The War That Wasn’t

Science and ReligionMany skeptics love to talk about the “war” between Science and Christianity.  They characterize Christianity as one of the great evils of the world perpetrating ignorance and superstition while Science is in the noble and relentless pursuit of truth at all costs.  Of course, because of Christianity’s vast reach and power, it has persecuted and suppressed Science in an ultimately fruitless attempt to hide its own fallacies.  At least that’s how the story goes.

This narrative has been recounted by many, and has been recently re-popularized by secular writers such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.  The basic charge is summarized by David Mills in his book Atheist Universe where he states “It is no coincidence, therefore, that Christianity’s longest period of sustained growth and influence occurred during what historians refer to as the Dark Ages.”  He goes on to add, “Fifteen hundred years of progress were therefore stifled by the Christian church.  Were it not for religious persecution and oppression of science, mankind might have landed on the moon in the year AD 650.”1  These are pretty strong statements.  Are they true?

The Dark Ages

Let’s review the oft reported charge that the rise of Christianity was a proximate cause of the Dark Ages and suppressed 1,000+ years of advancement.  While this theory receives a lot support among popular atheist writers, it has long been rejected by most historians2, 3, 4.  The theory makes the common mistake of confusing correlation with causation.  As an illustration, one could note that an increase in life expectancy during the first half of the 20th century happened at the same time as an increase in smoking rates and conclude that smoking causes people to live longer.  Clearly, that is a ridiculous conclusion.  Proponents of the “Christians caused the Dark Ages” narrative make the same mistake.

There are several reasons we know Christianity did not cause the Dark Ages:

  • First, there were many complex societal changes occurring at this time. To simplify 1,000+ years of history to one factor (the rise of Christianity) is a bit elementary.
  • The so-called Dark Ages were not as dark as we have been led to believe. While scientific discovery did slow down, it hardly stopped.  The term “Dark Ages” is actually applied more because for so long we had little information about the era.  In other words, we were “in the dark” about it.  The “darkness” applied more to our information than it did to their culture.5
  • The slow-down in scientific discovery had much more to do with centuries of warfare from Vikings, barbarians, and Muslim raiders than with the rise of Christianity.6
  • While there was some church-sanctioned censorship of select scientific and literary works, it was not as widespread as reported and often local in nature.7 How do we know?  Because copies of the supposedly banned writings have survived until today and many of them were actually preserved by Christian monks who labored to make hand copies of the works of Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Simplicius, and many more.8
  • The view that 1,500 years of scientific advancement were crushed by the church takes a very narrow view of history. The Dark Ages only applied to the former Western Roman Empire after its collapse, not to the entire world.  The Eastern Empire (the Byzantine Empire) was also Christian but did not experience any Dark Age.

Not only did the Christian church serve as one of the institutions that actually preserved great literature and science during the Dark Ages, but many of the people responsible for creating modern science were Christian.  This list includes such pioneers as Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Charles Babbage, John Dalton, James Joule, William Thomson Kelvin, James Clerk Maxwell, Gregor Mendel, Blaise Pascal, Louis Pasteur, and Sir Isaac Newton, among others.9

In fact, the Christian worldview helped give birth to modern science in the West.  Because of their Christian faith, many of the scientists mentioned above believed that the universe acted according to rational, observable laws created by God.  Science was their means of exploring God’s creation.10

This view stands in contrast to Greek culture which subscribed to a “cyclical” worldview11.  Because of their philosophy, the Greeks, who are often admired for being scientifically advanced, made some very basic and unscientific mistakes.  A perfect example is how Aristotle felt that heavy objects fall faster than light ones, without ever bothering to test it.  It was actually a Christian, John Philoponus, who discovered this was not the case in the 6th century (during the “unscientific” Dark Ages!).12

Many claims of the church suppressing science for “1,500 years” also turn out to be little more than urban legend.  Claims that the church banned the number zero, fought lightning rods and anesthesia, excommunicated Halley’s Comet, and forbade dissection all turned out to be false.13 Actual instances of the church interfering with science tended to be few and far between.  When they did occur they were often of limited local impact, political rather than religious in nature, or blown out of proportion.

Reexamining the Galileo Case

A perfect illustration of how the church’s “persecution” of science has been greatly exaggerated is the atheists’ poster-child example:  Galileo.  The typical narrative is that Galileo discovered that the Earth revolved around the Sun (heliocentrism) in the early 17th century, contrary to the church’s teaching.  The church, unwilling to admit that the Bible was wrong, drug Galileo before the Inquisition, charged him with heresy, and threatened him with torture and execution until he recanted of his views.  It makes a great story.  But, it isn’t true.

First of all, it is important to recognize that the Bible takes no position on whether the Sun revolves around the Earth or not.  There are passages that talk of the Sun rising and setting, but that is no different than the way we talk today.  Psalm 104:5 does say “He set the Earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved.”  However, the Psalms often use poetic language, and within the context of Psalm 104, this is clearly the case.  Psalm 104 also talks about the “wings of the wind” and discusses how light is God’s clothing and the clouds are His chariot.   Clearly these are not literal passages.

Secondly, we have to realize that the majority science viewpoint in Galileo’s time, based on the evidence of the day, was that the Sun revolved around the Earth.  Heliocentrism was known as a theory, and even accepted by some of the church’s Jesuit astronomers, but it was the minority view.  Since heliocentrism was not the majority view, and it appeared to conflict with a literal reading of the passages mentioned above, the church felt that while it was possible, it could not be supported as fact.  Consequently, Galileo was asked not to teach or promote the theory until it was proven.  Galileo, being a practicing Catholic, agreed.14

However, after a few years, a new pope was named and Galileo decided he was now safe to advocate for heliocentrism.  He may have been correct, except that his defense of the theory, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, took the form of a discussion between himself and a pope-like character Simplicio (“Simpleton”) where Galileo eloquently refuted the arguments of his opponent.  In other words, he reneged on his agreement and did so by publically mocking the pope.15

At the same time, Galileo made the mistake of advancing his own theory of scriptural interpretation.  Now Galileo was really stepping on the church’s toes.  Scriptural interpretation was viewed as solely the church’s domain.  And since this was the age of the Reformation, and the Catholic Church’s authority over scripture was already being questioned, it was an especially difficult time to pick this battle.16

So, Galileo was not persecuted specifically for advocating heliocentrism.  Rather, he got into trouble for reneging on his earlier commitment, mocking the pope publically, and reinterpreting scripture without the church’s blessing.  For doing these things, he was brought before the Inquisition, but he was never actually charged with heresy.  Incredibly, at his hearing, he made the whole matter worse by lying and saying that he never advocated heliocentrism in the first place!17

However, when it was all over, Galileo was not threatened with torture or execution.  His punishment was limited to house arrest, where he continued his scientific research in peace and published other works.18

While the Catholic Church was wrong to try and keep him quiet, Galileo was certainly not just an innocent victim.  He made numerous poor and egotistical decisions that greatly compounded his troubles.  So, given the fuller facts of the story, we can see that both Galileo’s innocence and the church’s guilt have been greatly overstated.

The Modern “Battlefield”

Perhaps the most famous modern example of the “war” between Science and Christianity is the issue of the Theory of Evolution.  But again, the common narrative is nowhere close to the whole story.  First, there are many Christians that view the Genesis account as allegorical or poetic.  While there are theological concerns with this view, it does illustrate that the “war” is certainly not widespread.

More importantly, while there is no doubt that the flora and fauna of earth have changed over time, there are valid scientific reasons to doubt that evolution occurs in the manner theorized by Darwin.  In fact, the theorized Darwinian “mechanism of action” exhibits multiple problems and is still being debated by scientists today:

  • Based on observed rates of mutation and the chances of those mutations providing a survival benefit, the probability of “amoeba to man” evolution occurring naturally is effectively zero.19
  • Mutations distort or destroy existing genetic information. They do not increase it.  But “amoeba to man” evolution requires countless information increases.  Science has never seen this occur once!20
  • Science has never observed life form from non-life, nor even formulated a viable and testable theory by which it can occur. Yet it has to have happened for purely naturalistic evolution to be true.

The issues above merely scratch the surface.  Because each is individually fatal to naturalistic evolution, there is tremendous debate within the scientific community on how it actually works.21   In other words, it is a theory in desperate search of a workable mechanism that fits the observable evidence.  So evolutionary scientists are at “war” with themselves almost as much as with Christians!

Unfortunately, this debate on evolution is only discussed within scientific circles.  The chinks in the theory’s armor are never discussed in text books or in the mainstream press.  But the debate still rages on.  In fact, Dr. Stephen Meyer cataloged 100 peer-reviewed academic articles in respected scientific publications detailing the vast disagreements over how evolution actually works.22

Rather than openly discuss the challenges facing evolution, secular skeptics instead portray creationists as uneducated and ignorant rubes that ignore the evidence.  The truth is that the vast majority of creationists study the same evidence as everyone else.  They do not deny the fossil record or the fact that life has changed over time.  These facts are clear.  Where creationists primarily disagree with evolutionists is on the exact point that evolutionists disagree among themselves…the mechanism behind biological diversity.  The real difference is that creationists clearly point to God as their causal agent while secular science cannot point to a viable mechanism.

The Bible…Validated!

Further, while the Bible was not written as a scientific work, it does offer commentary about the physical world.  At times, what the Bible says and what science claim about the physical world seem to conflict.  Sometimes this is due to a misinterpretation of the biblical text, as in the case of the Catholic Church literally interpreting the poetic language of Psalm 104.  But often, as science progresses, it is the Bible that is vindicated and science that must be reinterpreted!

For example, over thousands of years, scientists and pagans agreed that the universe was eternal.  It was St. Augustine in the 4th century who first theorized a finite universe where space and time came into existence together based on the Bible.23 Roughly fifteen hundred years later, science finally caught up and agreed with this premise via the Big Bang theory.  Further, in Genesis 1:2, before the earth and sun were created, the Bible makes the curious statement that God “hovered over the face of the waters.”  In 2005, scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory were performing high energy, atomic collisions to learn about the early universe.  Amazingly, they discovered that the early universe probably acted like a “perfect liquid.”24 So in terms of the creation of the physical world, it is Science that has had to “catch up” to what the Bible claimed all along!

In the field of behavior and morality, the Bible teaches very clearly that people are made in the “image of God” but that our very nature has been corrupted by sin, even from birth.  However, most secular psychologists have believed that people are born without any inherent sense of right and wrong and only learn it via social conditioning.  But recent studies at Yale University are showing something very interesting.  Research on babies as young as three months old shows we seem to have a “universal moral core that all humans share.”  But, alarmingly, we also have innate selfishness, unfairness, and even hatred.  One researcher states “…we’re not that moral.  We have an initial moral sense that is in some ways very impressive, and in some ways, really depressing.”25  These findings are revolutionary to science.  But they are exactly what the Bible has taught all along.  We have an innate moral compass because we are made in God’s image.  But it has been corrupted by sin, even from birth.

Conclusion

When looking objectively at history, we can see that the oft reported “war” between science and Christianity is largely a myth.  Science is a wonderful tool for understanding the physical world and solving many of our daily problems.  Christianity is a means of understanding the spiritual world, developing a relationship with God, and solving our individual sin problem.  There is no inherent conflict.  There may have been some skirmishes throughout the past 2,000 years, but these have typically been misunderstandings between specific scientists and specific Christians, not battles within a larger war.  There is absolutely no reason for science to question Christianity, nor is there reason for Christians to fear or ignore science.

Notes:

  1. David Mills, Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism.  Berkley, CA: Ulysses Press 2006.  49
  2. Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity? Carol Steam, IL:  Tyndale House Publishers 2007.  104
  3. Tim O’Neill https://www.quora.com/Did-Christianity-cause-the-Dark-Ages
  4. Tim O’Neill https://www.quora.com/Why-did-science-make-little-real-progress-in-Europe-in-the-Middle-Ages/answer/Tim-ONeill-1?share=1
  5. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Dark_Ages
  6. Alex Berezow http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexberezow/2013/10/21/jerry-coynes-twisted-history-of-science-religion/
  7. Tim O’Neill https://www.quora.com/Why-did-science-make-little-real-progress-in-Europe-in-the-Middle-Ages/answer/Tim-ONeill-1?share=1
  8. Humphrey Clark https://www.quora.com/Did-Christianity-cause-the-Dark-Ages
  9. Michael Bumbulis, Ph.D http://www.ldolphin.org/bumbulis/#anchor5332524
  10. D’Souza, pgs. 98-99
  11. Bumbulis http://www.ldolphin.org/bumbulis/#anchor5332524
  12. Alex Berezow http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexberezow/2013/10/21/jerry-coynes-twisted-history-of-science-religion/
  13. Ibid
  14. D’Souza, pgs. 107-110
  15. Ibid, pgs. 110-111
  16. Ibid, pg. 111
  17. Ibid, pgs. 111-112
  18. Ibid, pgs. 112-113
  19. Stephen Meyer, Ph.D. Darwin’s Doubt:  The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design.  New York, NY:  Harper One 2013.  202-208.
  20. Jonathan Sarfati, Ph.D. Refuting Evolution 2.  Green Forest, AR:  Master Books 2002.  102
  21. Meyer, Prologue pg. ix
  22. Ibid, Prologue pg. xi
  23. D’Souza, pg. 87
  24. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4462209.stm
  25. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/born-good-babies-help-unlock-the-origins-of-morality/
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