The Script

Among those who argue that science and religion are compatible, there is a standard script that goes like this:

In the late nineteenth century, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White published, respectively, History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion and A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom. In doing so they established the warfare thesis about the relationship between science and religion, a complete myth that sadly retains a hold on the popular imagination. Unlike the ignorant polemicists Draper and White, more serious historians recognize that the relationship between science and religion is terribly complex and nuanced. Did you know, for example, that the Catholic Church frequently funded scientific investigations during the Middle Ages? Even the much heralded Galileo affair was really all about politics and power struggles, and had nothing at all to do with religion. Galileo, after all, was an arrogant jerk, and his house arrest was very loosely enforced. Kind of puts a different spin on things, doesn't it? And just look at all the scientists throughout history who were religious! What more evidence do you need that science and religion can be BFF's?

Prior to reading any essay about science and religion, do a search. If the words “nuanced” or “complex” appear then don't waste your time. You're about to get the script.

As I've noted before, one problem in discussing conflicts between science and religion is that the term “religion” is very broad. It covers everything from, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” at one extreme, to “Gosh, that sunset sure is beautiful,” on the other. Moreover, many of the conflicts do not involve questions of fact that can be definitively resolved. Evolution poses serious challenges to major points of Christian doctrine, for example, but maybe those challenges can be overcome. There are lots of different arguments on offer, and everyone has to decide for themselves what they find plausible. That's why I don't generally say bluntly that science and religion must be in conflict. I think the challenges are sufficiently formidable that a reasonable person should reject all but the most liberal versions of Christianity, but many others disagree. Such is life.

But there is another way of framing the question that is much more clear cut. Science and religion are not necessarily in conflict, but science and religious authority certainly are. By “religious authority” I mean an attitude that says that there is a non-scientific source of knowledge about the natural world, such as divine revelation or the historical teachings of a church, that trumps all other claims to knowledge. When a governing body in thrall to such an attitude has a loyal police force at its disposal, look out! The best you can hope for is that they don't do anything too sadistic to those who dissent from orthodoxy.

Let's consider a case study. Nowadays, when we think of “anti-science,” the first thing that comes to mind is young-Earth creationism. If you do not accept YEC as an instance of anti-science, then I think you're defining your terms in a way that makes it impossible to be anti-science. Now, what makes them anti-science? It can't be simply that they get the wrong answer on the age of the Earth. Being wrong doesn't make you anti-science. Nor can it be that they spend their days snarling at science and scientists, since, as it happens, they don't. In fact, they get very insulted when you suggest they are anti-science.

No, what makes them anti-science is their attitude toward knowledge acquisition. Science is not just a set of facts and its not just a culture. It's also an attitude, one that says that all theories must be tested against facts and that evidence must be followed wherever it leads. It's that attitude that YEC's reject, and that is what makes them deserving of the label “anti-science.” In fact, I recently came across a succinct, but perfect, description of how creationists view the world. It comes from David Lindberg, an historian of science of some prominence:

The classical sciences must accept a subordinate position as the handmaiden of science and religion--the temporal serving the eternal. The knowledge contained in classical sciences is not to be loved, but it may legitimately be used.

Perfect! That's exactly how creationists think. It's not that science is valueless, in their view, it just needs to know its place. God's law is not to be gainsaid by the investigations of man.

But here's the catch. Lindberg was not talking about modern creationists. He was talking about the attitude of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. And that attitude is practically the definition of anti-science, at least as we understand that term today. They did not believe that nature should be studied solely by natural means, or that we should follow evidence wherever it leads, or that we should test our beliefs against evidence. Rather, they believed that science was valuable only insofar as it served religious ends, and if it strayed into areas on which the Church had taken a stand that it had to be stopped. Ruthlessly, if need be.

When you keep that in mind you begin to understand why the script unravels. Yes, the Catholic Church funded excursions into science when such excursions furthered religious ends. But so what? Who ever thought that religion was just implacably imposed to any systematic study of nature? Yes, many of the great scientists, both historically and also today, have held religious views. Again, so what? Has anyone of any prominence argued that simply holding religious beliefs makes you incapable of doing good work in science? Certainly not Draper and White, and I doubt if anyone else has either.

The Script also founders by using far too narrow a definition of what constitutes a conflict between science and religion. The attitude seems to be that any proposed conflict can be debunked simply by noting that the religion side was in some way motivated by something other than religious belief, or that the science side was in some way not entirely admirable. This is why you get a lot of silly arguments about Galileo's lack of political savvy, or about the political insecurity of the Catholic Church in the early seventeenth century, as though such considerations in any way cloud the standard narrative surrounding Galileo.

I'm all in favor of historians elucidating the minutiae surrounding an important moment in history, but the basic facts here are clear as day. There was no distinction between politics and religion at that time. Galileo was a threat to the Church because he suggested that science, and not scripture, should be how we learn about nature. The Church saw this as a threat to its power by challenging its claims to religious authority, so they came down on him. Hard. If you don't see that as a conflict between science and religion, then you need to rethink your definitions.

If the political situation had been happier for the Church they might not have come down so hard on him. Had Galileo played the game a bit better he might have avoided what happened to him. So what and so what?

The occasion for this post is the minor fracas surrounding the discussion of Giordano Bruno in the revamped version of Cosmos. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson used Bruno's story to illustrate the lack of freedom of thought that existed in his time. It was one part of a broader argument about the social forces that were once arrayed against the validity of scientific investigation. Tyson's discussion was measured, relevant, and accurate in all of its major points.

But outraged script-wavers were having none of it. It was all just a primitive attempt to revive the conflict thesis and Bruno wasn't a scientist and you have to consider the political situation and blah blah blah. Peter Hess and Josh Rosenau produced two especially silly examples of the genre here and here respectively.

Much of the criticism bears little relationship to what was actually shown. Tyson's presentation made it perfectly clear that Bruno was not a scientist. Literally. He said this:

Bruno was no scientist. His vision of the cosmos was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it.

The segment presenting the Bruno story makes it perfectly clear that his beliefs were based largely on religious visions and not scientific investigation. It could not have been clearer that his execution had far more to do with his heretical religious beliefs than it did with his scientific views. There was not the slightest implication that he was a scientist in any reasonable sense of that word.

So why was Bruno featured so prominently? Because he was a martyr to freedom of thought, and that's a notion so closely allied with science that it's pointless to make the distinction.

But such is the desperation of the script-wavers that they seek any excuse to launch into their act. Go read Josh's post and look at the people he quotes favorably. Try to find a reasonable point in a single one of them. One simply dismisses Bruno as a “martyr for magic.” Another chastises Tyson for not mentioning that Bruno, apparently, was personally unpleasant. Still another accuses Tyson of presenting Bruno as a martyr to evidence-based knowledge, even though Tyson explicitly said the exact opposite of that.

But the first prize must surely go to Thomas McDonald, who is apparently a Church historian. In a post largely devoted to defending the intellectual bona fides of the seventeenth century Church, even to the point of partially defending the Inquisition (on the grounds that at least its motives were pure), he writes this

Bruno was no friend of science. He was a disturbed mystic. Stanley Jaki, who translated Bruno’s rambling, nonsensical The Ash Wednesday Supper, has suggested that if the Inquisition hadn't burned him, the Copernicans would have. He did nothing but harm the progress being made by actual scholars and scientists, and arguably laid the ground for the harsh approach to Galileo.

The story is this. Bruno held heretical beliefs. He promoted those beliefs by speaking and writing about them. For this he was burned at the stake. It's not a complicated story, and neither Bruno's personal failings nor the precise motivations of the Inquisitors do anything to alter the essentials.

But McDonald thinks the point of the story is that it's Bruno's fault that the Church came down so hard on Galileo. Charming.

I have now watched the first two episodes of Cosmos. They were both excellent and I look forward to the rest of the series. The critics can shove it.

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Well said.

As for the conflict issue, my view of the matter is somewhat similar although you use different words. I think much of the attempts of denying the conflict is about cherry-picking one aspect of science and/or religion, respectively, while carefully ignoring the rest.

Both "science" and "religion" can mean either or all of three things:

1. A methodology for generating what is held to be knowledge; you called it attitude.
2. A community of specialist practitioners and lay people thinking that what the former do is useful. (Perhaps what you called culture?)
3. A worldview, i.e. a view of how the world operates. You called it simply facts.

In both cases, the community uses the method to generate the worldview. In science, scientists use empirical evidence, hypothesis and model testing, the principle of parsimony and suchlike to produce the edifice of facts and well supported theories that is the current state of scientific knowledge. In religion, the clergy, theologians, prophets and/or active laypeople use revelation, scripture and personal gut feelings to produce religious beliefs.

Now looking at each of the three elements individually, we find that science and religion (method) are fundamentally incompatible; that science and religion (worldview) could be compatible if revelation had coincidentally produced the same outcome as scientific investigation, but in actual fact it never has, so they are incompatible; and that science and religion (community) are compatible because there is nothing stopping individual scientists from having religious beliefs, even if I personally don't understand how that works.

The trick of many apologists is to point at the compatibility of the community aspect to imply that there is a compatibility of the whole packages.

Well said, Jason. As science confers knowledge, and knowledge confers power, science will always be subjected to the efforts of the powers-that-be to place it under their own control. Today we see much the same with the attempts by climate denialists to stigmatize climate scientists as heretics against the orthodoxy of the Market Gods of our times.


From some quick reading, I don't know that I would characterize Bruno as being "personally unpleasant," though he appeared to have a bit of an ego and a tendency to piss off those who were in positions of power.

I would consider his "lucky guess" to be more than that. He was apparently highly skilled at memorizing facts, he was well-read, and he was observant and clearly highly intelligent. To the extent that he was a mystic (properly defined, rather than in the incorrect pejorative usage that is common among atheists), it could reasonably be inferred that he had a strong pattern-seeking sense. If you put all of these parts together, it's not hard to see how he could have synthesized his unitive vision of the universe from his own background knowledge, reading, and casual observations.

That's not "luck" in the sense of "a personally-favorable outcome of randomicity." It's more like an artistic inspiration that happens to coincide with a newly-emerging artistic movement on a larger scale. And as it happens, sometimes artists create works that express outlooks that in some humanly-meaningful way resemble those of science. We don't expect the artist to be a scientist and we aren't let down when we find that s/he is not. But neither do we dismiss a particularly insightful work of art, that happens to express a perspective held by science, as no more than "luck."

Calling this "the script" is a great description. I suppose most schools of thought have a script, but I think those which are more at odds with reality tend to have a more-developed script, and to rely on it more often. Defenders of an enlightenment worldview can sometimes be caught off-guard for their lack of a script, such as with "evolutionists" in debate with creationists.

This tendency of the script to focus on the unpleasant characteristics of someone who was opposed by the group being defended (like calling Galileo or Bruno mean people) is found in other scripts as well. I've been getting into the American Civil War lately, and there's a Lost Cause script that aims to suggest that secession was not primarily inspired by slavery interests. A lot of that script villifies Lincoln as a racist who never had an original intention of immediately freeing all the slaves. While there are good points there, it's completely irrelevant to defending the Confederacy and doesn't erase the piles and piles of evidence of the Confederacy's motives. (It's also ironic, since it implies that Lincoln's belief in white superiorty was so objectionable that… we should sympathize with the leaders of the antebellum South, of all places?).

First of all, I am not familiar enough with other major religions to make the claim that ALL religion is fundamentally incompatible with science. We do have a tendency here in the USA (and I suspect in other Western nations, although probably to lesser extent) to equate religion with Christianity.

That said, I don't think there is a single Christian believer out there who would reject a fundamental tenet of their belief based on any scientific investigation. Sure, some may modify the details to fit the science, such as old earth creationists and believers in theistic evolution, for example. The age of the earth and the method used for creation would seem to me to not be fundamental to Christian belief. The only aspect of these issues that is fundamental is "God did it."

However, suppose that a hypothetical historical investigation turned up very solid evidence that Jesus existed, was crucified as described in the Gospels, but someone checked his tomb 5 days after the crucifixion and found his body there as expected. Would that really modify any Christian's belefs? The resurrection is certainly fundamental to Christian belief, so I am pretty certain nobody would reject it based on this investigation, but rather there would be a concerted effort to try to censor or discredit it. Failing that, there would be a lot of handwaving about how Jesus wasn't actually physcially resurrected; only his spirit was resurrected.

My point is that if religion really were compatible at a fundamental level with science, there would be a willingness to change religious beliefs with the presentation of evidence. To some extent, this does occur, albeit slowly. However, it seems to me that it's never been a major doctrine that changes, but rather details that are not really fundamental to the religious belief. I am willing to consider religions other than Christianity if someone more knowledgeable than I am can give examples of a religion modifying its fundamental beliefs based on evidence, but I seriously doubt that this can be done.


Interesting example with the "lost cause" script. Another factor that further confirms your point is that there were political battles prior to the civil war that were concerned with states' rights (the usual justification for secession in the lost cause script), most prominently the tariff battle and the nullification crisis during Andrew Jackson's presidency. Notably, this, and all other instances of conflict between the states and the federal government were solved politically; it was only the slavery issue that led to war.

It is technically true that states' rights was the issue that led to war. However, it was more specifically the states' right to keep slavery legal that actually caused war. No other right of the states was deemed important enough to go to war over.

We are all trying to survive. Science has developed to produce those things that we can make to aid survival. Religion in the broad sense establishes rules that help a society function. To confuse the YEC or ID with a useful religion is too myopic. To confuse Bruno with a scientist is myopic. Religion must deal with long-term issues covering generations. Like science, religion is trying to learn by trial-and-error such as the changes in Catholic Church doctrine over the last 1500 years. Certainly science also changes not only its laws but also its methods.
Jason’s Galileo story is also myopic. It covers only the scientist side. What were the pressures on the Church? Do you think they existed in a vacuum? Before Galileo and Bruno, there was the Italian Renaissance from the 14th to the 16th century. The Medieval Warm Period was ending as the transition to the Little Ice Age began. This change in climate saw agricultural output decline significantly, leading to repeated famines, exacerbated by the rapid population growth of the earlier era. The Church’s position was tolerance (perhaps from weakness). The Church was facing the Ottoman’s advancing in the east, success in the west as Spain (with intolerance) ejecting Moors (the Churches view). The Ottoman’s were financing the Protestants (I don’t have a reference at hand). The prior tolerance came to and end (a change), which surprised Galileo, and science moved north.

What about today? The treatment of Arp and other credentialed but outlier scientists by the peer community of science shows a great intolerance of new ideas. The Church is tending toward tolerance. A Theory of Everything is sought but radical new ideas are crushed as scientists who hold them are excommunicated. Hence, no real progress toward the Theory of Everything. “Political correctness” (political intolerance) is sweeping the realm. Southern European scientists could move north. When intolerance seized the north, scientists could move west. Now where can we move? Australia perhaps?

We need science and religion to compliment each other. If one becomes intolerant, the other fails or moves. Intolerance in either camp fails the society.

Bruno was unpleasant? So was Isaac Newton, a man who feuded with a number of his contemporaries, including Gottfried von Liebnitz . and Christian Huygens.

By colnago80 (not verified) on 19 Mar 2014 #permalink

Sean T
The creation of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was a document like the Magna Carta. It provided a central authority while protecting states rights (powers) from the central authority and provided the common needs of the states such as common defense, common currency, free movement of money, free movement of goods, and free movement of people. Citizens directly elected the president and legislature in addition to State and local officials. State governments appointed senators. The Federal authority was given regulatory power over the state. If it had provided a means to deal with the Tragedy of the Commons between states and stopped, it could be a model for a one--world government. The industrial interests of the North and the slavery interests of the South could have coexisted. However, the Federal franchise was soon expanded beyond the states to embrace ``the people'' that was the province of the states. Each state had a Bill of Rights that largely reflected each state's culture. That is, the incorporation of the Bill of Rights and all additional amendments changed the organization of the United States from a nation to a central state overseeing subordinate states. The incorporation of the Bill of Rights was a step back from the genius of the founding fathers.
However, the Constitutional organization with the Bill of Rights was still a move forward for humans. Therefore, the U.S. expanded. The Federal authority was used to unite and to expand such as seizing territory from Mexico and the Indians and such as building the cross continent railroad.
The U.S. was threatened with disintegration and collapse by 1850. The question was slavery. The agricultural South was organized with slavery as a central component. The South's representatives in the Federal government passed federal laws requiring the non--slave states to help return fleeing slaves. That is, the non--slave states were obliged to help the slave states enforce the slave states' form of government against the wishes of many Northern citizens. The Northern citizens also wanted to impose their ideals on the South. The illegal Underground Railroad was born. The question of slavery now had to be settled at the Federal level. The North and the South polarized on the slavery issue. That the Federal level took on the task of dictating to each state what was an internal state question resulted in secession and civil war. The cause of the Civil War was that both sides wanted the Federal authority to reduce Competition on a polarizing issue between the states. The citizens of each thought they had a franchise of intolerance of the others' views.
Sean T noted, the trend toward intolerance and centralization of political authority began well before the Civil war. But the pattern established had to result in civil war. The possibilities of decentralizing or of the states having power over the federal government were ignored. Today several states have movements to secede gaining strength as the Federal authority becomes more intolerant.
How could science prevent this war?

I had just finished reading your Among the Creationists, and was still savoring its nuanced exploration of the complex issues, when I encountered this post.

It brought to mind this passage:

[Creationists] seem to lack that small voice of skepticism telling them that things cannot really be as simple as their authorities pretend. How many times have I seen audiences cheer and applaud a speaker for leveling at scientists some preposterous calumny or absurd accusation? The implausibility of several generations of scientists being guilty of crass stupidity and gross incompetence never seems to occur to them.

Which brings to the matter of "retrying Galileo"...

Sure, there are Catholic apologists out there, trying to exonerate the 16th C. Vatican. But the vast majority of science historians get irritated at the dumbed-down nuance-free account of the Galileo affair for the same reason that you or I get irritated at statements like "The Uncertainty Principle just says that you can never be sure of anything", or "The Second Law of Thermodynamics says everything gets simpler over time".

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 19 Mar 2014 #permalink

"Because he was a martyr to freedom of thought"
Where and when exactly did Bruno defend the right of people disagreeing with him to freely express themselves? No answer? Then Bruno was first and all a martyr to his personal spiritualism.
You better try this guy:

Whoohoo, only eleven comments and two people already going "you have got to also see it from the perspective of the oppressive intolerant murderers" and "see, when you say that the church imprisoned people for disagreeing with them, you only present a nuance-free and dumbed down account of the matter". Yeah, I guess, because they imprisoned people with nuance: Those who didn't disagree with dogma had nothing to fear!

Oh, and John, do tell what new ideas we scientists are crushing. You see, to be accepted, they have to actually have some evidence behind them. As for "excommunication" and "intolerance", do you actually know what that meant in the Middle Ages? I am fairly sure that (Halton?) Arp was not dispossessed, thrown out of society, imprisoned, tortured, stoned by a mob or burned on the stake for challenging a currently accepted theory. Indeed his Wikipedia page implies that he was happily working at a Max Planck Institute until retirement.

Yay for false equivalence, am I right?


“Because he was a martyr to freedom of thought”
Where and when exactly did Bruno defend the right of people disagreeing with him to freely express themselves? No answer? Then Bruno was first and all a martyr to his personal spiritualism.

I think the argument can be made that anyone killed by a repressive government for their beliefs is a martyr to freethought even if they don't advocate it themselves. As far as I'm aware, Matthew Shepherd didn't publically advocate gay rights, but he's still considered a martyr of the gay rights cause. I suppose our language lacks a more precise phrase like "martyr against homophobia" or "martyr against theocracy" or whatever.

Regarding Bruno and others, specific instances of persecution are very often not of the form "You believe X, therefore we kill you." Even the Roman persecution of Christians was not specifically about the contents of their beliefs but rather their refusal to pay homage to the gods or to the Caesar. Yet I wouldn't begrudge their status as genuine martyrs for Christianity, or play the silly game of saying that the Romans were being reasonable and the Christians stubborn, and the two worldviews were totally compatible if the Christians had been willing to bend their values a bit.


Today several states have movements to secede gaining strength as the Federal authority becomes more intolerant.
How could science prevent this war?

I don't think anyone has to do anything because those "movements" are largely bluster, and they don't involve state-government support.

I do think there are interesting parallels between attitudes about the president, both then and now. Many in Lincoln's party wanted him to take a stronger and more consistent abolitionist and pro-equality stand, just as many liberals like me feel that Obama is often too centrist.

At the same time, the opposition to Lincoln called him things like "Abraham Africanus" and other weird racist slurs, and assumed that once elected he would unilaterally eliminate all slavery like the white-people-hating dictator he was. Today, the Tea Party says that our secretly Muslim Kenya-born usurper has already brought about the horrors of single-payer healthcare. (Neither paranoia was correct, but one of them ironically caused itself to be true — it is because of secession that the possibility of actually banning slavery, not just stopping its spread, could arise.)

Sorry to take things so off-topic, but sometimes you have to spill out words, y'know?

@Alex SL

Where did I say anything about excusing the Inquisition, or anything remotely resembling that? Have you even read Among the Evolutionists?

That book repeatedly makes the very good point that scientists are engaged in the task of trying to understand nature, based on evidence. Well, historians are engaged in the task of trying to understand human history, based on evidence.

Apparently,your need for history to be a morality play trumps everything else --- that historians shouldn't even try to get the facts right, and any attempt to understand the viewpoints of the participants automatically entails approval of everything they did.

To quote Among the Evolutionists again, "tone it down a little bit."

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 19 Mar 2014 #permalink

Oops, typo, caused by careless cutting and pasting: that should be Among the Creationists in my last post.

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 19 Mar 2014 #permalink

Michael Weiss,

I have no idea what relation that has to anything. Yes, historians need to get the facts right. The fact of the matter was that Galileo was imprisoned because he promoted the scientific method and heliocentrism. Saying "it was a political matter" or "it is complex" does not change that fundamental fact. If historians found evidence that he was really charged with something entirely different, for example with theft or with trying to seize power, I am all ears.

The fact of the matter was that Galileo was imprisoned because he promoted the scientific method and heliocentrism.
As it happens, that's not correct. I will say a bit more about it at the end of this post. But that's not my point. I'm not here to defend the Vatican, but historians.

After reading Among the Creationists and some of Jason Rosenhouse's posts, I said to myself, "Here's another force for reason, an eloquent voice on the side of enlightenment! And bonus points: he's a mathematician!" (OK, maybe not those exact words, but that expresses my feelings.) I immediately added him to my daily blog readings.

Then I encounted this post. He leads off by saying that on the basis of two words you should jump to conclusions about the motivations of the writer, and read no further. And what are these magic words? Why "nuance" and "complex"!

A tad anti-intellectual, wouldn't you say, that we should condemn writers trying for nuanced views of complex subjects? What is the more desirable alternative? Black-and-white over-simplifications?

So I read on, and it quickly became apparent that Rosenhouse, in this post, utterly misreads the goals and methods of almost all historians. (Again, totally at odds with Among the Creationists, which contains excellent treatments of historical issues.)

A historian wants to understand the past. That entails trying to get inside the heads of the participants. In the famous phrase of L.P.Hartley, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there".

Insisting that the past be viewed purely through the lens of present, that value judgments come first and foremost, damn the complexity and nuance --- that's strongly at odds with this stirring passage from this post:

Science is not just a set of facts and its not just a culture. It’s also an attitude, one that says that all theories must be tested against facts and that evidence must be followed wherever it leads.

Modern historians share this attitude. They try hard to put aside their present-day value judgements as they try to immerse themselves in a historical period. Failure to do so all to easily leads to so-called "Whig history", featuring dogmatic side-taking and a Manichean perspective. This post contains a careful discussion.

Sometimes they may go too far in eschewing value judgments, and I've argued as much in various blog comments. Feel free to condemn Pope Urban VIII! (Hey, no skin off his ass!) But the value judgements don't take precedence over historical accuracy, nuance, and complexity.

So does it matter that throughout the period in question, the scientific evidence strongly favored a stationary earth? That Galileo only argument for a moving earth (his theory of the tides) was spectacularly bad science, not just wrong, but "the hell with the data, and with consistency with my other theories" bad? That Tycho by contrast had a strong purely scientific argument against the motion of the earth, and that the 1616 condemnation of Copernicanism relied partly on Tycho's argument? That Galileo was happy to deploy scriptural quotes in favor of his theories, and that the notion that he "promoted the scientific method" is based on cherry-picking quotes and ignoring a large part of his scientific work?

Maybe not. But if you believe in intellectual integrity in all fields, not just science, don't blame the historians for asking for a nuanced treatment of complex topics.

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 20 Mar 2014 #permalink

I normally don't blog when I am on the road, but I did just want to add a quick clarification. As I think was clear from the opening post, it is not nuance and subtlety per se that I object to. What I dislike is when claims of nuance and subtlety are used as weapons to complexity what is actually a fairly simple situation. In my view, a lot of academic writing on science and religion does precisely that.

Another thought.

Any analogy linking events centuries apart is bound to be flawed. But if you want a modern-day analog for the Galileo affair, don't look to creationism. Instead consider the Velikovsky affair, with Galileo in the role of Velikovsky.

The nuance-free half-true version of this contretemps goes like this:

Velikovsky came up with theories sharply at odds with the scientific orthodoxy of the time. Scientists worked hard to repress their publication, infringing on his freedom of speech, and denying him the opportunity to respond to his critics.

"Wait a minute!" you cry. "You've left out a lot, and some of what you wrote is wrong!"

"Nuance! Complexity! The details don't matter, only the moral! Do you believe in the free expression of ideas or not?"

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 20 Mar 2014 #permalink

Oh yes, Velikovsky compared himself to Bruno.

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 20 Mar 2014 #permalink

I think one of the sources of frustration is the current flavor of historians claiming that religious authorities qua religious authorities never suppressed scientific thought. They always have an out to theological or political disagreement - when if it really is as complex and nuanced as they claim then the conflict between revealed truth and observational/experimental truth has to be a part of the picture. There seems to be a trend (coinciding with Templeton funding?) toward completely rejecting the conflict hypothesis - which seems just as one-sided as what they claim to be rejecting.

On the other hand, scientists need to get out more and delve deeper into the history - avoided the easy names and narratives. Bruno is not a good choice of a scientific hero, but I think those really doing science were often wary of saying too much in order to avoid conflicts with theological interpretations. They may have avoided conflict by self-censoring; we don't honestly know what individuals were thinking.

An interesting commentary in last week’s Nature on studying Grosseteste’s work on physics, mathematics and cosmology:
As usual, there is the interpretation in light of current thinking, but also an appreciation for the skill and imagination using the premises and tools available. The idea that a literal reading of the Bible constrained thinking is probably unfounded or at least varied greatly among educated individuals. There is still the hint that the complete theological implications were not discussed.

It is also pretty clear from sources I have read that geocentrism was so entrenched in the 16th and 17th c. that it would have taken much more evidence than Copernicus or Galileo had to overturn it. There was too much reliance on ancient authority over observational/experimental methods. There were assumptions about the size of the universe, the size of planets, moving bodies, etc. that biased the evidence in favor of a fixed earth.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 20 Mar 2014 #permalink

Stanley Jaki, who translated Bruno’s rambling, nonsensical The Ash Wednesday Supper, has suggested that if the Inquisition hadn’t burned him, the Copernicans would have.

Mmm hmmmm. Is there a record of "The Copernicans" (whoever they might be) burning people at the stake? It just doesn't seem to be a favourite hobby of theirs.

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 20 Mar 2014 #permalink

Alex SL #1: ... and that science and religion (community) are compatible because there is nothing stopping individual scientists from having religious beliefs...

Which is not a winning argument. A person can hold two beliefs which are incompatible with each other, therefore the existence of a person who holds two beliefs is not evidence that those two beliefs are compatible.

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 20 Mar 2014 #permalink

Reginald Selkirk,

Well yes, that is what I was saying. The community aspect is compatible - and it is, theoretically all scientists could be religious - but everything else is incompatible.

Michael Fugate writes:

It is also pretty clear from sources I have read that geocentrism was so entrenched in the 16th and 17th c. that it would have taken much more evidence than Copernicus or Galileo had to overturn it. There was too much reliance on ancient authority over observational/experimental methods. There were assumptions about the size of the universe, the size of planets, moving bodies, etc. that biased the evidence in favor of a fixed earth.

Then you need to read more sources. Also you need to distinguish between physical geocentrism (the earth isn't moving) and geometrical geocentrism (the planets circle the earth). Following the discovery of the phases of Venus, most professional astronomers turned to the Tychonic system, with a stationary earth but the planets revolving about the sun. This is observationally equivalent to the Copernican system, except for (a) stellar parallax, and (b) physical effects like the Coriolis (pseudo) force.

Stellar parallax was not detected until 1838; Tycho built on the failure to detect it to develop a "stellar size" argument against the motion of the earth. This was strong evidence against a moving earth, and Galileo & Co. had no good counterargument.

A early version of the Coriolis effect was also described by anti-Copernicans; again, not detected until much later (1789). The far better know Foucault pendulum experiment wasn't done until 1851.

For more details on both these issues, google "Christopher Graney".

Galileo's "killer argument" in the Dialog was his theory of tides. This was bad science by any definition: it predicted exactly one tide a day, at noon, with a period totally unrelated to the lunar month. Also it contradicted Galileo's own discoveries with regard to so-called Galilean relativity.

Galileo's extensive and often delightful discussions in the rest of the Dialog help clear a space for the Copernican system, but they provide no evidence against the Tychonic system, which Galileo never mentions.

So much for the contemporary scientific evidence, which decisively favored the Tychonic system over the Copernican. Now what about the religious/scriptural issue?

Historians will provide you with a smorgasbord of interpretations on this matter. My own view: the scriptural issue played a signficant role in the whole Galileo affair, but it wasn't the whole story. I still feel quite comfortable blaming Pope Urban VIII & Co., being fully aware that I am making an ahistorical value judgement. Most professional historians try to avoid this kind of value judgement, for good reasons.

Finally, Galileo was an early hero of mine, and he retains a very warm spot in my heart, even as I have learned more about him. "Warts and all" is a good motto when studying history.

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 20 Mar 2014 #permalink

Whine on Michael - you need to put things in context and stop assuming that geocentrism was based in the 16th c or 17th c. What it just sprang up without reference to the Greeks? The stellar parallax issue is a red herring based on assumptions from Greece - based on no evidence - none , absolutely none - that the stars were much closer than they actually are. I understand that telescopes in the 16/17th century could not detect parallax, but that is after the fact. Geocentrism was a given long before telescopes. There is also the completely evidence-free assumption that the Earth was the heaviest body in the solar system.
If all of these assumptions were relaxed things might have been different. None of this changes the problems with heliocentrism that arose with the advent of telescopes or does it vindicate Galileo or make him a hero. Which is basically what I said before - not sure why you are so pissy.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 20 Mar 2014 #permalink

The stellar parallax issue is a red herring based on assumptions from Greece – based on no evidence – none , absolutely none – that the stars were much closer than they actually are.

As Tycho showed, even the smallest visible stars (judging by their apparent stellar disks) would have to have diameters over 200 times the diameter of the sun. The invention of the telescope just made the numbers worse. This all violates what today we call the "Copernican principle", that there is nothing special about our place in the universe. Here, the implication is that the sun is way smaller than every other star.

Now, you can always say, "Hey, maybe our sun is the smallest by a factor of over 200." Or you can say, "Something's gotta be wrong with those telescopes --- just for stars, the apparent sizes are way off." Tycho and others did not find these explanations convincing. In this he seems like modern scientists, who cast a baleful idea at theories that require unexplained defects in the apparatus, jury-rigged to account for the discrepancies between theory and observation.

There was too much reliance on ancient authority over observational/experimental methods.

This statement does not accord with the historical evidence.

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 20 Mar 2014 #permalink

Hi Jason,

I think you should read a little more David Lindberg! "The script" as you put it is pretty crude caricature of what the historians of science are saying. But it is true that there seems to be a pretty universal considered consensus amongst actual professional historians of science that the works of Draper and White are pretty bad history, and that that modern "warfare thesis" proponents aren't much better at history. That's the buzz-saw that Cosmos, and various other atheism advocates at various times, have walked into.

But, at least you've acknowledged that there is such a thing as historians of science who have developed a critical opinion of Draper, White, and their thesis, that's more than I've ever seen from a proponent of the warfare thesis.

I think it's not an exaggeration to say that one of the major findings of the field of history of science over the last 30 years or so is that (1) the warfare thesis is wrong as a generalization about history, mostly based on Draper, White, and cherry-picking a few examples like Galileo and Bruno, (2) the "harmony thesis", promoted usually by various Christians, is also wrong, and the preferred position should be the "complexity thesis". Read David Lindberg, Ronald Numbers, etc. and their anthologies.

All that said, I think the Galileo case is a data point in favor of the conflict thesis. Its just that there are many other data points that ought to be considered by the historian.

The burning of Bruno is more of a data point in favor of the "church vs. free thought on religion" thesis than it was about science. But Cosmos seemed to try to make it into a science/religion thing specifically. There are a great many other data points in favor of "the catholic church vs. free thought on religion" from that time period, for example the burning of (literally, I think) thousands of Lutheran dissenters from Catholicism.

The Wikipedia page on the "Conflict Thesis" is kind of a mess, but many of the references are really good pointers to the history of science literature, and I wish modern "Conflict Thesis" proponents would read them or at least acknowledge their existence.

By Nick Matzke (not verified) on 20 Mar 2014 #permalink

Michael Fugate
Take modern science philosophy applied to Copernicus.

The science is Copernicus vs. Ptolemy.
The Ptolemy model was more accurate at the time and predicted farther into the future. Further the Copernican model would have the immovable stars extended over some distance rather than on a sphere at some fixed distance. Such a situation should produce parallax as the Earth revolves around the sun. Galileo looked for parallax and found none. Parallax in the stars wasn’t found until the early 19th century. Modern science would consider Ptolemy the scientific model and Copernicus as merely an easy calculation method. Copernicus assumed circular orbits.
The models at the time included crystal spheres that supported planets but that light passed through. Now we say dark matter to hold suns in their orbits. Dark matter because it doesn’t impact light.

Do you guys realize that stars are really, really far away?

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 20 Mar 2014 #permalink

Do you guys realize that stars are really, really far away?

That is, of course, the argument that the Copernicans made to explain the lack of detectable stellar parallax. But the farther the star, the bigger its actual diameter must be to account for the size of the apparent stellar disk. One way out is to claim that just for stars the apparent size is wrong, for some unexplained reason.

While historical analogies are alway a bit suspect, let's look at the big-bang vs. steady-state controversy of the mid-20th-century. In 1964, Penzias and Wilson discovered the CMB as a background radio hiss, which had been predicted by the big-bang theory, but not the steady-state theory. The steady-staters had to claim that some other unknown physics caused the hiss. (There's a similar story with galaxy counts.)

Many, perhaps most, cosmologists of the time felt that the steady-state theory was more elegant. The same can be said for the Copernican vs. the Tychonic theory. Thus neither the Copernicans nor the steady-staters threw in the towel right away, both claiming that the puzzle of the (stellar diameters)/(CMB hiss) would eventually be solved. (Hoyle, the most prominent steady-stater, was actually rather clever at devising explanations, but they looked ad-hoc to the wider community.)

So in 1630/1965, we have a similar story: an elegant theory (Copernican/steady-state) vs. a theory that seems to match the available evidence better (Tychonic/big-bang).

After that, fortunes diverge. 20th century: Observations just kept piling up for the big-bang theory, confirming its predictions, with Hoyle devising clever ad-hoc after-the-fact explanations, until eventually people stopped paying attention to him.

17th-18th century: telescopes and astronomical observations continue to improve. Lo and behold, the earlier apparent disk sizes were wrong, just for stars. A full mathematical explanation had to wait till 1835, but the stellar diameter argument lost its force well before them.

Meanwhile, Newton devises his mechanics and theory of gravity. Now, Galilean physics is compatible with both the Copernican and Tychonic models (Galileo admits as much at the end of the Third Day in the Dialog, before presenting his cockamamie theory of tides on the Fourth Day). Newton's theory will only work with a physically moving earth. As Newton's theory racks up victory after victory, it becomes impossible for a serious astronomer/physicist to stick with Tycho.

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 21 Mar 2014 #permalink

Michael, you haven't read anything I have written - you have made all kinds of assumptions based on what you think I have said without any understanding of what I actually have said.

Do I really need to walk you through this from the beginning?

1) Were the Greeks experimentalists?
2) Are stars much farther away than the Greeks thought?
3) Is the earth being motionless the only reason that parallax could not be detected?
4) Any reason for earth being the heaviest object in the universe?
5) Are the sun and planets bigger and heavier than the Greeks thought?
6) Did the early universities in Europe favor authority over observation/experimentation when teaching natural history, astronomy, medicine, physics, etc?
7) Was the geocentric model the standard before Copernicus?
8) Was the geocentric model based on experimental evidence before Copernicus?
9) Was Copernicus' model based on any new observation/experimentation?

That said - if you go back and read my posts - and I suggest you do - you will find that I never contradicted your assertion that the geocentric model was supported by the new evidence produced after Copernicus and that Galileo's evidence in and of itself was not sufficient to falsify geocentrism. I never defended Galileo's theory of tides or anything else.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 21 Mar 2014 #permalink

As I think was clear from the opening post, it is not nuance and subtlety per se that I object to.

But you also said that if the words occur, then the essay could be dismissed without reading. I presume this was meant to apply to the many posts on the Cosmos episode.

In a great passage in Among the Creationists (p.13), you point out that creationists just make bad scientific arguments. Bad science is bad science. Is bad history fine and dandy, so long as it teaches the right lesson?

Attacking nuance and complexity, even selectively, strikes me as a bad tactic. You point out that evolutionists often suffer a disadvantage in debates with creationists, since the creationists can give simple plausible-sounding arguments; the rebuttles demand more nuance and complexity.

Finally, there's the matter of not mucking up the message. Heck of a lot a criticism about the Bruno segment, and much of what I've read (not all, I admit) experts or history fans, just irritated at the mistakes. That's what we want the conversation to be about?? You never want to be in the position where you're open to the charge, "Is that the best you've got? If not, why did you lead with that?"

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 21 Mar 2014 #permalink

OK, I reread all your comments on this post. I agree with bits and pieces of your comment #23, for example I completely agree with this statement:

completely rejecting the conflict hypothesis ... seems just as one-sided as what they claim to be rejecting.

(I won't speculate as to whether this is a trend, or what role the Templeton foundation has played in this.)

The part I took (and take) exception to was:

There was too much reliance on ancient authority over observational/experimental methods. There were assumptions about the size of the universe, the size of planets, moving bodies, etc. that biased the evidence in favor of a fixed earth.

especially the first sentence. Of course there were background assumptions that were not directly tested in isolation. That's true in spades today.

Nowadays we consider a theory to be successful ("provisionally correct") if its hypotheses, taken together, imply results that pass the test of observation and experiment. This was certainly true of the geocentric theory before Copernicus, and for some time thereafter.

Rereading your comments (#23, #28, #34) several times, I think our difference of opinion boils down to this. You think the pre-Copernican astronomers should have been more open-minded to the heliocentric hypothesis. They should have said something like, "You know, we really don't know how far the stars are; maybe the parallax is just too small to detect. Nor do we understand physics well enough to say that it's easier for the sun to move than the earth."

I think this is an example of the fixed-evidence fallacy. I think it was entirely reasonable for the astronomers and natural philosophers to reject the quote I made up in the last paragraph. I don't deny that "ancient authority" played a role, but I disagree with "too much reliance on ancient authority over observational/experimental methods". Doesn't that imply that some observations favored the heliocentric viewpoint? But there were none that I know of --- the only advantage heliocentricity enjoyed was greater mathematical simplicity. (Which it had, despite the epicycle-counting that Koestler made famous.)

As far as the "too much reliance": nowadays, a theory inconsistent with (say) relativity or quantum mechanics will face an uphill battle for acceptance or even serious consideration. That's not excessive respect for "ancient authority" in my opinion, but just good scientific practice. I see no difference between this attitude and that of the pre-Copernican astronomers.

This historical judgement is, finally, not something that can be proved one way or the other. I suggest we agree to disagree.

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 21 Mar 2014 #permalink

"Prior to reading any essay about science and religion, do a search. If the words “nuanced” or “complex” appear then don’t waste your time. You’re about to get the script."

Yeah, screw the complexity and nuance of real people doing real things for real and complex reasons. While we're at it, screw real historians for trying to actually understand that complexity and for objecting when people rely on simplistic and ideologically driven alternatives. Someone has to stand up to experts!

"Go read Josh’s post and look at the people he quotes favorably. Try to find a reasonable point in a single one of them."

Well, you really put those historians of science I was quoting in their place. All the effort they put into actually trying to understand why people did what they did are worthless because they aren't following the Draper/White script, and they insist on pointing out how utterly wrong that script happens to be. So let's dismiss them all and rely on ideologically-driven, long-debunked, pseudohistory instead.

As I said in my post, if the point was to highlight oppression and the horrors of religious orthodoxy or the power of free thought or whatever, why focus on Bruno rather than any other victim of the Inquisition (Joan of Arc, say, or William Tyndale)? Why not talk about something that happened within living memory, like Aung San Suu Kyi's imprisonment in Burma? No, the point of Cosmos highlighting Bruno is to somehow link him with the development of the scientific idea of an infinite universe, and to claim that he was executed for doing science, and that's BAD HISTORY. It's wrong. And I happen to think it's wrong to promote bad history on TV, especially under the guise of science education.

Bruno wasn't doing science, he wasn't scientifically influential, and he wasn't executed for his claims about the size of the universe. He was running around saying that Jesus wasn't divine, Mary wasn't a virgin, and practicing magic. That's what he was killed for, and that's horrific; no one should be killed, or punished at all, for saying such things. But it's not the story Cosmos told, nor is it really relevant to anything Cosmos was talking about. Because, again, if the point of Cosmos was to say how horrible it is that people were killed for denying the divinity of Jesus, why not talk about the Albigensian or Hussite Crusades, or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain? Those were way more horrific than what happened to Bruno, and have about as much to do with astronomy or cosmology.

By Josh Rosenau (not verified) on 21 Mar 2014 #permalink

The Cosmos series is very disappointing. So far its agenda seems to be anti-ID and maybe anti-religious. Why else spend so much time on the questionable case of Bruno?

By John (not verified) on 22 Mar 2014 #permalink

In reply to by Josh Rosenau (not verified)

@Uncommon descent

“How do you know that?”
Fair play immediately goes out of the window, because an answer is totally possible.
Science uses two objective (or if you prefer intersubjective) methods: deduction (ie theory, law, hypothesis) and induction (ie empiry, observation, experiment, fact finding). There are no other objective methods. As soon as some smart guys develops one the entire worldwide scientific community will rejoice. Until that splendid moment JR is right: there are no non-scientific ways of knowing. Revelation and faith are totally subjective. Where things like the Newtonian Laws and natural selection mean the same anywhere on Earth the results from revelation and faith are totally different in Papua-Guinea, christian USA and the interior of Suriname/Brazil.
In the second place science works; religion doesn't. For good or for bad, science gave us gas chambers, nuclear bombs, airplanes, internet etc. etc. All religions - and mankind has invented a lot of gods - have provided mankind with nothing that even remotely can compare.

"if science is not a self-supporting enterprise, then science cannot possibly be the only way of knowing"
That's a non-sequitur, because the assumption that it's possible to know everything there is to know is unwarranted.
Most of the assumptions you give are correct. Not d: Popper's falsification principle, which is very important in science (if you don't believe me consult a random scientific article), exactly assumes that induction may be unreliable indeed. G and i are only a problem when we have to rely on only one or a small group of scientists. That's why every single branch of science has developed quite detailed methodologies - to minimize the chance that things go wrong. Not recognizing this means you are not interested in fair play indeed.

As for the a priori truths:
a) I refer to Modern Physics, which is probabilistic. As such causality is done away with.
b) Matter of convenience. In the models used in Modern Physics these things are meaningless. As soon as they become meaningful one way or the other science will adopt them. You only show your lack of imagination.
c) Ah, that's why Stephen Hawking talks about virtual time in A Brief History of Time.
d) They can. Red and green refer in physics to specific wavelengths and frequencies and there is no reason some thing cannot transmit two different frequences (one associated with red and another with green) all over its surface at the same time.

After this epic fail I didn't bother to read the rest.

Mr Rosenhouse, in justifying your position, it is not "divine revelation or the historical teachings of a church" that you need to worry overmuch about. The incessant desire to re-fight battles already won is hardly sufficient.

If you want to be truly justified in your culture warring, why not pick up the origin of semiosis and try explaining the rise of a physical process (by material forces alone) that requires a physical discontinuity be instantiated in the system order to function. It's a rather unique material process, one which can only be demonstrated to exist in language, mathematics, and in the genome. It's also the prime material requirement to organize the first replicating cell on earth, and it appears in the record prior to the onset of Darwinian evolution.

Perhaps one day you'll tire of beating the old dog and join the 21st century. On the other hand, perhaps not.

It does take intellectual courage, after all.

By Upright BiPed (not verified) on 22 Mar 2014 #permalink

It’s[semiosis] a rather unique material process, one which can only be demonstrated to exist in language, mathematics, and in the genome.

Hi Biped

Your comment is a bit off-topic, isn't it?

And your claim that DNA sequences are in a category with spoken language has been refuted. Why does Dr Rosenhouse need to reinvent the wheel? Why not publish? Where's the website?


Michael Weiss:

The nuance-free half-true version of this contretemps goes like this:

Velikovsky came up with theories sharply at odds with the scientific orthodoxy of the time. Scientists worked hard to repress their publication, infringing on his freedom of speech, and denying him the opportunity to respond to his critics.

“Wait a minute!” you cry. “You’ve left out a lot, and some of what you wrote is wrong!”

“Nuance! Complexity! The details don’t matter, only the moral! Do you believe in the free expression of ideas or not?”

You're assuming that lack of nuance is the only possible problem to be had with that summary. In my case, I wouldn't cry out for nuance, but for clarification as to whether "scientists" literally locked Velikovsky in his house, thus actually suppressing him. Or, for that matter, whether he was threatened with torture, as was Galileo.

Of course it's true that Galileo did a bunch of things wrong and that the Church had a more complicated heuristic than "If person X contradicts our reading of the Bible, then punish X." But we should also avoid the "fallacy of gray", concluding that everything comes out equal in the end because  life is more than black and white. Ultimately, the Church was in the wrong, much more so than Galileo, if not as wrong as it had been in other instances (such as its suppressions of heresies).

In the case of the Velikovsky affair, if it can be shown that he had little practical opportunity to publish his responses to criticism in any magazine or newspaper, then I will count him as a Galileo-equalivalent martyr for freedom of expression. But it's absurd to pretend that putting someone on trial for contradicting authority was just the Church equivalent of peer review for the quality of one's scientific ideas.

Often the moral does matter; that's one reason I brought up the Lost-Cause thing, because that really does have an impact on modern political activities. In a larger sense, defense of the 16th-century church isn't just the effort of a few fringe apologists, but is interconnected with the whole of religion, and religion really is something New Atheist has a problem with.


I agree with almost all your points about Galileo, the Church, and Velikovsky. The thing is, those distinctions you're drawing, those details you're delving into --- that's just what most people mean by nuance and complexity.

Agreed, life is not black and white, nor is it one shade of grey, nor is it a linear scale of shades of grey.

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 23 Mar 2014 #permalink

Michael Weiss:

I'm glad our views accord. Perhaps the disagreement is best put in the terms of a now-vanished comment on a Scienceblogs post about that pastor who planned to burn Koran. The commenter suggested that everyone was arguing about emphasis, and that people who placed emphasis on free speech took offense from those who placed emphasis on the guy being a lousy person (and vice versa). The question itself was in question. In this case, I think there's a lot to be said for an emphasis on the "warfare model" or whatever, insofar as it has grains of truth.

Among other things, we have to consider the silencing effects. Just as entrenched axes of privilege today mean that our society doesn't have as many minority and female leaders, scientists, etc. as it "should", so too did historical religious authority naturally turn inquisitive minds towards areas less conducive to progress than science would have been. Only rarely did you have a Galileo; most people "learned their place" much earlier than that.

But Ias I said, I think this is mainly a difference of emphasis.