The Imaginary War Between Christianity and Science

While much of our modern academia has tried to cut ties to Christianity, the Christian origin of the pursuit of knowledge remains foundational to the origins of science.

— Jeremy Blatchford.

It is a common perception that science and Christianity are at odds with each other. The story goes that Christianity has historically been at war with science and scientific progress. Historians like John Draper, William Whewell, and Andrew White would call upon common examples of Galileo, Columbus, and even a supposed belief in a flat Earth to suggest that the community of faith, in particular, the Christian faith, is anti-science; however, this is not the case. With some searching past the surface, one would find that terms such as the “Dark Ages” and the “Scientific Revolution” are misnomers employed in an attempt to lead the populace away from accurately understanding the relationship between science and Christianity. Even many alive today would urge that faith and science are at war, but we find examples that clearly undermine that conclusion. We can look back into history to see that Christianity has not only been pro-science, but also vital to the rise of the modern scientific method.

            Few are aware of the subtle alterations to the historical account of the development of the sciences. Seemingly harmless history texts now portray a scenario than what actually transpired. When one reads about the “Dark Ages,” one might assume that, during this period of the Middle Ages, very little new knowledge or technology was added. Often, it is suggested that scientific and technological advancement were suppressed by religious dogmatism. Many have been led to believe that, after the fall of Rome, there was a period of intellectual darkness[1].  Ignorance is supposed to have abounded, with many believing a ridiculous notion that the world was flat; yet, for centuries before the so-called “Dark ages,” people certainly understood that the world was round. As early as 240 BC, a Greek mathematician by the name of Eratosthenes made calculations based on the assumptions that the Earth was round. As the renowned librarian of Alexandria, (a vast storehouse of knowledge), Eratosthenes was incredibly skilled. He was able to accurately calculate the circumference of the Earth![2]  This happened far before 500-1500 AD, when the dark ages are claimed to have occurred.

So from where did Draper get the idea of a medieval Christian belief in a flat earth? He read William Whewell’s book History of Inductive Sciences, published about three decades earlier. Whewell… made intellectual stars out of two minor Christian authors, Lactantius and Cosmas Indicopleustes. Lactantius was a fourth-century pagan convert to Christianity who took particular delight in arguing against pretty much everything any pagan philosopher ever said, including that the earth was round. Christians wanted converts, but even they couldn’t stomach Lactantius, whose works were posthumously condemned.[3]

This link between Christianity and a belief in a flat Earth is incredibly weak, since the Church in general condemned that very message from those individuals. The other author who influenced Draper, Cosmas Indicopleustes, was apparently even more peculiar, since he boasted of his hopelessly literal mind. He frequently took scriptural passages literally, even when the vast majority of the church saw it as allegorical.[4] What’s more, even the Bible, we can find early evidence that the “flat-earth” concept was not commonly accepted. Isaiah 40:22 mentions the “circle” of the Earth, so it is silly to claim that the Christian church mandated the flat earth view; instead, it was perfectly fine with the evidence suggesting that the Earth was round.  The claim that people of the Dark Ages were simpleminded and held science back is in direct contradiction to the actual historical record.

            Another “historical” myth suggests that explorer Christopher Columbus set off on his famous voyage to prove that the Earth was round. “[John] Draper… popularized the “flat earth” myth, the idea that prior to Columbus there was a widespread, religiously-inspired belief that the earth was flat.”[5] In this account, few, including the church and Christian leaders, wanted to fund his voyage because they thought the concept of a round Earth was ludicrous. Much of this story also stems from historical accounts of White’s in his book A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. “Trouble is that almost every word of White’s account of the Columbus story is a lie. Every educated person of the time, including Roman Catholic prelates, knew the earth was round.”[6] Clearly, White and his cohorts had an agenda to divide the origins of science from Christianity.

When Columbus faced off with the Spanish cardinals, the issue was the size of the earth, not its shape. And the Cardinals were right: the earth was a heck of a lot bigger than Columbus believed. His mission was ill-conceived, and it failed. But it failed gloriously. Columbus went to his grave erroneously thinking he had bumped into some far corner of Asia.[7]

  As established, the majority of the civilized nations of the Middle Ages already knew the round shape of the globe. This attempt to degrade the church’s relation with science is again foiled.

            To those who would continue to claim that Christianity is in opposition to scientific advancement, it could be startling to discover that our modern university system of advanced learning was a construct from Christianity. “The university was a Christian invention that evolved from cathedral schools established to train monks and priests.”[8] From that original goal of training priests, there emanated a great thirst for knowledge of all types. It essentially flowed from theological training to the pursuit of a better understanding of God through his creation. After all, Romans 1:20 says “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”[9] This was seen as a clear invitation to discover more about the designer though his handiwork. . “…The rise of science was already far along by the sixteenth century, having been carefully nurtured by devout Scholastics in that most Christian invention, the university.”[10] The scientific method did not suddenly appear in the so-called “Scientific Revolution,” but rather was the product of centuries of growth. These centers of learning were not just some simple institutions that took on the name of university. “The University was something new under the sun—an institution devoted exclusively to “higher learning.” It was not a monastery or place for meditation.”[11] The first universities appeared in Paris and Bologna. Oxford, and Cambridge were also some of the first ones to be built and to develop.[12] By the early thirteenth centuries, some of the larger ones enrolled 1,000 to 1,500 students each: “It is estimated that during the first 150 years of their existence, European universities enrolled approximately 750,000 students—in an era when the population of London was never more than 35,000.”[13] These were not little schools! They were huge centers of learning and intellectual thought. Even Princeton University, another incredible, modern school, owes its origins to Christian antiquity. Their motto “Dei sub numine viget” stems from the university’s Puritan origins and means “Under the Protection of God She Flourishes.”[14] The Christian influence in the development of universities is well defined. While much of our modern academia has tried to cut ties to Christianity, the Christian origin of the pursuit of knowledge remains foundational to the origins of science.

            A common poster child of the whole church against science argument is none other than Galileo Galilei. Galileo has been credited with many incredible discoveries, and even been called the father of modern observational astronomy and science. He contributed to the fields of physics, astronomy, cosmology, and mathematics, among others.  As the story goes, “His [Galileo’s] advocacy of a heliocentric universe [the sun being the center of the solar system, not the Earth] brought him before religious authorities in 1616 and again in 1633, when he was forced to recant and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.”[15] This common tale pits the brilliance of Galileo against the authoritarian power of the church. “To secular scholars, Galileo Galilei… was a martyr to religious bigotry, demonstrating how pious superstition can shackle human knowledge.”[16] But is the church really to blame for repressing scientific discoveries? Was the Catholic Church abusing its power when it moved to censure Galileo?

According to Stark, Galileo was as much to blame as the church was for his misfortune: as with many people of intellect, sarcasm and wit can be present in spades, and Galileo had it in excess. His pointed insults and biting sarcasm came back to haunt him in the end. “…Galileo was not just an innocent victim: not only did he needlessly tempt fate, but he thoughtlessly placed the whole scientific enterprise itself in jeopardy.”[17] Not only was the church not against scientific progress, it also bend over backwards to cover for Galileo’s errors. Pope Urban VIII was actually a close friend of Galileo’s, and they often discussed his works.[18] Galileo’s tact was lacking during the sensitive times in the church as the Thirty Years War was raging, and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation camps were at odds for the theological high ground, leading to stricter definitions of orthodox theology.[19] The Pope then gave clear instructions for how Galileo could publish his works without inciting persecution from the church, but in his arrogance, Galileo failed to comply and was put under house arrest for the rest of his life.[20] In spite of the circumstances, Galileo “lived and died just as faithful to the Roman Catholic Church as Boyle was to the Anglican or Kepler to his Lutheran roots.”[21] This does not sound one iota like the science martyr oppressed by religious rule that secular historians seem to picture him as.  To see this as an instance of science versus the church, one must actually rewrite history.

            Rather than being anti-science, the Dark Ages were a time of abundant growth in the construction of the modern scientific method. Stark makes a strong case that the rise of Christianity was actually necessary to the growth of what we can label as true sciences.[22] Stark points out that “…earlier technical innovations of Greco-Roman times, Islam, of Imperial China, let alone those achieved in prehistoric times, do not constitute science and are better described as lore, skills, wisdom, techniques, crafts, technologies, engineering, learning, or simply knowledge.”[23] Studies along the lines of geometry do not qualify as purely scientific mainly because they only attempt to describe reality without really trying to explain it.  “Science is a method utilized in organized efforts to formulate explanations of nature, always subject to modifications and corrections through systematic observations.”[24]  Technological advancements were definitely seen in many civilizations, but none of it was, strictly speaking, science. Even China, which had remained in isolation for centuries, making much advancement in that time, had never found the necessary foundation to allow modern science to develop. What happened differently in Europe to allow for real science to blossom? Again, Stark has an answer.

“…the rise of science was not an extension of classical learning. It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: Nature exists because it was created by God. To love and honor God, one must fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork. Moreover, because God is perfect, his handiwork functions in accord with immutable principles. By the full use of our God-given powers of reason and observation, we ought to be able to discover these principles.”[25]

It was because of the rise of Christianity that science was founded, not despite it. The entire concept of the Dark Ages is revisionist history that aims to cover up the contributions that came from Christianity. Even the accounts of the eras following 1500 A.D. are tainted.  The “Enlightenment” and the “Scientific Revolution” are charade designations created to further push the estrangement between the birth of science from Christianity by inferring that the people lived in intellectual rejection to begin with. The undeniably Christian concept of creation being knowable and understandable because its creator was logical and constant, was vital to the formulation of modern scientific methodology.

            Still, some modern scientists cling to the concept that science and Christianity must be opposites, not allies, though the evidence remains resolute. Aggressive atheist Richard Dawkins pushes the idea that most faiths are opposed to science and reason.

If you ask people why they are convinced of the truth of their religion, they don’t appeal to heredity… Nor do they appeal to evidence. There isn’t any, and nowadays the better educated admit it. No, they appeal to faith. Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. The worst thing is that the rest of us are supposed to respect it: to treat it with kid gloves.[26] [emphasis added]

Not only does Dawkins assume that faith and religion are equivalents, but he assumes that they are blind. “From Hobbes through Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, false claims about religion and science have been used as weapons in the battle to ‘free’ the human mind from the ‘fetters of faith.’”[27] Clearly, Dawkins believes that religion thrives in the absence of rational thought, and that evidence all lies in the purview of science. From this view, one would assume that men of faith could not be good scientists, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Not only were great men like Galileo and the founders of the modern university system men of faith, but also the majority of the fathers of the modern sciences were believers in a higher power. Nicholas Copernicus, Sir Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, Lord Kelvin, and even Albert Einstein all believed in some form of God, and these men pioneered research into everything from astronomy to physics and from chemistry to genetics. The list continues into more recent times: George Washington Carver, one of the earliest black scientists in America, Francis Collins, the leader of the human genome project, and even the inventor of the MRI, Raymond Damadian, who was a strict Young Earth Creationist. All of these scientists, in some form or another, have faith in God. How can Dawkins’ premise be sound if so many vital players in the growth of science are also what he would call men of faith? While not all were Christians, all believed in the existence of a supernatural power. Science and faith, for these pioneers and more like them, are more than compatible in encouraging the pursuit of knowledge.

            Incontestably, there have been false accusations fielded against Christianity when it comes to the supposed struggle between it and science. The link between science and Christianity is solid, though many have bought into a revisionist history by false accounts. “Whewell, Draper, and White all made laudable contributions to science and society, but their involvement in the flat-earth error is a regrettable blot. They fabricated a false history highlighted by a non-existent dogma and used them to brand religion as unceasingly reactionary, dim-witted, and anti-science.”[28] Their claims could not be further from the truth. If it were not for the hunger for knowledge of creation and creator by Christians, our modern scientific method would not exist.

Works Cited

Mommsen, Theodor E. “Petrarch’s Conception of the ‘Dark Ages’.” Speculum17, no. 02 (1942): 226-242.

Steward, Doug “Erathosthenese,” (Accessed November 15, 2016).

Rossano, Matt J. “How the Myth of the Flat-Earth Dogma Started the Religion-Science War.” The Huffington Post. September 16, 2011. (Accessed November 6, 2016).

Stark, Rodney. For the glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts, and the end of slavery. Princeton University Press, 2015.

“Orange Key Virtual Tour” Last updated 25 September 2008. (Accessed November 10th, 2016) Staff. “Galileo Galilei.” 2010. Accessed November 06, 2016.

Owens, Virginia S. “Galileo and the Powers Above.” Christian History Issue 76 (vol. XXI, No.4) Intervarsity Press page 10

Dawkins, Richard. “The “know-nothings”, the “know-alls”, and the “no-contests.” A lecture by from The Nullifidian, December 1994.

[1] Mommsen, Theodor E. “Petrarch’s Conception of the ‘Dark Ages’.” Speculum 17, no. 02 (1942): 226-242.

[2] Steward, Doug “Erathosthenese,” (Accessed November 15, 2016).

[3] Rossano, Matt J. “How the Myth of the Flat-Earth Dogma Started the Religion-Science War.” The Huffington Post. September 16, 2011. Accessed November 6, 2016.

[4] Ibid

[5] Rossano, “How the Myth of the Flat-Earth Dogma Started the Religion-Science War.”

[6] Stark, Rodney. For the glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts, and the end of slavery. Princeton University Press, 2015, 122

[7] Rossano, “How the Myth of the Flat-Earth Dogma Started the Religion-Science War.”

[8] Stark, For the Glory of God, 62

[9] Rom. 1:20 (ESV)

[10] Stark, For the Glory of God, 134

[11] Imdb, 63

[12] Imdb, 62

[13] Imdb 63

[14] “Orange Key Virtual Tour” Last updated 25 September 2008.

[15] Staff. “Galileo Galilei.” 2010. Accessed November 06, 2016.

[16] Owens, Virginia S. “Galileo and the Powers Above.” Christian History Issue 76 (vol. XXI, No.4) Intervarsity Press page 10

[17] Stark, For the Glory of God, 165

[18] Ibid, 164.

[19] Stark, For the Glory of God. 164.

[20] Ibid,164.

[21] Owens, Galileo and the Powers Above, 10.

[22] Stark, For the Glory Of God, 157.

[23] Ibid, 125.

[24] Ibid, 124.

[25] Stark, For the Glory Of God, 157.

[26] Dawkins, Richard. “The “know-nothings”, the “know-alls”, and the “no-contests.” A lecture by from The Nullifidian, December 1994.

[27] Stark, For the Glory of God, 123

[28] Rossano, “How the Myth of the Flat-Earth Dogma Started the Religion-Science War.”

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