Science and Christianity: Allies or Enemies?

by Terry Rodgers

PART THREE: The Second Millennium

Again, I should point out that I am not a historian.  Bearing in mind that this is only a brief account of the second millennium AD, focusing on science and Christianity, I invite criticism, corrections and unbiased suggestions for further reading. I include links to Wikipedia for clarification (and to reduce the word count!).

Christianity’s hold over Eastern Roman and former Western Roman lands did not last and the conditions that allowed a renaissance of philosophy and science were eventually recreated.  In  Part Two, I mentioned the Arabs supplanting the Eastern Empire and building on the work of the ancient Greeks (with input from Persian, Indian and Chinese sources) until the Mongol and Turkic invasions put a stop to it.  What follows here is a summary of what happened to science in the successor states of the Western Empire.

The end of the ‘Dark Ages’ and the beginning of the ‘Renaissance’ was not a simple switch between two cultures; it was a process that lasted centuries.  In 800AD, the Church appointed the Frankish King Charles I (‘Charlemagne’) the first Western ‘Roman Emperor’ since Romulus Augustus in 476AD.  In return, the ‘Holy Roman Emperor’ was supposed to protect the Church.  The Franks realised formal education had to be re-established for their elites in order to maintain their empire.  An empire-wide organisation would be needed to look after these schools; the Church had been running schools solely to educate the (affluent, male) clergy and faced no competition for the task.

The Frankish Empire fragmented and was succeeded (after a 38-year interregnum) by the Holy Roman Empire of Otto I, stretching from Northern Germany to Italy.  During this time, contact with the Eastern Empire was improved, the European economy grew, arts and architecture became more sophisticated scriptoria churned out more (religious) manuscripts, and a number of city schools expanded.  But there was hardly any science or philosophy yet.  Students were limited to a mixture of debating skills along with arithmetic and geometry (developed by foreign or pre-Christian cultures), music, astronomy, law (from surviving Roman texts) and what little  medicine had survived the previous centuries of suppression.

It took another century until Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa established the earliest principle of academic freedom in 1155 to allow free thought to flourish again, at the first universities.  Pope Alexander III later agreed to the idea.  It was the beginning of the end of European theocracy.

With the spread of scholasticism, philosophical splits between the faithful opened up, fuelled by the recovery of Greek and Arabic texts during the Reconquista in Spain.  Factions like the Donatists (who took to Aristotle) and Franciscans (followers of Augustine and Plato) quarrelled with each other.  New Christian sects sprang up.  The Church reacted by suppressing heresies with the first Inquisitions.  From 1252, Pope Innocent IV authorised torture in the investigations. Given the condemnations they faced, philosophers had to remain cautious about what they read, studied and debated.  Men like Roger Bacon and William of Ockham could only put down the barest philosophical foundations for science to begin again (the acquisition in Europe of mechanical technology from China and new mathematical concepts from India didn’t hurt, though).

The social changes brought about in the aftermath of the Black Death (1348), the shock of the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire (1453) and introduction of printing (which, from 1455, allowed people to read the Bible for themselves and not receive it from Church authorities) started to change the nature of Christianity.  With the Italian Renaissance, it became infused with an early form of humanism.  Church authority was challenged by the Protestant Reformation, and this did not proceed without a substantial amount of violence and destruction across the continent.

When Henry VIII founded a new religion based on his family values, he began appropriating Church property, and some university colleges found it useful to adapt in order to survive.  This is not to say that Protestant Christians were any more supportive of free thought, reason or scientific inquiry, however.  As Martin Luther put it:

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.

All this is to demonstrate that the first half of the second millennium was taken up with the social and economic changes required for science to take root again, and a necessary part of this was the weakening of Church authority (alternatively, one could see it as a weakening of the influence of the old Roman Empire).  By the middle of the millennium, Christianity had changed enough that it was (in some cases) no longer hostile to scientific inquiry.  The scientific revolution could begin at last.

In trying to explain why science in Europe surpassed that in China, Joseph Needham suggested that the Christian belief in a god which designed and created the world made it easier for European scientists to investigate the world, whereas the Chinese did not have the same religious or philosophical traditions:

It was not that there was no order in nature for the Chinese, but rather that it was not an order ordained by a rational personal being, and hence there was no conviction that rational personal beings would be able to spell out in their lesser earthly languages the divine code of laws which he had decreed aforetime.

While this may well be flattering to Christianity, it does overlook the fact that it was early Christians who supressed scientific development and education in the first place, that modern science was ultimately founded on the works of the ancient Greeks, predating Christianity, and that there are other plausible explanations for the lack of scientific progress in China.

As the mediaeval Arabic and subsequent Turkish empires found out, scientific progress depends on the right scocio-economic conditions.  Does this mean that religion is irrelevant?  Perhaps, if it doesn’t dominate a culture.

New-found freedom of thought meant increasing numbers of Christians could be scientists too.  Jesuit missionaries spread scientific knowledge around the world.  However, at the start of the scientific revolution, the Catholic Church still had enough clout for the likes of Nikolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei to cause controversy.  Galileo’s controversies with the Church extended beyond heliocentrism, and include his work Il Saggiatore, in which he picked a fight with a church astronomer (Galileo wrongly argued that comets did not orbit “above the moon”).

In Protestant countries, scientists and philosophers didn’t have to worry about upsetting the Pope, although in certain quarters you could still be executed for blasphemy during the lifetime of Sir Isaac Newton (who believed in God and dabbled in alchemy, but found the idea of the Trinity just that little bit too absurd – in private, of course).  18th century Enlightenment philosopher and sceptic David Hume, whose works contributed towards the philosophy of science, found his career derailed by Christians.

Newton’s beliefs raise an important point: the works of his which were built upon and led to further discoveries owed nothing to religion or the occult.  The same is true of all those scientists who were religious, whether Christian, Muslim or the pagans of antiquity.  Science does not ‘need’ religion.  If anything, it is a process which depends on being free of the things religions thrive on: blind acceptance; dogma; obedience to authority; suppression of opposing views.  Science does not concern itself with what we want to hear, and it may well overturn our cosy assumptions about the world.  For spiritual people like William Blake, this was troubling.

By the turn of the 19th century, European intellectual culture was starting to split between the free-thinkers and rationalists (such as Thomas Jefferson, who tried to edit the Bible so it made sense) and the rise of Romanticism (to which I would add the Christian Revival which added a distinctly nutty flavour to Christianity in the USA).

This didn’t matter when scientific discoveries were made in areas that did not contradict the Bible (or Biblically-inspired worldviews).  However, James Hutton’s geological timescale, which allowed the dating of dinosaur fossils and Darwin’s founding of evolutionary biology effectively debunked the Biblical account of the creation of the world.  Whatever gaps were left for a creator-god to fill shrank when cosmology showed that one wasn’t necessary to explain the origins of the universe.

Despite (or perhaps because of) mounting evidence for non-Biblical accounts of the world, this caused controversy for those who clung to the Biblical creation story.  But by the 20th century, creationists were not representative of the whole of Christianity, which was split not just by different sects or the strength of religiosity, but also political preferences, socioeconomic status and nationality.  Throughout the century, if there was one clear trend, it was that scientists were less and less likely to be Christian as well.

Education and affluence allow science to thrive, while religiosity decreases.  As science proved its worth, Christianity had to adapt, rather than oppose it.  In 1992, Pope John Paul II acquitted Galileo of heresy.  In 1996, he declared evolution to be a fact.

By the end of the second millennium Stephen Jay Gould declared that science would deal with investigating the world, religion could deal with moral and ethical issues.  There was no fight between science and Christianity; the two could happily coexist together.

Is this true?  What if science could answer moral and ethical issues?  Are science and Christianity allies or enemies in the 21st century?

To be continued…

 

Further Reading:
“The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages” (Edward Grant, 1996, Cambridge University Press)

“The Rise of Early Modern Science” (Toby Huff, 1993, Cambridge University Press)

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