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Modern Science’s Christian Sources


Back in 1978, Carl Sagan included a time line of scientific progress in his book Cosmos, showing that nothing at all happened between a.d. 415 and a.d. 1543. This barren period, he implied, was caused by the thousand-year dominance of Christianity. The “conflict thesis” of science and religion was born in the salons of ancien régime France, where philosophes like Voltaire and d’Alembert used it as a weapon against the Catholic Church. It was further developed in Victorian England by T. H. Huxley in his battle to diminish the influence of the clergy in London’s Royal Society. And it was perfected in American universities by the likes of Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell University, who provided the theory with intellectual ballast in his heavily annotated A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology at the end of the nineteenth century. It has been promoted in countless articles in popular magazines and elementary-school textbooks.

The history of science is the story of how we went from being fundamentally wrong about the natural world to being, in large part, right. Science as we imagine it today—with laboratories, experiments, and a professional culture—did not appear until the nineteenth century, but its origins can be found much earlier, in the period commonly known as the “scientific revolution.” And the “scientific revolution” was a continuation of developments that started deep in the Middle Ages among people whose scientific work expressed their religious belief. The conflict thesis, in other words, is a myth.

The thesis rests on two further myths about scientific progress. First, many people still believe that science has advanced by fighting religious superstition and making the world safe for rational inquiry. It is true that certain religious doctrines contradict some scientific discoveries. The creation/evolution controversy is a case in point, but such quarrels have been surprisingly rare. Even the infamous trial of Galileo, the other example of conflict most often cited, was an aberration in the Catholic Church’s usual supportive attitude toward science.

The “scientific revolution” in the seventeenth century coincided with the period when Christian belief in Europe was at its strongest. Only after science had triumphed did religion start to suffer any sort of decline. And, if Christianity had tried to hold back scientific progress, the chances are that it would have succeeded. Modern science would not have arisen in Christian Europe at all.

As it happens, much of the evidence marshaled in favor of the conflict thesis turns out to be bogus. The Church never tried to outlaw the number zero or human dissection; no one was burnt at the stake for scientific ideas; and no educated person in the Middle Ages thought that the world was flat, whatever interpretations of the Bible might imply. Popes have had better things to do than ban vaccination or lightning conductors on churches. The thought of a pope excommunicating Halley’s Comet is absurd, but this has not prevented the tale of Calixtus III doing just that from entering scientific folklore.

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