This post, in a bit of departure from the usual themes of this blog, is more about the horrors that existed before science than horrors arising from science or nature. On Sunday’s “Cosmos,” the story of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was presented, describing how he was (one of) the first people to envision an “infinite” universe with countless stars and planets, and how he was executed by the Church for heresy, at least in part for this belief.
As always, the story is a bit more complicated than presented (not surprising for a popular science show). In a post at Motherboard, Becky Ferreira does an excellent job of explaining the complexities of the history while nevertheless praising “Cosmos” for their description. In short: Bruno’s views of the universe were inseparable from his theology, and he was killed for going against the Church’s theology, not for his “science.”
These subtleties have already led Creationists to attack “Cosmos” and, in effect, indirectly serve as Church apologists: ”Is it any surprise, then, that, as a defrocked Dominican friar denying essential tenets of Catholic doctrine and drawing strength from the closest thing to an atheist in the Roman world, he might have gotten in trouble with the Inquisition?” they say.
The problem with this, to me, is that it somehow implies that it’s okay that Bruno was killed! In the period before people started looking at the natural world in a more scientific way, tens of thousands were killed in sham witch trials throughout Europe.
(Woodcut of witches being punished in 16th century Germany, via Wikipedia.)
Numbers are hard to appreciate; to really drive home the horror of witch trials, heresy, and the Inquisition, one should read the 1628 letter of Johannes Junius, who was accused and later executed for witchcraft. The letter, written to his daughter, exposes the hypocrisy and insanity of witch trials. A sample:
And this happened on Friday, June 30, and with God’s help I had to bear the torture… . When at last the executioner led me back into the prison, he said to me: “Sir, I beg you, for God’s sake confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture which you will be put to; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were an earl, but one torture will follow after another until you say you are a witch. Not before that,” he said, “will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another.” …
This letter enrages me more than nearly anything I have ever read. The witch trials were monstrous, horrible, insane acts that resulted in the torturous death of countless innocent people.
It is cold comfort, but some people saw the insanity at the time and worked against it using arguments and methods that are almost scientific. Several years ago, I wrote a post about Reginald Scot, who in 1584 wrote a detailed book attacking the belief in witchcraft from theological, natural, and psychological grounds. Scot’s work did not have much impact, other than earning the ire of King James (of the King James Bible), who ordered all copies of the book destroyed. Thankfully, he failed.
Though science can produce truly dangerous things (like the Elephant’s Foot), it has also helped chase away even more awful demons of irrational belief.