Lightning rods and the Church: John Loftus resurrects a hoary old myth

The lightning rod invented by the Czechoslovakian priest Prokop Divis in 1754. Image courtesy of Bohemianroots (author) and Wikipedia.
The lightning rod invented by the Czechoslovakian priest Prokop Divis in 1754. Image courtesy of Bohemianroots (author) and Wikipedia.

Well, it looks like atheist John Loftus, author of Why I Became an Atheist and Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End, is at it again. In a recent blog post, titled, DC Regular Mattapult On Church Lightning Rods (October 30, 2016), he resurrects the “Warfare” thesis propagated by Andrew Dickson White, and accuses Christian clergymen of obstructing the installation of lightning rods on churches in the eighteenth century. Loftus writes:

How bad was the problem of lightning striking churches?

“For centuries, the devastating scourge of lightning had generally been considered a supernatural phenomenon or expression of God’s will. At the approach of a storm, church bells were rung to ward off the bolts. “The tones of the consecrated metal repel the demon and avert storm and lightning,” declared St. Thomas Aquinas. But even the most religiously faithful were likely to have noticed this was not very effective. During one thirty-five-year period in Germany alone during the mid-1700s, 386 churches were struck and more than one hundred bell ringers killed. In Venice, some three thousand people were killed when tons of gunpowder stored in a church was hit.”

Franklin’s results are well known: he discovered that the electricity could be directed to a lightning rod which would save the building from being burned down. Most were delighted to find protection from this disaster, but not everybody:

“In some circles, especially religious ones, Franklin’s findings stirred controversy. The Abbé Nollet, jealous, continued to denigrate his ideas and claimed that the lightning rod was an offense to God. “He speaks as if he thought it presumption in man to propose guarding himself against the thunders of Heaven!” Franklin wrote a friend. “Surely the thunder of Heaven is no more supernatural than the rain, hail or sunshine of Heaven, against the inconvenience of which we guard by roofs and shades without scruple.”

…..

Excerpts From: Isaacson, Walter. “Benjamin Franklin.” Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright.

Is Loftus telling the truth?

I was skeptical about Loftus’ claim that some Christian clergymen opposed lightning rods on religious grounds, so I did some sleuthing, and came across an excellent blog post, titled, Lightning Rods and the Church (October 25, 2005) by Dr. James Hannam, a historian of science specializing in the relationship between science and Christianity in the Medieval and Early Modern eras. Dr. Hannam’s work is published as God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science in the U.K. and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution in the U.S. Since Dr. Hannam’s post is very short, I shall quote it in its entirety (all bolding in the quotes below is mine – VJT):

One of the many stories of the great myth of the conflict between science and religion is that the Christians tried to prevent the use of lightning rods. Whenever I asked for a reference, all I ever got is Andrew Dickson White (extract here) so I knew that there was something fishy going on. However, all serious histories were silent on the subject. I nosed around to see if there was any academic work on the question and dug up an article by IB Cohen called “Popular Prejudice against the Introduction of lightning Rods” (Journal of the Franklin Institute, vol. 253, pp. 393 – 440, 1952). It is rather revealing.

White is correct to say that ringing bells was a popular way to scaring off lightning from church towers. But the it was also known to be dangerous and the Church disliked the practice because it was deemed superstitious (as long ago as the seventeenth century, Cardinal Bellarmine condemned it).

The real problems that caused late adoption were two-fold. Firstly, the working of the rod was not fully understood. It had to be grounded to work, otherwise it just attracted lightning. Abbe Nollet, a French scientist and rival of Franklin, wrote a critique based on this and other misunderstandings that did have some effect on the rods use. But Cohen states that “his objections were grounded in scientific concerns.”

Second, ordinary people were not convinced by scientists saying that attracting lightning and sending it into the ground was harmless. After all, lightning was scary stuff and scientists were as arrogant about popular concerns then as they are today. But, Cohen states, “slowness in adopting the new invention did not proceed from ecclesiastical ban or dogma,” but from local concern about whether the rod worked. In fact, even Pope Benedict XIV had been a supporter of the use of rods. St Mark’s in Venice had one as early as 1766. As Cohen summarises: “Even though the ringing of church bells during lightning storms continued in Catholic Countries long after the invention of the lightning rod, it was by no means the case that the Church as an institution was opposed to the new invention.”

Another myth bites the dust.

Here’s some more interesting information I found:

(1) In a detailed review titled, Did Christianity oppose the use of lightning rods?, Christian apologist J.P. Holding highlighted an interesting fact which completely blows apart the popular atheistic claim that the Christian Church opposed the introduction of lightning rods:

Franklin is widely credited for inventing the lightning rod, but at almost exactly the same time, and quite independently, a lightning rod was also invented by a gentleman in Czechoslovakia named Prokop Divis — a scientist who just happened to be a priest in the Premonstratensian order. Lightning rods had their own Gregor Mendel; did Divis’ religion stop him from making the same discovery Franklin did?

Fr. Divis’ lightning rod is pictured at the top of this post.

Curious to learn more about this priest, I dug up his Wikipedia biography, and here’s what I found:

Dom Prokop Diviš, O.Praem. (26 March 1698 – 21 December 1765) was a Czech canon regular, theologian and natural scientist, who built one of the first grounded lightning rods…

In 1736 he was appointed as pastor of a parish in Přímětice (now part of Znojmo) which was served by the abbey. He served in that capacity for five years, before being recalled to the abbey in April 1741, where he served as its prior…

Back at the parish, Diviš became responsible for the management of farmland belonging to it. He undertook the construction of water conduits on the property. As a result, he became interested in a popular new interest in the scientific community of his day, electricity. He began a series of experiments over the next years, mostly on plant growth and therapy with small electrical voltage…

The news of the death of Georg Wilhelm Richmann, a professor in St. Petersburg, who was killed by lightning in 1753 during his attempt at measuring the intensity of the electric field in the atmosphere, caused Diviš to become interested in atmospheric electricity.[4] Being established in the scientific community, he proposed to several physicists (among them the Academies of Science in St. Petersburg and Vienna, as well as Leonhard Euler) to construct a “weather-machine” – a device that would suppress and prevent thunderstorms and lightning. When he didn’t receive answers, he took it up on himself to build such a machine in his own parish.[6]

On 15 June 1754, he erected a forty metres high, free-standing pole in Přímětice, on which he mounted his “weather-machine”, consisting of several tin boxes and more than 400 metal spikes. A well-established theory in that time was that more pointed spikes would conduct electricity better. The pole was secured by heavy metal chains that inadvertently also grounded his construction, making it actually one of the first grounded lightning rods. He described his invention as being very effective at driving off storms: clouds formed when the pole was taken down and disappeared when erected again. He took these occasional observations as proof of his theory that the pointed spikes extracted latent electricity out of the atmosphere, deposing them safely before lightning could form. Several local newspapers and novelty papers from Southern Germany made reports on his attempts.[6]

His findings weren’t well received in the scientific community that largely decided to ignore him. In 1759, a drought threatened Přímětice’s farmers, who now took action against their priests’ attempts to control the weather and consequently destroyed the first “weather-machine”. This led to a dissent between Diviš and his “unruly flock”, that only ended when the church superiors advised Diviš to stop his experiments and unmount his second “weather-machine”, then securely mounted on the tower of his church, and hand it over to the Louka abbey.[6]

Diviš continued to correspond with scientists and promote his own theory which he called Magia naturalis. Fricker and Oetinger, two like-minded priests from Württemberg who had visited him during the experiments, helped him publish it abroad under the German name “Längst verlangte Theorie von der meteorologischen Electricité” (Much desired theory of the metereological electricity), in the same year that Diviš died. Again, the theory was largely ignored, though Tetens reviewed them a few years after and called it a work of fantasy.[6]…

…Indeed, his free-standing apparatus in 1754 was probably better grounded than Franklin’s experimental lightning rods at that time.[7][8] The “weather-machine” failed, however, the common purpose of lightning rods: to actually protect a building; while the grounding chains were not remotely secure.

    Sources:

[4] Radio Praha “Prokop Divis”
[6] Christa Möhring: Eine Geschichte des Blitzableiters. Die Ableitung des Blitzes und die Neuordnung des Wissens um 1800 (German dissertation; The history of the lightning rod. Conduction of Lightning and the re-ordering of knowledge around 1800) p. 83-105
[7] Zprvu nepochopený vynálezce hromosvodu (Czech)
[8] Vynálezce hromosvodu (Czech)

(2) The quote from Aquinas cited by Loftus, on church bells repelling demons, may well turn out to be bogus. (This is old news: blogger Kyle Wheeler cast doubt on its authenticity back in 2006.) I have searched for the quote in vain among Aquinas’ published works in English. The quote can be found on numerous Websites on the Internet, but the original source is an old book by Viktor Rydberg (and translated by August Edgren), published in 1879, titled, Magic of the Middle Ages (New York: H. Holt and Company). The quote comes from pages 73-74, but Rydberg gives no source for his quote in the writings of Aquinas. Here’s the full quote:

“It is,” says Thomas Aquinas, “a dogma of faith that the demons can produce wind, storms, and rain of fire from heaven. The atmosphere is a battle-field between angels and devils. The latter work the constant injury of man, the former his melioration; and the consequence is that changeableness of weather which threatens to frustrate the hopes of husbandry. And when Lucifer is able to bestow even upon man—on sorcerers and wizards—the power to destroy the fields, the vineyards and dwellings of man by rain, hail and lightning, is it to be wondered at if the Church, which is man’s protection against the devil, and whose especial calling it is to fight him, should in this sphere also be his counterpoise, and should seem from the treasury of its divine power, means adequate to frustrate his atmospheric mischiefs? To these means belong the church bells, provided they have been duly consecrated and baptized. The aspiring steeples around which cluster the low dwellings of men, are to be likened, when the bells in them are ringing, to the hen spreading its protecting wings over its chickens; for the tones of the consecrated metal repel the demons and avert storm and lightning” (“Vivos voco, mortuos plango, SULPHURA FRANGO,” a common inscription on church bells).

This quote was gleefully reproduced by Andrew Dickson White in chapter 11 of his epic work, History of the Warfare of Science and Religion in Christendom (scroll down to footnote 243). White adds that he got his citation from Rydberg but provides no further details.

So I have to ask: why does John Loftus uncritically accept the authenticity of this quote from Aquinas?

(3) Aquinas believed storms to be normally of natural origin. Here’s what he wrote in his Commentary on Job (chapter 37 – Hymn to Yahweh), when discussing the speech of Eliud to Job, which treats of natural phenomena and God’s Providence:

On this subject one must consider that the South winds produce the rains and storms. North winds cause cold air. Southern winds come to us from the direction of the South Pole, which is unknown to us, because it is sunk down beneath our horizon by the same distance as the North Pole is elevated above our horizon, and so he [Eliud] says, “From the lower part, storms will arise,” as if to say: A storm comes to us by a wind which proceeds from the part of heaven which is always extended down under our horizon, and this wind is called the South Wind. As to the North Wind he says, “and the cold wind comes from the Arctic.”

On the other hand, Aquinas believed that demons could cause storms, if permitted to do so by God, for in the same work, at the end of his commentary on Chapter 1 (The Third Lesson: The Trial), he argues that angels and demons alike are capable of moving bodies (including the winds), simply by the force of their will:

Consider that since all this aforementioned adversity [the trials of Job – VJT] comes from Satan, it is necessary to confess that with God’s permission demons can bring about turbulence in the air, can stir up the winds and can make fire fall from heaven. For although corporeal matter obeys only the nod of God the Creator for the reception of forms, and does not obey the nod of either the good or the wicked angels, corporeal nature is still born to obey spiritual nature as far as local movement is concerned. Evidence of this appears in men, for the members of the body are moved at the mere command of the will to pursue the act desired by the will. Whatever then can be done only with local motion, can be done by not only the good but also the wicked angels from their natural power, unless prohibited by divine power. The winds the rains and other like disturbances in the atmosphere come about only from the motion of the vapors released from the earth and the water. Thus the natural power of a demon is sufficient to procure these things. However, sometimes they are prohibited from this by divine power so that they are not permitted to do everything which they can do naturally. Nor is this contrary to what is said in Jeremiah, “Are there any among the false gods of the nations which can give rain?” (14:22) For it is one thing that the rain takes place by natural cause and this is the office of God alone who orders natural causes to this; it is another thing to use artificially those natural causes ordered by God to rain to produce rain or wind sometimes in an almost extraordinary way.

Aquinas also believed that the demons were excellent weather forecasters. As he explains in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 154, paragraph 14, demons, being highly intelligent spirits, are very good at “reading the signs” hidden in natural phenomena:

Of course, among natural causes, the highest and farthest removed from our knowledge are the powers of ,the celestial bodies. That these are known to the spirits under discussion, in accord with what is proper to their nature, is evident from earlier explanations. Therefore, since all lower bodies are controlled through the powers and motions of the higher bodies, these spirits are far more able than any astronomer to foretell future winds and storms, changing conditions of the atmosphere, and other such things which occur in the changing of lower bodies as a result of the motion of the higher bodies.

However, the foregoing argument assumes that storms ordinarily have an entirely natural origin, which would not be the case if they were visitations sent by God. Thus the above quote refutes the atheist canard that in the Middle Ages, people believed that storms came from either God or the Devil.

(4) Apparently, St. Thomas Aquinas had a lifelong fear of thunderstorms – and with good reason, as the following excerpt from his biography in “Lives of the Saints” (John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.) reveals:

While Thomas was still a child, his little sister, who slept in the same room with him and their nurse, was instantly killed one night by a bolt of lightning. This shocking experience caused Thomas to be extremely nervous during thunderstorms all his life long, and while a storm raged he often took refuge in a church. After his death, there arose a popular devotion to him as a protector from thunderstorms and sudden death.

(5) Did educated people in the Middle Ages really believe that lightning was caused by the wrath of God? The answer is a firm “No.” According to the article on “Meteorology” in Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, edited by Thomas F. Glick, Steven John Livesey and Faith Wallis (Routledge: New York and London, 2005), medieval people favored naturalistic explanations for bad weather:

In general, Aristotelian concepts were prominent in medieval writings on meteorology, although they were frequently adapted, altered, and transformed. In both antiquity and the Middle Ages, naturalistic explanations for the weather were favored. As a result, the idea that lightning or thunder had Divine origins was widely rejected or ignored.

(6) It is, however, true that bells were once believed to drive away storms, as the article by Fr. Herbert Thurston S.J. on Bells in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907) acknowledges:

Some rude lines quoted in the gloss of the “Corpus Juris”, and often found in inscriptions, describe the principal functions of a bell (cf. Longfellow, The Golden Legend):

Laudo Deum verum plebem voco congrego clerum
Defunctos ploro, nimbum fugo, festa decoro.
(I praise the true God, I call the people, I assemble the clergy;
I bewail the dead, I dispense storm clouds, I do honour to feasts.)

Or otherwise:

Funera plango fulmina frango sabbata pango
Excito lentos dissipo ventos paco cruentos
(At obsequies I mourn, the thunderbolts I scatter, I ring in the sabbaths;
I hustle the sluggards, I drive away storms, I proclaim peace after bloodshed.)

But as Dr. James Hannam points out above, even this belief was criticized in the seventeenth century by no less an authority than Cardinal Bellarmine, a leading Thomistic philosopher and a Doctor of the Church.

(7) In Chapter 11 of his work, History of the Warfare of Science and Religion in Christendom, Andrew Dickson White chides the Church for waiting over ten years to install the lightning rods invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1749 (and developed for household use in 1753) in European churches: apparently, St Mark’s cathedral in Venice didn’t install them until 1766. But if we compare this with electronic television, which was first invented in the U.S. by Philo Farnsworth in 1927 and not adopted in Italy until 1939 (fourteen years later), the delay in adopting the innovation appears quite normal.

(8) Atheists are also fond of citing an alleged sermon by Rev. Thomas Prince in 1755, in which he supposedly declares that recent earthquakes in Boston are a punishment from God for that city’s installation of lightning rods. At least, that’s how Al Seckel and John Edwards portray it in their 1984 essay, Franklin’s Unholy Lightning Rod:

In America, Rev. Thomas Prince, pastor of Old South Church, blamed Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod for causing the Massachusetts earthquake of 1755.

In Prince’s sermon on the topic, he expressed the opinion that the frequency of earthquakes may be due to the erection of “points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin.” He goes on to argue that “in Boston more are erected than anywhere else in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! There is no getting out of the mighty hand of God.”

A typical case was the tower of St. Mark’s in Venice. In spite of the angel at its summit, the bells consecrated to ward off devils and witches in the air, the holy relics in the church below, and the Processions in the adjacent square, the tower was frequently damaged or destroyed by lightning. It was not until 1766 that a lightning rod was placed upon it – and the tower has never been struck since.

I did some digging around, and I happened to come across a series of letters by Rev. Thomas Prince, in which he explains his views on lightning rods:

P.S. [Postscript] The more Points of Iron [lightning rods] are erected round the Earth, to draw the Electrical Substance out of the Air; the more the Earth must needs be charged with it. And therefore it seems to be worthy of Consideration, whether any Part of the Earth being fuller of the terrible Substance, may not be more exposed to
more shocking Earthquakes.
In Boston are more erected than any where else in New England; and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. O! there is no getting out of the mighty Hand of GOD!…
(Appendix Concerning the Operation of GOD in Earthquakes by Means of the Electrical Substance, 5 December 1755.)

In the meanwhile ⎯ As to my Postscript about the PointsAs I never was against erecting them with a due Submission to the sovereign Will and Power and Government of GOD in Nature, in humble Hopes of greater Safety, and with a becoming Trust in Him, and not in them; I am of the same Mind still. And tho’ for want of Time for further Consideration, I am yet uncertain about their Influence in Earthquakes, the great Thing I would now inculcate is ⎯ That everyone would consider seriously the mighty Power of GOD acting in this terrible Substance, and carefully guard against a vain and dangerous Security in them: Least, in some way or other . . . the offended Deity make that in which we trust for Safety to be the very Means of our Destruction in a Moment.
(Letter to the Boston Gazette, 26 January 1756.)

Two points should be noted here. First, Rev. Prince expressly declares that he has no theological objections to the installation of lightning rods (or “points”), provided it is done prayerfully and with trust in God. Second, Prince expressed genuine concerns regarding the possibility that diverting electricity to the ground might trigger earthquakes. In other words, his opposition was scientific: he thought that messing with Nature was unwise, as it might lead to even worse problems than the ones which people were trying to solve. (In this respect, he sounds a lot like modern-day environmentalists, who oppose the introduction of genetically modified organisms, because of fears about their long-term consequences for human health.) For these reasons, Prince counselled against reliance on a new technology to keep people safe from atmospheric electricity.

Rev. Prince’s sparring partner, in a very lively exchange of views, was Professor John Winthrop, who mocked Prince’s belief that lightning rods, by diverting electricity to the ground, might cause earthquakes. Such foolish concerns, argued Winthrop, would only “discourage the use of the iron-points [lightning rods], which were erecting in Boston and elsewhere; and which, by the blessing of GOD, might be a means of preventing many of those mischievous and sorrowful accidents, which we have so often seen to follow upon thunderstorms.” The real reason why the effects of recent earthquakes were so much worse around Boston was because its houses were made of brick, rather than wood, and brick tends to shatter very easily in an earthquake, argued Winthrop.
(APPENDIX Concerning the Operation of Electrical Substance in EARTHQUAKES; and the Effects of Iron Points, 20 December 1755.)

What is worth noting about this exchange is that neither of the protagonists had any religious objections to the installation of lightning rods per se. The only question was whether they were safe – and that’s a scientific question, not a religious one.

Seckel and Edwards also make the following claim in their 1984 essay:

In 1780-1784, a lawsuit about lightning rods gave M. de St. Omer the right to have a lightning rod on top of his house despite the religious objections of his neighbors. This victory established the fame of the lawyer in the case, young Robespierre.

However, Jessica Riskin mentions no such religious motives in her essay, “The Lawyer and the Lightning Rod,” (Science in Context, vol. 12, pp. 61-99, April 1999). Here’s how Riskin summarizes the case in her abstract:

Robespierre … persuasively resolved the crucial problem, namely, the proper relations of scientific to legal authority. He exploited the empiricist dogma common to contemporary physics and jurisprudence to argue that judges need not defer to scientific experts, but must only consider the facts, which required no expertise.

Nothing here about religion.

Finally, Dr. Andrew Dickson White makes the following citation in footnote 262 of chapter 11 of his great work, A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom: “For reluctance in England to protect churches with Franklin’s rods, see Priestley, History of Electricity, London, 1775, vol. i, pp. 407, 465 et seq.” Well, here it is, and I can’t find anything on those pages about religious objections to the installation of lightning rods.

I conclude that there is no good evidence that either the Christian Church or the Christian clergy opposed the installation of lightning rods, once they were invented. John Loftus should issue a retraction.

37 thoughts on “Lightning rods and the Church: John Loftus resurrects a hoary old myth

  1. Is Loftus telling the truth?

    Does it matter?

    And:

    Surely the thunder of Heaven is no less supernatural than the rain, hail or sunshine of Heaven, against the inconvenience of which we guard by roofs and shades without scruple.

  2. “Is Loftus telling the truth?”

    What about the possibility that Loftus is honestly mistaken? I really don’t know which of these he is doing, but VJTorley seems to know. Using the inflammatory phrase that he is not “telling the truth” is as silly as accusing Aristotle of deliberately lying about laws of motion.

  3. Interesting article. But, to be honest, I had never heard the myth that the church tried to prohibit the use of lighting rods. But, I think you will admit, it is the type of thing that the church might prohibit. It is hubris for man to try to prevent god from throwing his lighting bolts wherever he wants (or am I thinking of Thor?). After all, they prohibit birth control for much the same reason; attempting to thwart god’s will.

  4. So Divis built what he thought was a “weather machine” based on this “theory” called Magia Naturalis and the “church supervisors” kindly asked him to abandon it when fellow christians felt it might be the cause of that drought.

    If you’re trying to relate christianity to science as opposed to superstition there may be better examples out there, just saying.

  5. Also what Aquinas might have actually said and whether that quote is factual or not is totally irrelevant. What matters is whether people believed it to be true or not back then and whether that influenced their decisions or not

  6. Well, that’s a relief. Had it been otherwise, we might today have theists clinging to a “theory of design” based, not on actual similitude to design, but to made-up odds against “naturalism” being capable of explaining this or that, a whole lot of trumped-up accusations over “atheists” pushing evolution in order to avoid any need for God, numerous attacks on theistic evolutionists on as little evidence as they have for design in the first place, and an attempt to get rid of real standards of evidence in science.

    I’d hate it if that were to happen.

    Glen Davidson

  7. And one last thing Re:

    Atheists are also fond of citing an alleged sermon by Rev. Thomas Prince in 1755, in which he supposedly declares that recent earthquakes in Boston are a punishment from God for that city’s installation of lightning rods

    Recently a priest was given the boot from a local radio station for suggesting that the earthquakes in Italy were a divine punishment for same sex marriage laws

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/05/italian-priest-blames-earthquakes-on-gay-civil-unions

    Granted this is not an educated guy, but that seems irrelevant to me. These kind of things have happened since forever and denying it is absurd. Religion is not about enlightenment or being “educated”

  8. @GlenDavidson:

    It’s fortunate that the things you envisaged aren’t happening. If they were, we might even have politicians who are creationists running for national office, and maybe even rising to positions such as the Vice Presidency (just a Twitter-lapse away from the Presidency). We’d also have major political figures rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of a Supreme Court that would allow teachers to misrepresent their own religious beliefs as serious science.

    But we can all relax, because things like this are not possible.

  9. Joe Felsenstein: We’d also have major political figures rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of a Supreme Court that would allow teachers to misrepresent their own religious beliefs as serious science.

    If only that was the worst of all the horrors that await us

  10. VJ:
    I conclude that there is no good evidence that either the Christian Church or the Christian clergy opposed the installation of lightning rods, once they were invented. John Loftus should issue a retraction.

    In fact there is good evidence of the Church encouraging the use of lightning rods , it seems the Church had been using bell ringers as human lighting rods for quite a while to prevent the ignition of the gunpowder stored in Churches.

  11. Joe Felsenstein: What about the possibility that Loftus is honestly mistaken?

    If you know Loftus, then you know that “honestly mistaken” is out of the question. As a preacher, he was a half-educated polemist just for the fun of it. Now as atheist, he is half-educated polemist just for the fun of it, except that he appears to be having more fun and less caution now.

    Joe Felsenstein: But we can all relax, because things like this are not possible.

    Right, like Trump’s presidency is just wild imagination.

  12. Hi Professor Felsenstein,

    Just to be clear: I’m not accusing John Loftus of lying. However, at the beginning of his post, he writes, “The subject of lightning rods on churches comes up occasionally on DC. I found some quotes on that subject in a biography on Benjamin Franklin.” Then he gives the quotes from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin.

    My point was that: (a) if Loftus has written previously (or read other contributors’ writings) on the subject of lightning rods, then he should be familiar with the literature, and should therefore know which historical claims are well-founded and which ones are baseless; (b) it is careless of Loftus to put forward historical claims which turn out to be egregiously false, on a matter with which he is already acquainted. In other words, he is an untrustworthy source on this subject.

    I guess it would have been better if instead of writing “Is Loftus telling the truth?”, I had written instead: “Are Loftus’ claims accurate?” or “Can we trust his assertions?”

  13. Mung: Surely the thunder of Heaven is no less supernatural than the rain, hail or sunshine of Heaven, against the inconvenience of which we guard by roofs and shades without scruple.

    I like that. Is it Franklin?

  14. Erik: If you know Loftus, then you know that “honestly mistaken” is out of the question. As a preacher, he was a half-educated polemist just for the fun of it. Now as atheist, he is half-educated polemist just for the fun of it, except that he appears to be having more fun and less caution now.

    This is one of those occasions where I can agree with Erik.

  15. walto: I like that.Is it Franklin?

    More likely:

    Surely the thunder of Heaven is no more supernatural than the rain, hail or sunshine of Heaven, against the inconvenience of which we guard by roofs and shades without scruple.

    Bolding added.

    Physics Today

    Of course it should be noted that Franklin is there trying to allay the fears that some might have that lightning rods would somehow be contrary to God’s will. The same article says that people objected to Dr. John Lining’s erection of a lightning rod because:

    They thought that the rod was presumptuous–that it would interfere with the will of God–or that it might attract lightning and be dangerous.

    IOW, the truth seems to be somewhere between those who would make out religious reaction to be indifferent to lightning rods or in favor, and those who would make religious reaction out to be scandalously opposed to the new science. Not too surprising.

    Glen Davidson

  16. GlenDavidson: Surely the thunder of Heaven is no more supernatural than the rain, hail or sunshine of Heaven, against the inconvenience of which we guard by roofs and shades without scruple.

    Yes, I agree that that would be even better. But the original ain’t bad itself! People get so excited about what they take to be the one-offs. You know, HUMAN THOUGHT! or BEETHOVEN! or MOTHER THERESA! or, I don’t know, the eye of the tiger, or the Cubs finally winning.

    But it’s all pretty cool, from the rain drop to the lightning bolt, the quark to the cell, and, as you say, it’s all natural too.

  17. GlenDavidson: IOW, the truth seems to be somewhere between those who would make out religious reaction to be indifferent to lightning rods or in favor, and those who would make religious reaction out to be scandalously opposed to the new science. Not too surprising.

    FWIW, I heard the story told in primary school, exactly as it’s told here in OP. So, I would not say Loftus is mistaken. He is spreading a common atheist myth that relies on conflating religious reactions with superstitious reactions, exactly the way you do. Ideologies have their mythologies.

  18. Erik,

    Well, you know, it is difficult to distinguish between religion and superstition. How do you do it?

  19. John Harshman:

    Well, you know, it is difficult to distinguish between religion and superstition. How do you do it?

    Verify things. To properly verify things, examine carefully how you verify things.

    The Bible makes the distinction between religion and superstition as follows, “…believe not every spirit, but try the spirits…” (1. John 4:1) You of course cannot do that if you presuppose there are no spirits in the first place.

  20. Erik: Verify things. To properly verify things, examine carefully how you verify things.

    The Bible makes the distinction between religion and superstition as follows, “…believe not every spirit, but try the spirits…” (1. John 4:1) You of course cannot do that if you presuppose there are no spirits in the first place.

    Excellent. How do you verify things? It seems to me that the verification would involve determining whether the spirit in question actually exists rather than whether what the spirit says is true. If the spirit exists, that isn’t superstition. So how do you tell whether a spirit exists?

  21. Erik: Verify things. To properly verify things, examine carefully how you verify things.

    The Bible makes the distinction between religion and superstition as follows, “…believe not every spirit, but try the spirits…” (1. John 4:1) You of course cannot do that if you presuppose there are no spirits in the first place.

    I’ve been trying spirits, and perhaps John does too. Single malts and various kinds of Central European schnapps impressed me the most.

  22. Joe Felsenstein: I’ve been trying spirits, and perhaps John does too. Single malts and various kinds of Central European schnapps impressed me the most.

    He is known for that. He has shown up on debates drunk.

    And that just proves the point about where one’s comprehension and dedication lies.

  23. Erik:
    The Bible makes the distinction between religion and superstition as follows…

    And they say irony is dead….

  24. John Harshman: Excellent. How do you verify things? It seems to me that the verification would involve determining whether the spirit in question actually exists rather than whether what the spirit says is true. If the spirit exists, that isn’t superstition. So how do you tell whether a spirit exists?

    If it says something, then how do you say it doesn’t exist? I say that if it says something, its existence is already verified. It would be sheer superstition to deny it.

  25. Erik: If it says something, then how do you say it doesn’t exist? I say that if it says something, its existence is already verified. It would be sheer superstition to deny it.

    I would have to agree, unless of course the spirit is a hallucination. Have spirits ever talked to you? How did you verify that they were real and not just in your head? Or if spirits have never talked to you, how would you know they exist?

    Erik: He is known for that. He has shown up on debates drunk.

    Who are we talking about now?

  26. @Erik

    Sorry to be ambiguous. I know nothing about Loftus. I was referring to John Harshman, who has been known to correct me about the geographic origin of the appellation “Calvados”.

    Everyone, enjoy your Slivovitz!

  27. John Harshman:
    Joe Felsenstein,

    Speaking of Calvados, have you ever tried pommeau?

    Well, actually I only rarely taste liqueurs. I had not heard of pommeau, but I looked it up and it certainly sounds interesting. As long as we’re on the topic, though, there is a distillery in Portland, Oregon, Clear Creek Distillery, that makes a very nice Pear Brandy, and an excellent Slivovitz. They are in liquor stores around here. Not sure whether you can find these where you are, but if you get to next year’s Evolution Meeting in Portland, do look for them.

  28. I looked into the quote

    It is,” says Thomas Aquinas, “a dogma of faith that the demons can produce wind, storms, and rain of fire from heaven. The atmosphere is a battle-field between angels and devils. The latter work the constant injury of man, the former his melioration; and the consequence is that changeableness of weather which threatens to frustrate the hopes of husbandry. And when Lucifer is able to bestow even upon man—on sorcerers and wizards—the power to destroy the fields, the vineyards and dwellings of man by rain, hail and lightning, is it to be wondered at if the Church, which is man’s protection against the devil, and whose especial calling it is to fight him, should in this sphere also be his counterpoise, and should seem from the treasury of its divine power, means adequate to frustrate his atmospheric mischiefs? To these means belong the church bells, provided they have been duly consecrated and baptized. The aspiring steeples around which cluster the low dwellings of men, are to be likened, when the bells in them are ringing, to the hen spreading its protecting wings over its chickens; for the tones of the consecrated metal repel the demons and avert storm and lightning” (“Vivos voco, mortuos plango, SULPHURA FRANGO,” a common inscription on church bells).

    It is nothing what Thomas Aquinas ever said – and Viktor Rydberg knew this! So, is he a liar? Amusingly, not. See, Viktor Rydberg didn’t write “Magic of the Middle Ages”, he wrote “Medeltidens magi”! And there, on page 48, he writes:

    Det är, säger Thomas af Aquino, en trosartikel, att djäflarne kunna åstadkomma vind, storm och eldregn från himmelen. Luftkretsen utgör en tummelplats för kampen mellan änglarne och demonerna; de senare verka outtröttligt till människans skada, likasom de förre till hennes gagn, och följden är denna ostadighet i väderleken, som städse hotar tillintetgöra landtmannens hopp. Och då Lucifer kan öfverdraga äfven på människor – på trollkarlar och häxor – förmågan att med regn, hagel och ljungeld fördärfva fälten, vinbergen och människornas boningar, hvad under då, att kyrkan, hon som är mänsklighetens skyddsanstalt mot djäfvulen och fått till uppgift att bekämpa honom, måste äfven i detta hänseende vara honom en motvikt och ur sina gudomliga krafters skattkammare uppsöka och använda medel, lämpliga att omintetgöra hans atmosfäriska illbragder? Till dessa medel höra kyrkklockorna, förutsatt att de undfått ordentlig invigning och dop. De mot höjden uppstigande tempeltornen, kring hvilka människornas låga bostäder samla sig, äro, då deras klockor ljuda, att likna vid hönan, som öfver sina kycklingar utbreder skyddande vingar, ty den vigda malmens toner bortjaga demonerna, samt afvända åska och storm (»Vivos voco, mortuos plango, sulphura frango», en vanlig inskrift på kyrkklockor).

    He explains that Thomas of Aquino said that it is a dogma of faith that the demons can produce wind, storms, and rain of fire from heaven. Not a direct quote (and therefore, no quotation marks), but something which is obviously true and which can be found in the Summa. Then Rydberg lays out these thoughts in his own words (quite sarcastically, I’d say). Comes along August Hjalmar Edgren, who puts the whole section in quotation-marks while translating the book, and we get a showcase reminder why it is important always to look for the original quote….

  29. Joe Felsenstein:
    “Is Loftus telling the truth?”

    What about the possibility that Loftus is honestly mistaken?I really don’t know which of these he is doing, but VJTorley seems to know.Using the inflammatory phrase that he is not “telling the truth” is as silly as accusing Aristotle of deliberately lying about laws of motion.

    I strongly agree. Loftus states two quotations from Walter Isaacson’s book “Benjamin Franklin”, and draws his conclusions based on this quotations. All quite straight forward.

    So, the real questions are “Should Loftus rely on Isaacson’s book?” and “Should he have known or recognized that Isaacson’s provides false information?”

    Here, I’m not sure – yet.

  30. vjtorley:

    I conclude that there is no good evidence that either the Christian Church or the Christian clergy opposed the installation of lightning rods, once they were invented.

    That is definitely not the same as “there were no religious objections against the installation of lightning rods”!

    1) AFAIK, the first lightning rod in Germany was installed on a church in Hamburg. But while the clerics and the magistrate were all for it, they decided to mask the installation as a repair and not to inform the cititzens…

    2) I share your critic of Seckel and Edwards – calling the defendant ” M. de St. Omer” instead of Charles-Dominique de Vissery de Bois-Vallé from the town of Saint-Omer indicates sloppiness. The same carelessness is shown in their quotations. However:

    3) That the lawyers de Vissery’s case avoided to mention religious objections doesn’t mean that those weren’t one of the main reasons for the trial – remember the Dover Trial?

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