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Old August 4th, 2011, 06:40 PM   #1
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Science and Christianity in 17th Century Northern Europe


Hi all. I've been reading two books recently that give conflicting views of the relationship between the sciences and Protestant Christianity in northern Europe during the 17th century and was hoping you could point me in the right direction.

The first passage comes from E.T. Bell's Men of Mathematics. It is part of a biography on the life of Descartes. Page 44 reads:
Quote:
The Catholic clergy of the time [1628] cultivated and passionately loved the sciences in grateful contrast to the fanatical Protestants whose bigotry had extinguished the sciences in Germany.
The second passage comes from a book entitled Renaissance Genius. It is written by David Whitehouse and is a biography of Galileo. The passage (page 8) reads:
Quote:
A conflict with the [Catholic] Church is not what he [Galileo] wanted. Despite his belligerent personality, his clashes with the authorities were brought about by others attacking him and his findings, not the other way around. Through it all, he had remained a devout Catholic. His two daughters had become nuns. He could have left for the Protestant north at any time, where he would have been safe and lauded.
It seems to me that there is the discrepancy here. The first passage portrays the Protestant northern states as hostile to the sciences (and the Catholic Church as open to them), yet the second portrays the Protestant states as tolerant bastions of free thought. I have considered a few possible explanations.

1) The first passage mentions Germany specifically - was Germany hostile to the sciences and the other states tolerant?

2)Both groups (Catholics and Protestants) were friendly to the sciences at one point (but not necessarily simultaneously).

3) One of the sources is flat out wrong.

Any insight is much appreciated. Please cite your sources.

Last edited by Ant.M.Clark; August 4th, 2011 at 06:45 PM.
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Old August 4th, 2011, 06:54 PM   #2

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Bell's work is not held in very good repute as hard history.
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Old August 4th, 2011, 09:54 PM   #3

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Hello and welcome to Historum, Ant.M.Clark.

It sounds as if both authors have an agenda which is only partially based on the facts on the ground at the time. Andrew Dickson White, writing in Popular Science Monthly in 1892, describes an anti-science stance held by both Protestants and Catholics when confronted with the Copernican theory, and evidence in its favor found by the telescope:

Quote:
Doubtless, many will exclaim against the Roman Catholic Church for this [rejection of the Copernican theory]; but the simple truth is that Protestantism was no less zealous against the new scientific doctrine. All branches of the Protestant Church--Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican--vied with each other in denouncing the Copernican doctrine as contrary to Scripture; and, at a later period, the Puritans showed the same tendency.

Said Martin Luther: "People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth." Melanchton, mild as he was, was not behind Luther in condemning Copernicus. In his treatise on the Elements of Physics, published six years after Copernicus's death, he says: "The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves; and they maintain that neither the eight sphere nor the sun revolves.... Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it." Melanchthon then cites passages from the Psalms and from Ecclesiastes, which he declares assert positively and clearly that the earth stands fast, and that the sun moves around it, and adds eight other proofs of his proposition that "the earth can be nowhere if not in the center of the universe." So earnest does this mildest of the Reformers become, that he suggests severe measures to restrain such impious teachings as those of Copernicus.

While Lutheranism was thus condemning the theory of the earth's movement, other branches of the Protestant Church did not remain behind. Calvin himself took the lead, in his Commentary on Genesis, by condemning all who asserted that the earth is not at the center of the universe. "Who," he said, "will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?" Turretin, Calvin's famous successor, even after Kepler and Newton had virtually completed the theory of Copernicus and Galileo, put forth his compendium of theology, in which he proved, from a multitude of scriptural texts, that the heavens, sun, and moon move about the earth, which stands still in the center. In England we see similar theological efforts, even after they had become evidently hopeless. Hutchinson's Moses' Principia, Dr. Samuel Pikes's Sacred Philosophy, the writings of Bishop Horne, Bishop Horsely, and President Forbes contain most earnest attacks upon the ideas of Newton; such attacks being based on Scripture. Dr. John Owen, so famous in the annals of Puritanism, declared the Copernican system "a delusive and arbitrary hypothesis, contrary to Scripture"; and even John Wesley declared the new ideas to tend toward "infidelity."

And Protestant peoples were not a whit behind Catholic in following such teachings. The people of Elbing made themselves merry over a farce in which Copernicus was the main object of ridicule. The people of Nuremburg, a Protestant stronghold, caused a medal to be struck with inscriptions ridiculing the philosopher and his theory.

Why the people at large took this view is easily understood when we note the attitude of the guardians of learning, both Catholic and Protestant, in that age. It throws great light upon sundry claims by modern theologians to take charge of public instruction and of the evolution of science. So important was it thought to have "sound learning" guarded, and "safe science" taught, that in may of the universities, as late as the end of the seventeenth century, professors were forced to take an oath not to hold the "Pythagorean"--that is, the Copernican idea--as to the movement of the heavenly bodies. As the contest went on, professors were forbidden to make known to students the facts revealed by the telescope. Special orders to this effect were issued by the ecclesiastical authorities to the universities and colleges of Pisa, Innspruck, Louvain, Douay, Salamanca, and others; during generations we find the authorities of these universities boasting that these godless doctrines were kept away from their students. It is touching to hear such boasts made then, just as it is touching now to hear sundry excellent university authorities boast that they discourage the reading of Mill, Spencer, and Darwin. Nor were such attempts to keep the truth from students confined to the Roman Catholic institutions of learning. Strange as it may seem, nowhere were the facts confirming the Copernican theory more carefully kept out of sight than at Wittenberg; the university of Luther and Melanchthon. About the middle of the sixteenth century there were at that center of Protestant instruction two astronomers of a very high order; Rheticus and Reinhold: both of these, after thorough study, had convinced themselves that the Copernican system was true, but neither of them was allowed to tell this truth to his students.

Last edited by L'Emmerdeur; August 4th, 2011 at 10:12 PM.
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Old August 5th, 2011, 12:09 AM   #4

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I think you should also make a distinction between different protestant churches : the lutherans, the reformed churches, the anglicans etc.

As for Galileo, wem ust remember that he was not condemned because of his support in favor of the copernician theory, but because he admitted as a fact (and drew philosophical conclusions on this) whereas the church (cardinal Bellarmine) wanted him to recognize this as an hypothesis : the church did see this as an attack because it had doubts about Galileo's will. ecause Galileo did not discuss heliocentrism as an hypothesis or a possibility but defended it as a fact.
The affair was also very complex : Galileo had supporters and opponents within the church. However, he was hated by the pope, which is rarely good.

Quote:
Popular Science Monthly in 1892
I don't know if it is a good source. At that time, scientist were known for being hostile to religion too.

Last edited by clement; August 5th, 2011 at 12:17 AM.
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Old August 5th, 2011, 09:05 AM   #5

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Quote:
Originally Posted by clement View Post
Quote:
Popular Science Monthly in 1892
I don't know if it is a good source. At that time, scientist were known for being hostile to religion too.
You can sneer at the source all you want; if you produce no evidence which contradicts what White is saying, then his statements on the topic stand un-refuted. Do you for example deny that the quote from Martin Luther is accurate? How about the quote from Melanchthon? Calvin? Dr. John Owen? Can you produce evidence that Rheticus and Reinhold were not required to suppress their findings in support of the Copernican theory?
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Old August 5th, 2011, 09:29 AM   #6

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Well, I can also prove quite easily that Copernicus was a catholic priest, and so was Georges Lemaitre, who discovered the big bang. And if you don't mind reading something in French, just look at this :
La controverse héliocentrique-Histoire des sciences - Le Grand Récit de l'Univers - Exposition à la Cité des Sciences

It is true that heliocentrism had its virulent opponents in Rome. But cardinal Bellarmine, who was in charge of the case and had the authority to impose his decision, clearly said that heliocentrism was a valid hypothesis. He however refused to have it defended as a fact. In the article it is even said that he considered it an attractive theory. So what about that ? Bellarmine was cautious but quite in favor of heliocentrism, and he was a cardinal. Still, he was never persecuted, but even became a saint.

As for Rheticus, what is certain is that nothing is certain. Except that his book was put in the index, but again it was because clerics were not sure of how to react to his writings. Some were against them, others were in favor of the theory. For a book to enter the index is not a definitive condemnation of a thesis. It just means that the book could not be read by "inappropriate hands" ( I am completely against this principle, but at that time it was widely accepted that the masses could not have access to some knowledge) and could only be discussed by high authorities. But Rheticus did not seem to have been persecuted.

Last edited by clement; August 5th, 2011 at 09:37 AM.
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