The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide traces the history of how we understand, record, and transmit information from early literacy to numeracy and how that changed how we think. Writing is about words and concerns itself with classification. When the modern Indo-Arabic numerals came along we began moving from concrete to relational and abstract thinking. Adding functions like the equal sign and concepts like zero enhanced our ability to think in the abstract.

It was not just the symbols, though. It was also some key concepts that came from outside the academy: numbers and calculations from commerce, time notation from music, perspective and proportion from art, and time technology from astronomy. These developments were the cultural zeitgeist that Galileo surfed to his greatest achievement–not just his discoveries, but the development of the analytical scientific mind that broke down problems into objective measurable elements. The Pope was wrong about Galileo, it was not what he thought that was the danger; it was how he thought.

With modern science, the way we think fundamentally changed and religion and science were forever separated, not by dogma, but by how we think. This is the fundamental argument animating Michael E. Hobart’s excellent history The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide.

I am not completely persuaded that Hobart proves his case that it is numeracy that created the science-faith divide, but then I am naturally dubious of theories that explain everything.  However, The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide does an excellent job of showing how numeracy changed how we understood science and made science possible. Imagine landing a man on the moon without a plus, minus, or equals sign!

There is a difference between the mind of faith (Because I say so!) and the mind of science (Prove it!) and this shift was led by Galileo whose heresy was less about heliocentrism and more about saying there are absolute answers in nature. I am just not sure that it is numeracy alone. After all, Renaissance humanism studied the wisdom of Classical Greece and Rome. They may have worked to reconcile those old pagans with Christian theology, but still, they were finding wisdom in reading pagan classics, which in itself challenges the idea of God as the source of all knowledge. I think there can be multiple causes…and really, if you look at how Hobart suggests numeracy came about because of advances in art, music, commerce, and astronomy instruments, we see movement in multiple fields, working together.

So how can I give so many stars to a book that I don’t agree with completely? It’s because it is full of fascinating information, some big and some trivial, but the sort of thing that got me sharing a tidbit I had just read with my doctor. Did you know that when they used a lunar calendar, they would need to add an extra month every third year they called it an embolus and made it an embolismic year? Now that can literally blow your mind! So, reading this book will fill up your stock of “did you know?” facts.

What I found most fascinating was trying to fathom living in a world where their understanding of time was so different from ours. People in the classical world didn’t just lack air conditioning and cars, they didn’t have a zero. Giving us insight into that very different world is fascinating. Best of all, the math and science deals with concepts up to Galileo, so you will have learned all the concepts in high school, so while it requires attention, it is not confounding and is sure is fun.

I was provided a copy of The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide by Harvard University Press.

The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide at Harvard University Press

Michael E. Hobart on GoodReads