The truth about science and religion

In 1925 the renowned philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead speaking to scholars at Harvard said that science originated in Christian Europe in the 13th century.  Whitehead pointed out that science arose from “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher”, from which it follows that human minds created in that image are capable of understanding nature.

The audience, assuming that science and Christianity are enemies, was astonished.

Equally astonished are scientists writing in the March 12 edition of Nature, the respected science journal. These scientists are studying a treatise written in 1225 by Robert Grosseteste, a bishop and theologian, which is “dense with mathematical thinking” as it describes the birth of the universe “four centuries before Newton proposed gravity and seven centuries before the Big Bang theory.” 

Science itself developed from the medieval university, another uniquely Western institution.  And universities were favored by popes and kings, who were protective of the institutions which they chartered and funded.  In fact, “tenure” was instituted in universities in order to maintain their independence when “town and gown” battles erupted.

One of the singularly important pioneers in science was the Franciscan, Roger Bacon, called “the first scientist” because he emphasized experimentation as opposed to accepting things on authority.  He published a recipe for gunpowder in 1242 about the same time as the Chinese invented it.

Yes, the Chinese invented gunpowder and the misnamed “Arabic numbers” actually originated in India.   But as Stanley Jaki, the eminent science historian has said, Science “was stillborn” in these cultures.


For many reasons but two are prominent: Their religions, their worldviews, did not allow for an ordered universe conducive to science.  Also the West offered freedom to explore new ideas; elsewhere tyrants crushed anything new and threatening. 

Among the extremely long parade of great scientists who were devout Christians are Copernicus, Newton, Harvey, Boyle, Pasteur, Mendel, Carver, and Georges Lemaitre who gave scientific form to the Big Bang theory.   Also Raymond Damadian, inventor of the life saving MRI scanner, is worth mentioning. 

 Despite these facts, Voltaire and famed historian Edward Gibbon argued that the Middle Ages were the “Dark Ages”, and Christianity retarded science, the theme of PBS’s updated Cosmos series from last spring.   

Two individuals are invariably used to support this view,

Giordano Bruno and Galileo. 

Despite being portrayed as a “martyr for science”, Bruno was a mystic, an occultist who denied church doctrines and was burned at the stake in 1600.  Though certainly a dreadful incident, Bruno’s case shows a system without legal protection for free speech, a right that evolved later in Western law.

In Galileo’s time like ours, Protestants criticized Catholics for downplaying the Bible.  So when Galileo insisted that the center of the solar system was the sun not the earth, the Vatican feared that this might appear to contradict the Bible, showing that Catholics were Scripture lite. 

As pressure increased during the Reformation, the Vatican told Galileo to cool it since heliocentrism was unproven, as even the then best astronomer, Tycho Brahe, thought.  Besides, Galileo had been wrong about other scientific matters.  But Galileo had a big ego, understandable perhaps, since he was a genius and had powerful admirers like popes, cardinals and the Medici family.

Thus, he overplayed his hand, refusing to back off.  As punishment, he was sentenced to spend his remaining years in his villa in Florence with occasional visits outside.  There he continued his work, remained a Catholic and died a natural death in 1642.

He was not convicted as a heretic, imprisoned or tortured.  And no evidence exists that during sentencing he mumbled, “Still it moves," meaning that despite his recantation, the earth does move around the sun.

Actually it is hard to find  “martyrs for science." Though one can find examples under materialist, atheistic systems as, for example, during the French Revolution, the Academy of Sciences was closed for a year.  And revolutionists did guillotine the groundbreaking chemist, Antoine Lavoisier.  But Lavoisier was also an aristocrat, a Catholic  and a tax collector, not correct affiliations to have during the Revolution.

 In an attempt to imitate the prestigious French Academy, Mussolini’s fascist government created The Royal Academy of Italy in 1926 whose members had to swear allegiance to the government.   Though scientists must have felt some pressure under the circumstances, no record exists of any scientist being persecuted.  Perhaps Italian scientists knew better than to challenge the authorities.
In Russia, Stalin ordered Soviet scientists to prove that communism creates unselfish people, a trait which then could be inherited over generations until a perfect society existed.  It was a crackpot idea, but many scientists spewed the party line while “dissident” scientists were shipped to Siberia or murdered.
Too bad that many more people know the Galileo legend than know the truth about Stalin’s brutal attack on science.  And there is no indication that textbooks as well as PBS’s science programs, which are shown  throughout the world in schools and universities, are interested in changing the situation.


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