Month: March 2013

Myths about Science and Religion: That Copernicanism Demoted Humans from the Center of the Cosmos

copernicus-tlSigmund Freud (1856-1939), Dennis R. Danielson tells us, alleged that science had inflicted on humanity “two great outrages upon its naive self-love”: the first, associated with the sixteenth-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), “when it realized that our earth was not the centre of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable”; the second was Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection (to these two Freud added his psychoanalytic theory, which delivered “the third and most bitter blow”).

It seems neither popularizers nor serious scientists can utter Copernicus’ name without at once feeling the urge to say that he “dethroned” the earth or us humans when he explained that the earth circles the sun, instead of the other way around.

But according to Danielson, this feeling presumes too much. This great Copernican cliche simplistically assumes that central is good, or special, and that to be removed from the center is bad.

Yet the earth’s central position was taken as evidence not of its importance but its grossness. Danielson points out that many medieval philosophers, including Jewish philosopher Moses Maimondies (1135-1204) and foremost Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas  (1225-1274), declared that “in the universe, earth—that all the spheres encircle and that, as for place, lies in the center—is the most material and coarsest (ignobilissima) of all bodies.” This idea is even present in popular literature, as when Dante, writing in his Inferno in the early fourteenth century, places the lowest pit of hell in the very midpoint of the earth, the dead center of the whole universe. “If anything,” Danielson writes, “Galileo and his fellow Copernicans were raising the status of the earth and its inhabitants within the universe,” not dethroning them.

The seventeenth century’s foremost Copernicans expressed exhilaration at earth’s release from the dead center of the universe. Galileo (1564-1642), for example, saw his account as militating against “those who assert, principally on the grounds that it has neither motion nor light, that the earth must be excluded from the dance of the stars,” but the “earth does have motion,” and it “surpasses the moon in brightness” and therefore “it is not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera collect.” Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) likewise argued that man “could not remain at rest in the center…[but] must make an annual journey on this boat, which is our earth, to perform his observations…There is no globe nobler or more suitable for man than the earth. For, in the first place, it is exactly in the middle of the principal globes…”

Heliocentrism was seen as exalting the position of humankind in the universe and pulling the earth up out of the cosmic sump that Copernicus’ predecessors thought it occupied—and conversely, placing the divinely associated sun unto that central yet tainted location. In Copernicus’ cosmology, the center was transformed into a place of honor, while at the same time earth was promoted to the status of a “star” that “moves among the planets as one of them.” Only with the abolition of geocentrism, then, might we truly say that we occupy the best, most privileged place in the universe.

The other presumption that generally piggybacks on the cliche is that Copernicus, in allegedly reducing the status of the earth, also struck a blow against religion, particularly the Abrahamic religions, which supposedly require the cosmic centrality of humankind. But again the Jewish and Christian scriptures do no promote “naive self-love” on the part of humans, but instead proclaim our smallness, weakness, and often moral incapacity against the immense greatness, goodness, and otherness of the Creator.

Possible support for these assumptions may be found in the seventeenth century Galileo affair. But this is ultimately misguided. The opposition Galileo met from Catholic authorities in Rome was a dispute focused on matters related to biblical interpretation, educational jurisdiction, and the threat Galileo represented to the entrenched “scientific” authority of Aristotle, not on any supposed Copernican depreciation of the cosmic specialness or privilege of humankind. And as Danielson correctly notes, Aristotle’s system of physics dominated European natural philosophy for centuries.

The Copernican cliche seems to have appeared for the first time in France more than a century after the death of Copernicus. Most influential was science popularizer Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle’s Discourse of the Plurality of Worlds (1686), who argued that Copernicus had abated the “Vanity of men who had thrust themselves into the chief place of the Universe.” Later, in 1810 Johann Wolfgang Goethe repeated the notion that “no discovery or opinion ever produced a greater effect on the human spirit than did the teaching of Copernicus,” for it obliged earth “to relinquish the colossal privilege of being the center of the universe.”

But the irony of this supposed dethronment is that, while purportedly rendering “Man” less cosmically and metaphyscially important, it actually enthrones us modern “scientific” humans in all our enlightened superiority. But as Danielson concludes, “Historically and philosophically…the tale is a fabrication. Reasonable people need not believe it.”

The Secularization of the European Mind

A popular mind, even when that mind is middle class…has a need to inflate if it is to understand. It seizes upon a salient point; the point which is easy to identify; the point which is graphic, can be pictured; the point which a newspaper can make readable. In seizing upon the salient point it distorts, casts the environment into shadow, forgets nuances and qualification, and inflates…we must label and isolate, because only so do we understand; and we overlook that what are really being opposed are knowledge in the seventeenth century versus knowledge in the nineteenth century.

This quote is taken from Owen Chadwick’s The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (1993, 1995, 2000). He argues that when Victorian scientists opposed religion it was out of a variety of motives that were seldom directly related to the content of their science. Chadwick also focuses on the way in which historical knowledge challenged traditional interpretations of the Bible in the nineteenth century. But, argues Chadwick, the public, sensitized by positivist views, failed to male such distinctions and was inclined to see every challenge to religious orthodoxy as scientific.

I read Chadwick’s work years ago, long before I decided to become a historian of science. I was reminded by his work while reading Richard Olson’s Science and Scientisim in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2008), which I will review in a future post. I will be reading both in conjunction and when finished I will post another double review.

Myths about Science and Religion: That Medieval Christians Taught that the Earth was Flat


Here is the classic story. People living in the “Dark Ages” were so ignorant (or so deceived by Catholic priests) that they believed the earth was flat. For thousands of years they lingered in ignorant obscurity, and were it not for the heroic bravery of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and other explorers, they might well have continued in this ignorance for even longer. Thus it was the innovation and courage of investors and explorers, motivated by economic goals and modern curiosity, that finally allowed us to break free from the shackles forged by the medieval Catholic church.

In the nineteenth century, scholars interested in promoting a new scientific and rational view of the world claimed that ancient Greeks and Romans had understood that the world was round, but that this knowledge was suppressed by medieval churchmen.

Unfortunately most of this classic story is fiction. Very few people throughout the Middle Ages believed that the world was flat. Thinkers on both sides of the question were Catholics, and for them, the shape of the earth did not equate with progressive or traditionalist views. As Russell writes, “All educated people throughout Europe know the earth’s spherical shape and its approximate circumference.” Further, Columbus could not have proved that the world was round, because this fact was already known. Nor was he a rebellious modern—he was a good Catholic and undertook his voyage believing he was doing God’s work.

In this entry I will be combing notes from Lesley B. Cormack’s article entitled, “That Medieval Christians Taught that the Earth was Flat,” found in Numbers’ Galileo goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion (2009), and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s short but illuminating book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Praeger, 1991).

Russell calls this very popular and common myth the “Flat Earth Error.” According to Russell, the very statement that “Columbus proved the world was round,”presents logical difficulties. “Since Columbus did not ever sail around the world, it was not until Magellan’s men came back from circumnavigating the globe in 1522 tat the sphericity of the planet could be absolutely proved empirically.” In addition to logical problems, there are also problems of conflation. The idea of geocentricity is often linked in the modern mind with the idea of flatness, but the two are separate. With few exceptions, educated people before Copernicus (1473-1543) in face believed that the planets revolved around the earth rather than around the sun. However, the idea that the earth is spherical is sharply distinct from the idea that the earth is at the center of the cosmos.

In Cormack’s short essay, she maintains that scholars of antiquity developed a very clear spherical model of the earth and the heavens, and that early-medieval writers continued that model. Every major Greek geographical thinker, including Aristotle (384-322 BC), Eratosthenes (fl. third century BC), and Ptolemy (fl. second century BC), based on his geographical and astronomical work on the theory that the earth was a sphere.

Among the early-medieval writers who held a spherical-earth theory, Augustine (354-430), Jerome (d. 420), and Ambrose (d. 420) all agreed that the earth was a sphere. There is some debate about Isidore of Seville (d. 636), a prolific encyclopedist and natural philosopher, but this based on his statement that “everyone experiences the size and heat of the sun in the same manner.” But this statement likely implies that the sun’s shape did not alter as it progressed around the earth. Indeed, much of Isidore’s physics and astronomy can only be understood to depend on a spherical earth.

From the seventh century to the fourteenth, every important medieval thinker concerned about the natural world stated more or less explicitly that the world was a round globe. Among them were Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), Roger Bacon (d. 1294), Albertus Magnus (d. 1280), Michael Scot (d. 1234), Jean de Sacrobosco (d. 1256), and Pierre d’Ailly (d. 1410), whose work Columbus himself carefully consulted. Russell added to this list Jean Buridan (d. 1358), Nicole Oresme (d. 1382), and Giles of Rome (d. 1316), all discussed the rotation of the earthly sphere.

Both Cormack and Russell also point out that even popular vernacular writers in the Middle Ages supported the idea of a round earth. Jean de Mandeville’s Travels (c. 1370) was quite explicit in stating that the world was round and navigable. Dante (d. 1321) in the Divine Comedy described the world as a sphere several times. In Chaucer’s (d. 1400) The Canterbury Tales, he spoke of “This wyde world, which that men seye is round.”

The one medieval writer explicitly to deny the sphericity of the earth was Cosmas Indicopleustes (fl. sixth century). But according to Russell, Cosmas had absolutely no influence on medieval thought. Indeed, “the first translation of Cosmas into Latin, his very first introduction into western Europe, was not until 1706.”

Russell also has an important discussion of the nature of maps and map-making in the Middle Ages. “Medieval maps,” he writes, “did not attempt to conform to criteria set for a modern atlas.” We have a little over 1,000 maps of the earth from the eighth through the fifteenth century that have survived. These “mappaemundi” come in several varieties. They are almost all flat—as are the maps in a modern atlas—and usually represent “oikoumene“, or the known world. That is, most were intended to represent only a portion of a spherical world. The purpose of a mappaemundi, moreover, was to convey moral truth or sacred or political history, not a snapshot of the size and shape of the earth. The mappaemundi were not meant to be practical, and the only reason they survive is because they were revered and thus preserved. Practical maps from the Middle Ages do exist, and are of two major types: one is the crude but effective sketch that shows, for example, what towns one encounters on a journey between York and London and in what order; the other is the navigational “portolan chart,” both accurate and detailed, which used longitude and latitude as coordinates.

A pictorial demonstration of the round earth in the early middle ages is in the portraits of kings holding the symbols of their power. One standard item of regalia, Russell tells us, is the royal “orb,” which the king holds in his hand. Indeed, it is a golden ball representing the earth, surmounted by a cross indicating Christ’s sovereignty over the earth.

With very few exceptions, all major scholars and many vernacular writers interested in the physical shape of the earth, from the fall of Rome to the time of Columbus, articulated the theory that the earth was round. Fifteenth-century astronomers, geographers, philosophers, and theologians, far from disputing sphercitiy, wrote sophisticated treatises based on Aristotle and the “geography” of Ptolemy of Alexandria.

Given this background, it would be silly to argue that Columbus proved the world was round. However, popular accounts continue to circulate the erroneous story that Columbus fought the prejudiced and ignorant scholars and clerics at Salamance, the home of Spain’s leading university, before convincing Queen Isabella to let him try to prove his position. No such thing ever happened. As Russell writes, “The courage of the rationalist confronted by the crushing weight of tradition and its cruel institutions of repression is appealing, exciting—and baseless.”

There were real objections to Columbus’ voyage, however. Around 1484 Columbus first proposed the voyage to King John of Portugal, but the king rejected it for economic and political reasons. When Columbus turned to the Spanish monarch Ferdinand and Isabella, he found them preoccupied with the unification of Spain. With these political hesitations also came intellectual ones. Ferdinand and Isabella referred Columbus to a royal commission headed by Hernando de Talavera, who was Archbishop of Granada. Of the objections posed to Columbus at the commission, none involved questioning sphericity. Rather, his opponents, citing the traditional measurements of the globe according to Ptolemy, argued that the circumference of the earth was too great and the distance too far to allow a successful western passage. The commission adjourned without coming to an agreement.

Between 1486 and 1490, Columbus carefully prepared calculations to once again defend his plans. In 1490 another commissioned reconvened and again rejected Columbus’ plans. And their doubts were understandable, for Columbus had cooked his own arguments. Columbus had redefined terms and conflated accounts of measurements from different geographers. He calculated, for example, the distance between the Canaries and Japan at about 4,450 km. The modern figure is 22,000 km. In other word, “he estimated the voyage at about 20 percent its actual length.” After long poltical maneurving and many disappointments, Columbus at last in April 1492 obtained Queen Isabella’s support. According to Russell, “Columbus’ opponents, misinformed as they were, had more science and reason on their side than he did on his. He had political ability, stubborn determination, and courage.”

As we have seen, there is virtually no historical evidence to support the myth of a medieval flat earth. Christian clerics neither suppressed the truth nor stifled debate on this subject. Columbus didn’t prove the earth was round—he stumbled on a continent that happened to be in his way.

So, contrary to all the evidence, why does “The Flat Error”  persist? What are the origins of this myth, and why do educated people continue to believe it? Russell provides an argument that is as illuminating as it is disturbing.  The origins of the Error, says Russell, are found in nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, with middle-class Enlightenment anticlericalism  in Europe and “know-nothing” anticatholicism in the United States. The origin of the Error resides in these milieus.

Throughout the nineteenth century, middle-class liberal progressives projected their own ideals upon the heroes of the past. Here Russell discuses the positivism of the nineteenth century morphing into the progressivism of today. Philosophers of “progress” such as Hegel (1770-1831) Comte (1798-1857), John W. Draper (1811-1882), Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), and Charles Raymond Beazley (1868-1955) wrote about the “infinite falsehood constituting the life ans spirit of the Middle Ages.” Comte had laid the philosophical basis for positivism with the argument that the history of humanity shows an unsteady but definite progress from reliance on magic, then religion, then philosophy, then natural science. Positivism went on to extend beyond the natural science to historical positivism, the idea that history advances toward truth about the human past in successive approximations. “Progressivists did not choose to understand other societies in those societies’ terms, but, rather, chose to hold them to the standards of the nineteenth-century scientific method.” The Error must be true, it appears, because it fits modern preconceptions about the Middle Ages.

But perhaps this Error was most solidly embedded in the modern mind not by “scholarly” literature, but by the novel. Russell focuses on Washington Irving (1738-1859), whose romantic tale of Columbus the hero swayed all. He turned the story of Columbus into a work of art, in which he plays the hero of a romantic novel, or epic modern Odysseus or a Faust casting a giant wager against fate, or a mythic American Adam, the First Man of the New World.

But the idea that “Columbus showed that the world was round” is an invention. So, despite all the evidence to the contrary, why does the Error persist? Why, especially after the work of so many respected, widely read, modern historians of science, the Error continues to be as persistent as in the educated mind as it was a century ago? According to Russell, historians, scientists, scholars, and other writers often wittingly or unwittingly repeat and propagate errors of fact or interpretation. No one can be automatically believed or trusted without checking methodology and sources. Further, scholars and scientists often are led by their biases more than by the evidence. The Error had been so firmly established that it was easier to lie back and believe it: easier not to check the sources; easier to fit the consensus; easier to fit the preconceived worldview; easier to avoid the discipline needed in order to dislodge a firmly held error. “Religion and science had not been at war until the Draper-White thesis made them so.”

The assumption of the superiority of “our” views to that of older cultures is another stubborn blinder. The hope that we are making progress toward a goal leads us to undervalue the past in order to convince ourselves of the superiority of the present. The explanation of this pattern for Russell is that the Error is part of a much larger modern faith in progress. “Our determination to believe the Flat Error,” he writes, “arises out of our contempt for the past and our need to believe in the superiority of the present.”

Finally, fallacies or “myths” of this nature take on a life of their own, creating a dialectic with each other and eventually making a “cycle of myths” reinforcing one another. Thus the modern “secular” worldview is based more upon what we think happened than what really happened. A shared body of myths, especially ones told in such dramatic and sensationalist terms, can overwhelm reason and evidence.

Russell concludes with a poignant—if not sombre—realization, that “the search for truth is long and laborious and easily set aside. And since the present is transformed day by day, minute by minute, second by second, into the past, while the future is unknown and unknowable, we are left on the dark sea without stars, without compass or astrolabe, more unsure of our position and our goal than of Columbus’ sailors. The terror of meaninglessness, of falling off the edge of knowledge, is greater than the imagined fear of falling off the edge of the earth. And so we prefer to believe a familiar error than to search, unceasingly, the darkness.”

The Enlightenment: A Genealogy

Dan Edelstein, associate professor of French at Stanford University, begins his The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (2010) with a provocative introduction: “Every age needs its story. In the story we tell ourselves about our values, our government, and our religions, the Enlightenment plays a starring role.” We tell ourselves that the Enlightenment was the founding moment of modernity; we are “children of the Enlightenment,” it is sometimes said.

But this is a story we construct. It is doubtful, moreover, that many of the players in the Enlightenment drama would recognize themselves in these contemporary reenactments. If we are to understand the Enlightenment, we must begin by understanding the motives, doubts, and beliefs of these key players. That is, we ought to pay greater attention to their story and set aside our own.

Edelstein tells us that his prime objective is “to reconstruct how the narrative of ‘the Enlightenment’ emerged as a self-reflexive understanding of the historical importance and specificity of eighteen-century Europe.” His main argument is that this narrative was “devised by French scholars and writers, in the context of an intellectual quarrel over the relative merits of the Ancients an the Moderns.” What distinguishes Edelstein’s thesis from others, for example, Peter Gay’s monumental 2-volumen work, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1966-69), is his emphasis that these French scholars were less interested in epistemology than narratology. That is, “they did not propose a new method of reasoning or advocate a new philosophical understanding of the world. Rather, they offered a seductive account of the events and discoveries of the past century, in conjunction with a more overarching history of human civilization.”

This last point was made once before, in the origins and dissemination of the “Newtonian” worldview. British historian and philosopher of history Sir Herbert Butterfield recognized this new “habit of mind,” and in his erudite The Origins of Modern Science (1958) argued that the transmission of the scientific movement of the eighteenth century into a comprehensive materialistic philosophy was largely achieved by literary men, who “invented and exploited a whole technique of popularisation.”  This observation, moreover, led Butterfield to conclude that “the great movement of the eighteenth century was a literary one—it was not the new discoveries of science in that epoch but, rather, the French philosophe movement that decided the next turn in the story and determined the course Western civilisation was to take.”  Even Gay recognized Voltaire’s desire to have “Newton’s physics without Newton’s God,”  and thus it was not science per se that was absorbed so much as a “new thinking cap,” a new view of life and the universe. And Voltaire himself acknowledges that “no one read Newton, but everyone talked about him.”  Eventually, the “Newtonian” worldview became the paradigm for constructing all human knowledge—in political theory, ethics, psychology, religious studies and even theology sought to restructure their disciplines in this “rational” and “mathematical” philosophy.

Edelstein understands the term “Enlightenment” in two primary senses: (1) The Enlightenment designates the idea, and more specifically the narrative, that gave members of the educated elite a new kind of self-awareness. (2) The Enlightenment designates a loose collection of enlightened texts, institutions, debates, individuals, and reforms that appeared in eighteenth-century Europe.

Edelstein begins chapter one with a literature review of sorts, discussing the problems of current scholarship on the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment has been discussed by an assortment of disparate characters, “yet there is still remarkably little agreement on what, precisely, the Enlightenment was.” All the traditional characters are here, from Carl Becker to Jürgen Habermas, and, more recently, Jonathan Israel’s unabashed defense of Spinozism; yet there remains “a number of outstanding problems with the approach that many scholars take to the topic.” First, most historians end up privileging a particular author, intellectual current, form of sociability, or political revolution as the fountainhead and direct source of much, if not all, that the Enlightenment produced. Yet these ideas varied so tremendously, one rarely finds a snug fit.

Second, most Enlightenment studies rest on inadequate models of reading and interpretation, where it is still assumed that ideas are simple and one-directional—that they do not undergo significant transformation as they are passed on to the next generation. Thus  intellectual historians “cannot assume that their subjects share with them the same interpretation of a text.” As Edelstein points out, some of the most dangerous Enlightenment ideas were first formulated, for very different purposes, by Catholic theologians!

Third, the probability of transformation is particularly high when ideas circulate from one culture to another. While most historians acknowledge that Paris become the headquarters of the Enlightenment, many argue that the intellectual origins of the Enlightenment lay elsewhere, notably in England or Holland.

Edelstein also considers social and cultural histories of the Enlightenment, including the impact of mediating technologies such as books, pamphlets, encyclopedias, journals, etc. In short, he finds all such “singular” studies in some way lacking. Rather than focusing on such singularities, Edelstein is impressed by the fact that when we survey the content of Enlightenment works, what stands out is there literary nature. In anticipating his central argument, Edelstein maintains that the most influential work of the Enlightenment period were frequently framed within fictional narratives. Fiction was not only powerful and influential, it is often vague and ironic, and thus it provided protection from censorship. This fictionalized historical narrative led, according to Edelstein, to a new self-consciousness: “Readers, authors, scholars, and officials could thus identify—or contrast—themselves, their works, and their actions with this idea, which…was really a historical narrative.” Borrowing terms used by sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the Enlightenment was a “second-order observation”: “it was not so much a change in the way people thought but a change in the way people thought about the way people thought.”

In chapter two Edelstein briefly states how current Enlightenment scholarship has geographically shifted away from the French philosophes to other narratives, notably the English and the Dutch. Although he has nothing against this shift, Edelstein does argue that “it was within the confines of the French royal academies and in the context of a very specific academic debate—the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns—that the terms, but also the narrative, used to identify and define what we now call ‘the Enlightenment’ were first put into circulation.” But there is more, and here is where Edelstein shows his debt once again to Luhmann and Butterfield. While these French authors seemed to be reacting to what they perceived to be a dramatic change in society, what was actually happening was a “new idea of society ” was emerging. Indeed, what the evidence suggests, according to Edelstein, “that the Enlightenment started out as an interpretation—an intellectual activity, to be sure—but of social changes, not philosophical innovations.”

In chapter three Edelstein begins tracing the esprit philosophique, discussing such figures as Jean-Baptiste Dubos, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, and Nicolas Fréret. Edelstein continues his argument that the narrative of the Enlightenment is largely a French phenomena, demonstrating that there was little evidence for either a English or Dutch influence on the these French writers of the period.  Dubos himself credits Francis Bacon and René Descartes as the philosophical stars of the French académiciens. As does Fontenelle and Fréret. Edelstein also points out, following the work of J.B. Shank, Newtonianism precipitated not by scientists but by such literary figures. The esprit philosophique was, according to Edelstein, a movement that “allowed scholar both to identify a unity among the variegated scientific and technological breakthroughs of the seventeenth century (a unity that we would come to call the Scientific Revolution) and to describe the transformation caused by the reception and effects of these breakthroughs in contemporary society—a transformation that led them to characterize their own age as enlightened.”

Chapter four discusses how the Enlightenment narrative subtracted the divine element in universal histories, or master narratives, and substituted in its place the celebration of society. During the Enlightenment “society” became the “ontological frame of our human existence.” Here we see the early stages of scientism and the social sciences, where it was believed that “society” operated by observable laws. “Society…was all that was left once God departed from the scene.” Edelstein argues that by making society the central subject of their historical narrative, these French writers introduced a new yardstick with which progress, utility, and greatness would be measured. “Identifying social improvement as the benchmark for national glory expressed…a wish that the new science serve to transform human conduct, beliefs, and relations…”

The how, why, and when of this new definition of society took place is the subject of chapters five through eight,  where Edelstein discusses the academic Quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns. A host of characters show up, from (once again) Jean-Baptiste Dubos and Charles Perrault, to Etienne Bonnot de Condillac and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert. This was a dispute between French academics, the “Ancients” being the party who valued the philosophical tradition of antiquity, and the “Moderns” being the party who, allegedly, rejected it entirely. But as Edelstein suggests, the philosophes “ultimately owed more to the party of the Ancients, who could accommodate modern scientific achievements into their platform, than to that of the Moderns, who could not find any place for antiquity.” But the Quarrel, beginning as a literary dispute over Christian versus pagan epic poems, also “snowballed” into much larger issues, over the importance of the new science, the meaning of history, and the mechanism of cultural transformation. The Quarrel, according to Edelstein, was thus not the cause of the Enlightenment but the catalyst that precipitated the Enlightenment narrative.

In chapter nine Edelstein considers why “esprit philosophique,” given its variegated quality among Enlightenment thinkers, is ultimately an unhelpful term. In its place, he suggests, following Daniel Brewer, we consider the Enlightenment in terms of a “régime d’historicité,” that is, as a certain configuration of past, present, and future states. This, in the final analysis, seems to harken back to a utopianism of a previous generation. The sense of belonging to a “new time” was the experience of “living the Enlightenment.” The Enlightenment, then, “seems to have been the period when people thought they were living in an age of Enlightenment. It did not matter so much what and how these individuals were thinking or acting; what mattered was that they perceived themselves to be thinking or acting in ‘reasonable,’ ‘philosophical,’ and ‘enlightened’ ways in the present.”

Edelstein covers some other interesting ground in the remaining six chapters of his book. But for the sake of brevity I will discuss them in some future post. His conclusions are worth mulling over though, as he points to a theme that seems to be rather pertinent to the historian of science and those interested in modern-day myth-making. Narrative as myth has a particular powerful force. They not only provide us with an overarching meaning for our actions, they are also powerful mental constructions that cannot be disproved. To become “enlightened” was to think and act in accordance with a new set of norms—but these norms were rarely self-imposed. No matter. It was the “look,” the “fashion” that mattered. Because the narrative was simple, popular, monochrome, and, most importantly, entertaining, it was, and continues to be, enmeshed in our history.

Myths about Science and Religion: That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science

According to Michael H. Shank, myth is easy to manufacture. The myth of the medieval church’s opposition to science is such an example. Yet it is unlikely to go away—in part because it “dovetails so nicely with other cherished myths about the Middle Ages.”

The crude concept of the Middle Ages as a millennium of stagnation brought on by Christianity has largely disappeared among scholars familiar with the period, but remains vigorous among popularizes of the history of science—perhaps because, instead of consulting scholarship on the subject, the more recent popularizers have relied upon their predecessors uncritically.

Actually historians of science have presented much evidence against the myth, however. Shank points to John Heilbron’s work, who wrote: “The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably all, other institutions.”

Put succinctly, the medieval period gave birth to the university, which developed with the active support of the papacy. The university was an unusual institution, developing first around famous masters in towns like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford before 1200. By 1500, about sixty universities were scattered throughout Europe. The proliferation of universities between 1200 and 1500 meant that hundreds of thousands of students were exposed to science in the Greco-Arabic tradition. Dozens of universities introduced large numbers of students to Euclidean geometry, optics, the problems of generation and reproduction, the rudiments of astronomy, and arguments for the sphericity of the earth. Even those who did not complete their degrees gained an elementary familiarity with natural philosophy and the mathematical science. As Shank puts it, “If the medieval church had intended to discourage or suppress science, it certainly made a colossal mistake in tolerating—to say nothing of supporting—the university.”

A short list of accomplishments from the period suggests that the inquiry into nature did not stagnate in medieval Europe. During the period the camera obscura was first used to view solar eclipses; mathematical analysis was applied to motion, coming up with theoretical ways of measuring uniformly changing quantities; impetus theory was used to explain projectile motion, the acceleration of free-fall, and even the unceasing rotation of the celestial sphere; arguments for the rotation of the earth were put forth; and much more.

Between 1150 and 1500, more literate Europeans had had access to scientific materials than any of their predecessors in earlier cultures, thanks largely to the emergence, rapid growth, and naturalistic arts curricula of the medieval universities—which the church gave unyielding support.

An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age

In 2007 Jürgen Habermas conducted a debate with philosophers from the Jesuit School for Philosophy in Munich, Germany. This little book, An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Polity Press, 2010), includes Habermas’ speech, the contributions of his interlocutors, and Habermas’ reply to them. According to Habermas, secular reason is unsettled and opaque, for it never truly is secular, as it always seeks clarification through its relation to religion. In this sense secularization functions less as a filter separating out the contents of tradition than as a transformer which redirects the flow of tradition.

The background of this text is set against the the sociological debate on secularization of the 1970s and 1980s. In western countries, sociologists posited that religions where destined to lose ever more of their importance with progressive modernization and individualization. Yet this hypothesis has not been confirmed; on the contrary, today religions play an extremely important role in western societies.

The social traces of religions are to be found in several domains: (1) They take positions on political questions or engage in public debates—Christianity of course but also other religious communities, including Muslim, Buddhism,  and Hinduism, are all becoming increasingly important actors within western civil societies. (2) Religious symbols and language games are being transposed into other, not genuinely religious, domains. Unmistakeable borrowings from religious traditions can be found in film, theater, and advertisement and in how mass events are orchestrated. (3) From a global perspective, religious communities play an important role in very many regions of the world. Indeed, today global political strategies are difficult to conceive without reference to the relation between religion and politics. (4) The discourse concerning secularism has also undergone a pronounced change. Today almost no one speaks of an imminent “extinction” of religions or of the religious. (5) Philosophy, too, has dealt with this phenomenon in recent years.

Religion is thus once again a topic of debate. It is not strictly a return to religion; rather, what we are witnessing is a renewed attention to the religious.

Over several decades of work, Jürgen Habermas has consistently responded to political and social developments surrounding the topic of religion. In his early work, we find references to the social role of religion that are clearly influenced by the secularization hypothesis.

In this early work Habermas sees religion in the Comtian sense, in a historical developmental phase, soon to be replaced. Habermas assumes, for example, that with the development of modern democratic society, the function of religion in fostering social integration is essentially transferred to secularized communicative reason. Religion is in danger of blocking precisely this communicative action because it does not leave the religious participants in discourse free to enter the “presuppositionless” space of rational communication, but instead equips them with clear directives concerning the goal of the discourse. Hence Habermas calls on the religious citizens not to absolutize their one-sided judgments but instead to submit to the conditions of a liberal state.

Later in his career Habermas seems to change directions. On the occasion of Gershom Scholem’s eightieth birthday, Habermas says: “Among the modern societies, only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human.”

A decade later Habermas evinced even more clearly the importance of religion in modern society. For Habermas now stresses the need to reflect on the religious if we are to be able—for example—to understand the central concepts of the history of ideas, which in many cases developed out of religious convictions.

From the mid-1990s onwards, Habermas has addressed the topic of religion explicitly, inquiring into the relation between religion and the basic assumptions of his own social theory and ethics.

In his Peace Prize lecture (2001), Habermas develops the idea that the secularization hypothesis has now lost its explanatory power and that religion and the secular world always stand in a reciprocal relation. Faith and knowledge, although clearly separate from one another, inherently depend on a constructive coexistence.

This relation of mutual dependence between faith and knowledge was emphasized once more in Habermas’ conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger, conducted at the Catholic Academy in Munich in 2004. According to Habermas, democracy depends on moral stances which stem from “prepolitical” sources, for example from religious ways of life. They play an important role for democracy as a background and a source of motivation, even though they cannot serve as normative guidelines for the democratic procedures. Religious utterances also take on a more positive function, for instance in virtue of their meaning-endowing potential, for deliberative democracy as part of the plurality of opinions within society. Religious and secular utterances cannot be clearly separated in any case, which for Habermas is a further pointer to the need for a process of mutual translation.

The first contribution is made by Norbert Brieskorn, who offers a commentary on Habermas’ text. He begins by analyzing in what sense does Habermas use the term “missing.” Brieskorn makes the distinction between negatio and privatio, and argues that Habermas is concerned with the latter, a deficiency in the sense of privatio. “Reason lacks something which it could have but does not and which it painfully misses. It lacks something which belong to it and is part of its constitution.”

Brieskorn then asks what, exactly, is missing? Modern reason does not take the finitude, the mortality of humanity sufficiently seriously, or at any rate it leaves this “phase” to itself, or even suppresses it altogether. Modern reason is also too individualistic in character, and thus must transform itself in intersubjective terms. To judge from Habermas’ own remarks, modern reason is missing religious rites, solidarity, and knowledge of whether the political community is aware of being founded on secure and resolute convictions concerning its legitimacy.

Michael Reder is the following essay, where he argues for a stronger interconnection between faith and reason, through which the cultural expressions of religious forms can also ultimately be “thematized.”

According to Reder, Habermas sees modernity in danger of “spinning out of control.” The liberal state, which depends on the solidarity of its citizens and their motivation to participate in public discourses, finds itself confronted with this problem. If sources of motivation dry up as a result of uncontrolled secularization, the whole project of deliberative democracy is at jeopardy.

By contrast, says Reder, Habermas sees in religion the social function of a moral resource. But as Reder correctly points out, religions perform a range of social functions beyond morality: “Shaping culture life, coping with contingency, and he thematization of the relation between transcendence and immanence are further functions of religions.”

Friedo Ricken takes as his starting point Habermas’ proposed “translation” of the contents of religious belief into the language of enlightened reason. If the proposed translation is not to remain superficial and abstract, Ricken argues, then we must attend to what Habermas calls the “genealogy” of faith and reason that points to their common origin. Philosophy and religion have a shared origin; they represent two “complementary intellectual formations.” By “complementary” he means that they supplement each other and depend upon each other. Philosophy expresses the fact that human beings bear a likeness to God, namely: they are beings endowed with and bound by freedom. Because every human being is an image of God, all human beings are equally free.

Ricken also offers a detailed treatment of Habermas’ major disagreement with the Pope, namely on the concept of Hellenization. Habermas understands by this “the synthesis of faith and knowledge forged in the tradition extending from Augustine to Thomas.” To this the Pope responds that this idea of a synthesis of Greek metaphysics and faith is no longer viable in this form. Pope Benedict XVI understands Hellenization as an inner-biblical process which reaches its conclusion in the prologue to the Gospel of John. According to Ricken, the Pope’s primary concern is to draw attention to the fact that the connection with Greek philosophy can already be found in the earliest documents of Christianity,  from which it follows that reason plays an indispensable role in the representation of the contents of faith. Thus the encounter between Athens and Jerusalem takes place already within the Bible, not in late antiquity or the medieval period, which Habermas maintains.

Finally, Josef Schmidt argues that the condition for a successful dialogue between faith and reason highlighted by Habermas requires that people must speak with and not about each other. The partners in dialogue should take each other seriously, in particular regarding their core convictions. They must assume at least the intelligibility of  the latter and thus introduce their own convictions into the conversation in a “reasonable” manner. “A fair dialogue is characterized by the fact that the partners take each other seriously, and hence do not speak about one another but with one another. But this requires that one should not assume from the outset that the other’s convictions are irrational, so that one does not regard them as even capable of being true nor, as a consequence, as worthy of discussion, but merely as in need of explanation.”

The volume concludes with Habermas’ reply to these contributions. The question of how societies will develop during the twenty-first century and of the challenges that this will pose in the light of global dynamics must remain largely open. However, it is more than probable that religion will play a continued and decisive role in these social processes.