“If you step outside on a warm clear night and look up, what do you see? Imagine answering that question 400 years ago. What did people see then, gazing at the stars? It is remarkable that in seeing the same thing we see today, they nevertheless saw a different universe with a completely different set of meanings both in itself and for their own personal lives. This marks a highly significant fact: that at the beginning of the seventeenth century the mind – the mentality, the world-view – of our best-educated and most thoughtful forbears was still fundamentally continuous with that of their own antique and medieval predecessors; but by the end of that century it had become modern. This striking fact means that the seventeenth century is a very special period in human history”
– A C Grayling
THE BIRTH OF THE MODERN MIND
Without question the 17th century was an age of genius where science and reason began to flourish. It was, however, also a historic period of destruction and chaos brought about by the break from Rome and religious orthodoxy and created a war of 30 years duration.
Not merely from our perspective does the 17th century appear a revolutionary time. The people living through this epoch were fully aware of the change in a once brutally enforced, repressed mind-set.
Jeremiah Horrocks and William Crabtree were two such men and must have been full of euphoric excitement when, on 24th October 1639, they made a scientific observation: a transit of Venus – that is, when Venus’s passage across the sun is clearly visible. Horrocks had worked out the date of the transit by studying Kepler’s Rudolphine tables of planetary motion, published 12 years to begin with. A definitive example of testing a theory by observation. Imagine two amateurs waiting in an attic, to determine the proof of Copernicus’ system – and by significant implication, a universe different from the portrayal in traditional beliefs. The emotions of the two men would be easily known to science: the exhilaration of seeing an empirical confirmation of the theory.
The earliest evidence for systemic astronomy is the 25,000 year old Ishango bone found at the source of the Nile. Babylonian charts 22,000 years later, record the centuries of stargazing and meticulous note taking. The Mesopotamian charts were the basis for astrological divination, but when Thales used them in the 6th Century BCE, it was for genuine science and not prophesy.
Thales used the data to predict a solar eclipse on 28th May 585 BCE
Then in the 17th Century Copernicus and Kepler began the great modern revolution in understanding the Universe. Darwin two centuries later completed the adjustments in man’s ego-geography by displacing him in the summit of creation.
What a change! Man was removed from both the centre of the cosmos and the summit of creation, to a little rock on the outer suburbs of an ordinary galaxy, among billions of galaxies, and to a place at the back of the queue in biological life on that rock.
Finally, in the 17th century people were able to once again use their two most important tools: the naked eye and reason. They were once again free to use them, free from the limiting and dangerous impositions of religious orthodoxy. Humanities problem, then and for some now, is its tendency to think the older the belief, the more authentic and infallible it is. Inherited religious beliefs of humanities ignorance – ignorances which produced creation stories and legendary belief systems in large numbers.
THE THIRTY YEARS WAR
The last major religious conflict in Europe and the last-ditch attempt for the Catholic domination of said continent was the 30 years war. When the war eventually ended with the ‘Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, people finally grasped the futility of putting their beliefs of the mind to the judgement of the weapon. They rejected religion as an object to fight for, sadly this is not the event for some devotees of Islam today.
WITCHCRAFT AND HERESY
DO NOT SUFFER A WITCH TO LIVE
Regrettably, with most religions, they are like wild animals and lash out when cornered and under threat. As all religions, they pick on the weakest in society (usually women) and those who question or are in direct dispute with their belief systems – namely atheists.
The lists of ‘heretics’ persecuted by the Catholic church are too long to get into here, but one who sticks in my mind is: Lucilio Vanini – executed in February 1619, for being an ‘atheist and a blasphemer’. He proceeded to his death in Toulouse and as usual for the catholic church, gruesomely, his tongue was cut out, he was then strangled and burned. A victim (one of many) of the church’s intolerance of opinions that conflicted with their doctrine.
The point is a religion is weak when it needs to stamp out argument simply because it has no standing in truth and has to apply brute force to perpetuate its will. I say again religion is a man made weapon of control.. Nothing more, nothing less.
At the height of the witch trials between 1580-1630, the worst excesses were in Wurzurg and Bamburg. The Wurzburg trials resulted in 900 executions and in Bamburg 600.The trials followed the Catholic reconquests of Protestant territories and were inspired by the Jesuits and ‘ Prince-bishops’ of the Holy Roman Empire, who ruled small states.
When Baden was reconquered for Catholicism by Tilly in 1627, the persecution of witches lasted two solid years.
Eichstatt, Reichertshofen, Coblenz, Mainz and Cologne received the same treatment of religious fervor. The mass hysteria caused by the church fell on everyone, including minors, some as young as seven were executed!
As the Catholic church attempted to stem the tide of reformation, Galileo published his ‘ Dialogue Concerning The Two World Systems’ in 1632, which led to his arrest and forced recantation. In the history of scientific discipline and religion his arrest is one of the key moments, the last great push by the church to stem the advance of science.
The book was placed on the ‘Index of Forbidden Books’ in the company with almost all the worlds greatest or most important literature. The church finally revoked its condemnation of Galileo in 1992. Took them long enough, right?
One of the forgotten features of Galileo’s trial was that his accusers refused to look through his telescope because they knew they would see something that could not exist, the bible said so. He was sentenced to a life in prison, commuted to house arrest and had imposed upon him, a lifelong ban on discussing science.
PEACE TREATY OF WESTPHALIA 1648
The Treaty of Westphalia was signed on 24th October 1648, it left behind a death toll estimated at 11,800,000 across Europe (including a third of the German population), there was no clear winner.
A domino game of land transfers was initiated. The constitutional power of the Holy Roman Empire was loosened and made incoherent by the grant of liberties of the vassal princes. Secularisation of estates which had been returned to Catholicism during the war resulted, on the proviso that no more such secularization of Catholic territories would occur.
The Pope needless to say was not a happy man, he condemned the treaty. Of course, a papal bull, no longer had the effect it did in Medieval Europe and the Pope’s blast changed nothing. The Catholic aim of recovering Europe for its variation of Christianity had been defeated and there would be no chance of it ever regaining its power again. The Pope had been effectively sterilized.
CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS GOES ON
Pascal was a prodigy, a brilliant mathematician, whose work in probability theory is lasting. He was also an amateur theologian, whose ‘Pensees’ published after his death, were far more admired for their beauty of prose than their feeble arguments. It is interesting to note that Pascal felt it necessary to defend Christianity against the growing unbelief of the age.
In the early history of the church, apologetical literature was written by Origen, Augustine and Tertullian among others, in an effort to win over a skeptical age. By the medieval period, apologetics was unnecessary, because by then it was a criminal offense not to believe these doctrines.
However, the success of the revolution in mindset in the 17th century after Pascal’s, numerous books appear on ‘evidence for Christianity’. William Paley’s ‘ Evidences’ being the most widely read – in more recent times G K Chesterton and C S Lewis have attempted the same.
One of the lines of the ‘Pensees’, is ‘even if there is only a tiny probability there is a god, it is in one’s interest to believe, because the benefit of doing so is infinitely great, whereas if one is wrong the loss is merely finite.’ Voltaire acidly remarked that if there is a god and one’s reason for belief in it is a profit and loss calculation,the deity would not be impressed.
By today most people concede the age of the earth is approx 4.5 billion years. Deep sediments in Canada and Greenland contain an abundance of isotopes, which give empirical evidence to support this hypothesis.
This hypothesis is completely unreachable from a world view according to religious orthodoxy, which invented a magical creation event which makes the universe a tiny 6,000 year old human being centered place.
Of course, this narrow-minded world view is not obligatory on pain of death as it was in the early 17th century, but some like to hold on to their ignorance. No matter they have the fruits of so much science and the labours of our ancestors to assert it. For all the enlightened ones out there, here is a roll call of just a few to be admired and researched…
Cervantes, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Pepys, Racine, Moliere, Scarron, Descartes, Bacon, Grotius, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Liebniz, Pascal, Galileo, Gassendi, Kepler, Hooke, Wren, Boyle, Roche,Newton, Tradescent, Lyte, Poussin, Caravaggio, Rubens, El Greco, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Buxtehude, Parcell, Wilby and many more artistically and scientifically.
The bible holds believers who do not know science and who need to hold onto the allegories that give explanation and hope.
The solution is not the bible, it is, and always has been education…
Leviathan – Thomas Hobbes
The Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences – Rene Descartes
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin – Charles Darwin
Hobbes and the Social Construct Tradition – J Hampton
Phedre – Jean Racine
The Thirty Years War – P H Wilson
The Age of Genius – A C Grayling