Science and Christianity: allies or enemies?

The following is collated from a series of articles written in March, April, and May 2012, in response to a talk I attended on the subject Science and Christianity: Allies or Enemies? The talk was given by a Professor of Physics
who was also an active Christian, preaching sermons at a local church.

I: One man’s personal view

His stated intention was to show that there is no incompatibility between Christianity and science; that Christianity and science were neither allies nor enemies.  If he stopped here, things would have been fine; I could go along with that.  But he didn’t.  He started with a conclusion and backed it up with a series of weak half-arguments that were meant to show Christianity was an ally.

  • He pointed out why creationism is a non-starter and that a literal interpretation of the bible will not work; it is so self-contradictory it doesn’t even need science to disprove it.  In any case, most Christians aren’t creationists, and most Christians can happily accept science; the Professor made no further mention of them.
  • The Professor defined ‘scientism’ as the view that only scientific claims have any validity or meaning, which, he said, required faith in science.  I got the impression the Professor quite liked the idea that science could be a ‘faith’ position; that science and Christianity could both be equivalent (he described Charles Darwin as “Dawkins’ God”).  In his view we all have faith (for example, we all had ‘faith’ that the food laid out for us hadn’t been poisoned).
  • The Bible’s self-contradictions therefore meant one of two things: either it was written by idiots, or it is not meant to be taken literally.  He sees the two creation myths in Genesis as poetry, not claims of truth.  This is not a modern view; even St Augustine of Hippo said you shouldn’t take it literally!
  • He made a brief aside about the fact that neuroscience has advanced to the level where we can scan the brain activity of believers having religious experiences; his only comment on this was, in effect, to shrug it off by saying “So what?” – they could scan his brain while he does his work as a physicist too.  What was the big deal?  He did not elaborate or develop the point.
  • He went on to assert that Christianity supported the development of modern science and that modern science could not have started without it.  “Chinese science” was once supreme, but it withered; “Islamic science”, too, was once highly regarded, but no longer.  This shows the incompatibility of Chinese ancestor-worship and Islam with science, unlike Christianity.  He confessed that he wasn’t an expert in history, just “that he had an interest” in it.
  • The professor concluded by saying that he can be a scientist and a Christian at the same time; a father, stamp-collector and musician too.  None of these things contradict each other; and he doesn’t need to “remove his brain” when he goes from the lab to the church.  Therefore, Christianity is not an enemy of science.

He has certainly satisfied himself that there is no argument between (his particular variety of) Christianity and science; that the two are neither allies nor enemies.  He even used a handy analogy to flatter his faith: Christianity is like an operating system on a computer.  Other religions represent other operating systems; and science is a faith too, since scientists require faith that it works.  Any argument between scientists and believers is no more than an argument over which OS is better.

I rather naively thought he might have something intelligent to say; a weighty argument examining the long history between Christianity in all its forms and the process of science.  Instead, what I heard was a Gish Gallop of factual errors, strawmen, No True Scotsman fallacies, a cherry-picked selection of quotations and poetry he thought supported his argument (which made me facepalm repeatedly), and that snide comment about Richard Dawkins (at which point I really did beat my head against the wall). By the time we were asked if we had any questions, I was a twitching wreck; I didn’t even know where to begin.

The Professor’s first serious problem was his evasion of dealing with creationists and all the other anti-scientific varieties of Christianity which have cropped up in the past two millennia.  Yes, there are many  modern, liberal, open-minded Christians in the UK today; but this does not mean you can ignore those Christians, historical and contemporary, who reject science.  If one is to argue about whether or not Christianity and science are allies or enemies, one must account for them too.  Perhaps the Professor was embarrassed by them?  Perhaps reconciling their views, with his own belief that his faith did not conflict science, was just too difficult?  I really wished he had the intellectual courage to tackle this, instead of dodging the matter entirely, but then I don’t have to deal with the cognitive dissonance this must generate, given that I’m not a Christian apologist.

How does one define ‘Christianity’?  The words attributed to Yeshua bar-Yosef and his followers?  The teachings of one or several church authorities?  The opinions of those who describe themselves as “Christians” for whatever reason?  Modern Christians, or all Christians since it began?  If one excludes a particular subset, one must have a good reason why (beyond making things easy for yourself).

The professor did well to point out the contradictions within the Bible, but I felt he was missing a third conclusion to come from this fact: he said this meant the Bible was either written by idiots, OR it was not meant to be taken literally, but he shied away from suggesting both might be true together. The contents of the Bible were decided upon in the Council of Nicaea in 325AD – which bits would stay in, which would be left out, and what order they would be presented in – in other words, the Bible was put together by committee in an attempt to satisfy disparate factions from across the Roman Empire.  I found the Professor’s historical references were highly selective to say the least.

St Augustine can certainly be recruited to bolster the argument that the Bible shouldn’t be read literally, but the topic under discussion was about Christianity and science, not scriptural literalism.  St Augustine is perhaps not the best person to quote, if you insist on Christianity’s pro-science credentials.

There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try to discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.

The quote is from Confessions where Augustine says pursuit of knowledge for its own sake made him an arrogant young man.  He much preferred faith to curiosity:

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.

The Professor used the word ‘faith’ as a catch-all term for a number of things; he has faith in Christianity (although just how literally he takes the gospels I do not know); he has faith that science works; and he has faith that his food isn’t poisoned.  I would suggest he needs to be much clearer about what he means in each case; he is using semantics to obfuscate rather than enlighten.

  • I would describe ‘faith’ in the religious sense as ‘blind acceptance’, which is more or less how Augustine saw it (except that Augustine thought this was a good thing).
  • I would describe ‘faith’ in untainted food as ‘reasonable expectation based on past experience’; if your hosts have provided food before without killing anyone, and if they have no motive to kill you, it’s a reasonable bet they won’t kill you this time; it is trust, and trust is earned.
  • ‘Faith’ in science is similar to the reasonable expectations based on past experience, with the crucial distinction of falsifiability; a scientific claim is only assumed to be true until evidence shows otherwise, at which point it must be modified or rejected.  This is incompatible with the ‘faith’ required to be religious.

Science has shown itself to be a robust process for finding out how the world works, and is strong enough that anyone who tries to lie or cheat or make unjustifiable claims will be found out.  It is hard to think of anything else which has had the same success; in the 21st century, there really is nothing better for making meaningful, valid claims about the world.  It is pointless to refer to “Chinese” or “Islamic” science, when the process and discoveries work independently of national borders or creeds.

‘Scientism’ can be used in a dismissive, even pejorative, way: scientists poking their noses in things they can’t or shouldn’t; a hollow reductionist view of the world that permits no aesthetic (“spiritual”) pleasure.  I was bemused to see a professor of physics use the word in this way, when all it is, in Michael Shermer’s description, is a worldview that does not resort to the supernatural.  Nothing is off-limits, nothing is sacred and if this threatens one’s religious beliefs, too bad.  And if one chooses to celebrate scientists for their intellectual achievements, that’s one’s prerogative; just don’t conflate this with veneration of supernatural beings.

This leaves the historical perspective of the interaction between Christianity and science.  I do feel this history deserves a more in-depth investigation, especially since it will do much to answer the Professor’s question.

II: 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?

III: The Second Millennium

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?

IV: Postscript

Ten years on from The God Delusion, it would appear that the political influence of Christianity on scientific research, teaching, and reporting (particularly in the USA) has declined to the point of irrelevance. Taking the historical view, Christianity cannot be said to be an ally of the scientific process, and on occasion religious leaders and people in power have been outright hostile. Religion is irrelevant to scientific discovery, and science is only an unintentional threat, when its finding contradict texts or dogma.

For individuals, this would only be a problem for those who are unwilling or unable to pick and choose what aspects of their faith to follow. For others, such as the professor, there is no problem ignoring the contradictions, inaccuracies, or impossibilities in scripture; in his case it is possible to think of himself as both a scientist and a Christian, like many others before him. But science is what he does; being a Christian is what he privately believes; and it is up to him to choose what he feels is more important in any given moment.

Science and Christianity may not be allies or enemies; but historically, Christian leaders have successfully impeded scientific progress and scientific teaching.

This article (sans postscript)  previously appeared in three parts on the Twentyfirst Floor blog in 2012.

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)

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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