The contrarian in me forces me to argue against sides I would ordinarily agree with when the argument is made from a flawed premise; California's Proposition 37 got a thumbs down from me because there's no reason a terrifically unhealthy Whole Foods organic cupcake should have zero ingredient labeling requirements while a cupcake mix you buy in a store should have a warning label - the Whole Foods organic cupcake is far less healthy in every way.

But people are convinced organic food is somehow more nutritious. In culture, some myths become so entrenched that Google searches do no good in finding out the truth; the myth has overtaken reality by being repeated on lots and lots of websites. Another one of those persistent myths is that religion is anti-science in general, as are Catholics in particular.  Some tired old stories get trotted out over and over again, like the Scopes Monkey Trial (not Catholics, and science won) or the Dover, PA trial regarding Intelligent Design (not Catholics, and science won) but lots of them go even older than that.

When atheists want to insist all religious people hate science, they often invoke Galileo - due to his place as arguably the first modern scientist, we have talked about Galileo a lot here (1) but we are not in the bag for any agenda except science so we are not carefully scrubbing reality to match cultural spin, even when it comes to legends. What gets lost in the cultural noise is that the hardest people on Galileo were fellow scientists; they had every right to doubt his work, by his method the tides only happened once a day, and at the same time every day. If you think denying climate change is bad, well, Galileo denied the existence of the Moon. Every illiterate sailor in the world knew better, as did every kid living near the water, but Galileo attacked everyone who pointed out his math was wrong - like Kepler. Catholics were not against Galileo, the Pope encouraged him to write his famous book, he wanted a good argument for Copernicus, he even helped pick the title.  But Galileo insisted on being a jerk to everyone - so he got a cushy house arrest. During the Inquisition. Yeah, sorry, but that was not Catholics being against Galileo or it would have gone a lot worse.

Case in point: Someone who did have a bad end to his blasphemy - Giordano Bruno, the astrologer, occult worshiper, excommunicated friar, and astronomer.  He was burned at the stake by those mean old Catholics. He was a martyr for science.

Well, no, he wasn't. His views on science never came up during his trial, he knew little of what anyone reading here would recognize as science - he only seemed to side with Copernicus because that happened to agree with his worship of the Egyptian god Thoth and Hermetism and their belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  Despite claims regarding Bruno's persecution due to the science of Copernicus that have persisted since his reputation purification in the late 1800s - the Church didn't even bother to ban De revolutionibus orbium coelestium until 16 years after they whacked Bruno - he clearly was not a credible proponent for any scientific earthquake that shook religious society.  The only thing he got right, that there were lots of stars with planets around them, was actually opposed by Copernicus and Kepler. Galileo was not buying it either.  It was just philosophical mumbo-jumbo he made up and happened to be right about later. Even Nostradamus probably got something right.

He was not a martyr for science, he was instead, as English astrophysicist John Gribbin called him, a martyr for magic and the occult.(2) He actually was a heretic, and was even worse "a walking billboard for the Inquisition" and refused to recant his arianism/hermetism, though given the better part of a decade to try and take back some of his weirder nonsense.(3) Getting burned at the stake was nothing extraordinary in 1600 AD, especially for a guy who had gone out of his way to insist his beliefs were not an alternative theological hypothesis but that they were facts that the Catholic Church and Protestants needed to recognize.

Martyr for science? For free thought? Only if you think psychics are too - but skeptics who swallow public relations revisionism of Bruno without any hesitation deride Psychic Sally without any evidence at all. Credit and link:

Much is made by secular cultural pundits about his insider status as as a friar - as if the Catholic Church turned on anyone inside its ranks who did science - ummm, all science was done by religious people then. He was actually turned on by everyone, he was the rare trifecta - triple excommunicated, from the Catholics, the Calvinists and the Lutherans - and he once had to hide in the French embassy in England because he was a crackpot on every level and was forced to scramble every time people had enough of him. When it came to joining religions, he would take their vows, believing none of it, and then immediately start denying their precepts and talking about the occult.  That the Dominicans endured him for over a decade is testament to their belief in Grace, not his being accepted.

He believed demons caused disease. And taught it. That was not the work of a rational person, even in the 16th century. 

Obviously some religious people did object to anything that smacked of the idea that we orbited the Sun - but that wasn't Catholics either, it was Lutherans. And today, when people talk about anti-science religious people who believe in a 6,000-year-old Earth they are still talking about Protestants, at least in America. Tarring all religious people with that 'creationist' designation is silly - and dishonest.

In the anti-Catholic segment of Italy in the late 19th century, Bruno got his 'martyr' for science label - by people who had never read anything he wrote, they just read he was killed. Support for him began after anti-Catholic sentiment swept through Europe after the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and someone found that the church had once actually killed someone claiming to care about science. His books were and are unreadable so modern secular humanists gloss over his pseudoscience and instead say he was a martyr for 'freethought' - the same people who debunk psychics have embraced an astrologer because he was a 'free thinker'? The people who deny religion have embraced a occult guy who insisted demons cause diseases? Yes, Italy's largest free thought organization is named after a man who embraced nonsense and who did nothing for science except make Galileo nervous by getting Copernican theory lumped in with him.  Basically, 400 years from now Bigfoot believers will be extolled as freethinkers using that rationale.

J. M. Robertson provides a suitable example of revisionist silliness bordering on hero worship,  calling Bruno “the typical martyr of modern freethought. He may be conceived as a blending of the pantheistic and naturalistic lore of ancient Greece, assimilated through the Florentine Platonists, with the spirit of modern science (itself a revival of the Greek) as it first takes firm form in Copernicus, whose doctrine Bruno early and ardently embraced.”

Well, he didn't, he couldn't even understand Copernicus, it just jibed with his Hermetism.

As Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, notes, the people behind the misguided pandering who used Bruno in their culture war were looking to tear Italy apart in lots of other ways - within a generation it became a fascist state.

Oddly, while wise people have obviously cast off the similar beliefs of the period, they hang on to Bruno. People who embrace him as a martyr today - unless they are Leviticus-style wizards - are engaged in their own idolatry and lacking the basic skepticism regarding their own icons that they show about UFO abductees.


(1) Though I pick Francisco Redi as creating the first real science experiment.
(2) Gribbin, John. The Scientists, New York, New York, Random House, 2002, p.17
(3) And while the Inquisition is hyped up a lot - terrible acts over hundreds of years are portrayed as ongoing, common events - what is left out is that in Venice it was darn difficult to get convicted. Most everyone was acquitted, just say 'sorry for worshipping Zool' or whatever. Bruno really outdid himself by forcing them to kill him.