This guest post was submitted by Dr James Hannam. Dr Hannam is a UK based historian with degrees in physics and history from the Universities of Oxford and London and a PhD in the history of science from the University of Cambridge. He blogs at Quodlibeta.
The film adaptation of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons was released this year and, on top of Brown’s new novel, appears to have done a roaring trade. Reports suggest that this is a better effort by director Ron Howard than his The Da Vinci Code, although most critics would feel that making a worse film would have been a stiffer test.
For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the book, Angels and Demons is set in Rome where hunky Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks, is trying to prevent the Illuminati from detonating an anti-matter bomb. According to Dan Brown’s alternative view of history, the Illuminati are a secret society of scientists (Copernicus and Galileo were, of course, members) who were persecuted by the Catholic Church. After a great purge in the seventeenth century, we learn, the society went underground and plotted revenge. For some reason, it has taken them over three hundred years to get their act together.
The Da Vinci Code launched the literary careers of a whole faculty previously-obscure professors of New Testament Studies. Admittedly, they had good reason for wanting to put the record straight about Brown’s distortions of early Christian history. This time, it’s historians of science who might be upset by Brown’s misrepresentation. Because his contention that the Catholic Church has spent the last two millennia holding back the advance of science is as wrongheaded as the story that Mrs Jesus retired to the south of France with her kids.
Of course, it’s not just Dan Brown who believes in the battle between science and religion. While few people think that the Illuminati really were a group of scientists suppressed by the Church, the perception of an eternal conflict between reason and faith is widespread. It’s true that the Church did make a single significant mistake in 1616, when it banned Copernicus’s opinion that the earth orbits the sun. But the subsequent trial of Galileo over the issue had more to do with papal self-esteem than astronomy. And even in this case, the Catholic Church was siding with the scientific consensus of the time. Still, you can’t manufacture an eternal conflict from a single example, so proponents of the hypothesis have had to resort to a different strategy – inventing the evidence.
For example, in the book of Angels and Demons, Brown alleges that the Church had Copernicus murdered for his heliocentric model. While this is a more extreme allegation, there is a general belief that Copernicus feared persecution for his ideas. It’s widely thought that he refrained from publishing them until he was on his deathbed. In fact, he had circulated a pamphlet outlining his theory decades before he died. This was favourably received by senior churchmen and he was urged to publish by a cardinal. He even dedicated his great book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, to the Pope.
Alas, as long as the likes of Dan Brown sell far more books than historians of science, this is a myth that is unlikely to go away.
James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science is published by Icon. The best price we could find for it from a New Zealand bookseller, with free delivery, was through The Nile Online Bookstore at the above link. International readers can buy it through Amazon. As I have previously stated elsewhere, it would make a good Christmas gift…