic of

A Graphic Novel About 17th-Century Philosophy with the title Heretics!

This is described by its publishers the Princeton University Press as follows:

An entertaining, enlightening, and humorous graphic narrative of the dangerous thinkers who laid the foundation of modern thought

The Atlantic’s review/preview confirmed my darkest suspicions. We get informed:

Dark spots across the sun, men burned at the stake, an all-powerful church that brooks no idea outside its dogma—there is no subject so imbued with drama, intrigue, and fast-paced action as 17th-century Western philosophy. And thus no medium does it justice like the graphic novel.

No, really.

Heretics!, a graphic novel by Steven and Ben Nadler, introduces readers to what is arguably the most interesting, important, and consequential period in the history of Western philosophy. While respecting recent scholarship on 17th-century thought, [my emphasis] the Nadlers sought to make these stories and ideas as accessible and engaging to as broad an audience as possible without condescension. At times, this called for some historical liberties and anachronism. (Full disclosure: there were no laptop computers or iPods in the 17th century.)

We are back in Draper-White territory with a vengeance! The last thing that the Nadlers do is to respect recent scholarship, in fact they turn the clock back a long way, deliberately avoiding all the work done by modern historians of science.

The sample chapter provided by The Atlantic starts with Giordano Bruno, who else, much loved as a martyr for science by the new atheist hordes.

Source: The Atlantic

We see here that, as usual, Bruno’s cosmology is featured large, whilst his theological views are tucked away in the corner. Just two comments, Bruno was by no stretch of the imagination a scientist, read this wonderful essay by Tim O’Neill if you don’t believe me, and his “highly unorthodox” theological views included denial of the trinity, denial of Jesus’ divinity and denial of the virgin birth any one of which would have got him a free roasting courtesy of the Catholic Church if he had never written a single word about cosmology.

Up next, prime witness for the prosecution, who else but our old friend Galileo Galilei. We get the hoary old cliché of him throwing rocks off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which he almost certainly never did.

We now move on to Galileo the astronomer,

Source: The Atlantic

who having made his telescopic discoveries claims that, “Copernicus was right.”

Source: The Atlantic

Know what, in 1615 Galileo was very careful not to claim that because he knew that it was a claim that he couldn’t back up. What he did do, which brought him into conflict with the Church was to suggest that the Church should change its interpretations of the Bible, definitely not on for a mere mathematician in the middle of the Counter Reformation and for which he got, not unsurprisingly, rapped over the knuckles. In 1616 Pope Paul V did not condemn Copernicus’s theory as heresy, in fact no pope ever did.

We then have Galileo sulking in his room and he isgoing to show them! In fact Galileo courted the Catholic Church and was a favourite of the papal court in Rome; he received official permission from Pope Urban VIII to write his Diologo. I’m not going to go into the very complex detail as to why this backfired but a couple of short comments are necessary here. At that time the heliocentric theory did not do a much better job of explain the phenomena in the heavens and on earth. Galileo’s book is strong on polemic and weak on actual proofs. Also, and I get tired of pointing this out, Galileo was not condemned as a heretic but found guilty of grave suspicion of heresy. There is a massive legal difference between the two charges. Paying attention to the fine detail is what makes for a good historian. We close, of course with the classic cliché, “And yet the earth moves.” No, he didn’t say that!

Source: The Atlantic

We then get a comic book description of the differences between the philosophies of Aristotle and Descartes that unsurprisingly doesn’t do either of them justice. All of this is of course only a lead up to the fact that Descartes decided not to publish his early work explicating his philosophy including his belief in heliocentricity, Traité du monde et de la lumière, on hearing of Galileo’s trial and punishment. This is dealt with by the Nadlers with a piece of slapstick humour, “Zut alors! I don’t want to get into trouble too!” Has anybody ever actually heard a Frenchman say “Zut alors!”?

Source: The Atlantic

This episode in intellectual history is actually of great interest because as far as is known Descartes is the only author in the seventeenth century who withdrew a book from publication because of the Pope’s edict against teaching heliocentricity. He appears to have done so not out of fear for his own safety but out of respect for his Jesuit teachers, whom he did not wish to embarrass. This was rather strange as other Jesuits and students of Jesuit academies wrote and published books on heliocentrism merely prefacing them with the disclaimer that the Holy Mother Church in its wisdom has correctly condemned this theory but it’s still quite fun to play with it hypothetically. The Church rarely complained and appearances were maintained.

This very superficial and historically highly inaccurate comic book in no way does justice to its subject but will do a lot of damage to the efforts of historians of science to present an accurate and balanced picture of the complex historical relationship between science and religion.

For anybody who is interested in the real story I recommend John Hadley Brooke’s classic Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (1991) and Peter Harrison’s, soon to be equally classic, The Territories of Science and Religion (2015). On reading The Atlantic review/preview Peter Harrison tweeted the following:

Oh dear…. Not the optimal format for communicating the complexities of history – Peter Harrison (@uqharri)

James Ungureanu another expert on the relations between science, religion and culture also tweeted his despair on reading The Atlantic review/preview:

When I saw this earlier, I died a little. It must be right because it’s funny! – James C Ungureanu (@JamesCUngureanu)


Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Myths of Science

23 responses to “Perpetuating the myths

  1. This is unfortunate. It can’t even get the basic facts right, since Galileo discovered Jupiter’s moons in 1609. Siderius Nuncius was published in 1610. It might be good for the students in my science and religion class to tear apart (the conflict thesis lasts about two days before its destroyed), but otherwise this looks like a waste of ink, paper and pixels. The art isn’t even all that good.

  2. And didn’t Galileo do his acceleration experiments while he was under house arrest, not before his astronomical observations? Much better novelistic treatments of that time can be found in the 163x (Ring of Fire) series edited by Eric Flint.

  3. Galileo did his experiments on motion ca 1595-1610, but didn’t get around to publishing them until the 1630s, when he was under house arrest.

  4. The handling of Descartes is especially baffling, since early modern Cartesianism is Steven Nadler’s particular field. An illustrated history would be a perfect opportunity for summarizing the Cartesian view of the physical world, which is in some ways a very pictorial view of the world, already full of diagrams and illustrated analogies. That the book does so poorly with it is a missed opportunity.

    What I always find especially disappointing is that the myths in this case are almost always much less interesting than our best understanding of what really happened. Oversimplifications and elisions will occasionally happen in attempts to explain, but when they don’t even have the excuse of raising interesting ideas and questions, it’s just bad taste.

    • Steven Nadler

      Perhaps you should read the Descartes chapter itself, rather than just the short excerpt that you’ve seen, before rushing to judgment about how “poorly” the book does and “bad taste”.

      • I am unrepentant. The myths that one finds commonly perpetuated on this topic in society are indeed bad taste in comparison with what really happened as far as we can determine, like not recognizing the superiority of Mozart to Muzak, and for much the same reason; and the comment is not based only on the excerpt I’ve seen but on Thony’s assessment. You should take it as not much more than a “Really? Very disappointing” on hearing the evaluation of someone usually reliable on these particular matters.

        Both personally and professionally, it is generally beneficial, particularly in contexts involving blogs, social media, and ordinary conversations, to recognize a distinction between ‘honest first reaction’ and ‘rush to judgment’. If I end up attacking you elsewhere on no stronger ground than having read Thony’s review, then you will have the evidential basis needed for accusing me of rushing to judgment.

  5. Many thanks to Thony for his linking to my article on the persistent myth that Bruno was some kind of scientist and therefore a martyr to science. For those who are interested, I have just posted a follow-up on the question of exactly what it was that Bruno was charged over. This includes what I believe to be the first ever full English translation of Gaspar Schoppe’s account of the condemnation and execution of Bruno, which gives useful details about the charges laid against him. Needless to say, none of the ideas he was condemned for were in any sense “scientific”:

    History for Atheists: Giordano Bruno – Gaspar Schoppe’s Account of his Condemnation.

    • The problem here is another sort of erroneous centrism, not the belief that everything revolves around the Earth but the belief that everything revolves around science and always has.

      • Exactly. As I note in a comment on my blog article, the whole idea of Bruno as a “scientist” because he believed in “multiple worlds” is totally historically naive. It’s based on the clumsy anachronism of taking Bruno’s mystical “multiple worlds” concept out of the context of the rest of his kooky ideas, conflating it with our scientifically-based conception of “multiple worlds” and declaring it “scientific”, thus concluding he was “killed for science”. It only makes any kind of rhetorical sense if you remain completely ignorant of Bruno, his ideas and the context in which he promulgated them.

        So it’s ironic that people who apparently pride themselves on being “rational” and “checking facts” and “looking at things in context” and “respecting expert analysis” do none of these things in this case. Or in any case where pseudo history and popular misconceptions about history conform to their anti-religious prejudices. As an atheist myself, I find this both irritating and amusing in equal measure.

  6. Those cartoons remind me of the stuff from the fundamentalist christian Jack Chick. His attacks were mainly directed at evolution, homosexuals, and roman catholics.

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  8. Steven Nadler

    Some of the comments on the few pages of the book that you’ve seen are well taken (especially Pope Paul V’s role in not explicitly endorsing the qualifiers’ recommendation of “theological heresy”, and in the distinction between “suspected of heresy” and “formal heresy” — I wish I had made all of that more clear). However, bear in mind that the challenge was to do a comic book that walked the line between respecting scholarship and making the material accessible to high school students, among other general readers; and this seemed to require overlooking some important complications in the story. And I agree that in the Bruno and Galileo cases I may have strayed too far to one side at the expense of the other. As for Descartes, there is much more on him in the subsequent chapter, which you have not seen and which is devoted to his philosophy. All I ask is that you give the full book a read and suspend judgment until then.
    I am saddened, though, by the highly personal tone that blogs and social media commentary often take. Surely it is possible to offer critical (even negative critical) remarks without insult and vitriol, isn’t it?

    • If you think that the tone of this article and the comments below are “highly personal” then you must have been leading a very sheltered life. Thony is quite rigorous in insisting that comments on his articles stay on topic and do not descend into the common abuse that permeates the internet.

      There are some very knowledgeable people in History of Science studies who post here (I do not count myself among them) and as far as Bruno and Galileo are concerned you certainly strayed too far from the truth. Bruno’s heterodox ideas on religion would have been more than enough to bring about his end at the stake even if he had never uttered a word about other worlds. To represent it as otherwise is deliberately to mislead and it is not a defence to say that you did it to make the book accessible to high school students, as not all high school students will go on the the advanced studies where they will learn that the issues are much more complicated than they thought. The remainder will be left with these mistaken ideas.

    • timoneill007

      I have to agree with Laurence Cox. Your comic book perpetuates a number of persistent pseudo historical myths that historians of science have been trying to kill off for years. These myths are so common in popular culture that any historian teaching the history of science has to spend time debunking them and getting their student to unlearn them. So you had a great opportunity to help with this precisely *because* your work was aimed at high school students. But what did you do? You perpetuated the junk history version of these stories. What a wasted opportunity. You deserve the condemnation above. Next time do your homework better.

    • Professor Nadler, first I must apologies for taking so long to respond to your comments. I admire an author who is prepared to respond personally to a criticism of his book, especially an almost totally negative one. I admire that author even more when he is prepared to admit that at least part of that criticism is justified.

      However I am somewhat astounded by your accusation of insult and vitriol. I have very carefully reread everything that I wrote and I can see no traces of either, which I have to admit, is unusual for me. I didn’t acquire the nickname ‘Hist_Sci Hulk’ without reason. I am a trained and quasi-professional historian of science (I aim at professional standards in my work but I rarely get paid for it) and this blog is principally dedicated to history of science myth busting. That is exposing and exploding the, all to large, collection of myths that passes as popular history of science in our culture. Bruno, Galileo and the history of astronomy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is a particularly rich field for such myths, to which I devote a lot of time and effort, not just here on this blog.

      For this reason I get very angry when a reputable university press, I own several of their books by the way, publishes a popular book aimed at students by a leading academic with a first class reputation that lazily perpetuates those myths. Under the circumstances I found my response measured and not insulting and vitriolic.

      As to your entreaty to not judge the book on the publicity excerpt reviewed here, but to read it all before passing judgement. Like all the academics I have ever known and I have known a lot, amongst other things I am the son of one, I give a disproportionately large part of my meagre income out for books and I am not inclined to waste money on a book that in the pages I have already read does so much harm to the work to which I have dedicated my life.

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