Superstition & Science: Mystics, sceptics, truth-seekers and charlatans

Derek Wilson’s history of thought between the Reformation and the Enlightenment approaches the received wisdom about a shift from superstition (and religion) to science (and atheism) in a vein which, while not aggressively revisionist, does provide some much-needed nuance to a story that is often subverted by modern polemicists. Wilson begins by positing his own definition of superstition as something to which we are all prone, “our psychological response to the unknown”. Our response should be both intelligent and humble but we all fall short in this regard and even scientists must be studied as men of their own time, conditioned by their time’s prejudices (for example, the motivation behind great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s research was to make astrological predictions more reliable).

The end of the Middle-Ages is often deemed to be marked by the invention of the printing press. Those who co-opt all scientific progress into a battle against religion routinely overlook the fact that Gutenburg developed the printing press in order to sate the contemporary demand for religious literature, which manual production in monastic scriptoria could no longer meet. His invention roughly coincided with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. Refugees to Italy brought with them Classical texts saved from the city, so helping to re-ignite interest in ancient literature.

The term “Dark Ages” is a misnomer. Many inventions and developments followed the fall of Rome. Classical scientific texts continued to be revered but, since many of them contained errors born of the Classical tendency to speculate, this was not entirely a good thing. For example, the experiment-based research of the surgeons Ambroise Paré and Andreas Vesalinus discredited Classical physicians’ theories, much to the horror of the old guard. Unfortunately, Greek philosophical texts had long been used as an adjunct to Holy Scripture, so that any attack on them as science was liable to be misconstrued as an attack on the church. It was this, combined with the sensitivity of a Catholic Church rent by Protestant schism, that caused it to over-react to radical scientific inquiry.

The atheist’s favourite parable from this period is the trial of Galileo but their reduction of it to a battle between science and religion ignores contemporary contributing factors. Galileo’s nemesis Pope Urban VIII was a corrupt expansionist, much criticized even within the Cardinalate for putting politics before religion. It may have been the need to burnish his credentials as a defender of the faith that intensified his campaign against Galileo (whose oft-reported mutter “But it does move”, after recanting is apocryphal). As Wilson puts it, “What was at stake in the ‘What goes round what?’ argument was not the Bible, but Rome’s monopoly of biblical interpretation.”

Historians’ concentration on the episode inflates its contemporary importance. Thirty years earlier, Pope Paul V twice ordered a Venetian monk to be assassinated on grounds that were purely political (he survived but only just), an incident arguably more serious than Galileo’s trial but which does not serve the hardline atheist narrative, so is largely forgotten now. Neither was religious knee-jerking a uniquely Catholic sin. Even Protestant states were not above immolating the odd scientific genius who harboured heretical beliefs, most notably Michael Servetus, a surgeon burnt at the stake in Geneva for questioning the doctrine of the Trinity.

Geographical differences were as significant as religious ones. Wilson makes an instructive statistical comparison between English and German witch-hunts, which makes for difficult reading (from which England emerges looking relatively enlightened).

In structural terms, most of the book’s chapters are dedicated to several great thinkers in various subject-areas (medicine, astronomy etc.). Only Chapter Nine feels less developed than the others, coming across as a list of distinguished men, rather than a narrative with many distinguished actors in it.

The book drops in some interesting little details. We learn that the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in some European countries but not in others caused problems not only for later historians but also for contemporary merchants, tourists and diplomats. Conquests and shifting borders also brought calendar changes, further confusing things for all concerned. Mathematics were regarded by laymen even in the mid-seventeenth century as magic (which this reviewer always suspected was the case). Robert Boyle was surprisingly gullible and Sir Isaac Newton (whose career has most of Chapter Eleven to itself) was far from rational. He waged a long-running feud with Robert Hooke after the latter reacted coolly to Newton’s first paper and was particularly vindictive towards John Flamsteed, who had refused to supply Newton with data that he knew would be deployed in his cat-fight against Hooke. When Newton became President of the Royal Society, he had Flamsteed expelled in revenge.

Wilson does not seem shy of controversy himself. “For atheists … since no ultimate source of ethical authority exists they are free to live their lives exactly as they wish, choosing for themselves whatever moral restraints (if any) they elect to impose upon themselves.” Many religious readers will probably agree with this statement but his expression of it in the present tense as an accepted fact is boldly assertive (though it is not without historical precedent: David Hume, when asked for advice by a young atheist considering ordination, advised him to go ahead but not to be too worried about his parishioners’ sins).

Presentationally, the book is very polished and enjoyable to read, with very few lapses in the proof-reader’s concentration. On pp. 126–8, Wilson discusses Thomas Harriot for three pages before remembering to give his Christian name. It is not until p. 157 that we have our first typo and this reader counted only three in all. Wilson also makes one historical error, referring to the House of Lords as still extant in 1651, even though it had been abolished two years earlier.

One problem that this reviewer did consider significant, however, is that Wilson’s citations are few and do not conform to standard academic practice. For example, on p. 130 he quotes Stowe’s Survey of London without giving page citations or date of publication. It is not even in the bibliography. Particularly striking is his citation on p. 200 of an online version of a text, rather than a printed edition. This may be très moderne but it also smacks of laziness.

Another problem is the book’s lack of definite conclusions. On p. 151, Wilson makes the interesting assertion that it was industrialization, rather than science, that created new, urban societies that allowed new ideas to flourish, a point that goes sadly undeveloped. Indeed, the book itself comes to an abrupt end. Instead, Wilson justifies not having a conclusion by appealing to “the vastness of our subject”, which seems a bit of a cop-out.

What he does give is a revisionist definition of the Enlightenment: “It was more of a mood projected by various promoters, each with his own interpretation … its leading spirits were united in what they were against but far from united in what they were for.” Far from being the confident pursuit of the monolithic Truth, “pursuit of scientia has led us … to the point of knowing that we cannot know … we are both doomed and privileged to go on exploring.”


Superstition & Science: Mystics, sceptics, truth-seekers and charlatans is published by Robinson and may be purchased for £14.99.