Just in case you were thinking that religious institutions have not always bathed themselves in glory in their relations with science, here’s Ronald Numbers to set you straight:
Historians of science have known for years that White’s and Draper’s accounts are more propaganda than history. … Yet the message has rarely escaped the ivory tower. The secular public, if it thinks about such issues at all, knows that organized religion has always opposed scientific progress (witness the attacks on Galileo, Darwin, and Scopes). The religious public knows that science has taken the leading role in corroding faith (through naturalism and antibiblicism) . As a first step toward correcting these misconceptions we must dispel the hoary myths that continue to pass as historical truths. No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views, though, … the Italian Inquisition did incinerate the sixteenth century Copernican Giordano Bruno for his heretical theological notions. (Emphasis in original)
That’s from the introduction to his recent edited anthology, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion.
That’s a pretty high standard Numbers is setting. I mean, gosh, at least the church has never actually killed a person solely for his scientific beliefs. Guess I’ve been too hard on them all these years.
In two recent posts (here and here) I discussed science and religion disputes specifically in the context of the Galileo affair. My main point was that while there is no question that understanding the political situation of the Church at that time is essential to comprehending what happened to Galileo, that should not be used as an excuse for ignoring the critical science/religion aspect of the issue. That it was a political dispute does not mean it was not also a dispute between science and religion.
Numbers is using a similar evasion. It is absurd to pretend that Bruno’s theological views can be treated as completely separate from his scientific views. That the stated reasons for Bruno’s execution involved his heretical theology does not mean that he was not also killed because of his scientific views. One suspects that for Bruno, as for so many modern thinkers, his science and theology complemented each other, to the point where it is difficult to say which aspect of his thinking was scientific and which part was theological. If you have the incredibly simplistic idea that Bruno said, “I think the Earth goes around the Sun!” and the church immediately killed him for it, then Numbers statement can be a useful corrective. As an attempt to reconcile science and religion, however, it falls flat.
Like so many religious institutions before and since, the church of Bruno’s time arrogated to itself the right to decide what constituted acceptable thinking, and to mete out extreme punishments for falling out of line. Bruno ran afoul of this dictatorial tendency, and paid a particularly high price for it. Galileo had similar problems a few decades later.
The “religious public” is absolutely right to think that science has taken a leading role in eroding faith. What could be more obvious than that? If this public thinks that science has made it flatly impossible to preserve a traditional religious faith, then it is nice that people like Numbers are around to disabuse them of that notion. But traditional religious faith has certainly become harder to defend in the light of science, as evidence by the endless supply of books by philosophers and theologians trying desperately to explain how it can be done.
As for the “secular public” I very much doubt that people think the church has always stood in the way of scientific progress. After all, most of the things scientists study have nothing to do with anything religious authorities care about. Why should there be conflict in those cases? I would guess that most people hold the far more sensible view that there have been many cases where the church placed itself in opposition to science, both by direct action against people like Galileo, and indirectly by creating an environment in which scientific thinking, in the form of dissenting from orthodoxy, would bring the full weight of authority down upon you.
Was Bruno a martyr for science? It depends how you define your terms. He was certainly a martyr for free-thought, and in an era when religious institutions, fancying themselves uniquely competent to discern God’s will, are running the show, that amounts to the same thing.