A statue of Tycho Brahe in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photograph: iStock
Many people think science and Christianity have always and inevitably been at loggerheads. But this impression grossly misinterprets the truth of the situation as described by Nicholas Spencer in his just-published book Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion, and by social historian Rodney Stark in Bearing false Witness (2016).
In fact, one respectable hypothesis claims the reason modern science arose in Europe in the 15th-17th centuries was because Europe was Christian.
I outlined this hypothesis in my column in early January and was taken to task last month by Prof David McConnell, fellow emeritus in genetics at Trinity College Dublin and honorary president of the Humanist Association of Ireland.
[ The origins of the scientific revolution in Europe ]
This hypothesis is based on the Christian concept of a rational/consistent God who created an orderly universe understandable by human reasoning and worthy of investigation. Of course, Muslim and Jewish concepts of God are similar. The hypothesis is logical and worthy of consideration, although it cannot be proved right or wrong.
This Christianity origin-of-modern-science hypothesis has a long history with some distinguished scientific supporters, such as philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), co-author with Bertrand Russell of Principia Mathematica (1910-1913).
He also proposed that images of God/creation in non-European faiths were too impersonal or irrational to have sustained science, an opinion shared by sociobiologist EO Wilson (1929-2021). John Polkinghorne (1930-2020), professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, who played an important role in discovering the quark, also supported this hypothesis.
The Scientific Revolution was conducted by scientists freed by the Reformation (1517) from blinkered Catholicism
McConnell traces interactions between science and religion from classical times, through the Islamic golden age of science, the Middle Ages, Scientific Revolution and onwards, but he takes little account of historical revisions made over the past 50 years as described by Spencer and Stark in their respective books.
The conventional pre-revision story, frequently recounted to this day, and largely adhered to by McConnell, goes as follows: following the fall of Rome (476), Europe entered the Dark Ages (476-1453), a Catholic-dominated era where little or nothing happened and, to quote Enlightenment anti-Catholic philosopher Voltaire (1695-1778), “barbarism, superstition and ignorance covered the face of the world”.
And in McConnell’s words, “any scientific work had little impact and few important advances in science or maths can be traced to the first 1,000 years of Christian Europe”. Later, as church dominance waned, the Dark Ages were succeeded by the Renaissance (1400-1600), Scientific Revolution (1543-1687) and the Enlightenment (1715-1789), allowing people to advance knowledge unhindered by theology. The Scientific Revolution was conducted by scientists freed by the Reformation (1517) from blinkered Catholicism.
However, revised historical interpretations portray the Dark Ages as comparable in vibrancy to any other age. Notable advances were made – water and wind power generation, Gothic architecture, agriculture (crop-rotation, heavy plough, horse-collar), warfare (cannons, heavy-armoured cavalry), musical notation, invention/foundation of universities, science (detailed below) and much more.
Stark records the scientific work done by clerics in church-founded medieval universities, including Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253), Albertus Magnus (1200 -1280), Roger Bacon (1214-1294), William of Ockham (1295-1349) and Nicole D’Oresme (1325-1382). Grosseteste proclaimed observation was the basis of science and introduced the concept of the controlled scientific experiment.
A statue of Galileo Galilei in Florence. Photograph: iStock
Space in the solar system was identified as a frictionless vacuum, allowing heavenly bodies to continue in motion forever (Ockham). It was discovered that Earth turned on its axis and perceptions of a stationary Earth in space were unreliable (D’Orsme). Such work established the primacy of empiricism over authority, essential for the emergence of modern science.
The big discoveries of the Scientific Revolution were made by devout Christians in universities, founded and supported by the church and building on previous work largely done by churchmen: Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and others. But in McConnell’s opinion, “the church opposed science; it did not espouse it”.
Of course, interactions between Christianity and science have been fractious at times, for example the church made a serious error in the Galileo affair. However, as Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-890) pointed out, there was never a second “Galileo affair”.
I am unaware of any unresolved clashes between mainstream Christianity and science. Explaining the natural physical world is accepted to be the work of science, not theology. I believe McConnell’s interpretations are mistaken and, by and large, his model of endemic conflict between science and mainstream Christianity is a myth.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC
© 2023 The Irish Times DAC
© 2023 The Irish Times DAC
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