There’s something thrilling about how, five centuries ago, the rebel monk Martin Luther defied his accusers. At a council (‘Diet’) in the German city of Worms in 1521, his safety and possibly his life were on the line. But this – his supporters avowed – was how he concluded his defence before the representatives of the pope Leo X:
"I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand, may God help me."
You have to admit he showed more guts than Galileo did a century later when the Catholic church insisted that he recant on his support for the heliocentric cosmos of Copernicus. Galileo, elderly and cowed by the veiled threat of torture, did what the cardinals ordered. The legend has it that he muttered “Still it [the earth] moves” as he rose from kneeling is probably apocryphal.
Yet is there any link between these two challenges to the authority of Rome? Protestantism was launched five hundred years ago this month when Luther, an Augustinian cleric, allegedly nailed his 95 “theses” to the church door in Wittenberg. Was it this theological revolution that turned the intellectual tide, ushering in the so-called Scientific Revolution that kicked off with Galileo?
Asking that question is, even now, a good way to spark an argument between historians. They don’t, in general, threaten one another with excommunication, the rack and the pyre – but the debate can still be as heated as arguments between Catholics and Protestants.
Yet it’s probably not only futile but also beside the point to ask who is right. The debate highlights how, at the dawn of early modern science, what people thought about the natural world was inflected by what they thought about tradition, knowledge and religion. It makes no sense to regard the Scientific Revolution as an invention of a few bright sparks, independent of other social and cultural forces. And while narratives with heroes and villains might make for good stories, they are usually bad history.
Disenchanting the world
The idea that science was boosted by Protestantism was fueled by a 1938 book by historian Robert Merton, who argued argued that an English strand of the religious movement called Puritanism helped foster science in England in the seventeenth century, such as the work of Isaac Newton and his peers at the Royal Society. “From the 1960s to the 80s, historians of science endlessly and inconclusively debated the Merton thesis”, says historian of science David Wootton of the University of York. “Those debates have fallen quiet, but the assumption is still widespread that Protestant religion and the new science were somehow inextricably intertwined.”
Merton’s idea tied in with a widespread perception of those early Protestants as progressive. That view in turn stemmed from early twentieth-century sociologist Max Weber’s argument that Western capitalism arose from the “Protestant work ethic”. In particular, says historian of science and religion Sachiko Kusukawa of the University of Cambridge, Weber proposed “what is now called the ‘disenchantment’ thesis – the idea that Protestants got rid of ‘superstition’”.
But this picture of Protestants as open forward-thinkers and Catholics as conservative, anti-science reactionaries is an old myth that has long been rejected by experts, says Kusukawa. She says this black-and-white view of the Catholic church was shaped by two 19th-century Americans with an agenda: educator Andrew Dickson White and chemist John William Draper. The Draper-White thesis, which presented science and religion as historical enemies, was consciously constructed by distorting history, and historians have been debunking it ever since.
In one view, then, religion was pretty irrelevant. “The Scientific Revolution would have gone ahead with or without the Reformation”, Wootton asserts. Historian and writer James Hannam agrees, saying that “evidence that the Reformation had any material effect on the rise of science is almost impossible to isolate from other effects.”
But historian Peter Harrison of the University of Queensland counters that “the Protestant Reformation was an important factor in the Scientific Revolution”. The Puritan religious values of some English Protestants, he says, “gave legitimacy to the scientific endeavour when it needed it.”
“No matter how much historical evidence and argumentation is brought in to oppose any such claims”, says historian of science John Henry of Edinburgh University, “there always remains an unshakable feeling that, after all, there really is something to the thesis that Protestantism stimulated scientific development.”
The Draper-White “conflict thesis” between science and religion still has advocates today, especially among scientists. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has proposed that “if after the fall of Rome atheism [and not Christianity] had pervaded the Western world, science would have developed earlier and be far more advanced than it is now.”
Not only is this sheer speculation though; it also demands a highly selective view of the interactions between science and religion in history. It’s true that Christian worship was, for many people in the Renaissance, surrounded by what even priests of that time considered superstition. The communion host was believed to have magical healing powers, and the magic incantation “Hocus pocus” is suspected to be a corruption of the ecclesiastical Latin “Hoc est corpus meum”: This is my body.
But Catholic and Protestant theologians alike lamented this muddying of Christian doctrine by folk beliefs. Plenty of them saw no real conflict between their religious convictions and the study of the physical world. Some of the best astronomers in Italy in the early seventeenth century were Catholic Jesuits, such as the German Christopher Clavius and the Italian Orazio Grassi. What’s more, the church raised little objection to Nicolaus Copernicus’s book De revolutionibus, which challenged the earth-centred picture of the cosmos described by Ptolemy of Alexandria in the 2nd century AD, when it was published in 1543. Copernicus himself was a Catholic canon in Frombork (now in Poland), and he dedicated the book to the pope, Paul III.
Questioning the traditional knowledge about the world taught at the universities – the natural philosophy and of Aristotle, Hippocrates, Ptolemy, Galen and other ancient Greek and Roman writers – began well before the Reformation got underway. And that challenge was initiated largely in Italy, the seat of the Roman church, by late fifteenth-century scholars like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola.
These men questioned whether something was true just because it was written in an old book. They and others started to argue that the most reliable way to get knowledge was from direct experience: to look for yourself. That view was supported by the sixteenth-century Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus, who even in his lifetime some called the “Luther of medicine”. Again it was in Italy that this recourse to experience – and ultimately to something resembling the idea of experiment – was often to be found. The physician Andreas Vesalius conducted human dissections (about which officials in Vesalius’s Padua were quite permissive) which led him to dispute Galen’s anatomy in his seminal 1543 book De humani corporis fabrica. In Naples in the 1550s, the polymath Giambattista della Porta began to experiment with lenses and optics, and he pretty much described the telescope well before Galileo, hearing of this instrument invented in Holland, made one to survey the heavens. Della Porta was persuaded in his old age to join the select group of young Italian natural philosophers called the Academy of Lynxes, of which Galileo also became a member.
It’s not hard, then, to build up a narrative of the emergence of science that makes barely any connection with the religious upheavals of the Reformation: leading from the Renaissance humanism of Ficino, through Vesalius to Galileo and early ‘scientific societies’, and culminating in the Scientific Revolution and the Royal Society in London, with luminaries like Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton whose discoveries are still used in science today.
But – this is history after all – it wasn’t that simple. “It would be remarkable if the tumultuous religious upheavals of the sixteenth century, and the subsequent schism between Catholics and Protestants, did not leave an indelible mark on an emerging modern science”, says Harrison. “So the real question is not whether these events influenced the rise of modern science, but how.”
The Draper-White thesis relied on a caricature of history, particularly in regard to Galileo. The way the church treated him was surely appalling, but today historians recognize that a less provocative person might well have got away with publishing his heliocentric views. It didn’t help, for example, that the simpleton defending the old Ptolemaic universe in the book that caused all the trouble, Galileo’s Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632), was a thinly veiled portrait of (among others) the pope Urban VIII.
Not only did some Catholics study and support what we’d now call science – as various clerics had done throughout the Middle Ages – but there’s no reason to think that the Protestants were intrinsically more progressive or “scientific”. Martin Luther himself had a rather low opinion of Copernicus, whose ideas on the cosmos he heard about from other scholars in Wittenberg before De revolutionibus was published. Copernicus’s manuscript was patiently coaxed out of him by Georg Joachim Rheticus, a mathematician who was appointed at the University of Wittenberg by Luther’s righthand man Philip Melanchthon. Rheticus brought the book back from Frombork for publication in Nuremberg. Yet Luther called Copernicus a fool who sought “to reverse the entire science of astronomy”. What, Luther scoffed, about the Biblical story in which Joshua commanded the sun – and not the earth – to stand still?
For him, religious faith trumped everything. If anyone dared suggest that articles of Christian faith defied reason, Luther would blast them with stuff like this: “The Virgin birth was unreasonable; so was the Resurrection; so were the Gospels, the sacraments, the pontifical prerogatives, and the promise of life everlasting.” Reason, he argued, “is the devil’s harlot”. It was hubris and blasphemy to suppose that one could decode God’s handiwork. Men should not understand; they should only believe.
Martin Luther wasn’t after all seeking to reform natural philosophy, but Christian theology. He had seen how the Roman church was corrupt: practicing nepotism (especially in the infamous reign of the Borgia popes in the late fifteenth century), bewitching believers by intoning in a Latin that they didn’t understand, and making salvation contingent on the capricious authority of priests. Luther watched in dismay as the church raised funds by selling “indulgences”: documents guaranteeing the holder (or their relatives) time off the mild discomfort of Purgatory before being admitted to Heaven. Luther became convinced that salvation could be granted not by priests but by God alone, and that it was a private affair between God and believers that didn’t need the intervention of the clergy.
One particularly controversial issue (though it doesn’t seem terribly important to Catholic/Protestant tribal conflict today) was transubstantiation: the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the ritual of communion. Luther maintained that this was largely a symbolic transformation, not a literal one. His objection to Aristotle’s natural philosophy – usually dogmatically asserted at the universities – was not so much because he thought it was scientifically wrong but because it was used (some might say misused) to defend the Catholic view of transubstantiation.
After the fall
As far as the effects of Protestantism on science are concerned, Harrison warns that “any simple story is likely to be wrong.” For one thing, there was never a single Reformation. Protestantism took root in Luther’s Germany, then a mosaic of small kingdoms and city-states, where eventually the religious and political tensions boiled over into the devastating Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. But a separate religious revolt, sharing many of Luther’s convictions, happened in the Swiss cantons in the 1530s led by the reformers Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich and Jean Calvin in Geneva. England’s break from the Roman church in the same decade had quite different origins: Henry VIII, having denounced Luther in the 1520s, was piqued by being denied a papal divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and he passed laws that led to the establishment of the Anglican church.
All of these movements had their own doctrines and politics, so it’s far too simplistic to portray Protestants as progressive and Catholics as repressive. Both sides saw radical new ideas in philosophy they didn’t like. But Catholics were more successful in suppressing them, says Henry, because they’d been around longer and had a more well-oiled machinery of censorship. “No doubt Luther and Calvin would have liked to have a similar set-up to the Inquisition and the Index [of banned books], but they just didn’t”, Henry says. “So a natural philosopher living in a Protestant country could get away with things that a philosopher living in a Catholic country could not.”
Galileo’s Dialogue, for example, was smuggled to the Elzevirs, a Dutch printing family (the origin of Elsevier Publishing) in Protestant Amsterdam, who were free to publish it in the face of the Inquisition. “I’ve no doubt any number of Italian printers would have published it if they thought they’d get away with it”, says Henry. By the same token, the philosopher René Descartes, himself a good Catholic but unsettled by Galileo’s fate, moved from France to the Netherlands before publishing his ideas on atomism, which he knew would get him into trouble with the Inquisition because of what it might seem to imply for transubstantiation.
But if you think this supports the “progressive” reputation of Protestantism, consider the case of Spanish physician Michael Servetus, who discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood from the right to left ventricle via the lungs. He was imprisoned in Catholic France for his supposedly heretical religious views, but he managed to escape and fled to Geneva, on his way to Italy. There the Calvinists decided he was a heretic too – Servetus had previously argued bitterly with Calvin on points of doctrine – and they burnt him at the stake.
Despite such outrages, Henry thinks that Luther and his followers did stimulate a wider questioning of authority – including that of the ancient natural philosophers. “Luther spoke of a priesthood of all believers, and encouraged every man to read the Bible for himself”, he says (for which reason Luther made a printed vernacular translation in German: see Box). “This does seem to have stimulated Protestant intellectuals to reject the authority of the ancient Greeks approved of by the Catholic church. So they began to read what was called ‘God’s other book’ – the book of nature – for themselves”.
“Protestants do seem to have contributed more to observational and empirical science,” Henry adds. Johannes Kepler, sometimes called the “Luther of astronomy”, was one such; his mentor Tycho Brahe was another. (Both men, however, served as court astronomers for the unusually tolerant Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague.) Harrison agrees that the Reformation could have “promoted a questioning of traditional authorities in a way that opened up possibilities for new forms of knowledge or new institutions for the pursuit of knowledge”.
That questioning mixed science with religion, though. For Protestants, the problem with Aristotle wasn’t merely his outright, demonstrable errors about how the world works, but that, as a pre-Christian, he had failed to factor in the consequences of the Fall of Man. This left humankind with diminished moral, cognitive and sensory capacities. “It is impossible that nature could be understood by human reason after the fall of Adam”, Luther wrote.
Yet after such views were filtered through seventeenth-century Anglicanism, they left Robert Hooke concluding that what we need are scientific instruments such as the microscope to make up for our defects. Systematic science, in the view of Francis Bacon, whose ideas were central to the approach of the Royal Society, could be a corrective, letting us recover the understanding and mastery of the world enjoyed by Adam. It was unwise to place too much trust in our naïve senses: careful observation and reason, as well as questioning and skepticism, were needed to get past the “common sense” view that the sun circled the earth. “Genesis narratives of creation and Fall motivated scientific activity, which came to be understood as a redemptive process that would both restore nature and extend human dominion over it”, says Harrison.
Bacon’s view of a scientific utopia, sketched out in New Atlantis (1627), portrayed a society ruled by a brotherhood of scientist-priests who wrought fantastical inventions. This was decidedly Protestant vision was nurtured in the court of Frederick V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine and head of the Protestant Union of German states, whose marriage to the daughter of James I of England cemented the alliance between England and the German Protestants. Frederick was offered the Bohemian crown by Protestant rebels in 1619, and when he was defeated by the Catholic Hapsburgs of Spain the following year, some Protestant scholars fled to England. Among them was Samuel Hartlib, who published his own utopian blueprint in 1641. He befriended John Wilkins and other founders of the Royal Society, and like Bacon he imagined a scientific brotherhood dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Hartlib called it an Invisible College, the term that Robert Boyle later used for the incipient Royal Society. For the Anglican Boyle, scientific investigation was a religious duty: we had an obligation to understand the world God had made.
What’s God got to do with it?
Boyle’s view was shared by some of his contemporaries – like John Ray, sometimes called the father of English botany, who argued that every creature is evidence of God’s design. “The over-riding emphasis among Lutherans was the importance of God’s ‘Providence’ – foresight and planning – in creation”, says Kusukawa.
Yet much the same view can be found among Catholics too. “In the book of nature things are written in only one way”, wrote Galileo – and that way was “in the language of mathematics.” Some of the cardinals who condemned him would have gladly agreed.
So did the theological disagreements really matter much for science? Any differences between the two sides’ outlook on natural philosophy were “actually relatively trivial”, says Hannam. “If radical religious thinkers in both directions, as well as middle-of-the-road conformers like Galileo, are all united in being very important natural philosophers, it is hard to see how their particular religious beliefs have much relevance.” What they shared was more important than how they differed: namely, a belief in a universe created by a consistent God who created laws that let it run as smooth as clockwork.
It’s not, then, science per se that’s at issue here, but authority. Galileo’s assertion that the Bible is not meant to be a book of natural philosophy was relatively uncontroversial to all but a few; today’s fundamentalism that denies evolution and the age of the earth is a peculiarly modern delusion. No one – not Copernicus, Galileo, Newton or Boyle – denied what Luther and the popes believed, which is that the ultimate authority lies with God. The arguments were about how best to represent and honour Him on earth, and not so much about the kind of earth He had made.
However you answer it, asking if the Reformation played a part in the birth of modern science shows that the interactions of science and religion in the past have been far more complex than a mutual antagonism. The Reformation and what followed from it makes a mockery of the idea that the Christian religion is a fixed, monolithic and unquestioning entity in contrast to science’s perpetual doubt and questioning. There were broad-minded proto-scientists, as well as reactionaries, amongst both Protestants and Catholics. Perhaps it doesn’t much matter what belief system you have, so much as what you do with it.
Box: Information Revolutions
There’s plenty to debate about whether Martin Luther was more “modern” than his papal accusers, but he sure caught on quickly to the possibility of the printing press for spreading his message of religious reform. His German translation of the New Testament, printed in 1522, sold out within a month. His supporters printed pamphlets and broadsheets announcing Luther’s message of salvation through faith alone, and criticizing the corruption of Rome.
Johannes Gutenberg, a metalworker by trade in the German city of Mainz, may have thought up the idea of a press with movable type as early as the 1430s, but it wasn’t until the early 1450s that he had a working machine. Naturally, one of the first books he printed was the Bible – it was still very pricey, but much less so than the hand-copied editions that were the sole previous source. Thanks to court disputes about ownership of the press, Gutenberg never made a fortune from his invention. But others later did, and print publication was thriving by the time of the Reformation.
Historian Elizabeth Eisenstein argued in her 1979 book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change that, by allowing information to be spread widely throughout European culture, the invention of printing transformed society, enabling the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. It not only disseminated but standardized knowledge, Eisenstein said, and so allowed the possibility of scientific consensus.
David Wootton agrees that printing was an important factor in the emergence of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. “The printing press brought about an information revolution”, he says. “Instead of commenting on a few canonical texts, intellectuals learnt to navigate whole libraries of information. In the process they invented the modern idea of the fact: reliable information that could be checked and tested.”
If so, what might be effect of the modern revolution in digital information, often compared to Gutenberg’s “disruptive” technology? Is it now destabilizing facts by making it so easy to communicate misinformation and “fake news”? Does it, in allegedly democratic projects like Wikipedia, challenge “old authorities”? Or is it creating a new hegemony, with Google and Facebook in place of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the scientific and technical literature – or, in an earlier age, of Aristotle and the church?