On the Anniversary of His Execution, What Can We Learn From the “First Martyr of Science”

On February 17th, 1600 A.D., Giordano Bruno, a Dominican priest, philosopher, and mathematician, was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition. Among his heresies was the belief in an infinite number of worlds (similar to what physicists today call the multiverse hypothesis). In more recent times, Bruno has become somewhat of a patron saint of atheist and free thought groups, who gather each year at the statue commemorating his death in Rome. Some have even heralded him as the “first martyr of modern science,” claiming he was executed primarily for his belief in Copernicanism, and was therefore an ominous precursor to that more famous martyr of science, Galileo. Looking back more than 400 years later, what can we learn from Bruno’s tragic death? Several things.

1. We often distort history to fit our cultural narratives. Bruno was not a martyr of science (neither was Galileo, not really). Bruno was executed for theological heresy and episcopal defiance, not scientific theories. He openly denied the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, and the doctrine of the Trinity (see Joel Shackelford’s essay in Galileo Goes To Jail). Additionally, Bruno was devoted to a quasi-pantheistic form of mysticism, which fueled his experimentation with magic. These facts alone made Bruno a likely victim of the Inquisition. Add to them that Bruno “vented as much bile as the most virulent Internet troll” and it is no surprise that he eventually ticked off the wrong people.

So, why would anyone think he was executed for believing that the Earth revolved around the Sun? Because Andrew Dickson White, co-founder of Cornell University, said as much in a late 1800s work of history propaganda pitting science against Christianity:

“[Bruno] was hunted from land to land, until at last he turned on his pursuers with fearful invectives. For this he was entrapped at Venice, imprisoned during six years in the dungeons of the Inquisition at Rome, then burned alive, and his ashes scattered to the winds. Still, the new truth [of heliocentrism] lived on. Ten years after the martyrdom of Bruno the truth of Copernicus’s doctrine was established by the telescope of Galileo.”

White, along with John William Draper and others, lived and wrote during an increasingly hostile time of culture war between secularists and religious fundamentalists, and they wrote for the purposes of fueling such a war. They are the originators of the “warfare thesis” of science and religion, which is still widely popular today despite being thoroughly debunked. They wanted to depict history as a progressive battle between courageous scientific heroes and obscurantist religious villains. They largely succeeded, and we are their unfortunate beneficiaries.

What about Galileo? His story, too, has been tainted by the cultural narrative of the warfare thesis. The official charges brought against Galileo were for advocating heliocentrism. But the real reason the Inquisition went after him was more due to a political vendetta resulting from his foolish wounding of Pope Urban’s ego. Respected historian of science David Lindberg explains in When Science and Christianity Meet,

“[Pope Urban VIII] became convinced that Galileo had brazenly…made the pope an object of ridicule. Such flagrant insubordination could not go unpunished.”

We have been sold a 19th century cultural narrative that science and religion are at war. We’ve uncritically accepted that narrative and allowed it to skew our interpretation of the past, distorting how we view such episodes as Bruno’s execution and Galileo’s trial. Sure, there have been some legitimate cases of conflict between science and religion. But there has also been a lot of agreement. History is much more complex than our simplistic culture war would have us believe.

2. Separation of Church and State is a great idea! Even though Bruno and Galileo were not true martyrs of science, they were unquestionably victims of the abuse of Church power. The fact that a man could be executed (or put on house arrest, in Galileo’s case) for insulting a religious leader is disturbing. But it could never have happened if the Church didn’t have essentially the same legal power as the government at that time. We should all feel a deep sense of gratitude to the founders of America for their wisdom in keeping the Church and government separate. And we should do what we can to keep it that way. Of course, that doesn’t mean removing all references to God or religious expression from public spaces. But, neither does it mean demanding public religious expressions on the grounds that America is a “Christian nation.” It isn’t. And that kind of thinking can backfire.

3. When Christians engage in culture war over secondary issues, the gospel appears less plausible in the public mind. Bruno’s belief in infinite worlds was not based on any science; it flowed from his pantheism, which is definitely incompatible with a biblical perspective. But the possible existence of other universes alone isn’t biblically incompatible, per se (especially if the multiverse had a beginning). Similarly, Galileo’s belief in a heliocentric solar system obviously has no conflict with scripture. Yet it’s what the authorities used to justify their vendetta against him. The sad result today is that the Bruno and Galileo affairs stand as inspiration for many to reject Christianity and embrace secularism. When Christians make war over secondary issues in science–things that don’t affect the truth of scripture, such as the age of the Earth–it only makes Christianity seem less plausible, and further perpetuates the false narrative fabricated by White and Draper.

Sadly, in America we’ve become addicted to this type of cultural warfare, and it has the unfortunate effect of making people feel like they must choose between science and Christian faith. The anniversary of Bruno’s execution just happens to fall on Presidents’ Day this year. With themes of freedom, history, and faith on our minds, perhaps this is a good time for Christians and non-Christians alike to reflect on what can be learned from this tragic figure of history: Giordano Bruno, the so-called “first martyr of science.”

photo credit: delaque79 via photopin cc

About James Hoskins

James Hoskins is a teacher, writer, musician, and philosophy geek. He has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and a M.A. in Science & Religion from Biola University. James teaches philosophy and science classes at a private, college prep high school in the Kansas City area. You can find him at his blog PhiloLogos, and on Twitter under @clumsybrute.


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