Sunday, March 20, 2011

christianity has always opposed science, hasn't it?

It's one of the hottest topics on the internet, and so many people know the answer. Christians oppose evolution, and they've always opposed science, even persecuting and executing scientists who opposed the church in the Middle Ages.

But it seems the conventional wisdom is badly distorted, sometimes even outright wrong.

do all christians oppose evolution?

A recent survey showed that just over half of US scientists polled believe in God. The statistics vary a little - I have seen other surveys that showed 40% believed in God, whereas surveys quoted in this report found two thirds of US scientists believe. And most scientists accept evolution.

It is certainly different with the general public in the US, where 61% believe evolution has occurred, although about a third of these believe it was guided by God. The acceptance of evolution in many other countries is much higher, but not very different in the UK according to these statistics.

So it seems that fundamentalist creationism is not the majority christian view.

did the church persecute scientists in the past?

It seems here that many of the stories we hear about the conflict between science and the church (known as the conflict thesis) are exaggerated or historically wrong.

  • Giordano Bruno, who was burned alive by the church, is often quoted as a martyr for science. However James Hannam in his book "God's Philosophers", shows that we do not know the charges against him (the documentation has been lost) and the evidence indicates his terrible death was not because of his views on science but his practicing of magic and his unorthodox theology. Of course this doesn't make his killing any more pleasant or justified, but it wasn't as a martyr for science.
  • A recent favourite for conflict thesis supporters is Hypatia, a prominent woman natural philosopher of the 4th and 5th centuries who is commonly believed to have been martyred for her scientific views, as told in the recent film Agora. But, as Tim O'Neill shows in a series of posts on his blog, Armarium Magnum, the film is historically inaccurate and Hypatia's martyrdom for science a myth - she was killed by a mob in a turbulent period of political unrest.
  • The most popular candidate for persecution by the church is Galileo, and it is true that he was convicted of heresy. The church had said it was willing to change its teaching that the earth was the centre of the solar system if Galileo could prove it scientifically. Although his view was correct, Galileo was at that time unable to supply the proof, but nevertheless continued to teach it. As a result, he was condemned, but was not punished severely (he was placed in house arrest in a comfortable apartment).

so what was the church's attitude to science?

There were many important natural philosophers (i.e. scientists) in the middle ages, many of them clerics, who worked away in universities, supported by the church, and quite unmolested by the church.

  • James Hannam in "God's Philosophers" (reviewed a few weeks back) taught me that while the medieval church did sometimes constrain natural philosophers, it was more often a supporter, because it believed that natural philosophy would enrich faith.
  • Tim O'Neill, reviewing God's Philosophers on his blog Armarium Magnum gives a strong critique of the conflict thesis.
  • The most respected historians of science (e.g. David Lindberg, Ronald Numbers, Edward Grant) don't accept the conflict thesis. For instance Numbers concludes: "No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views, though, … the Italian Inquisition did incinerate the sixteenth century Copernican Giordano Bruno for his heretical theological notions."
  • Wikipedia says the conflict thesis is "mostly discarded".

There is enough in the history of the christian church to shame any christian believer, but the conflict thesis is one charge that cannot be justified historically, except perhaps in a mild way. But don't expect it to go away anytime soon.


  1. This is why I love your posts. So honest, so un biased.
    1.Bruno was found guilty of heresy by the Inquisition and the only reason magic may have been cited is because of the dumbass backwards mentality of the church. His postulation of stars and inhabited planets was deemed heretical. Also his views about the trinity, mary and a few other opinions contrary to Catholic doctrine.
    2.Hypatia: There are two well known accounts of her murder' Both involve religious elements who basically tore her to pieces.
    3. Galileo: "Comfortable apartment"
    Sheesh, you realy take the cake. He was under house arrest for the last eight years of his life!
    But yes, your right, of course. None of these cases could remotely be called Church persecution or opposing science in any way whatsoever.
    Spoken like a true apologetic.

  2. "This is why I love your posts. So honest, so un biased."

    And this is why I am not replying to some of your posts. You use ad hominem instead of reason and evidence. Read the sources, you'll find what I said is historically accurate. (You can read about the definitive book on the subject here.)


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