Intelligent Design

On not learning the lessons of history: what Professor PZ Myers doesn’t “get” about the progress of science (Part One)

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In the course of two short posts littered with no less than ten erroneous, misleading or doubtful claims, Professor PZ Myers argues his case that science and religion are incompatible: (i) science can only flourish in an atmosphere where dangerous or eccentric ideas can be freely discussed; (ii) religion, by its very nature, tends to suppress those ideas that run counter to orthodox doctrines; hence (iii) religion is fundamentally inimical to the progress of science.

What Professor Myers’ thesis overlooks, however, is that:

(a) it was sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinkers, writing from religious, theological, and philosophical perspectives, who did more than anyone to advance the cause of religious toleration and free speech, which enabled science to flourish, as Perez Zagorin’s book, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, convincingly demonstrates;

(b) the Scientific Revolution was largely driven by scientists who were convinced that the cosmos was made according to a Divine plan, and who were driven by a bold ambition to know the mind of God and “think God’s thoughts after him”;

(c) although the progress of science is imperiled by the suppression of free speech, it is hampered far more by a lack of curiosity about the world – i.e. a complacent human tendency to stop asking probing questions when we come up against some state of affairs that we are powerless to change (“That’s just the way it is; move on, folks”);

(d) religion serves a useful purpose, insofar as it encourages scientists to “think out of the box” when asking why things are the way they are (after all, what could be more “out of the box” than a Transcendent Designer?); and

(e) if it comes to that, secularism has its own orthodoxies, and it actively persecutes scientists who question those orthodoxies with far greater zeal than the Inquisition ever did.

In today’s post, my intention is simply to expose Professor PZ Myers’ ten false, misleading and doubtful statements, which he makes in his two posts on Bruno, titled, Missing the point of Giordano Bruno (15 March 2014) and Still picking nits over Giordano Bruno (23 March 2014). I have numbered Professor Myers’ “whoppers” from 1 to 10, and grouped them into five categories.

In my next post, I will be responding to Professor Myers’ argument that religion inhibits the progress of science.

PZ’s ten erroneous, misleading or doubtful claims


A. Claims relating to Copernicus and Galileo

1. Copernicus delayed the publication of his book (arguing that the Earth goes round the Sun) out of fear, and only saw his ideas in print on his deathbed.

My verdict: FALSE.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). Portrait from Town Hall in Thorn/Torun – 1580). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This short statement is packed with so many errors that it is hard to know where to begin. The standard version of this “myth” is that Copernicus, knowing that his heliocentric theory went against the plain and literal reading of Scripture (e.g. Joshua 10:12, where Joshua tells the sun to stand still), was afraid of incurring ecclesiastical censure if he published his views, so he decided to delay the publication of his book until 1543, when a printed edition of the book was finally presented to him on his deathbed. Even then, Copernicus had taken further precautions: his book contained a preface, written by Andreas Osiander, the man who organized the printing of Copernicus’ book, stating that the Copernican hypothesis was not true in any objective sense; it was just a convenient fiction, designed to help astronomers simplify their calculations, and nothing more. Or so the myth goes. But it’s 100% wrong, from start to finish.

Professor Myers could have spared himself the embarrassment of being caught out on this ridiculous claim if he had taken the trouble to read the article on Nicolaus Copernicus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Sheila Rabin, Professor of History at Saint Peter’s University, New Jersey. If he had done that, he would have learned the following facts:

(a) Copernicus wrote about his ideas at least 29 years before the publication of his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium), in 1543, as he lay on his deathbed.

Here’s what Professor Sheila Rabin says in her article on Nicolaus Copernicus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Nevertheless, Copernicus began to work on astronomy on his own. Sometime between 1510 and 1514 he wrote an essay that has come to be known as the Commentariolus (MW 75–126) that introduced his new cosmological idea, the heliocentric universe, and he sent copies to various astronomers. He continued making astronomical observations whenever he could, hampered by the poor position for observations in Frombork and his many pressing responsibilities as canon. Nevertheless, he kept working on his manuscript of On the Revolutions.

(b) Senior churchmen and academics actually encouraged Copernicus to publish his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium).

In her article on Nicolaus Copernicus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Professor Sheila Rabin lists the eminent people, including high-ranking clerics, who urged Copernicus to publish his book as speedily as possible:

Although Copernicus received encouragement to publish his book from his close friend, the bishop of Chelmo Tiedemann Giese (1480–1550), and from the cardinal of Capua Nicholas Schönberg (1472–1537), it was the arrival of Georg Joachim Rheticus in Frombork that solved his needs for a supportive and stimulating colleague in mathematics and astronomy and for access to an appropriate printer. Rheticus was a professor of mathematics at the University of Wittenberg, a major center for the student of mathematics as well as for Lutheran theology…

…[A]s Swerdlow and Neugebauer (16) noted, by “the early 1530’s knowledge of Copernicus’s new theory was circulating in Europe, even reaching the high and learned circles of the Vatican.

By 1530, Copernicus’ Commentariolus had blossomed into a treatise, which was basically a short version of his later major work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, that was published on Copernicus’ deathbed in 1543. By this time, the treatise was rapidly gaining popularity in ecclesiastical circles. Amateur historian Humphrey Clarke takes up the story of how the Church responded to Copernicus’ treatise, in the third post in his series of articles (written in 2009) on the Galileo affair, titled, The Galileo Affair – (3) The Death-Bed Publication:

In 1530 Copernicus circulated an outline of his astronomy amongst friends called ‘Commentariolus’. This attracted widespread attention and in 1533 Pope Clement VII requested Johann Widmanstadt to deliver a public lecture on the Copernican theory in the Vatican gardens. The Pope having been favourably impressed (he presented Widmanstadt with a rare Greek manuscript), Nicholas Cardinal Schoenburg wrote to Copernicus, urging him to publish the complete details.

For the benefit of readers who might be curious about Clarke’s credentials, I should mention that he completed a Master’s degree in Modern History at the University of St Andrews in 2004. He contributes regularly to the history and philosophy of science blog, Quodlibeta.

(c) Copernicus had absolutely no fear of ecclesiastical censure, as a result of publishing his views.

In her article on Nicolaus Copernicus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Professor Sheila Rabin writes:

Fear of the reaction of ecclesiastical authorities was probably the least of the reasons why he delayed publishing his book. The most important reason for the delay was that the larger work required both astronomical observations and intricate mathematical proofs. His administrative duties certainly interfered with both the research and the writing…

The publication of Rheticus’s Narratio prima did not create a big stir against the heliocentric thesis, and so Copernicus decided to publish On the Revolutions. He added a dedication to Pope Paul III (r. 1534–1549), probably for political reasons, in which he expressed his hesitancy about publishing the work and the reasons he finally decided to publish it. He gave credit to Schönberg and Giese for encouraging him to publish and omitted mention of Rheticus, but it would have been insulting to the pope during the tense period of the Reformation to give credit to a Protestant minister.

Professional historians share Rabin’s view. In a 1987 article titled, Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science” (Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39.3:140-149, 9/1987), historians of science David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers wrote:

If Copernicus had any genuine fear of publication, it was the reaction of scientists, not clerics, that worried him. Other churchmen before him- Nicole Oresme (a bishop) in the fourteenth century and Nicholas of Cusa (a cardinal) in the fifteenth-had freely discussed the possible motion of the earth, and there was no reason to suppose that the reappearance of this idea in the sixteenth century would cause a religious stir. Indeed, various churchmen, including a bishop and a cardinal, urged Copernicus to publish his book, which appeared with a dedication to Pope Paul III. Had Copernicus lived beyond its publication in 1543, it is highly improbable that he would have felt any hostility or suffered any persecution. The church simply had more important things to worry about than a new astronomical or cosmological system. Although a few critics noticed and opposed the Copernican system, organized Catholic opposition did not appear until the seventeenth century.

Likewise, the oft-heard claim that the Protestant theologians Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon and John Calvin all bitterly opposed Copernicus new theory is also vastly over-blown. Lindberg and Numbers argue that Luther’s disparaging criticism of Copernicus in 1539 as “that fellow [“fool” in some later versions of Luther’s Table Talk – VJT] … who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down,” coupled with his preference for a literal interpretation of Scripture, on the grounds that “Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth” (Joshua 10:12), amounted to nothing more than “a single off-the-cuff remark.” They add that “Melanchthon expressed early disapproval of heliocentrism as a description of reality but later softened his position.” Finally, “Calvin’s dismissal of the earth’s mobility was a passing remark, and it is clear that cosmological issues never entered systematically into his thought.”

The amateur historian Humphrey Clarke quotes a passage from a dedicatory letter that Copernicus wrote to Pope Paul III, in which he explained his real reasons for delaying the publication of his book. Far from being afraid of ecclesiastical censure, Copernicus was actually worried about being ridiculed by his scientific peers:

‘…the scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion, almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken.’
[Source: Nicholas Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, translated by Edward Rosen, (London: Macmillan, 1972), pp. 3-5.]

(d) Copernicus breezily dismissed concerns that his theory was contrary to Scripture, in a letter to the Pope, that was published with his book.

In the dedicatory letter that Copernicus wrote to Pope Paul III, accompanying the publication of his book, Copernicus exhibits a swaggering, breezy confidence that the efforts of any Biblical literalists who attempted to censure his book were doomed to failure. Copernicus refers to such people as “babblers”:

Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passages of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent of despising their criticism as unfounded. For it is not unknown that Lactantius, otherwise an illustrious writer but hardly an astronomer, speaks quite childishly about the earth’s shape, when he mocks those who declared that the earth has the form of a globe. Hence scholars need not be surprised if any such person will likewise ridicule me. Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution.
[Source: Nicholas Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, translated by Edward Rosen, (London: Macmillan, 1972), pp. 3-5.]

(Lactantius, incidentally, was one of the very few Christian theologians who, in the fourth century, argued against the then-prevailing view that the Earth was a sphere, because he thought the Bible said otherwise. However, his influence on Christianity was quite marginal, as the historian Jeffrey Archer points out in his erudite work, The Shape of the Earth: virtually all of the Church Fathers shared the commonly accepted view that the Earth was spherical.)

In short, Copernicus wrote like a man who fully expected to secure theological acceptance for his views.

(e) The preface that was tacked on to Copernicus’ book was added without his knowledge or consent, and senior churchmen were very annoyed with the man who appended it to Copernicus’ book.

In his post in his series of articles (written in 2009) on the Galileo affair, titled, The Galileo Affair – (3) The Death-Bed Publication, amateur historian Humphrey Clarke acknowledges that Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian who organized the printing of Copernicus’ book, did attach an unsigned preface, containing a disclaimer suggesting that his heliocentric theory was merely a useful hypothesis for computation, rather than an objective truth. However, he points out that Osiander did this without the consent of Copernicus. Copernicus’ clerical friends were also upset with what Osiander had done, and tried to rectify the situation:

[Lutheran mathematics professor] Rheticus was furious at this and tried to publish a corrected version without success. [Catholic] Bishop Giese was also outraged, describing the preface as a ‘fraud’ and writing to Rheticus with the aim of having the preface denounced to the Senate of Nuremberg.

Does that sound like a suppression of free speech to you? No? I thought not.

(f) At the time when Copernicus wrote his book, the Catholic Church had not condemned the heliocentric hypothesis.

In her article on Nicolaus Copernicus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Professor Sheila Rabin writes:

Pope Clement VII (r. 1523–1534) had reacted favorably to a talk about Copernicus’s theories, rewarding the speaker with a rare manuscript. There is no indication of how Pope Paul III, to whom On the Revolutions was dedicated reacted; however, a trusted advisor, Bartolomeo Spina of Pisa (1474–1546) intended to condemn it but fell ill and died before his plan was carried out (see Rosen, 1975). Thus, in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy.

Professor PZ Myers’ claim that Copernicus delayed publication of his book out of fear, and only saw his ideas in print on his deathbed has now been exposed for the tissue of fabrications that it is. Let us move on.


2. Galileo was tried by the Vatican and forced to recant.


Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition. Painting by Cristiano Banti, 1857. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Professor PZ Myers is wrong on two counts here: Galileo wasn’t tried by the Vatican, and he wasn’t forced to recant. Galileo was almost certainly not tortured (although he was warned that he would be, if he lied). He showed no sign in his interrogation of being intimidated by the Inquisition. And he probably never even spent a day of his life in the Inquisition’s prisons.

First of all, Galileo was tried by the Roman Inquisition, not the Vatican. The headquarters of the Roman Inquisition are located at the Palace of the Holy Office, just outside what is now Vatican City. What we call “the Vatican” did not exist until 1929, when it was first established as a city-state. However, it is true that most Popes resided at what is now called the Vatican, from 1377 onwards.

Second, the assertion that Galileo was tortured and thereby forced to recant has been made by some of his biographers, but it is almost certainly false. At one point in his interrogation, Galileo was apparently told that he would be tortured if he didn’t tell the truth, but there are strong reasons for believing that this threat was never actually carried out. Moreover, the records of the interrogation show no evidence of any distress or lack of composure on Galileo’s part. In short: there is no evidence that he was forced to recant his views.

(a) Was Galileo tortured?

Maurice Finocchiaro, in his essay (“Myth 8: Galileo was imprisoned and tortured”, in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Harvard University Press, 2009, edited by Ronald L. Numbers), maintains that Galileo was threatened with torture, but adds that there is no evidence that the threat was ever actually carried out, and plenty of evidence that it was not. To support his case, Finocchiaro quotes from the minutes of the Inquisition meeting of June 16, 1633, chaired by the Pope, which state that “His Holiness decreed that the same Galileo is to be interrogated even with the threat of torture.” He then quotes from the minutes of the interrogation of Galileo on June 21, 1633, which note that Galileo was repeatedly asked whether he actually held the Copernican theory of the earth’s motion after being told to abandon it in 1616, and on each occasion Galileo steadfastly maintained that he had not. (Throughout his trial, Galileo insisted that since the condemnation of 1616, he had treated the Copernican theory purely as a working hypothesis, for scientific purposes.) The records add that Galileo “was told to tell the truth, otherwise one would have recourse to torture.” Galileo replied, “I am here to obey, but have not held this opinion after the determination was made.” Finally, the records (which bear Galileo’s own signature) note: “And since nothing more could be done for the execution of his decision, after he signed he was sent to his place.” Finocchiaro comments:

This deposition leaves no doubt that Galileo was threatened with torture during the June 21 interrogation. But there is no evidence that he was actually tortured, or that his accusers planned actually to torture him.

… Moreover, if he had been tortured, it would have happened on June 21, leaving him in no condition to attend the sentencing and recite the abjuration on the twenty-second. Further, Inquisition rules required that the torture session, including the victim’s cries and groans, be recorded, but the proceedings contain no such minutes. Inquisition rules also stipulated that confessions obtained during torture be ratified twenty-four hours later, outside the torture chamber, but there is no record of any ratification. (p. 76)

The Roman Inquisitors were nothing if not sticklers for the rules. And according to the online Catholic Answers tract, The Galileo Controversy, subjecting Galileo to torture would have gone against the rules in the inquisitors’ own handbook:

In the end, Galileo recanted his heliocentric teachings, but it was not — as is commonly supposed — under torture nor after a harsh imprisonment. Galileo was, in fact, treated surprisingly well…

Had Galileo been tortured, Nicolini would have reported it to his king. While instruments of torture may have been present during Galileo’s recantation (this was the custom of the legal system in Europe at that time), they definitely were not used.

The records demonstrate that Galileo could not be tortured because of regulations laid down in The Directory for Inquisitors (Nicholas Eymeric, 1595). This was the official guide of the Holy Office, the Church office charged with dealing with such matters, and was followed to the letter.

(b) Was Galileo ever imprisoned?

The Catholic Answers tract adds that Galileo was never imprisoned after his sentence, as is commonly believed, but rather, placed under house arrest with every possible convenience, at the Pope’s personal request.:

As historian Giorgio de Santillana, who is not overly fond of the Catholic Church, noted, “We must, if anything, admire the cautiousness and legal scruples of the Roman authorities.” Galileo was offered every convenience possible to make his imprisonment in his home bearable.

Galileo’s friend Nicolini, Tuscan ambassador to the Vatican, sent regular reports to the court regarding affairs in Rome. Many of his letters dealt with the ongoing controversy surrounding Galileo.

Nicolini revealed the circumstances surrounding Galileo’s “imprisonment” when he reported to the Tuscan king: “The pope told me that he had shown Galileo a favor never accorded to another” (letter dated Feb. 13, 1633); ” . . . he has a servant and every convenience” (letter, April 16); and “[i]n regard to the person of Galileo, he ought to be imprisoned for some time because he disobeyed the orders of 1616, but the pope says that after the publication of the sentence he will consider with me as to what can be done to afflict him as little as possible” (letter, June 18).

Incidentally, Galileo’s house arrest was not as confining as Professor Myers might have his readers suppose: Galileo was perfectly free to walk a few blocks down the road from his house to visit his daughter, who was a nun and who lived nearby.

In his blog post of March 15, 2014, Professor PZ Myers mentions that Galileo, after his trial, “spent the end of his life under house arrest,” which is correct. However, even during his trial, there is no evidence that Galileo ever spent so much as a day in the Inquisition’s prisons.

Maurice Finocchiaro, in his essay (cited above), adds that Galileo may never have been imprisoned at all, even during his interrogation:

With the possible exception of three days (June 21-24, 1633), Galileo was never held in prison, either during the trial (as was universal custom) or afterward (as the sentence decreed). Even for those three days he likely lodged in a prosecutor’s apartment, not in a cell. The explanation for such unexpectedly benign treatment is not completely clear but includes the following factors: the protection of the Medici, Galileo’s celebrity status, and the love-hate attitude of Pope Urban, an erstwhile admirer.

Let my readers judge. Does the evidence suggest that Galileo was forced to recant, as Professor PZ Myers contends?

Finally, I should add that Pope Urban VIII sent his special blessing to Galileo as he was dying. After his death, Galileo was interred not only in consecrated ground, but within the church of Santa Croce at Florence.


B. Claims relating to the Inquisition

3. The Church maintained an Inquisition to torture people who didn’t follow Catholic dogma in thought.

My verdict: FALSE.

Emblem of the Inquisition, 1571. Source: Enciclopedia Española. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Torture had nothing to do with why the Inquisition was set up in the first place, and neither was torture ever one of the Inquisition’s objectives. The Inquisition did resort to torture, which was inexcusable, but it did so far more sparingly than the secular courts: about 2% of the people brought before the Inquisition were tortured.

(a) What were the Inquisition’s objectives?

The Wikipedia article on the Roman Inquisition lists its objectives as follows:

Like other iterations of the Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition was responsible for prosecuting individuals accused of committing offences relating to heresy, including Protestantism, sorcery, immorality, blasphemy, Judaizing and witchcraft, as well as for censorship of printed literature.

There is no mention here of torture.

(b) Did the Inquisition employ torture more often than other tribunals?

Even the infamous Spanish Inquisition – which was bloodier than its Roman and Portuguese counterparts – applied torture far more rarely than any secular tribunal in Europe, as historian Thomas Madden notes in his article, “The Truth About the Spanish Inquisition” (Crisis magazine, April 2, 2011):

What about the dark dungeons and torture chambers? The Spanish Inquisition had jails, of course. But they were neither especially dark nor dungeon-like. Indeed, as far as prisons go, they were widely considered to be the best in Europe. There were even instances of criminals in Spain purposely blaspheming so as to be transferred to the Inquisition’s prisons. Like all courts in Europe, the Spanish Inquisition used torture. But it did so much less often than other courts. Modern researchers have discovered that the Spanish Inquisition applied torture in only 2 percent of its cases. Each instance of torture was limited to a maximum of 15 minutes. In only 1 percent of the cases was torture applied twice and never for a third time.

Was the Inquisition a fundamentally flawed institution? Certainly it was. Was it sadistic, existing for the primary purpose of inflicting pain? Most certainly not.

(c) Did Christians always endorse the use of torture?

No, they didn’t. According to the article Inquisition in the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Church actively opposed the death penalty for heresy during the first 1200 years of Christianity. It also refrained from torturing people during that period. The Church did, however, restrict heretics’ freedom of speech and assembly from the fourth century onwards, and it occasionally invoked the power of the State to suppress any heretics who were rebelling against the Church’s authority, by asking the government to close down their churches:

The ecclesiastical ideas of the first five centuries may be summarized as follows:

  • the Church should for no cause shed blood (St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Leo I, and others);
  • other teachers, however, like Optatus of Mileve and Priscillian, believed that the State could pronounce the death penalty on heretics in case the public welfare demanded it;
  • the majority held that the death penalty for heresy, when not civilly criminal, was irreconcilable with the spirit of Christianity.

St. Augustine (Epistle 100, n. 1), almost in the name of the western Church, says: “Corrigi eos volumus, non necari, nec disciplinam circa eos negligi volumus, nec suppliciis quibus digni sunt exerceri” — we wish them corrected, not put to death; we desire the triumph of (ecclesiastical) discipline, not the death penalties that they deserve. St. John Chrysostom says substantially the same in the name of the Eastern Church (Homily 46 on Matthew, no. 1): “To consign a heretic to death is to commit an offence beyond atonement”; and in the next chapter he says that God forbids their execution, even as He forbids us to uproot cockle, but He does not forbid us to repel them, to deprive them of free speech, or to prohibit their assemblies. The help of the “secular arm” was therefore not entirely rejected; on the contrary, as often as the Christian welfare, general or domestic, required it, Christian rulers sought to stem the evil by appropriate measures.

(d) Why was the Inquisition set up originally?

The original rationale for the creation of the medieval Inquisition by Pope Gregory IX in 1231 had to do with a dualistic sect called the Cathars, or Albigenses, whose doctrines were not only heretical but also positively anti-social, leading to sporadic mob lynchings in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Other sects with similar views were the Paulicians and the Bogomils. Catholicism could not co-exist with these sects, as their aim was to subvert medieval society, as the article Inquisition in the Catholic Encyclopedia explains:

Moreover these sects were in the highest degree aggressive, hostile to Christianity itself, to the Mass, the sacraments, the ecclesiastical hierarchy and organization; hostile also to feudal government by their attitude towards oaths, which they declared under no circumstances allowable. Nor were their views less fatal to the continuance of human society, for on the one hand they forbade marriage and the propagation of the human race, and on the other hand they made a duty of suicide through the institution of the Endura (see CATHARI). It has been said that more perished through the Endura (the Catharist suicide code) than through the Inquisition. It was, therefore, natural enough for the custodians of the existing order in Europe, especially of the Christian religion, to adopt repressive measures against such revolutionary teachings.

The medieval Church was initially slow to react to these sects; when it finally did, under popular pressure, it set up a tribunal known as the Inquisition:

From the foregoing it cannot be doubted that up to 1224 there was no imperial law ordering, or presupposing as legal, the burning of heretics. The rescript for Lombardy of 1224 (Mon. Germ., II, 252; cf. ibid., 288) is accordingly the first law in which death by fire is contemplated (cf. Ficker, op. cit., 196)… The imperial rescripts of 1220 and 1224 were adopted into ecclesiastical criminal law in 1231, and were soon applied at Rome. It was then that the Inquisition of the Middle Ages came into being.

(e) How did the Inquisition come to support the use of torture in the first place?

Torture was not permitted when the medieval Inquisition was originally established by Pope Gregory IX in 1231. But shortly afterwards, in the year 1252, another Pope, Innocent IV, authorized the Inquisition to use torture, in his bull, Ad extirpanda (see Law 25). The Wikipedia article on Ad extirpanda summarizes what the bull decreed on torture:

The bull was issued in the wake of the murder of the papal inquisitor of Lombardy, St. Peter of Verona, who was killed by a conspiracy of Cathar sympathizers on 6 April 1252. The bull argued that as heretics are “murderers of souls as well as robbers of God’s sacraments and of the Christian faith …”, they are “to be coerced—as are thieves and bandits—into confessing their errors and accusing others, although one must stop short of danger to life or limb.” The following parameters were placed on the use of torture:

  • that it did not cause loss of life or limb (citra membri diminutionem et mortis periculum)
  • that it was used only once
  • that the Inquisitor deemed the evidence against the accused to be virtually certain.

The bull conceded to the State a portion of the property to be confiscated from convicted heretics. The State in return assumed the burden of carrying out the penalty.

The article Inquisition in the Catholic Encyclopedia makes some interesting observations regarding the Inquisition’s imposition of torture:

Curiously enough, torture was not regarded as a mode of punishment, but purely as a means of eliciting the truth. It was not of ecclesiastical origin, and was long prohibited in the ecclesiastical courts. Nor was it originally an important factor in the inquisitional procedure, being unauthorized until twenty years after the Inquisition had begun. It was first authorized by Innocent IV in his Bull “Ad exstirpanda” of 15 May, 1252, which was confirmed by Alexander IV on 30 November, 1259, and by Clement IV on 3 November, 1265. The limit placed upon torture was citra membri diminutionem et mortis periculum — i.e, it was not to cause the loss of life or limb or imperil life. Torture was to applied only once, and not then unless the accused were uncertain in his statements, and seemed already virtually convicted by manifold and weighty proofs. In general, this violent testimony (quaestio) was to be deferred as long as possible, and recourse to it was permitted in only when all other expedients were exhausted. Conscientious and sensible judges quite properly attached no great importance to confessions extracted by torture. After long experience Eymeric declared: Quaestiones sunt fallaces et inefficaces — i.e the torture is deceptive and ineffectual.

Abuses soon crept in, however:

Had this papal legislation been adhered to in practice, the historian of the Inquisition would have fewer difficulties to satisfy. In the beginning, torture was held to be so odious that clerics were forbidden to be present under pain of irregularity. Sometimes it had to be interrupted so as to enable the inquisitor to continue his examination, which, of course, was attended by numerous inconveniences. Therefore on 27 April, 1260, Alexander IV authorized inquisitors to absolve one another of this irregularity. Urban IV on 2 August, 1262, renewed the permission, and this was soon interpreted as formal licence to continue the examination in the torture chamber itself. The inquisitors manuals faithfully noted and approved this usage. The general rule ran that torture was to be resorted to only once. But this was sometimes circumvented — first, by assuming that with every new piece of evidence the rack could be utilized afresh, and secondly, by imposing fresh torments on the poor victim (often on different days), not by way of repetition, but as a continuation (non ad modum iterationis sed continuationis), as defended by Eymeric; “quia, iterari non debent [tormenta], nisi novis supervenitibus indiciis, continuari non prohibentur.” But what was to be done when the accused, released from the rack, denied what he had just confessed? Some held with Eymeric that the accused should be set at liberty; others, however, like the author of the “Sacro Arsenale” held that the torture should be continued, because the accused had too seriously incriminated himself by his previous confession. When Clement V formulated his regulations for the employment of torture, he never imagined that eventually even witnesses would be put on the rack, although not their guilt, but that of the accused, was in question. From the pope’s silence it was concluded that a witness might be put upon the rack at the discretion of the inquisitor. Moreover, if the accused was convicted through witnesses, or had pleaded guilty, the torture might still he used to compel him to testify against his friends and fellow-culprits.

(f) Exactly how were people tortured?

According to Joseph Perez’s book, The Spanish Inquisition, victims were tortured in one of three ways:

The Inquisition practised three methods of torture. The first was the ordeal by water. The prisoner was tied to a sloped ladder, his head lower than his heels; his mouth was propped open and a cloth was placed over it. On to this water was poured, which the prisoner was forced to swallow. The water jug contained one litre of liquid. During a single session as many as eight jugfuls could be administered to the prisoner. Another form of torture consisted in suspending the accused from a pulley by a rope that fastened his wrists together and to attach weights to his feet. The body was gradually raised, then abruptly dropped. In the third kind of torture, the rack was used. The prisoner’s wrists and ankles were bound together by ropes that were then twisted tighter and tighter by a lever. According to Henningsen, 90 per cent of the accused brought before the Inquisition were never subjected to torture. (Profile Books, London, paperback edition, 2006).

(g) What about the Iron Maiden? Is that a myth?

If you Google “Inquisition torture” you’ll probably see article after article referring to the Iron Maiden, the Pear of Anguish, the Spanish Chair and the Judas seat. But none of these sadistic devices were ever used by the Inquisition. To see why, I suggest that readers have a look at this online article: 6 Ridiculous History Myths (You Probably Think Are True). it turns out that most of the devices which figure in popular folklore about the Inquisition are of relatively recent origin, going back no further than the 17th century, and in some cases, only as far back as the 19th.

There was also a propaganda effort by English Protestants to paint the Spanish Inquisition as totally depraved, from the late sixteenth century onwards. Ellen Rice discusses this episode in an online article titled, The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition (Catholic Dossier 2, no. 6, Nov-Dec 1996: 16-17):

The Inquisition Myth, which Spaniards call “The Black Legend,” did not arise in 1480. It began almost 100 years later, and exactly one year after the Protestant defeat at the Battle of Muhlberg at the hands of Ferdinand’s grandson, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In 1567 a fierce propaganda campaign began with the publication of a Protestant leaflet penned by a supposed Inquisition victim named Montanus. This character (Protestant of course) painted Spaniards as barbarians who ravished women and sodomized young boys. The propagandists soon created “hooded fiends” who tortured their victims in horrible devices like the knife-filled Iron Maiden which never was used in Spain. The BBC/A&E special plainly states a reason for the war of words: the Protestants fought with words because they could not win on the battlefield.

(h) What happened to the Inquisition?

The medieval, Spanish, Portuguese and New World Inquisitions are long gone. The Portuguese inquisition was abolished in 1821, in the wake of the Liberal Revolution of 1820, while in Spain, the Inquisition persisted until 1834, when its practices were finally outlawed. It may surprise readers to learn that the Roman Inquisition still exists, but under a different name. And no, it doesn’t support religious coercion.

The Roman Inquisition was established by Pope Paul III in 1542, under the title of the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. In 1908 the name of the Congregation became “The Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office”, which in 1965 further changed to “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”, as retained to the present day.

However, the Catholic Church has repudiated coercion in matters of religion, ever since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Cardinal Avery Dulles tells the story of what happened in his article, Religious Freedom: Innovation and Development (First Things, August 2008):

One of the most striking developments in twentieth-century Catholicism was the doctrine of religious freedom set forth by the Second Vatican Council. The Declaration on Religious Freedom, known by its Latin title Dignitatis Humanae (DH), took up two very sensitive questions, the one dealing with the right of individual persons and groups to religious freedom; the other, with the duties of the State toward religion. Regarding the first point, the Council taught that all human persons have by nature an inalienable right to be free in seeking religious truth, in living and worshiping according to their religious convictions, and in bearing witness to their beliefs without hindrance from any human power. This principle was theologically grounded in the fact that God, respecting the dignity of the human person, invites a voluntary and uncoerced adherence to religious truth. The act of faith, being free by its very nature, cannot be compelled.

Regarding the second point, the Council taught that the State has an obligation to protect the inviolable rights of all citizens, including the right of religious freedom. It did not teach that the State was obliged to give legal privileges to Christianity or Catholicism, although it did not rule out such arrangements. It did deny that civil government had the authority to command or prohibit religious acts.


C. Claims relating to Bruno

4. Bruno was tortured to an agonizing death for his beliefs.

My verdict: MISLEADING.

(But see the UPDATE below.)

Bronze statue of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) by Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), Campo de’ Fiori, Rome. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.


For me, the phrase, “He was tortured to death” conjures up images of a sadistic individual inflicting ever-increasing levels of pain upon a poor hapless victim, with the eventual result that the victim dies. In such a case, the vital point is that the pain level is continually under the control of the murderer, who increases it to a level where it kills the victim.

In a comment below (#11), JWTruthInLove has adduced some examples from the literature of deaths by burning (in times past) where the level of pain suffered by the victim was indeed controlled by the executioner, to a large degree. Also as JWTruthInLove notes, there are various legal definitions of torture. That being the case, I am prepared to revise my verdict for #4 above, and allow that PZ Myers got it right, on this point.



Professor PZ Myers is guilty of making a grossly misleading statement here, because the word “torture” presupposes a retributive, coercive or a sadistic intent on the part of the torturer. Torture is defined as “the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.” Hence an execution cannot be properly described as an act of torture unless it can be shown that the executioners were intending either to punish the victim by the infliction of pain, or to break the victim’s will or to provide personal gratification to the executioners. None of these descriptions applies to the execution of Bruno.

On February 17, 1600, Bruno was burned to death at the stake – a shameful and inexcusable act by the Catholic Church. Bruno suffered a painful death by burning, but he was not burnt in order to force him to change his beliefs and convert to Catholicism – rather, he was burnt because he had previously declared his unwillingness to change his views, and because the Catholic Church had given up trying to change his views.

Nor was Bruno burnt out of a desire to derive personal pleasure from witnessing his suffering, but rather because burning was the penalty that was legally mandated by the Roman Inquisition, for “obstinate heretics” like Bruno. Sadism had nothing to do with it.

It might be argued that since burning was known to be a painful death, the intent of Bruno’s executioners would have been a retributive one. Thus the burning of Bruno would have amounted to State- and church-sanctioned torture. But this is a very odd use of language. We don’t usually refer to an execution as an act of torture; normally we would not say that an executed person died as a result of being tortured to death. That would be a very strange way of talking. Until the 21st century, electrocution and gassing were the most prevalent methods of execution in the United States. These are undeniably painful methods of execution. Yet we would not ordinarily refer to an executed criminal as having been “tortured to an agonizing death” for his crime, to use Professor Myers’ words. The reason is that the primary intention of the executioner is that the condemned person should die, rather than suffer. And so it was with Bruno.

Moreover, death by burning was far from being the most painful method of execution in the year 1600, as historian Jole Shackelford notes in his essay (“Myth 7: That Giordano Bruno was the first martyr of Modern Science,” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Harvard University Press, 2009, edited by Ronald L. Numbers). Had Bruno’s executioners really intended to make him suffer a painful death, they could have done much worse things:

His [Bruno’s] end is brutal to modern sensibility but not exceptional in the early modern period, when traitors and other serious malefactors were drawn and quartered, eviscerated while still living, and their parts displayed on gallows and bridges for all to see. (p. 60)

Was Bruno tortured during his imprisonment?

Many writers have alleged that Bruno was tortured during his years of imprisonment by the Inquisition. However, it seems unlikely that he was ever actually subjected to torture, during this period, although his interrogators did talk about inflicting it, in Bruno’s presence, during his sixteenth and final interrogation.

Biographer Ingrid D. Rowland addresses the issue of whether Bruno was ever tortured in her acclaimed biography, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic (University of Chicago Press, 2008 – see here for a review in the New Yorker, August 25, 2008). Bruno was held for several years by the Roman Inquisition, and there is not a scintilla of evidence that he was tortured during this period, although this has often been alleged (see here for instance). Indeed, in view of the fact that he was freely forthcoming with information and answered his interrogators’ questions, this seems highly unlikely, since only those who refused to talk could be tortured, according to the Inquisition’s own rules. However, Rowland adds that at the end of his sixteenth and final interrogation, all of the inquisitors, frustrated by Bruno’s refusal to recant his heresy, recommended interrogating him stricte, which would have meant “hanging from a beam by arms tied together behind his back.” (This was the most common form of execution employed by the Roman Inquisition.) What happened next? Rowland explains:

It is not clear that Bruno was ever tortured physically (neither is it clear that he was not), but in any case listening to a discussion of torture at the end of his sixteenth interrogation must have been a torture in itself. Some prisoners talked as soon as they saw the instruments that were to be used against them. But inflicting physical harm on a prisoner who had given information willingly was, as the cardinals and Bruno well knew, an outrage against the Inquisition’s own ideas of due process. (p. 268)

What happened next? Bruno seems to have finally told the Inquisitors exactly what he thought of them:

Abruptly, as the records seem to show, he turned from willingness to negotiate with his inquisitors to radical defiance, both of Christian dogma and of the Inquisition’s right to enforce it. (p. 268)

The cardinals seem to have realized at last that Bruno would not yield. On 20 January 1600, Pope Clement VIII declared that the accused was “an unrepentant heretic, tenacious and stubborn”. Bruno was then taken to be handed over to the authority of the secular arm (i.e. the State). Cardinal Madruzzi pronounced the sentence of excommunication against Bruno on 8 February, in a session that was held in his palace. The State was instructed to dispense “merciful punishment without bloodshed” – a euphemism for burning. Giordano was burned at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiori, Rome, on February 17, 1600.

Thus marks the end of a disgraceful episode in Church history. The clerics who ordered Bruno to be handed over to the State were clearly deluded men, who showed no compassion for the man they wanted burned to death. But sadists they were not.

For more biographical links relating to the life of Bruno, see here, here and here.


5. Bruno was killed, in part, for his belief in the movement of the earth.

My verdict: FALSE.

Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), a German philosopher, theologian, jurist, and astronomer who wrote a book arguing for the existence of extraterrestrials on other worlds, over a century before Bruno – and never got into any trouble with the Catholic Church for it! This portrait is taken from a painting by Meister des Marienlebens, in the hospital at Kues (Germany). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In his second blog article on Bruno, Professor PZ Myers writes:

But also, I’m getting a little annoyed with these people claiming that Bruno wasn’t killed for that one specific belief about the movement of the earth. He was! We have the list of eight charges for which Bruno was condemned. Note especially number 5.

Charge number 5 on the list which Professor Myers links to reads as follows:

5 – The idea of terrestrial movement, which according to Bruno, did not oppose the Holy Scriptures, which were popularised for the faithful and did not apply to scientists.

Professor Myers is wrong on two counts. First, Bruno could not have been put to death for his belief that the Earth went round the Sun, for the very simple reason that this doctrine had not yet been condemned in the year 1600. As Professor Sheila Rabin points out in her article on Nicolaus Copernicus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

…[I]n 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology, and this is clearly shown in Finocchiaro’s reconstruction of the accusations against Bruno (see also Blumenberg’s part 3, chapter 5, titled “Not a Martyr for Copernicanism: Giordano Bruno”).

Second, Professor PZ Myers quotes from the wrong list of charges for which Bruno was burned at the stake. The list PZ Myers cites is a list of eight propositions drawn up by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, which Bruno refused to renounce. However, these are not the propositions for which Bruno was condemned as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition.

Why was Bruno condemned to death?

So why was Bruno condemned? According to a short biographical essay on Bruno over at the Galileo Project, that’s something of a mystery:

It is often maintained that Bruno was executed because of his Copernicanism and his belief in the infinity of inhabited worlds. In fact, we do not know the exact grounds on which he was declared a heretic because his file is missing from the records.

Apparently, the final records relating to Bruno’s sentencing went missing during the Napoleonic Wars, as Jole Shackelford helpfully explains in his essay (“Myth 7: That Giordano Bruno was the first martyr of Modern Science,” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Harvard University Press, 2009, edited by Ronald L. Numbers):

Whether the persistent questions about Bruno’s cosmological propositions figured into the final deliberation and sentencing of the heretic must remain unknown, unless the actual records of Bruno’s last months, which apparently disappeared in the aftermath of Napoleon’s failed conquest of Europe, are discovered. (p. 66)

However, the Italian historian Luigi Firpo (1915-1989) made a list of what he believes were the charges made against Bruno by the Roman Inquisition in his 1993 book, Il processo di Giordano Bruno. Luigi Firpo’s list was subsequently cited in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2009, edited by Ronald L. Numbers). The citation (no. 14 on page 248) reads as follows:

14. The summary document relating to Bruno’s trial before the Roman Inquisition (Sommario del processo, Rome, 1 March 1598) is printed as document 51 in Luigi Firpo, Il Processo di Giordano Bruno (Rome: Salerno Editrice, 1993), 247-304.

These are the charges on which Bruno was condemned by the Roman Inquisition, according to Luigi Firpo:

  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith and speaking against it and its ministers;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about the Trinity, divinity of Christ, and Incarnation;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith pertaining to Jesus as Christ;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith regarding the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about both Transubstantiation and Mass;
  • claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity;
  • believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes;
  • dealing in magics and divination.

(See also here for a substantially identical list of charges against Bruno, at The Marlowe Studies.)

The reader will note that none of these charges refers to the movement of the Earth around the Sun.

Was Bruno condemned for believing in other worlds?

There is, however, one charge which relates to a belief in “a plurality of worlds and their eternity.” Historian Jole Shackelford, in his essay (“Myth 7: That Giordano Bruno was the first martyr of Modern Science,” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Harvard University Press, 2009, edited by Ronald L. Numbers), notes that “cosmological matters, notably the plurality of worlds, were an identifiable concern all along and appear in the summary document,” adding that “Bruno was repeatedly questioned on these matters, and he apparently refused to recant them at the end” (p. 66). Shackelford concludes that “Bruno probably was burned alive for resolutely maintaining a series of heresies, among which his teaching of the plurality of worlds was prominent but by no means singular” (p. 66).

But was this view of Bruno’s a scientific opinion or a religious viewpoint? Shackelford considers the question anachronistic: “In Bruno’s day, indeed in Bruno’s own writings, theology and philosophy were of one piece, inseparable” (p. 66). He goes on to argue that it was Bruno’s heretical religious views that led to his condemnation by the Church – especially his Pythagoreanism.

However, we have direct evidence that had Bruno merely expressed his belief in a plurality of worlds, he would probably have been left alone by the Church: the case of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), who also upheld a plurality of worlds, long before Bruno did. He even wrote a book about his ideas.

The 15th-century cardinal who believed in aliens living on other worlds – and was left alone by the Catholic Church!

Well over a century before Bruno, the Catholic priest and theologian, Nicholas of Cusa (who was later made a cardinal), had explicitly upheld the view that there were extraterrestrials living on other worlds, without incurring any theological condemnation for his daring views. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa’s views are discussed in a scintillating essay by Richard Dengrove, titled, The Man who invented Extraterrestrials: Nicholas of Cusa (Challenger magazine, Winter 2008/2009). I’d like to quote a brief excerpt:

[S]ome might wonder how a priest who later became a cardinal could argue for the existence of extraterrestrials. In addition, some might wonder how anyone could have argued for their existence before Copernicus and his heliocentric solar system. Before Galileo. Could Extraterrestrials fit into the Ptolemaic universe, they might ask, where the Earth was the center?

Evidently, they did. Nicholas wrote in his 1439-40 book, De docta ignorantia, i.e., Learned Ignorance:

Life, as it exists on Earth in the form of men, animals and plants, is to be found, let us suppose in a high form in the solar and stellar regions. Rather than think that so many stars and parts of the heavens are uninhabited and that this earth of ours alone is peopled – and that with beings perhaps of an inferior type – we will suppose that in every region there are inhabitants, differing in nature by rank and all owing their origin to God, who is the center and circumference of all stellar regions.”

There you have it: the doctrine that there are extraterrestrials. This doctrine was known until the 20th Century as the Plurality of Worlds.

Voicing such bold ideas might have been considered career suicide in the fifteenth century, but as Dengrove points out, Nicholas of Cusa shot to fame instead:

About De docta ignorantia, the Church of the time did not mind it in the least. Throughout Nicholas’ life, he had the confidence of Popes. He was sent on diplomatic missions for the Pope both before and after De docta Ignorantia. A little later on, he was made a Papal legate, and argued the Church’s position before city burghers. Eight years after he wrote the book, he was ordained a Cardinal. Ultimately, Nicholas was given a see, an area, to take care of. While he had problems there, they did not concern any conflicts with the Church. Instead, they concerned conflicts with the local count, who fought Nicholas’ religious zeal.

Finally, Dengrove summarizes his reasons for rejecting the common view that Bruno was condemned for his belief in the plurality of worlds:

I know it is widely believed Giordano Bruno was burnt by the Church because he proclaimed the Plurality of Worlds. However, the Church had other reasons to take a dim view of Bruno: he practiced magic considered black, consorted with Protestants, and advocated the ‘ancient Egyptian’ religion. Despite claims, the Inquisition never told why it imprisoned or burnt Bruno.

Contrary to what Professor PZ Myers contends, then, merely upholding a belief in the plurality of worlds wouldn’t have got you burned at the stake in Bruno’s time.

But Bruno went further than merely declaring his belief in many worlds: as we have seen, he also maintained that these worlds were eternal, thereby placing himself in opposition to the doctrine that the universe had been created by God, at some point in the past.

Another point of contention between Bruno and the Church related to Jesus’ saving death on the Cross. Did Jesus die for extraterrestrials, too, or did they have their own Savior? The traditional Christian doctrine was that there was only one name under Heaven whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Since Bruno regarded Jesus as nothing more than a clever magician, he would have also denied the doctrine that salvation comes only through the name of Jesus.

Nicholas of Cusa, on the other hand, had never questioned the Catholic doctrine that God created the universe, and he had wisely avoided speculation as to whether extraterrestrials would have needed their own Savior, had they fallen like Adam. All the evidence suggests that Bruno went out of his way to pick a theological fight with the Church. Science had nothing to do with the reasons why Bruno was condemned to death; rather, it was his combative personality and heterodox theological views.

Bruno: Martyr or provocateur?

Burning a man to death for candidly stating his views is morally reprehensible, regardless of time or place. But Bruno did much more than merely state his views. He also went out of his way to insult the Church and to insult the people around him, as Becky Ferreira, a self-declared fan of Giordano Bruno, narrates in her well-researched blog article, What ‘Cosmos’ Got Wrong About Giordano Bruno, the Heretic Scientist (March 10, 2014), over at the futuristic Website Motherboard:

…[H]is support for Copernican cosmology was the least heretical position he propagated. His opinions on theology were far more pyrotechnic. For example, Bruno had the balls to suggest that Satan was destined to be saved and redeemed by God. He didn’t think Jesus was the son of God, but rather “an unusually skilled magician.” He even publicly disputed Mary’s virginity. The Church could let astronomical theories slide, but calling the Mother of God out on her sex life? There’s no doubt that these were the ideas that landed Bruno on the stake.

She adds:

Bruno was a walking, talking shit storm, with a black belt in burning bridges. He constantly ranted about how idiotic his fellow friars were, calling them asses and lamenting their adherence to Catholic doctrine.

For years, he’d set up shop in some city, find new patrons, and promptly make enemies of them with his combative sarcasm and relentless arguments. Even fellow Copernican pioneers Galileo and Kepler had no love for Bruno. In fact, in light of his difficult personality, it’s kind of a mystery that he survived as long as he did.

Did Bruno deserve to die for expressing his views in a provocative manner, and calling religious believers idiots and asses? Of course not. But certainly he has no right to be called a martyr, either. Bruno was a brave man wrongfully put to death; but it is also fair to say that his death was largely self-inflicted.


6. An iron spike was driven through Bruno’s tongue shortly before he was executed.

My verdict: FALSE.

The trial of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition. Bronze relief by Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), Campo de’ Fiori, Rome. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

To back up this claim made in his blog post, Missing the point of Giordano Bruno (March 15, 2014), Professor Myers quotes from the following comment, sent to him by a reader, which features a graphic account of Bruno’s death, taken from a biography of Bruno by Michael White, titled, The Pope & the Heretic: The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition:

…[on the way to the stake, Feb 19, 1600] As the parade moved on, Bruno became animated and excited. He reacted to the mocking crowds, responding to their yells with quotes from his books and the sayings of the ancients. His comforters, the Brotherhood of St. John, tried to quiet the exchange, to protect Bruno from yet further pain and indignity, but he ignored them. And so after a few minutes the procession was halted by the Servants of Justice. A jailer was brought forward and another two held Bruno’s head rigid. A long metal spike was thrust through Bruno’s left cheek, pinning his tongue and emerging through the right cheek. Then another spike was rammed vertically through his lips. Together, the spikes formed a cross. Great sprays of blood erupted onto his gown and splashed the faces of the brotherhood close by. Bruno spoke no more. … as the fire began to grip, the Brothers of Pity of St. John the Beheaded tried one last time to save the man’s soul. Risking the flames, one of them leaned into the fire with a crucifix, but Bruno merely turned his head away. Seconds later, the fire caught his robe and seared his body, and above the hissing and crackling of the flames could be heard the man’s muffled agony.

First, the sensationalistic claim that a spike was driven through Bruno’s mouth shortly before he was burned at the stake is demonstrably false. It is a complete myth. Sad to say, many sensible people, including several biographers of Bruno (and countless online bloggers) have swallowed this myth uncritically. The truth – which is bad enough – is that Bruno was gagged with a wooden vise before being burned at the stake.

Second, the source which Professor PZ Myers cites to support his claim is an extremely unreliable one. The passage quoted above (which can be found online here) is lifted from an account of Bruno’s final moments given by Michael White in his book, The Pope and the Heretic: The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition. Michael White (Wiki bio here), a former member of the Thompson Twins who used to be a chemistry lecturer at Oxford, is now an acclaimed best-selling author of 38 books, who currently resides in Australia. Unfortunately, it appears that White’s biography of Bruno was not one of his finest efforts: as we’ll see below, most of the Amazon reviewers gave it a 1 or 2 out of 5, and many complained that the book was sensationalistic, titillating, and based largely on White’s imaginative reconstruction of key events in Bruno’s life, rather than on biographical fact. Not good, I have to say.

(a) How can we be sure that a metal spike was not driven through Bruno’s tongue, shortly before he was executed?

There are two good reasons why a well-informed person should reject the account of a metal spike being driven through Bruno’s tongue as utterly fanciful.

First, we have an account of Bruno’s death which contradicts the story of the metal spike:

He was turned over to the secular authorities and, on February 17, 1600 in the Campo de’ Fiori, a central Roman market square, “his tongue imprisoned because of his wicked words” he was burned at the stake.[26]

A footnote adds:

[26] “Il Sommario del Processo di Giordano Bruno, con appendice di Documenti sull’eresia e l’inquisizione a Modena nel secolo XVI”, edited by Angelo Mercati, in Studi e Testi, vol. 101; the precise terminology for the tool used to silence Bruno before burning is recorded as una morsa di legno, or “a vise of wood”, and not an iron spike as sometimes claimed by other sources.

In other words, Bruno’s mouth was gagged with a wooden vise, not with an iron spike driven through his tongue.

Second, driving a metal spike through Bruno’s tongue would have contravened the Inquisition’s own rules. Not only were Inquisitors, being clerics, were forbidden to shed blood, but additionally, “It was forbidden for the Inquisition to shed blood or mutilate the accused during a torture session” (The Spanish Inquisition by Joseph Perez, Profile Books, paperback edition, 2006, p. 147). Consequently the notion of the Roman Inquisition ordering anything so barbaric as the driving of a metal spike through a man’s tongue is simply too ridiculous for words.

As a Catholic, I had read a lot about the Inquisition in my twenties, as I encountered books that were highly critical of the Catholic faith while studying at university. As a result, I had learned quite a lot about the Inquisition’s modus operandi. So when I read White’s account of a metal spike being driven through Bruno’s tongue, I was immediately suspicious. I knew that the Inquisitors weren’t vengeful sadists – that’s a cheap caricature. I also knew that they did things “by the book”: they were obsessive about that. This action would have clearly violated the rules in their guidebook. It was mutilation, pure and simple, and for the Inquisition, mutilation was an absolute “no-no.”

(b) What reasons do we have for thinking that Michael White’s biography of Bruno is unreliable?

(i) White couldn’t even get basic facts right

First of all, if an author makes lots of little mistakes, that raises a red flag as to that author’s reliability as a source. In his account of Bruno’s death, White tells us that “the fire caught his robe and seared his body.” Wrong: according to his biographer Ingrid Rowland (“Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic,” Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Bruno was burned naked.

White also writes that “as the fire began to grip, the Brothers of the Pity of St. John the Beheaded tried one last time to save the man’s soul.” If you try Googling “Brothers of the Pity of St. John the Beheaded,” you’ll come up with nothing – except links to Web pages quoting from White’s book! There is no such order of brothers.

To cap it all, White gives the date of Bruno’s death as “Thursday, 19 February 1600.” Every other source I’ve consulted says his date of execution was 17 February 1600 – and in any case, 19 February 1600 would have been a Saturday. If White can’t even get the date of Bruno’s death right, how far can we trust him?

(ii) Reviewers panned White’s book on Bruno

Second, looking at the readers’ reviews of White’s book, you will notice that most of them gave it a 1 or a 2 – which is not a good sign.

One reviewer faulted Michael White for his “sensationalistic descriptions of bloodshed” and added:

This is a horrible book. I checked it out from my local library because I didn’t have much faith in it, and I was sorry I even wasted my time reading it.

Who does this book serve? For those who know anything about Giordano Bruno, it is a waste of time. And those who don’t know anything about him might be discouraged by how poorly-written this book is, and thus decide not to look further into Giordano Bruno or his philosophy.

Only the most titilating (sic) aspects of Bruno’s execution at the stake are really described with any detail in this book.

Another reviewer wrote:

I only gave it a one star because I could not give it a zero. White only used Bruno’s biography as an excuse to perpetuate centuries of baseless anti-Catholic propaganda. I expected a biography portraying Bruno as a hero to be anti-Catholic–that was a given. However, this book went way beyond my wildest expectations on that score… This book is trash, and that is where it is now. My only regret is that I spent a penny on it. I can not in good conscience pass this on or sell it.

A third reviewer wrote:

Important passages which deal with the turning points of Bruno’s life are marred by pointless excursions into silly detail (at one point, for example, one of the characters ‘pushes Bruno downstairs’, while he is being arrested – and White speculates wildly on Bruno’s state of mind when he is imprisoned by the Roman Inquisition – detail which he can have no way of actually knowing) in order to add colour, while there is little or no attempt to dig into the Bruno’s ideas (which is surely the only reason anyone would be interested in the man – as White points out, the inquisition gave us plenty of martyrs (over a million) if all we want to contemplate is christian’s inhumanity to fellow christian)… [NOTE: The actual number of people killed by the Inquisition would be more like 10,000. The Spanish Inquisition – which was the bloodiest of the various Inquisitions that were established – killed about 3,000 to 5,000 people in its 350-year history. – VJT]

I was left wondering if I could trust any of the history I found in this book, much less White’s attempts at analysis and synthesis.

And finally, here’s another review:

This book, like many historical works published in the last several decades, is intellectually dishonest. The very first page White tells us the pope “remembered fondly the attentions of his lover earlier that morning”. This reads like a cheap Hollywood novel rather than a quality historical book. History can be fascinating and the story interesting without resorting to cheap fabrications such as this. How does Mr. White know what the pope was thinking that morning? Very poorly done. Unfortunately this book would be worthwhile for the Vatican as …[burnable material]…, and nothing else.

Is this the kind of book that Professor PZ Myers gets his historical facts from?

(iii) White displays the same pattern of bias in other books of his

Finally, critical reviews of another work by White, titled, Galileo Antichrist: A Biography found a similar anti-religious bias in that book, as well:

White’s schoolboyish interjections and petulant anger

His early pseudo-historical chapters are very poor indeed and would be better in a popular newspaper. In fact, his way of describing ancient science without the slightest understanding of either the mindset of the times or the faintest notion of what Aristotle was about is almost risible.

It does absolutely nothing to present someone like Galileo only through the lens of one’s own prejudices, which is what this book does…

From a historical perspective, this work suffers from a variety of flaws, including sometimes confused writing, and an unfortunate procession of inaccurate assessments bungled with half-truths. A brief scan of his limited use of sources reveals why some chapters seem so undeveloped and flawed. Chapter Three for example has been compiled using a woefully small number of mainly outdated sources, resulting in a piece of writing which is fundamentally frustrating to read. Some might excuse the author for such errors, especially considering the populist nature and intent of this work, but I would consider that a mistake.

Again?? I think we are seeing a pattern of bias here.

We may safely assume that White’s biography of Bruno is totally worthless as an historical source. It is inexcusable that Professor Myers should have seen fit to quote from such a work, in order to vindicate Giordano Bruno.


D. Claims relating to Servetus

7. Michael Servetus was also set on fire in the 16th century for ideas that the Catholic Church detested, specifically for denying the Trinity.

My verdict: MISLEADING.

The Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), the man who bears the prime responsibility for having Michael Servetus put to death in 1553. Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger (1498–1543). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This is a highly misleading statement, as it implies that it was the Catholic Church that put Servetus to death.

It is true Servetus was put to death for denying the doctrine of the Trinity. Professor PZ Myers is right on that point. However, Servetus wasn’t killed by Catholics, as PZ Myers implies, but by Calvinists – although I should state in all fairness that if Calvin had handed Servetus back to the French Inquisition (from whose prisons he had escaped after a stay of three days), they would have killed him too.

Servetus’ opposition to Calvinism was a long-standing one. He cordially detested the Calvinistic doctrine that God condemns some souls to damnation from all eternity, and being a learned scholar of Greek, Latin and Hebrew, he corresponded vigorously with Calvin over a period of several years, setting out his theological objections to Calvinism. In the course of their correspondence, Servetus informed Calvin that he didn’t accept the doctrine of the Trinity either – a revelation that would have shocked any Christian living in the sixteenth century. Despite their differences, Calvin respected Servetus, and even tried to meet him once in France, at risk to his own life – but got stood up! However, it was the publication of Servetus’s magnum opus, Christianismi Restitutio, in 1553, that was the last straw for Calvin. In his book, Servetus had not only attacked the doctrines of the Trinity and of infant baptism, but also sharply criticized Calvin’s great work: his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Piqued, Calvin then tipped off the authorities in France, where Servetus had been quietly working as a doctor for many years under the assumed name of ‘Dr Villeneuve’, that the personal physician to the archbishop of Vienne (near the French city of Lyons) was none other than Servetus! Servetus was then arrested by the French Inquisition and was imprisoned by them, but he managed to escape from their clutches after just three days. After that, he could have escaped to Italy, but for reasons which remain somewhat unclear (but see here for a plausible explanation), he decided instead to visit Geneva, where he attended one of the sermons given by his theological nemesis, John Calvin. Of course, he was recognized, and Calvin promptly had him arrested. It was decided that he should be put to death. Calvin wanted him beheaded, as he regarded burning as a cruel method of execution, but the council governing Geneva over-ruled his wishes and had Servetus burned to death. After Servetus’s death, Calvin tried to rationalize his execution, but his arguments had an unconvincing ring to them.

Finally, there is an excellent short biography of Servetus at which Professor Myers might enjoy reading. A more detailed biography can be found online here at NNDB.


8. Servetus was the first scientist to figure out that the heart was a double-circuit pump, identifying the pulmonary circulation.

My verdict: FALSE.

Ibn al-Nafis (1213-1288), the true discoverer of the pulmonary circulation, 300 years before Servetus. Image courtesy of Nicolae Coman and Wikipedia.

First, Professor PZ Myers is wrong in identifying Servetus as the scientist who discovered the pulmonary circulation. An Arab physician, Ibn al-Nafis, beat him to it by a period of some 300 years. Second, it is not even certain whether Servetus discovered the pulmonary circulation independently, or whether he obtained this knowledge as a result of reading the writings of Ibn al-Nafis, which he may well have had access to.

(a) Who really discovered the pulmonary circulation?

The Arab physician Ibn al-Nafis (1213-1288) described the pulmonary circulation more than 300 years before Servetus, as the Wikipedia article on pulmonary circulation points out:

Pulmonary circulation was first described by Ibn al-Nafis in his Commentary on Anatomy in Avicenna’s Canon (1242). Ibn al-Nafis described pulmonary circulation as:[1][2]

“the blood from the right chamber of the heart must arrive at the left chamber but there is no direct pathway between them. The thick septum of the heart is not perforated and does not have visible pores as some people thought or invisible pores as Galen thought. The blood from the right chamber must flow through the vena arteriosa (pulmonary artery) to the lungs, spread through its substances, be mingled there with air, pass through the arteria venosa (pulmonary vein) to reach the left chamber of the heart and there form the vital spirit…”

It was later described by Michael Servetus in the “Manuscript of Paris”[3] (near 1546, never published) and later published in his Christianismi Restitutio (1553).

As Wikipedia goes on to explain, Servetus’s Christianismi Restitutio was a work on Christian theology. That’s where Servetus published his discovery of the pulmonary circulation. I shall explain why he did so below, when I discuss PZ Myers’ Error number 9.

(b) Did Servetus discover the pulmonary circulation independently of Ibn al-Nafis?

Dr. John B. West of the University of California has written an excellent medical account of Ibn al-Nafis’s disovery of the pulmonary circulation, in an article titled, “Ibn al-Nafis, the pulmonary circulation, and the Islamic Golden Age” (Journal of Applied Physiology, December 2008, vol. 105 no. 6, 1877-1880). Towards the end of his article, Dr. West raises the fascinating question of whether Servetus’s rediscovery of the pulmonary circulation in Europe some 300 years later was truly original, or whether he had already heard about the pioneering work of Ibn al-Nafis:

A final interesting question is whether Michael Servetus, whose book was dated 1553, and later Colombus, Valverde, Vesalius, and Harvey were aware of the work of Ibn al-Nafis on the pulmonary circulation published over 300 years before. The statements on the pulmonary transit of blood by Ibn al-Nafis and Servetus are rather similar and might suggest that the latter was aware of the earlier work, although one study points out that there are some inconsistencies between the two statements (21). One reason for raising the issue is that in 1547 there was a Latin translation of another book by Ibn al-Nafis entitled Commentary on Compound Drugs. This dealt with the last part of Avicenna’s book The Canon of Medicine concerning lists of drugs. The translation was made by Andrea Alpago of Belluno, but apparently it did not include any reference to the pulmonary transit of blood. Other translations of Alpago have also been discussed in this context (12, 17). However, many historians believe that Servetus was not aware of the work of Ibn al-Nafis, and, if so, both deserve credit for the discovery of the pulmonary transit of blood.


9. Most people didn’t learn about Servetus’s discovery of the blood circulation, because after they set him on fire, they set his books on fire too. No one knew about this discovery until William Harvey rediscovered it a hundred years later… and the last few hidden copies of Servetus’s books (only 3 survived the flames) were revealed.

My verdict: FALSE.

Michael Servetus (1511-1553), a theologian, physician and the first European to correctly describe the function of pulmonary circulation. Drawing by Christian Fritzsch (b. 1660). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Professor PZ Myers is wrong on two counts here. First, Professor Myers has been taken in by a (now-discredited) piece of British medical mythology, which sought to give the Englishman William Harvey credit for independently discovering the pulmonary circulation by saying that he wouldn’t have had access to the earlier medical works of Servetus, anyway, as they’d all been burnt. Historians now know that this is completely false.

Second, Professor Myers fails to address the astonishing fact (which I mentioned above) that Servetus reported his discovery of the pulmonary circulation in a theological work which he had written! If he had reported it in a medical treatise instead, his discovery would surely have escaped censorship by the religious authorities. But oddly enough, Servetus chose to report his discovery in a work on theology, because the discovery was motivated by a desire on his part to find scientific support for the Scriptural doctrine (Genesis 9, Leviticus 17, Deuteronomy 12) that the life of an animal resides in the blood. PZ Myers completely overlooks this point: for him, Servetus is one of the “heroes” in the long war between science and theology. The fact that the discoveries of this great scientist were theologically motivated does not sit well with Myers’ account.

(a) How hundreds of copies of Servetus’s published works were preserved all over Europe

The myth that Servetus’s works were almost completely destroyed when he was burned to death in 1553 was exposed recently in an article by Christodoulos Stefanadis et al., titled, “Michael Servetus (1511-1553) and the Discovery of Pulmonary Circulation” (Hellenic Journal of Cardiology 2009; 50: 373-378; available online). The fact is that there were already hundreds of copies of Servetus’s medical writings on the pulmonary circulation all around Europe. Only a few copies of Servetus’s theological works were burned at his death in 1553. PZ Myers stated from memory that only three copies of Servetus’ works escaped the flames; unfortunately, his memory let him down. Actually, there are only three currently surviving copies of Servetus’s works, but at the time when he died, there were many more copies in circulation. To quote from the article:

The discovery of the blood circulation cannot be attributed to a single person, or even to a single era. In fact, many errors were in need of correction, and each and every single one of those errors had to be replaced with the truth. (p. 373)

It must be mentioned that there is still great dispute among historians as to whether Servetus was the one who first discovered the pulmonary circulation, or whether this honor should be attributed to another doctor.

In fact, for several generations, British medical historians strove to attribute to their compatriot, William Harvey (1578-1657), all merit for the discovery of the blood circulation, a fact that can be well understood in terms of their intentions. In this way they diminished the discovery of the pulmonary circulation made by Servetus. Furthermore, they insisted that the rediscovery of this phenomenon by Servetus was not widely scientifically approved and established, since the vast majority of his books addressing this issue were burnt at the same time as their author, in 1553. However, in reality only a limited number of the thousand copies of his published manuscripts went up in flames. In fact, Servetus took the precaution to send one half of his published books to a bookseller at Lyon and the other half of them to a bookseller at Frankfurt. In this way, many months before and most probably many years after his execution, his treatises, and therefore, his cardiovascular discoveries, remained preserved; they were not meant to vanish from the medical community.

Furthermore, these British historians, who were so eager to attribute the discovery of the pulmonary circulation to Harvey, forgot that Servetus was in constant communication with his colleagues in France, in Germany, and in Italy, and that he had probably already mentioned to them, during the twelve years that intervened between his rediscovery of this phenomenon and his death, his personal thoughts and findings regarding the pulmonary circulation.

Finally, it is difficult to accept that Harvey’s British advocates were right to proclaim that all of Servetus’ books were destroyed, since Servetus’ works were repeatedly reprinted in France and Germany during the same period. (pp. 376-377)

In another passage, the article describes in detail how Servetus’s works were preserved, and how many survive today:

Thousands of these manuscripts were reprinted at the time. A certain number of them were burnt in Vienna; three manuscripts survived until the present, one of which is kept in the National Library of Paris. All of the remaining copies were certainly sold at the time of their initial publication and were kept in the hands of ‘Servetusists’ (i.e. Servetus’s followers) who had taken refuge in Italy, and in Padua in particular. It is probably precisely for this reason that William Harvey’s most immediate precursors and Harvey himself had knowledge of the description of the ‘small’ (i.e. the pulmonary) circulation, in the very same way that Servetus had pictured it! (p. 374)

(b) Why did Servetus write about his medical discoveries in a theological treatise?

The second point that Professor PZ Myers completely fails to understand is that although Servetus rediscovered the pulmonary circulation, his motivation for doing so was mainly theological: he wanted to find scientific support for the Scriptural doctrine that the life of an animal resides in the blood. Sergio Baches Opi, explains why in a short, scholarly essay for the Michael Servetus Institute, titled, Servetus and the circulation of the blood, from which the following excerpt is taken:

As a son of the Renaissance, Servetus considered that theology, medicine, philosophy and the rest of sciences were not separated compartments, but interrelated sciences that allowed men to understand the Universe as a whole.

Servetus discovers the circulation of the blood because understanding the sensitive world helped him to better grasp the relationship between God and mankind. For Servetus, the man can aspire to communicate with God following the example of God. It seems that for Servetus there is not a straight forward distinction between the divine and the human nature, but both interplay along the spectrum. For the communication between God and mankind to take place, Servetus contented that there must be within the man a spark of divinity, that Servetus identified with the soul of the man. According to the Biblical tradition, the soul was infused by God into man’s nostrils through the breathing. Since the breathing has the purpose of purifying the blood, Servetus understood why the Hebrew tradition postulates that the soul is in the blood. Servetus thought that, if the soul is in the blood, the best way to understand its journey through the human body was to study the blood circulation:

“The divine spirit is found in the blood and is in itself the blood or the blood spirit. It is not that the divine spirit is found mainly in the walls of the heart or in the parenchyma of the liver or brain, but in the blood, as God himself taught us in Genesis. 9; Leviathan [Leviticus]. 7 and Deutenonomium [Deuteronomy]. 12.” (Christianismi Restitutio, p. 170).

Servetus wanted to vindicate Scripture. That was why he described his scientific findings on the blood circulation in a treatise on theology: his De Christianismi Restitutio. If Servetus had written a medical textbook about the pulmonary circulation, nobody would have had the slightest interest in burning it. On the contrary, Christians of all denominations would have quite happily borrowed Servetus’ medical knowledge, just as they had already obtained most of their medical knowledge from pagan Greek and Roman physicians, and from Arab Muslim physicians. People in the sixteenth century were not stupid: they were perfectly capable of distinguishing science from religion when it suited them.


E. Claims relating to the history of tolerance

10. Religion fought every progressive change every step of the way, especially when it comes to free speech

My verdict: FALSE.

Sebastian Castellio (1515-1563), the real father of religious liberty. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Professor PZ Myers is a scientist, not an intellectual historian. He would do well to read Perez Zagorin’s ground-breaking book, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton University Press, 2005, paperback). The following excerpt is taken from chapter one of the book:

For by the latter part of the sixteenth century, a conception and theory of religious toleration had definitely come into being. Generally speaking, moreover, and in spite of the previously mentioned examples of pragmatic toleration in antiquity and the Middle Ages, the appearance and development of the idea of toleration largely preceded its realization. This development required a long and arduous intellectual effort down through the seventeenth century and was the work of a number of thinkers. Without an underlying theoretical rationale that was both philosophical and religious–one that reflected a complex mixture of scriptural, theological, ecclesiological, epistemological, ethical, political, and pragmatic arguments–and without the gradual acceptance by political and intellectual elites and others of principles and values enabling them to subordinate and set aside religious differences and strive for concord through mutual understanding, religious toleration and the freedom it implied could not have been attained as one of the predominant and most cherished attributes of modern and contemporary Western societies.

Bryce Christensen’s Editorial review on summarizes the key findings of Perez Zagorin’s book. One surprising fact which emerges is that Christian Europe, until the sixteenth century, persecuted heresy more ferociously than any other society in existence – including Muslim countries. Another surprising fact that the book reveals is that the modern concepts of religious toleration and freedom of conscience owe their inspiration to the Bible, not the Enlightenment, and that they were first put forward by sixteenth century religious reformers, beginning with Sebastian Castellio (1515-1563), the real father of religious liberty:

Americans who regard Islamic fundamentalists as peculiarly intolerant have much to learn from distinguished historian Zagorin, whose insightful research reminds us that for centuries no religionists persecuted heresy more ferociously than did Christians. In an analysis rich in narrative detail, Zagorin recounts the difficult and often perilous labors of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century advocates of religious toleration, who challenged the West’s terrible tradition of coercive orthodoxy. Though most early reformers valued dissent only long enough to create Protestant versions of the Catholic Inquisition, Zagorin’s chronicle shows why followers of Luther and Calvin ultimately faced difficult questions about the state’s traditional role as guardian of creedal uniformity. It may surprise readers that when oft-lauded cultural heroes such as John Milton, John Locke, and Roger Williams called for state tolerance of religious diversity, they were actually echoing the views of lesser-known religious libertarians, including the fearless French humanist Sebastian Castellio (“the first champion of religious toleration”) and the outspoken Dutch patriot Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert. And because Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire and Jefferson, eventually secularized religious toleration in a broader advocacy of intellectual liberty, it may further surprise readers that the first warriors for freedom of belief found their warrant in Scripture. A book to dispel complacency about a priceless liberty.


I’d like to conclude today’s post with a few brief remarks about humanity’s moral advances.

We like to think of our ethical accomplishments in the past 200 years as very important, in the scheme of things. But I would suggest that the real spadework was done more than 2,000 years ago, when societies appeared that imposed taboos on infanticide (especially female infanticide), suicide, leaving your parents’ dead bodies out in the street without bothering to bury them, and letting poor people die from hunger. Those were the real moral advances. Nothing in modern times compares, except for the abolition of slavery.

In any case, it would be wrong to credit the Enlightenment for the moral advances that make up what is now called the humanitarian revolution. In fact, most of these advances owe their impetus to an explicitly religious conception of human nature – and in particular, a Judeo-Christian conception. The fact that some staunch Christians opposed these same advances in no way undermines the essential point that these advances would never have been made in the first place without Christianity. Freethinkers and atheists were generally late-comers to these moral crusades. Finally, the correct response to those who would argue that the Bible (when read in a straightforward manner) appears to endorse inhumane practices, such as slavery and the oppression of women, is that Christians who came to oppose these practices did so as a result of reading the Bible in a very particular way. First, they applied the Golden Rule in a very consistent manner, when debating whether these practices could be morally justified. Second, they asked themselves whether the practices described in the Bible were part of God’s original plan for humanity. When they realized that they were not, they set about remedying past injustices and abolishing these practices, root and branch.

In my next post, I’ll explain why I believe Professor PZ Myers’ claim that religion isinimical to the progress of science is profoundly mistaken.

Recommended Reading

(a) Christianity and the rise of modern democracy
John Calvin: One of the Fathers of Modern Democracy by Dr. W. Stanford Reid (1913-1996), a former Emeritus Professor of history at McGill University and the University of Guelph in Canada.
The Rise of Liberal Democracy by John Snyder (see here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4).
John Calvin’s Influence on Democracy by Dr. Mark Nickens, whose doctorate is in church history. Discusses the contribution of Calvinists to the American Revolution.

(b) Christianity and the abolition of slavery
Anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce: Christian hero by Jonathan Sarfati. A well-argued and thought-provoking article on the vital role played by Christianity in the anti-slavery movement.
The Truth About the Catholic Church and Slavery by Rodney Stark. Also available in chapter 4 of For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery (Princeton University Press, 2003) by Rodney Stark.

(c) Christianity and the Animal Welfare Movement
Reverend Arthur Broome Founder of RSPCA (Part One) by lawyer Philip Johnson (not to be confused with the Intelligent Design theorist Phillip E. Johnson).
The animal cause and its greater traditions by Chien-hui Li, a Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge. Article from History and Policy, a scholarly project which makes high quality historical research freely accessible online.
An Unnatural Alliance? Political Radicalism and the Animal Defence Movement in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain by Chien-hui Li (EurAmerica, Vol. 42, No. 1 (March 2012), 1-43).

(d) Christianity and the rise of science
An Atheist Reviews ‘God’s Philosophers’ by Tim O’Neill, an amateur historian and atheist.
Christianity and the Birth of Science by Michael Bumbulis, Ph.D. (The author holds an M.S. degree in Zoology from Ohio State University and a Ph.D in Genetics from Case Western Reserve University.)
Christianity: A Cause of Modern Science? by Eric Snow. (In this article, Snow explains how Christianity, and in particular Puritanism, made Modern Science possible.)
All at sea about science and theology: Jerry Coyne cites Andrew Dickson White on Galileo by Vincent Torley (Uncommon Descent post).

(e) Religion, secular humanism and violence
Steve Pinker’s bogus statistics: A critique of The Better Angels of Our Nature (Part One) by Vincent Torley (Uncommon Descent post).
Steve Pinker’s bogus statistics: A critique of The Better Angels of Our Nature (Part Two) by Vincent Torley (Uncommon Descent post).

39 Replies to “On not learning the lessons of history: what Professor PZ Myers doesn’t “get” about the progress of science (Part One)

  1. 1
    ppolish says:

    The vaunted “Scientific Method” was invented by Theists. History shows us that using the Scientific Method to reveal pieces of God’s Awesomeness leads to a deeper understanding on the really tough Science questions. Atheists don’t really know how to use the SM as it was intended. Oh well.

  2. 2
    jw777 says:

    Very thorough refutation.

    I would add that the understanding of the heart in its intricacies of action as a pump was fairly well understood (though not entirely accurate) by Galen in the second century AD; and, frankly, Egyptians probably understood this some fifteen hundred years prior to that.

    People like to kick around this canard of the progress of science in the face of religious adversity. But, truth be told, any honest person who has actually read a single primary source knows full well a contrarian fact: most of these would-be secular founders of modern science (including political science: i.e. – John Jay) overwhelmingly held theistic and oftentimes Christian-specific convictions that would make the most faithful of contemporary religious people appear downright faithless.

  3. 3
    Robert Byers says:

    Stopping ideas contrary to truth would not get in the way of science.
    So stopping any contrary idea to god and genesis would not slow science. The only issue, as in the old Catholic church, was they were deciding things unrelated to genesis and God.
    In fact science today is slowed by opposition to creationism.
    Science is nothing more that people figuring things out.
    People got smarter and so figured things out better and here we are.
    People got smarter because of the protestant reformation making peasants smarter and generally raising society.
    Thats why it was the most protestant peoples who prevailed in smarts and today its a English civilization.
    Science is the seeking of accuracy in nature and how accuracy can lead to new maninpulations of nature for fun and profit.
    however without intelligence it fails to do much.

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    It’s difficult to believe that PZ Myers has managed to transform himself into an historian.

    Are his sources limited to Wikipedia, if even that?

  5. 5
    Graham2 says:

    Bruno wasnt actually tortured, just burned to death.

    Oh, thats OK then.

  6. 6
    Jul3s says:

    No, its not ok and the article doesn’t come close to saying that. Putting words in somebody else’s mouth and ignoring everything else is a weak response. The Churches did horrific things but it is still important to get the facts right.

  7. 7
    Graham2 says:

    … an execution cannot be properly described as an act of torture unless it can be shown that the executioners were intending either to punish the victim by the infliction of pain …

    So burning someone to death isnt torture. This is the sort of word game only a theologian or RCC appologist (or laywer) could come up with. Pretty revolting either way.

  8. 8
    kairosfocus says:

    VJT: Thoroughly researched and well presented. Thought provoking, though my real focus of attention must be elsewhere at this time. KF

    PS to G2: Why do you insist on erecting an unworthy strawman caricature? VJT — unlike your cleverly out of context clip suggests — made a clear moral stance against torture, cruel and inhumane execution [which as he quite correctly showed is not equal to torture, there is a material distinction . . . ], abuse, oppression etc. And he does so as a Catholic thinker, which is highly significant given relevant history. (On this, kindly note that I am Protestant – Evangelical; i.e. I do not have to endorse everything VJT holds and I know from history the issues of just how much of a struggle the rise of modern liberty and democracy was.) He also made sure to keep his eye on the ball, addressing many ways in which religious motivations, theistic-biblical worldviews and Christian institutions and individuals helped foster the rise of modern science. You would have been far better advised to ponder just how strawmannish and toxically loaded the general “everybody knows” picture of the rise of modern science and its complex relationship to the history of Christendom is.

  9. 9
    Graham2 says:

    KF: Why is it that Xtians have such revolting morals ? Like lane Craig who thinks killing children is OK.

    Burning someone to death isnt torture ? can you hear what you are saying ?

  10. 10
    bornagain77 says:

    Graham2, and just where do you get this notion that burning and killing people is wrong? Did you make it up yourself? Is it a social construct? i.e. Is the moral precept arbitrary or is it objective? If it is arbitrary, as atheists hold, why should I care what you think? If it is objective, as Theists hold, then is it not God who was sinned against? And is He not more that sufficient to render justice for every moral transgression?

  11. 11
    JWTruthInLove says:

    @vjtorley & Graham2:
    There are many definitions of torture. Here’s one from the UN:

    Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.


    Burning at the stake was known to be needlessly slow and extremely painful.

    Sometimes the executioner, in order to shorten the sufferings of the condemned, whilst he prepared the pile, placed a large and pointed iron bar amongst the faggots and opposite the stake breast high, so that, directly the fire was lighted, the bar was quickly pushed against the victim, giving a mortal blow to the unfortunate wretch, who would otherwise have been slowly devoured by the flames. Other merciful method designed to reduce the suffering was to place gunpowder in the wood to ensure a quick death. If a condemned person was really fortunate he would be strangled to death before being chained to the stake.

    Indeed there are writers who refer to such sadistic execution methods as “torture”:

    A gibbet was erected, under which a fire was made, and the prisoner being brought to the place of execution, was hung up in a large iron cage, in which were also placed sixteen wild cats, which had been catched in the woods for the purpose.—When the heat of the fire became too great to be endured with patience, the cats flew upon the woman, as the cause of the intense pain they felt.—In about fifteen minutes they had pulled out her intrails, though she continued yet alive, and sensible, imploring, as the greatest favour, an immediate death from the hands of some charitable spectator. No one however dared to afford her the least assistance; and she continued in this wretched situation for the space of thirty-five minutes, and then expired in unspeakable torture. At the time of her death, twelve of the cats were expired, and the other four were all dead in less than two minutes afterwards.


    In the end it’s all word play and semantics (see “enhanced interrogation”) 😐

  12. 12
    Graham2 says:

    BA77: Since you raised the issue of objective morality (I didnt ask for this), how is it possible for the church to have got it so terribly wrong for so long ? (Im presuming that burning people for their beliefs is objectively wrong)

    Im constantly told the devout are in touch with this objective morality thing, yet they seem to have got it so badly wrong, on such a wide scale, for so long. I can never understand this. Could you explain it ?

  13. 13
    JWTruthInLove says:

    I noticed you didn’t care to answer ba77’s question. So let me repeat the question for you:

    Graham2, and just where do you get this notion that burning and killing people is wrong?

  14. 14
    kairosfocus says:


    With all due respect, I accurately pointed out that VJT made a proper distinction between two things that he strongly condemned in the OP,

    (a) torture and

    (b) cruel, inhumane execution,

    but instead of taking the correction, you accused Christians of having inferior or bad morals.

    That speaks volumes, on projection and turnabout accusation. Which also raises serious questions on the inherent amorality of a priori evolutionary materialism, how it opens the door to nihilism, and a pretty bloody consequent history.

    But this is not a day to go down that road, it is a day to note that VJT has very correctly pointed out some deeply entrenched notions and conventional wisdoms that were taken up by Dr Myers, and which need correction.

    Things are not as simplistic as we have been led to imagine, and it is time for us to learn and know better.

    FYI, most educated Catholics — there are Papal declarations on this — will oppose judicial execution under essentially any circumstances in a modern state [which has resources for supporting life sentences], and FYFI, so do I; cruel and inhumane execution does not even enter the picture, and torture is likewise a serious wrong.

    VJT acknowledged that the behaviour done in the past by both civil and ecclesiastical authorities was reprehensible, and as a Protestant, on the other side of many of the cases, I concur — and I do not have to appeal to so-called black legends on the cruelty or injustices of the Spanish Inquisition in support.

    Let us simply acknowledge: it has been a long, hard road to learn how to rise above some very awful and hard-hearted things in our civilisation — remember, I am a descendant of slaves, both on the African and the Irish sides; and it was in large part Christians acting on Christian, Biblical principles who led in the relevant moral reforms (the slave trade and slavery being a foremost example but there are many others), as can be copiously documented . . . and as you should have recognised if you had any serious regard for truth and fairness.

    As of now, sadly but tellingly, however, it seems to me that you have no real reply on the merits of VJT’s correction of PZM on the merits, but have a serious attitude problem and have resorted to out of context snipping and character assassination sniping.

    This fits in all too well with the notorious rhetorical tactic of red herring side tracks led away to strawman caricatures soaked in ad hominems and set alight with incendiary words, to cloud, confuse, poison and polarise a situation, frustrating serious dialogue towards truth and wisdom.


  15. 15
    kairosfocus says:

    Jere 17:5 Thus says the Lord:
    “Cursed is the man who trusts in man
    and makes flesh his strength,[a]
    whose heart turns away from the Lord.
    6 He is like a shrub in the desert,
    and shall not see any good come.
    He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
    in an uninhabited salt land.

    7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
    whose trust is the Lord.
    8 He is like a tree planted by water,
    that sends out its roots by the stream,
    and does not fear when heat comes,
    for its leaves remain green,
    and is not anxious in the year of drought,
    for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

    9 The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?
    10 “I the Lord search the heart
    and test the mind,[b]
    to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his deeds.”

    11 Like the partridge that gathers a brood that she did not hatch,
    so is he who gets riches but not by justice;
    in the midst of his days they will leave him,
    and at his end he will be a fool.

  16. 16
    kairosfocus says:

    Matt 13:

    The Parable of the Sower

    1 . . . Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears,[a] let him hear.” . . . .

    The Parable of the Sower Explained

    18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.[b] 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
    The Parable of the Weeds

    24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds[c] among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants[d] of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

  17. 17
    kairosfocus says:

    Matt 7:

    A Tree and Its Fruit

    15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
    I Never Knew You

    21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
    Build Your House on the Rock

    24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” [All, ESV]

  18. 18
    Chalciss says:

    Great post by VJT, carefully researched, in-depth analysis exposing misconceptions and falsehood. A great read!

    On a lighter note, on the other hand how can one miss reading the weighty, intellectually stimulating punches thrown by the likes of KF & BA77? Their posts are too good and worth the read as always. 🙂

    On a less lighter note, one cannot forget the millions who are persecuted around the world today for their belief in Christ. May God be their strength!

  19. 19
    kairosfocus says:

    2 Timothy 3

    English Standard Version (ESV)
    Godlessness in the Last Days

    3 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.

  20. 20
    kairosfocus says:

    Eph 4:7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says,

    “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
    and he gave gifts to men.”[a]

    9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?[b] 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds[c] and teachers,[d] 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,[e] to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
    The New Life

    17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self,[f] which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

  21. 21
    Roy says:

    Professor PZ Myers is wrong on two counts here: Galileo wasn’t tried by the Vatican, and he wasn’t forced to recant. Galileo was almost certainly not tortured (although he was warned that he would be, if he lied). He showed no sign in his interrogation of being intimidated by the Inquisition. And he probably never even spent a day of his life in the Inquisition’s prisons…

    Whoa, there. PZ said that Galileo was tried. PZ did not say that Galileo was tortured, or intimidated, or imprisoned. You have erected straw-men to argue against.

    Let my readers judge. Does the evidence suggest that Galileo was forced to recant, as Professor PZ Myers contends?

    Yes, it does.

    The minutes of the Inquisition meeting were:

    The Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Millini notified the Reverend Fathers Lord Assessor and Lord Commissary of the Holy Office that, after the reporting of the judgment by the Father Theologians against the propositions of the mathematician Galileo (to the effect that the sun stand still at the center of the world and the earth moves even with the diurnal motion), His Holiness ordered the most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmine to call Galileo before himself and warn him to abandon these opinions; and if he should refuse to obey, the Father Commissary, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, is to issue him an injunction to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiesce, he is to be imprisoned.

    Galileo was given the choice of recantation or jail. He did not abandon his ideas through his own choice, but through coercion by others.

    If you want to nit-pick that being tried by archbishops, inquisitors, theologians and other church authorities and having the verdict decided by the pope and delivered by a cardinal does not count as being tried “by the Vatican“, feel free. But it remains that Galileo was tried, and he was forced to recant.


  22. 22
    vjtorley says:

    JWTruthInLove and Graham2,

    When I hear the phrase, “He was tortured to death,” I mentally picture a sadistic individual inflicting ever-increasing levels of pain upon a poor hapless victim, with the eventual result that the victim dies. In such a case, the pain level is continually under the control of the murderer.

    However, I think JWTruthInLove has adduced some legitimate examples from the literature of death by burning, where the level of pain suffered by the victim was to a large degree controlled by the executioner. Also as JWTruthInLove notes, there are various definitions of torture. That Being the case, I am prepared to revise my verdict for #4 above, and allow that PZ Myers got it right. I shall update it accordingly. Thank you both for your input.

  23. 23
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Roy,

    Thank you for your comment. The key phrase in the passage you quote (which is from the 1616 trial) is: “if he should not acquiesce, he is to be imprisoned.”

    There are many laws which we keep because the penalty for breaking them is imprisonment. But would anyone say that we are forced to obey them, on that account?

  24. 24
    vjtorley says:


    You ask: “how is it possible for the church to have got it so terribly wrong for so long?”

    Good question. And here’s another, related one that I’ve been pondering: “How is it possible for the church to have misread the Bible for so long?”

    A few points:

    1. According to Catholics, the infallibility of the Church is a negative gift, not a positive one: it means that the Church is divinely protected from formally teaching an erroneous proposition as a truth of faith and morals that Catholics are bound to believe. No catechism, even in the Middle Ages, ever said that Catholics are bound to believe that the burning of heretics is morally justifiable.

    2. At the end of my post, I noted that the great humanitarian advances of the past few hundred years had been made by Christians (mainly Protestants, I might add), who read their Bibles in a very particular way. One might ask: why didn’t Christians learn to read their Bibles that way a lot sooner? Here’s one possible answer: understanding how to read your Bible correctly presupposes that you are living a holy and grace-filled life. If your lifestyle falls short of the Christian ideal, then your mind will also be spiritually clouded. In other words: it takes great holiness to achieve the right insights into Scripture.

    3. It follows that if Scripture seems unclear to us, the fault lies not with God for failing to express Himself clearly, but with weak, lukewarm Christians for failing to live the life of grace which would enable them to understand His message clearly. Sin clouds the intellect; and so does lack of faith, hope and charity. For much of its history, the Church’s faith, hope and love were lukewarm. That was why they read the Bible in a way that made it seem as if the Bible was supporting the status quo.

  25. 25
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Roy,

    I just found this passage in Doug Linder’s 2002 essay, “The trial of Galileo” at , which puts your claim that Galileo was forced to recant in rather a different light:

    The Pope, according to the Inquisition file, “directed the Lord Cardinal Bellarmine to summon before him the said Galileo and admonish him to abandon the said opinion; and, in the case of his refusal to obey, the Commissary of the Holy Office is to enjoin him…to abstain altogether from teaching or defending this opinion and even from discussing it.”

    Summoned before Bellarmine on February 25, 1616 and admonished, Galileo – according to a witness, Cardinal Oregius – “remained silent with all his science and thus showed that no less praiseworthy than his mind was his pious disposition.” Oregius’ account, and Galileo’s own writings, indicate that Galileo did not “refuse to obey” the Church’s admonition. It is assumed, therefore, that Galileo was not formally enjoined. Yet, surprisingly, in the Inquisition file there appeared the following entry:

    At the palace, the usual residence of Lord Cardinal Bellarmine, the said Galileo, having been summoned and being present before the said Lord Cardinal, was…warned of the error of the aforesaid opinion and admonished to abandon it; and immediately thereafter…the said Galileo was by the said Commissary commanded and enjoined, in the name of His Holiness the Pope and the whole Congregation of the Holy Office, to relinquish altogether the said opinion that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable and that the Earth moves; nor further to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing; otherwise proceedings would be taken against him by the Holy Office; which injunction the said Galileo acquiesced in and promised to obey.

    Many things about the entry are suspicious. It appears in the Inquisition file where one would expect the actual Bellarmine injunction (if it existed) to appear. Moreover, the entry appears on the same page as the entry for the previous day – and every other report, legal act, and entry in the entire file begins at the top of a new page. It is widely believed by historians that the reported injunction of Galileo was “a false injunction”: the injunction never happened, but a false report was maliciously planted in the file by one of Galileo’s enemies. Seventeen years later, Galileo would stand before the Inquisition charged with violating an injunction that was, in all likelihood, never issued against him.

    Do you still want to maintain that Galileo was forced to recant?

  26. 26
    Roy says:

    There are many laws which we keep because the penalty for breaking them is imprisonment.

    For you, maybe. Most people, whether lawbreakers or otherwise, would disagree. Still, you aren’t the first apologist to claim that their behaviour is only kept in check for fear of retribution.

    But would anyone say that we are forced to obey them, on that account?

    If one has no other reason to obey a law other than the threat of imprisonment, then yes, I would say one is being forced to obey it. Why do you think the police are also known as law enforcement officers?

    I’ll also note that Galileo wasn’t being told that he would be imprisoned if he did something, he was being told he would be imprisoned if he didn’t do something. This is far more akin to posting bail, complying with court orders or following parole instructions than it is to obeying the law. And bail conditions, parole conditions and court orders are enforced.


  27. 27
    Roy says:

    P.S. After reading your attempt to claim that Bruno being burnt alive wasn’t torture because it wasn’t done for punishment, persuasion or pleasure, when it was clearly a punishment for Bruno not renouncing his views, a persuasion to others not to follow the same path and/or a spectacle for enjoyment (else why choose that method of public execution?) I have very little interest in anything else you might say.


  28. 28
    Axel says:

    Myers is absolutely spot-on. In terms of his scientism, the religion of the materialist, it is an inescapable conclusion that it is absolutely incompatible with science.

    One almost wishes that it were not so. At least, progress in science would not be held back the way it is. The need for witch-hunts of dissident theistic scientists would vanish. They would no longer have any reason to feel threatened, because of the sorry inferiority of their credo, no longer haunted and driven by the siege mentality it was bound to lead to.

    However, it does happen to be so, of course, as QM, with its mathematical physical grounding, more than adequately demonstrates; the religion of scientism/materialism IS incompatible with empirical science.

    Not so much conjectural art: Evolution will remain forever a beautiful story, along with the multiverse of infinite possiblities, both of which would be nice if they happened to be true.

    However more importantly, Evolution will forever remain a parable of the vacuity of the claims of reason and enlightenment of atheism, and of how even a field such as the mathematically-based physics of QM can be involuntarily shunned, must be involuntarily shunned by them, because they cannot, under any circumstances whatsoever, accept that mind and its necessary personhood, are ultimately the ground of all being, and the bedrock of all scientific knowledge.

    Just as Christ’s accusers believed they were mocking him on Golgotha, but were really, themselves, being mocked by God, they will believe in their cherished fantasies, until their sponsors have brought terminal disgrace upon themselves, and their hegemony over the Academy has been broken.

  29. 29
    bornagain77 says:

    Roy, to this comment:

    There are many laws which we keep because the penalty for breaking them is imprisonment.

    You respond:

    For you, maybe. Most people, whether lawbreakers or otherwise, would disagree. Still, you aren’t the first apologist to claim that their behaviour is only kept in check for fear of retribution.

    Roy, excuse me, but it seems you are arguing for the objective reality of morality. i.e. That morality is something real that transcends the ‘shadow of the law’ that silhouettes it. But, belief in objective morality is a theistic position not an atheistic position:

    Hebrews 10:1
    The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.

    “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
    – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

    Michael W Smith – “You Won’t Let Go” – video
    Lyric: “Not a shadow comes without the light (first) making a way”

    Thus it seems strange to me Roy that you, a person who usually argues the atheistic/materialistic position, would argue for the objectiveness of morality.

    Is there some nuance I’m missing here? But supposing that you really do believe that morality is objectively real, as Theists believe, let me help solidify this basic theistic belief of yours before you try to rationalize it away with some materialistic excuse:

    On the physical reality of objective morality:

    That objective moral values really do exist is readily apparent to most people with common sense, save for the most die hard atheists who are willing to deny anything and everything rather than ever admit there is any evidence for God.

    Stephen Meyer – Morality Presupposes Theism (1 of 4) – video

    Neo-Darwinists simply cannot maintain a consistent identity towards a stable, unchanging, cause for objective morality. In fact, Dr. William Lane Craig calls it a ‘knock down’ argument against atheists:

    The Knock-Down Argument Against Atheist Sam Harris’ moral landscape argument – William Lane Craig – video

    And as the preceding video shows, refusing to acknowledge that objective morality is self evidently true results in logical absurdities. And showing a position to be logically inconsistent is indeed a powerful argument against a position, but there is another way to make the case for objective morality even stronger. Since, as a Christian Theist, I hold that God continuously sustains the universe in the infinite power of His being, and since I also hold that God created our ‘inmost being’, i.e. our souls/minds, then I also hold that morality is a real, objective, tangible, part of reality that we should be able to ‘scientifically’ detect in some way. I think this quote from Martin Luther King is very fitting as to elucidating what the Theist’s starting presupposition should be for finding objective morality to be a ‘real, tangible, objective’ part of reality:

    “The first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this: that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws.”
    – Martin Luther King Jr., A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

    And, contrary to what the materialist/atheist would want to presuppose about morality beforehand, we find much evidence to back up Dr. King’s assertion that “there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws”. For instance, we find that babies have an innate moral sense very early on, before they have even had a chance to learn them, thus directly contradicting the notion that basic morals are subjectively learned as we grow older:

    For instance, a caring, loving, touch from the baby towards the mother’s uterine wall is found very early on in a baby’s development:

    Wired to Be Social: The Ontogeny of Human Interaction – 2010
    Excerpt: Kinematic analysis revealed that movement duration was longer and deceleration time was prolonged for other-directed movements compared to movements directed towards the uterine wall. Similar kinematic profiles were observed for movements directed towards the co-twin and self-directed movements aimed at the eye-region, i.e. the most delicate region of the body.

    The Moral Life of Babies – May 2010
    Excerpt: From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals.,,,
    A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.,,,
    Despite their overall preference for good actors over bad, then, babies are drawn to bad actors when those actors are punishing bad behavior.

    Please note the highly developed moral sense of justice that was detected in toddlers in the preceding study! Simply fascinating! This following study goes even further in establishing the objective reality of morality by showing that ‘Moral evaluations of harm are instant and emotional’:

    Moral evaluations of harm are instant and emotional, brain study shows – November 29, 2012
    Excerpt: People are able to detect, within a split second, if a hurtful action they are witnessing is intentional or accidental, new research on the brain at the University of Chicago shows.

    And although split second reactions to hateful actions are pretty good, non-locality of morals (i.e. morals that arise outside of space and time and are grounded within the perfect nature of God) demand a more ‘spooky action at a distance’, i.e. a ‘quantum’ proof. And due to the seemingly miraculous advances in science we now have evidence to even this ‘spooky’ beyond space and time level:

    Quantum Consciousness – Time Flies Backwards? – Stuart Hameroff MD
    Excerpt: Dean Radin and Dick Bierman have performed a number of experiments of emotional response in human subjects. The subjects view a computer screen on which appear (at randomly varying intervals) a series of images, some of which are emotionally neutral, and some of which are highly emotional (violent, sexual….). In Radin and Bierman’s early studies, skin conductance of a finger was used to measure physiological response They found that subjects responded strongly to emotional images compared to neutral images, and that the emotional response occurred between a fraction of a second to several seconds BEFORE the image appeared! Recently Professor Bierman (University of Amsterdam) repeated these experiments with subjects in an fMRI brain imager and found emotional responses in brain activity up to 4 seconds before the stimuli. Moreover he looked at raw data from other laboratories and found similar emotional responses before stimuli appeared.

    Can Your Body Sense Future Events Without Any External Clue? (meta-analysis of 26 reports published between 1978 and 2010) – (Oct. 22, 2012)
    Excerpt: “But our analysis suggests that if you were tuned into your body, you might be able to detect these anticipatory changes between two and 10 seconds beforehand,,,
    This phenomenon is sometimes called “presentiment,” as in “sensing the future,” but Mossbridge said she and other researchers are not sure whether people are really sensing the future.
    “I like to call the phenomenon ‘anomalous anticipatory activity,’” she said. “The phenomenon is anomalous, some scientists argue, because we can’t explain it using present-day understanding about how biology works; though explanations related to recent quantum biological findings could potentially make sense. It’s anticipatory because it seems to predict future physiological changes in response to an important event without any known clues, and it’s an activity because it consists of changes in the cardiopulmonary, skin and nervous systems.”

  30. 30
    bornagain77 says:

    As well, the following experiment, from Princeton University no less, is very interesting in that it was found that ‘perturbed randomness’ precedes a worldwide ‘moral crisis’:

    Scientific Evidence That Mind Effects Matter – Random Number Generators – video

    Mass Consciousness: Perturbed Randomness Before First Plane Struck on 911 – July 29 2012
    Excerpt: The machine apparently sensed the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre four hours before they happened – but in the fevered mood of conspiracy theories of the time, the claims were swiftly knocked back by sceptics. But it also appeared to forewarn of the Asian tsunami just before the deep sea earthquake that precipitated the epic tragedy.,,
    Now, even the doubters are acknowledging that here is a small box with apparently inexplicable powers. ‘It’s Earth-shattering stuff,’ says Dr Roger Nelson, emeritus researcher at Princeton University in the United States, who is heading the research project behind the ‘black box’ phenomenon.

    Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research – Scientific Study of Consciousness-Related Physical Phenomena – peer reviewed publications

    Thus we actually have very good empirical evidence supporting Dr. King’s observation that ‘that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws’. In fact, since the emotional reactions happen before the violent images are even viewed, or before the worldwide tragedies even occurred, then one would be well justified in believing that morality abides at a much deeper level of the universe than the ‘mere’ physical laws of the universe do (just as a Theist would presuppose that morals would do prior to investigation). Moreover, the atheistic materialist is left without a clue as to how such ‘prescient morality’ is even possible for reality.

    Of supplemental note:

    This following video refines the Ontological argument for God into a argument that, because of the characteristic of ‘maximally great love’, God must exist in more than one person:

    The Ontological Argument for the Triune God – video

    i.e. without this distinction we are stuck with the logical contradiction of maximally great love being grounded in one person (putting self above others) which is the very antithesis of maximally great love.

    Verse and music:

    Mark 10:18
    “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone.

    Black Eyed Peas – Where Is The Love?

  31. 31
    Roy says:

    Roy, excuse me, but it seems you are arguing for the objective reality of morality. i.e. That morality is something real that transcends the ‘shadow of the law’ that silhouettes it.

    I’m not. The disconnect I see between law and behaviour applies whether behaviour is based on absolute or personal morality.

    Since I mentioned lawbreakers you could have worked that out for yourself.


  32. 32
    Querius says:

    Thank you, VJT, for your well-researched post!

    History is often simplified and caricatured by people with an ideological motive. For great example, read the history of the Balkans from different points of view.

    A modern analog is advocated by a few academics who feel that denial of anthropogenic climate change (aka global warming) is a crime against humanity. It’s not a big step to imagine academic tribunals where deniers are forced to recant.

    However, these academics would be the last ones to admit to any moral equivalence to the inquisition, and would likely respond in self-righteous outrage at the suggestion.

    “Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
    -Smokey, the Bear


  33. 33
    vjtorley says:

    Hi kairosfocus, Chalciss and Querius,

    Thank you for your kind comments, and thank you, kairosfocus, for defending the points I was making in this post. Personally, I am very glad that we live in an age of religious liberty, but it needs to be pointed out that we owe this notion of liberty as a basic human right to the sixteenth-century Christians who first formulated the concept, based on their reading of Scripture.

  34. 34
    vjtorley says:

    Hi bornagain77,

    Thanks very much for your interesting video on the ontological argument. While the video does not establish the existence of a Trinity – something which Christians have traditionally taught we cannot know by reason alone – it does make a case against unitarianism. The video’s defense of the coherence of the concept of a maximally great being is also well worth viewing. Thanks again.

  35. 35
    vjtorley says:


    Laws are enforced, but that doesn’t mean people are forced to keep them. What it means that people who openly flout the laws are forced to cease doing so.

    My earlier point (#25) that in all likelihood, Galileo was never formally enjoined to abstain altogether from teaching or defending this opinion and even from discussing it, still stands. Cheers.

  36. 36
    Roy says:

    Your point, which you seem to have conveniently forgotten, was this:

    Professor PZ Myers is wrong on two counts here: Galileo wasn’t tried by the Vatican, and he wasn’t forced to recant.

    The new source you have provided includes this:

    The grand play ran its course, with the Pope insisting upon a formal sentence, a tough examination of Galileo, public abjuration, and “formal prison.” Galileo was forced to appear once again for formal questioning about his true feelings concerning the Copernican system. Galileo obliged, so as not to risk being branded a heretic, testifying that “I held, as I still hold, as most true and indisputable, the opinion of Ptolemy, that is to say, the stability of the Earth and the motion of the Sun.” Galileo’s renunciation of Copernicanism ended with the words, “I affirm, therefore, on my conscience, that I do not now hold the condemned opinion and have not held it since the decision of authorities….I am here in your hands–do with me what you please.”

    So even if Galileo wasn’t formally enjoined to abstain from teaching in 1616, and the inquisition documents are forged, your own source states that he was tried in 1633 and forced against threat of imprisonment to state that he had recanted.


    P.S. It’s not particularly surprising to note that the inquisitors are “sticklers for the rules” when it helps your argument, but liars and forgers when it doesn’t.

  37. 37
    vjtorley says:


    Page 75 of Maurice Finocchiaro’s essay (“Myth 8: Galileo was imprisoned and tortured,” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Harvard University Press, 2009, edited by Ronald L. Numbers) quotes the exchange between Galileo and his inquisitors in full, during his interrogation on June 21, 1633:

    Q. Having been told that from the book itself and the reasons advanced in the affirmative side, namely that the earth moves and the sun is motionless, he is presumed, as it was stated, that he holds Copernicus’s opinion, or at least that he held it at the time, therefore he was told that unless he decided to proffer the truth, one would have recourse to the remedies of law and to appropriate steps against him.

    A. I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please.

    Q. And he was told to tell the truth, otherwise one would have recourse to torture.

    A. I am here to obey, but I have not held this opinion after the determination was made, as I said.

    And since nothing else could be done for the execution of the decision, after he signed he was sent to his own place.

    I, Galileo Galilei, have testified as above.

    Throughout this exchange, Galileo maintains his dignity and composure. Far from being “forced against threat of imprisonment to state that he had recanted,” as you claim, Galileo stoutly insisted that he had recanted his Copernican views long ago. The language he used throughout this interrogation is not the language of a man under duress.

    Incidentally, I can’t help noticing that you’ve shifted your position: originally you defended that view that Galileo was “forced to recant,” whereas now you’re claiming that he was forced to state that he had recanted, which is quite a different thing.

  38. 38
    goodusername says:


    Throughout this exchange, Galileo maintains his dignity and composure. Far from being “forced against threat of imprisonment to state that he had recanted,” as you claim, Galileo stoutly insisted that he had recanted his Copernican views long ago. The language he used throughout this interrogation is not the language of a man under duress.

    It sounds like you’re saying that Galileo was being honest when he said that. Just to be clear, are you saying that you really believe that Galileo actually recanted, and was not a Copernican at the time that he wrote Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems?

  39. 39
    jerry says:

    Galileo has been covered in detail on this site in the past. Here is link from six years ago:

    This goes to one particular comment but if one just searches for galileo on this thread they can get the full discussion. Here is the quote from the linked comment.

    In the Galileo affair, Urban was the good guy and Galileo was the bad guy so BarryA’s final analogy is not appropriate. The conventional wisdom for the last couple centuries would support BarryA’s argument but is not accurate.

    The following seemed to be agreed upon. Urban was under threat from people that included Galileo’s main sponsor, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, the Duke of Tuscany. Urban was trying to stop a war and wouldn’t support the Hapsburgs. Urban was one of Galileo better friends and supporter in his scientific work. Urban suggested that the title of his book be changed to emphasize the Ptolemy/Copernicus controversy and away from Galileo silly argument about the tides demonstrating the earth was moving. Galileo’s title was a “Dialogue on the Tides” and under Urban’s suggestion became “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” Urban personally asked Galileo to give arguments for and against heliocentrism in the book, and to be careful not to advocate heliocentrism. He made another request, that his own views on the matter be included in Galileo’s book. Only the latter of those requests was fulfilled by Galileo but in a derogatory way in the mouth of a simpleton

    So Galileo betrays Urban under the seal of the man who is helping to depose him. Do we know for sure that Galileo did not know that Urban was under pressure from his sponsor and that maybe he did this on purpose. What would you think if you were Urban. This is hypothetical but was a person like Galileo that much out of the loop not to sense the politics of the time. Galileo also takes it upon himself on how the Church should interpret scripture during a time when the interpretation of scripture is an issue that leads to wars. Tell me how Galileo is a good guy in this scenario and Urban is a bad guy. This whole episode is about politics and has nothing to do with science or religion.

    For his action, Galileo was sentenced to that harsh Inquisition torture, the comfy chair (house arrest.) He continued to write while under house arrest and produce what is considered one of his finest works, “Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences.” It was not published till much later in Holland as his works were banned because of his sentence. So this last is the only unfair thing that happened to Galileo and it was after his death.

    So let’s not use Galileo as an example of the oppression of science when the so called oppresssors are champions of Galileo and science in general. Yes, it involved both science and religion but it was primarily a very bad political decision by Galileo that led to his sentence. He betrayed one of his best friends and his spiritual leader. Whether he did so out of arrogance or deliberately, he got what was coming to him.

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