False Conflict: Christianity Is Not Only Compatible with Science-It Created It

By Stark, Rodney | The American Enterprise, October-November 2003 | Go to article overview

False Conflict: Christianity Is Not Only Compatible with Science-It Created It


Stark, Rodney, The American Enterprise


Popular lore, movies, and children's stories hold that in 1492 Christopher Columbus proved the world is round and in the process defeated years of dogged opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, which insisted that the earth is flat. These tales are rooted in books like A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, an influential reference by Andrew Dickson White, founder and first president of Cornell University. White claimed that even after Columbus' return "the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray."

The trouble is, almost every word of White's account of the Columbus story is a lie. All educated persons of Columbus' day, very much including the Roman Catholic prelates, knew the earth was round. The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) taught that the world was round, as did Bishop Virgilius of Salzburg (c. 720-784), Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-74). All four ended up saints. Sphere was the title of the most popular medieval textbook on astronomy, written by the English scholastic John of Sacrobosco (c. 1200-1256). It informed that not only the earth but all heavenly bodies are spherical.

The religious figures who challenged Columbus and advised against funding him not only knew the earth was round, they also knew it was far larger than Columbus thought; they opposed his plan only on the grounds that he had badly underestimated the circumference of the earth and was counting on much too short a voyage. Columbus claimed that it was about 2,800 miles from the Canary Islands to Japan, when it is actually around 14,000 miles. Had the Western Hemisphere not surprised him, Columbus and his crew would have died at sea.

So, why does the fable of the Catholic Church's ignorance and opposition to the truth persist? Because the claim of an inevitable and bitter warfare between religion and science has, for more than three centuries, been the primary polemical device used in the atheist attack on faith. From Thomas Hobbes and Andrew Dickson White through Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, false claims about religion and science have been used as weapons in the battle to "free" the human mind from the "fetters of faith."

The truth is, there is no inherent conflict between religion and science. Indeed, the fundamental reality is that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science--a fact little appreciated outside the ranks of academic specialists.

Recent historical research has debunked the idea of a "Dark Ages" after the "fall" of Rome. In fact, this was an era of profound and rapid technological progress, by the end of which Europe had surpassed the rest of the world. Moreover, the so-called "Scientific Revolution" of the sixteenth century was a result of developments begun by religious scholars starting in the eleventh century. In my own academic research I have asked why these religious scholastics were interested in science at all. Why did science develop in Europe at this time? Why did it not develop anywhere else? I find answers to those questions in unique features of Christian theology.

Even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the leading scientific figures were overwhelmingly devout Christians who believed it their duty to comprehend God's handiwork. My studies show that the "Enlightenment" was conceived initially as a propaganda ploy by militant atheists attempting to claim credit for the rise of science. The falsehood that science required the defeat of religion was proclaimed by self-appointed cheerleaders like Voltaire, Diderot, and Gibbon, who themselves played no part in the scientific enterprise--a pattern that continues today. I find that through the centuries (including right up to the present day), professional scientists have remained about as religious as the rest of the population--and far more religious than their academic colleagues in the arts and social sciences.

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