I have elsewhere touched on the myth that Christianity is historically antagonistic to science in that Christian thinkers are responsible for many of the ideas that lead to modern science. Now James Hannam, a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge has done a much more thorough job in an article in Nature titled, Science owes much to both Christianity and the Middle Ages. The article comes via a blog post at the excellent blog Wintery Knight (which I have added to my blogroll). The article details how Christians and the church weren’t only in opposition to science, or that they merely allowed for the development of science, but the church was the primary organization driving the development of scientific research. From the article:
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 organization 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.
As I read this I am struck at how ignorant secularists and atheists are of history. The meme that Christianity holds back science is simply false – and the idea that science is primarily the result of ontological naturalism is just as false. Given that the New Atheists are so wrong on this fundamental fact, on what issue can they be trusted to get the facts right?