Giordano Bruno and Cosmos

The trial of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition

The trial of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition, by Ettore Ferrari. Picture: Wikipedia.

Recently the TV series Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, was launched on TV screens around the world. I didn’t watch it (we don’t have pay TV) but the first episode generated some controversy, with critics arguing it got some of its facts badly wrong.

A not so hidden agenda?

At the centre of the controversy was a segment of the show that outlined the life, beliefs and death of an eccentric 16th century Italian intellect, Giordano Bruno. Cosmos, while admitting Bruno’s eccentricities, apparently portrayed him as a martyr for science in the war against superstition and the church.

Neil deGrasse Tyson apparently made this purpose very clear when interviewed for Nettavisen when he said several times: “Without religion, we’d have been 1000 years more developed”. (No, I can’t read Norwegian either, but you can check this using Google Translate.)

Only trouble is, the historians say Cosmos has got its historical facts wrong.

Giordano Bruno – a troubled life

The facts of his life are fairly well known. A priest for many years, his original and sometimes bizarre thoughts got him into trouble several times with church authorities. He left Italy and travelled Europe for years, gaining support and protection from various patrons. He developed some original ideas on cosmology, mnemonics, theology, mathematics and philosophy, and published a number of works which gained him both respect and notoriety, particularly for his views on astrology.

Unfortunately Bruno had a way of alienating friends with abrasive comments. Eventually he returned to Italy, and was eventually put on trial for heresy. The main charges were theological, but his support for the “plurality of worlds” was one of the charges. He was apparently willing to concede some of the theological matters, but not all. After 7 years of being tried by the Inquisition and refusing to fully recant, he was burned at the stake in 1600, aged 52.

Bruno and science

Bruno is associated with the Copernican revolution, but he wasn’t a scientist. He had some original, and sometimes perceptive views on cosmology, but they were mixed up with strange beliefs on astrology and the occult. His views on cosmology were no more ‘heretical’ than those of many other natural philosophers (they weren’t called ‘scientists’ back then) of his day, such as Copernicus, Kepler and Brahe.

The conflict thesis

The ‘conflict thesis’ is the idea that the church, or religion generally, has always opposed science and impeded its progress. It’s often used to justify the view that religion and science are totally incompatible. It was taught by several prominent historians a century or so ago.

However modern historians say it is more wrong than right.

Why historians have rejected the conflict thesis.

The conflict thesis is, in essence, a misrepresentation of history. The church did have an argument with Galileo and did behave badly towards him, but many of the early natural philosophers were clerics supported by the church. Overall, most historians seem to judge that the medieval church assisted science more than opposed it.

Perhaps the best discussion of these issues is in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by eminent historian of science, Ronald Numbers, where various authors show that the conflict thesis is a myth:

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

Michael Shank, University of Wisconsin-Madison

one cannot recount the history of modern science without acknowledging the crucial importance of Christianity

Noah Efron, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

What commentators are saying

People have mixed views about Bruno. Some think he was a crackpot, others think he is at least interesting, while others think he was a wayward genius. I think there is a little truth in all those perspectives.

But commentators generally agree on three things about Bruno and Cosmos:

  1. The church treated Bruno very badly. No-one deserves to die for disagreeing about basically theological matters, and burning at the stake is a particularly barbaric and inhuman way to execute anyone. I believe Jesus’ teachings imply something close to pacifism, and I am opposed to capital punishment in any form. The Catholic Church has apparently expressed regret and made a general apology about some aspects of the Inquisition, but nothing very specific.
  2. Bruno was not a martyr for science. The conflict thesis is unhistorical and Bruno’s condemnation was only peripherally related to any supposed church opposition to science. Overall, the church was not opposed to science.
  3. Cosmos misrepresented the episode to make a philosophical point. Ironically, Cosmos is aimed at promoting science and the search for truth, but it used an untruthful version of history to do this. If the program was willing to sacrifice truth for polemic in this case, how can a viewer trust it at other times?

    Apparently some commentators who support the Cosmos take on the conflict thesis argued that the program was justified in pointing out the church’s coercive behaviour. But most commentators disagreed, arguing that this was a program about science, not the Catholic Church, and the program was misleading.

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  1. While anyone supports any form of religion there will always be a point of ultimate conflict when science will be forced to go toe to toe.

    Whether it be fighting against flat earthers to certain other silly religious claims that now abound after the apparent confirmation of the Big Bang.

    Science has slowly but surely bested them all.
    I don’t anticipate much fallout from this episode of Cosmos, and I doubt very much that Tyson has lost a wink of sleep either.

  2. Trust me, the Bruno cartoon is every bit as cartoonish. Moustaches, same mock Italian accents, exaggerated prisons, implausible plot, you won’t miss a thing! πŸ˜‰

  3. “If the program was willing to sacrifice truth for polemic in this case, how can a viewer trust it at other times?”

    Could not the same be said about Christianity over its 2000 year history , unkleE ? The Crusades, The Inquisitions, etc. There are too many to mention here. Using your logic, how could it possibly be trusted ?

  4. Hi Ken, I actually agree with you – it could quite justifiably be said about christianity. But I don’t believe in christianity – the institution of the church, the things people do in the supposed name of Jesus – I believe in Jesus. And I don’t think it can be said of him, or of people when they are following his teachings and example. Thanks for the comment.

  5. unkleE,

    It’s always nice to see some agreement once in a while. I will make note of this date.


  6. I believe in Jesus. And I don’t think it can be said of him, or of people when they are following his teachings and example. Thanks for the comment.

    As it was the Church that was instrumental in compiling the New Testament, how can you afford the scripture any more respect or credence, especially knowing how much of the text has been ( I’ll be polite) arranged to better promote Church ideology, and where quite a number of experts have agreed that much of what is claimed to be attributed to Jesus ( what he said as well as what he did ) is in fact gravely suspect, and in some cases outright fiction?

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