The Medieval Gap and New Atheists Today

What New Atheist authors won’t admit about the Middle Ages.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

@TedDavis @Steve_Snobelen

Very helpful article. Regarding the point that no one was ever burned at the stake by the Church because of science: Giordano Bruno is often held up as poster child for this sort of thing. It might be worth explaining why his death by burning doesn’t count as a martyr for science, since at least part of his “crimes of heresy” had to do with Copernican ideas.

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IMO, once you’re calmly discussing whether someone was burned alive for “heresy” based on “science” or not, and quibbling about just how much the victim’s sympathy with heliocentrism played into their gruesome murder… you are helping the world see one thing that’s really creepy about religion.


How about “some forms of religion”? Or even “religion as it has (regrettably) been practiced all too often”? It seems to be a bit of a broad brush stroke to imply that as an essential component of religion.


Was it really burned at the stake for religion, or was it burned at the stake for power?

In this case, as in most cases, I think the answer is “power.”


Ideas have power. Plenty of political structures have murdered people for espousing contrary views to the dominant paradigm of the day. ‘Talking treason’ was traditionally considered one of the worst crimes there was.

I’ll happily approve your edits. And then say that there’s never a bad time to stop and ask what it means that your religion used to think it perfectly normal to burn people alive for believing stuff. Today you don’t burn people, but casually discuss “heresy,” a word that meant gruesome death not so long ago.

I note that here on BL, you and your colleagues are far more likely to be labeled with the H word than you are to even use it. Good on you. But then you call the people who gladly do this “brothers and sisters.” The people who stood and watched others slowly burn to death you call “great cloud of witnesses.” The systems that led to people being labeled “anathema” you call “theology.” Potentially fatal denunciations of the religious beliefs of others are enshrined as “confessions,” and whole Christian denominations require signed fealty to these fulminations as conditions of employment.

Maybe just a little more often, discussions of Bruno’s diabolical execution will include some reflection on its monstrosity, in place of pained apologetics in service of the indefensible.

I’m very sorry for my original comment. I did not intend to discuss heresy casually, but I see it might be interpreted that way. I was genuinely interested in the historians’ reasons for not mentioning Bruno in the piece. It was an awful episode in church history, and one that should not be smoothed over or forgotten.


I dunno. I think some cranky old atheist jumped all over you. Thanks for the apology but I didn’t think you needed to apologize. XXOO

Thank you, Jim–of course the lion’s share of the credit properly belongs to Steve Snobelen.

I actually gave this historian’s answer (a brief version of it) in the comments to another recent column. There I reviewed the facts of the matter, as follows: “Bruno was questioned on 34 specific matters. A document from the trial listing all of these was found in 1942. The summary of the questioning contains 261 paragraphs in all. There was indeed much interest in his position on the plurality of worlds (16 paragraphs) and some interest in his position on the eternity of the world (10 paragraphs), which of course had been taught by Aristotle and denied in the famous condemnation of 1277. No other properly scientific topics are among the other 34 topics, and even those two questions were at least as much philosophical/theological as they were scientific. This should suffice by itself to refute the claim that he was burned for making certain scientific claims. Take those 26 paragraphs out and you still have everything else.”

To see the context for this information, readers should review the comments to

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40 posts were split to a new topic: Historians making judgments about awful acts in history (burning heretics, A-bombs, etc)

Yes, people often end up with false dichotomies. I could just as easily argue that Bruno was neither a martyr for science nor a martyr for theology. One must understand the cultures and mindsets of the Middle Ages. Bruno made everyone angry. No side would claim him. Most of all he was an eccentric who managed to irritate everybody. And he did so at a time when it was dangerous to be eccentric. Just as in many parts of the world today, failing to go along with the rest of society was a good way to get yourself jailed. (And tolerating an eccentric could offend God, supposedly—or offend the gods of nature, if one still secretly harbored those beliefs.) And because civil rights and justice was such a nebulous concept, it was easy for someone with eccentric ideas and who liked to step on toes to get themselves in big trouble.

That’s what happened with Bruno.

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@jstump, indeed!

When I see someone writing a chapter on why a religious organization should not be vilified for its stance on science … because the man was burned to death because of what he said about the Bible … I get creeped out pretty darn fast.

I think it would be just as appropriate for we here to condemn any religious organization - - of a specific time and place (including the Swiss Calvinists) - - which would execute a man because of what he said about a book … any book … even if the book is the Bible.

A crime is no less a crime if it perpetrated for religious provocations instead of for scientific ones.

@sfmatheson, Exactly! It makes a reader doubt those who defend science. Yes, it’s important to get our history correct in tone and content.

But to hear such fierce venom aimed at Sagan, and aimed at those who would write in error while supporting Bruno, it makes readers wonder just why this is so heinous an infraction. It’s not as if Bruno was erroneously reported to be burned alive . . . while in fact lolling around on the beaches of some spa island.

Getting upset about someone being upset about Bruno’s execution seems to be in poor taste… when the only part that might be wrong in the narrative is that Bruno died for daring to question the interpretation of the Bible … instead of for his interest in natural philosophy!

Dear all,
In the previous post I have uploaded a revised timeline for the history of science that fills in the Medieval Gap. Although it is most directly a response to Carl Sagan’s 1000-year white space, dealt with the in the previous post, the new chart can be seen as a response to any articulation of the Medieval Gap, including those mentioned in this post.
Best wishes,