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Science and Religion: Who runs the world – God or the scientists?

science and religion in history

The Catholic Church: science and religion in the Middle Ages

The science and religion debate simply didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. God runs the world – no question.  That’s what nearly everybody in the Middle Ages would have said if you had been able to ask them.  Why?  Because the Church said so.  Its influence was world-wide, all-embracing, all-pervasive, all-powerful, and universal.  The Holy Catholic Church.  (That’s what ‘Catholic’ ‘means – ‘universal’)  It dominated the world – well, the world known to medieval man.  That was all he had to go on.

Science and religion in the Ancient World

Men in the Ancient World – Greece and Rome – might not have seen it so simply as that.  Their enquiries and speculations were not bedevilled by fear of what might happen to them if they stepped out of line with the Holy Church that Christ himself had set up.  Why?  Because it wasn’t there.  Greece and Rome had no equivalent to the Inquisition.

As for the even more ancient civilisations which had come before – the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Egyptians – medieval man was not concerned about them or what they thought about God and Science, because by and large he had never heard of them.

The scientific revolution and the church

The modern world is not much concerned with science and religion, but for different reasons.  The modern world reckons it has learned enough Science for it not to be worried much.  Indeed, the more it has learned about Science, the less it has thought about God. As for rules about conducting your life, things like God and Faith and Belief and Worship and Prayer and all the rest don’t seem to matter so much.

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window Education (1890)

Man did not need to understand in order to believe, or believe in order to understand; he should simply learn in order to know, and that’s the end of it.   It should certainly make life simpler.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t.  Despite the ever-increasing knowledge that we go on piling up, unscientific faith and illogical belief show remarkable tenacity in hanging on despite the towering mountain of evidence, statistics, common sense, ‘proof’, logic, sheer reasonableness, and blindingly obvious fact, that science can, apparently, display.

Darwinian fervour

Surely, science and religion really parted ways with the advent of Darwinism.  Oddly, the attacks seem to go only one way.  Science and its partisans are highly voluble, and often bitter, in their castigation of religious authorities for their blind and unreasoning stupidity in continuing to peddle impossible fairy stories.  The Church however does not expend much energy in savage pamphlets to ‘prove’ that the scientists are plain wrong.

‘Ah, but they did,’ say the scientists.  ‘Look at all those poor souls who were burnt at the stake for saying the wrong thing.  Look at what they did to Galileo for saying the earth went round the sun.’

Can science and religion be friends?

As they warm to their subject, they extend their catchment area to modern history.   ‘Look at Darwin.  Look at the noise the believers kicked up when Darwin published his theory of evolution, saying that God did not create all us creatures. Practically hysterical.  And pig ignorant too.  Couldn’t tell a lens from a test tube.’

Slaying the Dragons

There is an answer to all this.  Well, of course there are lots, but I am concerned with one, which, if not an answer, is certainly a response.  And a very well-informed and well-argued response to the whole science and religion debate.  Dr. Allan Chapman teaches the History of Science at Oxford University.   Religion and Science have indeed been intertwined throughout history, he admits, and often in conflict.  But he sets out to show that this need not have been so.  The villains of the piece are the propaganda myths that the conflict has spawned, and which have stood in the way of any proper understanding of the problem.  They are dragons, he says, sprawl the path to the truth.

History of science and faith
Allan Chapman’s brilliant book on the history of science and faith

His book is entitled Slaying the Dragons. It was published by Lion Hudson in 2013.

Dr. Chapman takes on these dragons one by one, and shows how they can be neutralised.  Not that he will kill them, because people love their myths, and find reassurance in them.  Which is a pity.  But he does show them for what they are.

His evidence can be formidable and impressive. Sometimes bemusingly simple. Often dispensed with a mischievous twinkle.  Just a couple of examples at random.

Is Christianity really the enemy of science?

The Anglican bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, who attacked Darwin and his champion Thomas Huxley in the famous public debate in 1860, was not an ignorant bigot, as the science mythologists and atheists would have us believe. In fact he held a first-class degree in Mathematics and was a fellow of the Royal Society.

Or again, the Popes maintained a full-blown, thoroughly up-to-date observatory in the Vatican, and had done since before Galileo burst upon the astronomical scene. 

So much for God’s Church being the enemy of Science.

St Clare of Assisi - Patron Saint of Television

I myself remember reading somewhere that the Papacy had always been pretty quick off the mark in its reactions to technological leaps.  They very speedily cottoned on to the potential of the printing press, and made it their business to get one.  And, under the heading of useless information, I have a recollection of a radio announcement round about 1958 that the Pope had created a patron saint for television.  Not shattering, perhaps, but indicative.

Why is St Clare the patron saint of television? Find out here.

Now that we have entered the Digital Age, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there are cohorts of dog-collared computer boffins beavering away in the crypts of the Vatican or the garrets of Castel Sant’ Angelo.

Science and religion: The last word from Dr. Chapman

Reading Dr. Chapman’s book may not make you an expert on this topic, but there will be a lot more fresh air blowing through your head by the time you have finished it.  You will have enjoyed several wry smiles too.

He enjoys the enviable position of remaining pretty cool under the collar, while his partisan opponents are huffing and puffing.  If these anti-religion prophets are so sure that they are right, he says, and that religion is a moth-ridden ruin of useless and irrelevant untruth, why are they so steamed up about it?

It’s rather like all the armchair pundits who get upset about contemporary art?  If it really is such worthless rubbish, why waste time running it down?

If you enjoyed this have a look at more on the Middle Ages.


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Berwick Coates