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Did the Christian Middle Ages Help or Hinder the Scientific Revolution?

James Hannam, in a guest post on the nature.com blog:

“Few topics are as open to misunderstanding as the relationship between faith and reason. The ongoing clash of creationism with evolution obscures the fact that Christianity has actually had a far more positive role to play in the history of science than commonly believed. Indeed, many of the alleged examples of religion holding back scientific progress turn out to be bogus. For instance, the Church has never taught that the Earth is flat and, in the Middle Ages, no one thought so anyway. Popes haven’t tried to ban zero, human dissection or lightening rods, let alone excommunicate Halley’s Comet. No one, I am pleased to say, was ever burnt at the stake for scientific ideas. Yet, all these stories are still regularly trotted out as examples of clerical intransigence in the face of scientific progress.

Admittedly, Galileo was put on trial for claiming it is a fact that the Earth goes around the sun, rather than just a hypothesis as the Catholic Church demanded. Still, historians have found that even his trial was as much a case of papal egotism as scientific conservatism. It hardly deserves to overshadow all the support that the Church has given to scientific investigation over the centuries.

That support took several forms. One was simply financial. Until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research. Starting in the Middle Ages, it paid for priests, monks and friars to study at the universities. The church even insisted that science and mathematics should be a compulsory part of the syllabus. And after some debate, it accepted that Greek and Arabic natural philosophy were essential tools for defending the faith. By the seventeenth century, the Jesuit order had become the leading scientific organisation in Europe, publishing thousands of papers and spreading new discoveries around the world. The cathedrals themselves were designed to double up as astronomical observatories to allow ever more accurate determination of the calendar. And of course, modern genetics was founded by a future abbot growing peas in the monastic garden.

But religious support for science took deeper forms as well. It was only during the nineteenth century that science began to have any practical applications. Technology had ploughed its own furrow up until the 1830s when the German chemical industry started to employ their first PhDs. Before then, the only reason to study science was curiosity or religious piety. Christians believed that God created the universe and ordained the laws of nature. To study the natural world was to admire the work of God. This could be a religious duty and inspire science when there were few other reasons to bother with it. It was faith that led Copernicus to reject the ugly Ptolemaic universe; that drove Johannes Kepler to discover the constitution of the solar system; and that convinced James Clerk Maxwell he could reduce electromagnetism to a set of equations so elegant they take the breathe away.

Given that the Church has not been an enemy to science, it is less surprising to find that the era which was most dominated by Christian faith, the Middle Ages, was a time of innovation and progress. Inventions like the mechanical clock, glasses, printing and accountancy all burst onto the scene in the late medieval period. In the field of physics, scholars have now found medieval theories about accelerated motion, the rotation of the earth and inertia embedded in the works of Copernicus and Galileo. Even the so-called “dark ages” from 500AD to 1000AD were actually a time of advance after the trough that followed the fall of Rome. Agricultural productivity soared with the use of heavy ploughs, horse collars, crop rotation and watermills, leading to a rapid increase in population.”

Read the whole article.

For more about Christianity’s contribution to science, Hannam’s book The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution is available now.

HT: Wintery Knight

Christianity, the Middle Ages, and the Birth of Science

The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Regnery Publishing, 2011) is a new book by physicist and historian of science James Hannam that challenges the myth that the Middles Ages were a time of ignorance and superstition. He recently talked to The Daily Caller about the book:

 

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Mythbusting: Historical fables about Christianity and Science

In discussing the history of science and faith, stereotypes and caricatures come easy. Michael Flynn has written a lengthy but excellent post engaging several distortions and errors about Christianity and it’s impact on the rise of science, particularly during the Middle Ages. His response is to an essay on Christianity, science and the Dark Ages and ably shows why it is important to get your facts straight.

Here are some of the myths he untangles:

  • Scientific investigation virtually stopped once Constantine established orthodox Christianity at the Council of Nicaea
  • The Christians tried to destroy all pagan and scientific literature, including the great libraries of the world.
  • The destruction of the library of Alexandra and the murder of Hypatia in 415 CE by Christians, marked the beginning of the Dark Ages.
  • Hypatia was murdered by Christians for religious reasons.
  • The priests of Christianity kept the public from education, including the study of their own Bible.
  • When Christianity took over Europe, scientific and engineering advancement virtually stopped.
  • The Church banned Greek and Roman medicine during the Black Plague and sought religious instead of medical solutions.
  • Not until the 1530s, when religious authority was finally under question, did important Roman medical texts get translated
  • Priest Giordano Bruno was executed for the charge of holding scientific opinions contrary to the Catholic faith.
  • Galileo was imprisoned for his heretical ideas of the heliocentric solar system
  • The Greek thinker, Aristarchus, developed the first heliocentric theory in 270 BCE, not Copernicus
  • Archimedes invented the concept of infinity and calculus long before the arrival of Christianity.
  • There were no Christian scientists in the Dark Ages. And they only began to appear during the Renaissance, as the influence of the church began to wane.

Read the whole post (and browse some of the books on the subject that he recommends).

Sources: Glenn at the Beretta Blog and Quodlibeta.