Seven Things You Might Not Know About the “War” Between Science and Faith

If you pay much attention to how our culture views the relationship between science and faith, the following story might sound familiar.

Once upon a time in the ancient world, Greek philosophers and thinkers began to usher in a golden age of learning and knowledge. Unfortunately for everyone, the rise of Christianity eclipsed this good work, bringing about the several centuries known as the Dark Ages, in which the church repressed learning through superstitious dogma. Thankfully, classical learning was rediscovered and courageous individuals were willing to shake off the shackles of Christianity. Their efforts launched the impressive flowering of knowledge and advancement we now know as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Science is therefore the natural enemy of faith, and scientific advancement will steadily make religious belief increasingly implausible.

It’s a compelling story, but it’s almost entirely wrong. In the book, For the Glory of God, sociologist/historian Rodney Stark points out a number of things you might not know about the “war” between science and faith:

1. In a chapter entitled “God’s Handiwork: The Religious Origins of Science” Stark flatly states not only that “there is no inherent conflict between religion and science” but “Christian theology was essential for the rise of science” (123, emphasis in original). Importantly, he adds this: “Having begun this chapter, I immersed myself in recent historical studies, only to find that some of my central arguments have already become the conventional wisdom among historians of science” (124).

2. Modern science failed to develop in other civilizations, including Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, China, India, and the Muslim world. Stark quotes historian Edward Grant: “It is indisputable that modern science emerged…in Western Europe and nowhere else” (146; see also 155-58). Stark adds, “The decline of Rome did not interrupt the expansion of of human knowledge any more than the ‘recovery’ of Greek learning enabled this process to resume. To the contrary…Greek learning was a barrier to the rise of science! It did not lead to science among the Greeks or Romans, and it stifled intellectual progress in Islam” (154, emphasis in original).

3. Why was Christianity a seedbed for modern science? Because it provided a view of the world that reflected the character of its rational and responsive Creator. It therefore possessed “a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension” (147).

4. The idea of the Dark Ages, in which the church stunted learning in medieval Europe, is a historical myth. In reality, the period better termed the Middle Ages saw an explosion of technological advancement and “excelled in philosophy and science” (134; see 128-46).

5. In keeping with the above, “the so-called Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century was the normal result of developments begun by Scholastic scholars [a school of Christian thought] starting in the eleventh century.” Moreover, “the leading scientific figures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries overwhelmingly were devout Christians who believed it their duty to comprehend God’s handiwork” (123; see also 134-46; 160-72).

6. Several popular accounts of the supposed conflict between faith and science are either somewhat mistaken or simply not true. For example, Andrew Dickson White, the author of the perhaps “the single most influential book ever written about the conflict between science and theology,” characterized Christopher Columbus as courageously defying resistance from a Church that stubbornly clung to an outmoded understanding of geography. In reality, “every educated person of the time, including Roman Catholic prelates, knew the earth was round” and opposition to Columbus came “only on the grounds that he badly underestimated the circumference of the earth and was counting on much too short a voyage” (121-22, emphasis in original). Likewise, the celebrated episode of Galileo running afoul of the Catholic Church seems to have been more about the former’s refusal to pay proper deference to the Pope than his actual scientific views. And at any rate, far from seeing himself as some kind of champion of science in the battle against faith, Galileo “always regarded himself as a good Catholic” (see 163-65).

7. “The identification of the era beginning in about 1600 as the ‘Enlightenment’ is as inappropriate as the identification of the millennium before it as the ‘Dark Ages.’ And both imputations were made by the same people—intellectuals who wished to discredit religion and especially the Roman Catholic Church, and who therefore associated faith with darkness and secular humanism with light. To these ends the sought credit for the ‘Scientific Revolution’ (another of their concepts), even though none of them had played any significant part in the scientific enterprise” (166).

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