Science and Christianity: Allies or Enemies?

by Terry Rodgers

 PART TWO: The First Millennium

I should point out that I am not a historian.  Bearing in mind that this is a only quick summary of the first millennium AD, focusing on science and Christianity, I happily invite criticism, corrections and unbiased suggestions for further reading. I include links to Wikipedia articles for clarification only.

The history of the interaction between Christianity and scientific thought begins in the Roman Empire.  If we accept the New Testament as the earliest historical reference for this, we could take Didymus (better known as Thomas the Apostle) as the first sceptic in the world to demand evidence for Christian claims; Yeshua bar-Yosef, the comeback kid from Nazareth, replied that it’s better just to take his rebirth on blind faith.  That was supposed to have happened in the 30s AD.

In the 50s AD, Saul of Tarsus (St Paul to the faithful) had a stab at converting the people of Athens to Christianity, but failed to convince the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers there.  The philosophers dismissed him as a “babbler.”  Saul’s reply (in Romans 1:22) was

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools

Fleeting encounters like these were the only ones the Bible tells us, and it’s hard to see much change in the tone of philosophical debates between the faithful and unbelievers since then.

About 250 years passed from the time of Saul to the official toleration of the Christian religion in the Roman Empire in 311AD and the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312 (when he encouraged soldiers to paint the Christian Chi-Rho symbol on their shields at the battle of Milvian Bridge).  Until this point, the Romans had a history of murdering a famous scientist and repeatedly destroying archives or centres of learning.  Even so, they hadn’t really gone out of their way to hinder the development of scientific progress.  Their attitude was, at best, indifferent.

During this time, as they gained more influence, prominent Christians spoke out against science. Lactantius (c240-c320 AD) asked:

What purpose does knowledge serve-for as to natural causes, what blessing is there for me to know where the Nile rises, or whatever else under the heavens the “scientists” rave about?

After 380AD, Roman indifference towards science and philosophy came to an end after Constantine’s Nicene Christianity was made the state religion; all citizens had to profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria.  This was the result of a power struggle between the early Roman Catholic Church against other Christian factions and religions.  A single branch of Christianity was (supposedly) the religion of a theocratic empire stretching from the Red Sea to Scotland.  This wasn’t the friendly, open, tolerant, merciful faith of liberal, 21st-century Christians, and its relationship to science was anything but encouraging.The Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca, Basil (c330-379 CE) called on Christians to “prefer the simplicity of faith to the demonstrations of reason… research about the essence of things would not serve the edification of the Church.”

Theophilus, the Bishop of Alexandria, waited eleven years before destroying the remnants of the Great Library of Alexandria.  Under his successor (and nephew) Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, a mob of Christians celebrated Lent in 415AD by attacking the pagan scientist and mathematician Hypatia, dragging her naked through the streets and then murdering her by tearing the flesh from her body.

Between these events, the empire was divided into what became Greek-speaking Eastern and Latin-speaking Western halves in 395AD. The Western Empire disintegrated, and a shadow of imperial power devolved to local bishops led by the Bishop of Rome (it was a later pope who acquired the ancient title ‘Pontifex Maximus’); the Eastern Empire continued as a theocracy.  Greek philosophy was eventually suppressed and replaced by theology (whose petty arguments would distract Eastern emperors from defending their shrinking territories).  The last recorded astronomical observation of the ancient Greek tradition was made by Proclus in 475AD.

In the Western Empire Aurelius Augustinus, the Bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa, was a complex figure: he approved of ‘faith’ and disapproved of ‘curiosity’; yet he was not a Biblical literalist.  As he grew older, he became less sceptical and more accepting – enthusiastic, even – of miracles.

The sheer absence of scientific research meant that instead of medical treatments, Pope Gregory’s solution for the bubonic plague of 590AD was to say “Bless you!” whenever people sneezed, in the hope that God would stop its spread.  People still habitually say those words even today.  Gregory distrusted secular learning, seeing intellectual independence as the sin of pride; philosophers were blind to the ultimate ‘cause’: God.

The wise should be advised to cease from their knowledge.

After the suppression of ancient knowledge and the lack of learning, barely anyone could understand ancient Greek science any more.  So when a synodal decree in 691AD forbade the recycling of religious texts to make palimpsests, ‘heretical’ materials were plundered; words were scraped from parchments so they could be turned into prayer books.  It is only with the benefit of 21st-century technology that these prayer books can be analysed and the original texts revealed.

The destruction of scientific learning by the church is scandalous.  Archimedes had developed sophisticated geometry and mathematics that wasn’t bettered until Newton and Leibniz, nearly 2,000 years later, yet none of it was transmitted to future generations.  According to the archaeologists and mathematicians translating his work, it had obviously been copied by someone who hadn’t the faintest idea what it all meant; it was a last ‘Chinese Whisper’ before it was supposed to be silenced forever for the benefit of the pious.

Science in the former lands of the Western Empire was pretty much non-existent; the political struggles of Christianised, Germanic kings seeking Papal blessing to call themselves latter-day “Roman Emperors” did not leave any resources for philosophy or research.  Nobody had Greek texts to refer to (and hardly anyone spoke it, anyway – the Church began holding separate synods for Latin and Greek bishops).  There were no urban centres for intellectuals to gather. It took until about 800AD for schools to be re-established, but even then, their purpose was to pore over Latin texts for anything which might help the Church – computing the date of Easter, for example.  This early revival was a renaissance of literature and law, not science.

In the Eastern Empire, research was paltry at best; it was limited to preserving Greek knowledge that did not conflict with scripture.  The only innovation seems to have been ‘Greek Fire’, an incendiary naval weapon.  Technology, like the portable clockwork orreries used in the ancient Mediterranean, were no longer used; mechanical devices were used as trinkets to impress visitors in the emperor’s court.

When Christianity dominated Europe without competition, when it was the supreme and unquestioned authority of the land, it was certainly not an ally of science.  Was anyone?

To summarise as briefly as possible, in Chinese lands science and technology developed during stable dynasties, punctuated by civil wars. Trade along the Silk Road allowed the best inventions to be transmitted westward, but the enterprise lacked a theoretical underpinning and could not advance for various political and economic and philosophical reasons.

Meanwhile, after the Eastern Roman and Persian empires exhausted themselves of money and men in war, the way was clear for a new Arabic empire to supplant the old Roman one.  The new rulers delegated authority to local governors and allowed greater freedoms to their subjects; they finally provided the stability and conditions for intellectual inquiry to flourish again.  Islamic scholars did not merely copy ancient texts; they studied and improved upon them.  Some of the most influential figures came from the fringes of the vast caliphate, where ideas could be traded as easily as goods: Ibn Rushd and Moses Maimonides (Spain), Ibn Sina (Persia), Ibn Khaldun (Tunisia) and Al-Khwarzimi (Uzbekistan).

It took a combination of invading Mongols and assorted Christians (avenging the loss of what they saw as ‘their’ lands) to destroy libraries and madrassas and the economy and infrastructure of the caliphate.  By the time the Turks took over from the Arabs, scientific development simply wasn’t a priority; the Ottoman sultans were satisfied with the technologies they had at their disposal and their industrial, economic and military capabilities were more than a match for their neighbours; they had no need to develop anything more (at least, not until a later century; even then they were quite blasé about it).

So what changed?  How did scientific development get started again?  And did Christianity help or hinder the process?

To be continued…

Further reading:

“The Closing of the Western Mind” (Charles Freeman, 2002; Pimlico)

“The Inheritance of Rome” (Chris Wickham, 2009; Penguin)

“The Archimedes Codex” (Reviel Netz & William Noel, 2007, Da Capo Press)

“A Short History of Byzantium” (John Julius Norwich, 1997, Viking)

“Decoding the Heavens” (Jo Marchant, 2008; Heinemann)

“Millennium” (Tom Holland, 2008; Little, Brown)

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0 Responses to Science and Christianity: Allies or Enemies?

  1. My favourite NT quote, Titus 1:12: Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars”.

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