“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
That question—asked famously by the early Christian philosopher Tertullian—forms the basis of a myth related to the one I explored in my previous essay. This myth claims that the medieval church actively suppressed the growth of science. John Draper promoted the idea in his 1874 volume, The History of Conflict Between Religion and Science, in which he states:
The Church . . . set herself forth as the depository and arbiter of knowledge . . . She thus took a course that determined her whole future career; she became a stumbling block in the intellectual advancement of Europe for more than a thousand years.
Carl Sagan gave the idea credence in Cosmos (1980), which contains a chart of progress in astronomy. The chart covers antique Greek thought up to the time of Hypatia, then leaves about a thousand year gap between the lady mathematician and Copernicus and DaVinci. In the words of the caption on Sagan’s chart, this vast “gap” created “a poignant lost opportunity for mankind.”
As a teenager I idolized Carl Sagan. I bought into the myth, too. I still have a huge amount of respect for “Uncle” Carl and his demystification of science, but I recognize that even very smart men can be ill-informed. Sagan and others have completely overlooked the contributions to natural philosophy by such Middle Eastern luminaries as Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Ibn Furnas.
But wait, there’s more! A short list of the accomplishments from this allegedly dark era in European science includes: William of Saint-Cloud’s work on solar eclipses, Dominican friar Dietrich von Freiberg’s discoveries about rainbows, Jean Buridan’s application of impetus theory to explain projectile motion, free-fall acceleration, and the rotation of the night sky. Bishop Nicole Oresme argued, in his youth, for the rotation of the earth, though there was not then either empirical evidence or conclusive rationale arguments for the idea. Meanwhile, at Oxford, natural philosophers were applying mathematics to the study of motion.
We now know that science happened throughout the Middle Ages at places like Oxford, where a university was founded in or about 1096 CE (though legend puts it at 872). Universities were also founded at Bologna and Paris before 1200 CE. By 1500, there were about 60 of these institutions seeded around Europe, with about 30 percent of the curricula dedicated to the study of the natural world.
The organization that was the greatest supporter and underwriter of the development of these institutions was… wait for it… the Catholic Church. Historian John Heilbron (best known for his histories of physics), wrote:
The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient data in the late Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably all, other institutions. – The Sun in the Church, Harvard University Press, 1999.
Michael Shank—professor emeritus of the history of science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison—notes in Galileo Goes to Jail that the discovery of the Church’s role in funding these early universities has been met with the argument that, of course, the students at these schools were monks or priests chiefly studying theology. According to school records, however, this was not the case. Most students had no theological subjects at all. Yes, there were clerics at some universities studying theology, but this required the taking of vows, for one thing, and a Master of Arts course of study for another. Indeed, some universities didn’t even have a theological faculty, so only “secular” studies were taught.
The point is easily missed that even if most scholars were studying “the queen of sciences” (theology) along with astronomy, natural history and mathematics at the behest of the Catholic Church, that would undermine any notion that the Church saw natural philosophy as something to be eschewed by Christians. Thousands of scholars (Professor Shank cites a figure of around 250,000 in Germany alone, beginning in 1350 CE) were learning the latest in scientific knowledge—whether clerics or laymen. The Church not only permitted this, but encouraged and funded it.
But were there instances in which theologians came into conflict with these universities? Certainly. For some reason, this happened a number of times with the University at Paris and the local bishop who, at one point, also fell into disagreement with his Aristotelean colleague, Thomas Aquinas. In fact, it seems to have required a papal bull (Parens scientiarum or “mother of science”) to uphold the university curriculum against the Parisian bishops.
In 20/20 hindsight, the danger of imputing the actions of local authorities to “the Church” or “Christianity” should be obvious. It allows for the creation of a mythology that fosters prejudice and irrationality and gives a skewed view of the historical relationship between science and religion. In general, the Church—as an institution—did not suppress science, but rather promoted it.
To sum this one up, if the Catholic Church intended to quash the sciences, its methods seem darned peculiar. This counter-productive religious promotion of scientific ideas—if we are to believe that religion inherently opposes them—was also followed by Islam, and even more markedly pursued by the Baha’i Faith. Muhammad famously exhorted his followers to search even to the ends of the earth for knowledge of every kind, the result of which history attests. Both Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha elevated the study and application of the sciences to the level of worship:
Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one. Material and spiritual science are the two wings of human uplift and attainment. Both are necessary… – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 138.
Abdu’l-Baha made the above statement in a city famous for its institutes of higher learning. He also spoke at Stanford University in California and there, as in many of his discourses, he expounded on the importance of science and its essential harmony with religion. This deep regard for science within the realm of religion is directly responsible for the fact that so many people of faith have chosen to pursue scientific knowledge and have made important scientific discoveries. I have no doubt they will continue to do so.
Next: That Flat Earth Myth
Maya Bohnhoff is a Baha'i, a New York Times bestselling author of science fiction, fantasy and alternate history, and a performing and recording musician/singer/songwriter (with her husband Jeff). She is the author of a dozen novels and her short fiction has appeared in Analog, Interzone,...