Religion and Science
Science Versus Christianity?
Many other such stories are casually repeated today. We are told that the Church, in the 18th century, led campaigns against vaccination for smallpox on the grounds that vaccines interfered with divine providence. Then, in the 19th century, the Church was supposed to have objected to anaesthetics, especially for women in labor since the pangs of childbirth were supposed to be a punishment for original sin. Yet none of this happened. Objections were raised to vaccination and anaesthetics for good medical reasons, and in rare cases where clergymen were involved they made no attempt to invoke divine law.
Some of the myths of conflict would be comical if they had not been taken literally for so long. Carl Sagan repeated the claim that Pope Callistus III excommunicated Halley's Comet in 1456. His Holiness would have been daft if he had done this, but it turns out that the tale derives from a misreading of a contemporary chronicle. The Church is also regularly accused of trying to ban, of all things, the number zero! The origin of this strange idea remains obscure, but needless to say there is no evidence for it dating from the Middle Ages. And there is no medieval record of medieval theologians wasting their time pondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. That calumny is first found in late 17th-century Protestant propaganda.
More seriously, the Church has stood accused of executing scientists who dared question the Christian faith. It is a tragic indictment of the Catholic Church that it did hand over thousands of heretics to be burned at the stake. But none of these were ever persecuted for their scientific ideas. Even Giordano Bruno, the most commonly cited example, turns out to have been a magician and pagan. While this in no way exonerates the Church for burning him in 1600, it does prevent him from being a martyr for science. Ironically, the only great scientist to be executed was Antoine Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry, who was guillotined by the notably anti-Catholic French Revolutionaries.
While it is true that Galileo was placed under house arrest for denying that the sun goes around the earth, his trial revolved more around papal politics than the revolutions of the heavens. And today, there is a real argument between creationists and evolutionists, but even here there are Christians on both sides. So the history of science and religion is one of cooperation and argument, agreement and debate. It is hardly a story of unremitting conflict. Conflicts are more the exception than the rule, and Christianity has more often created a positive and nurturing atmosphere for scientific investigation. As historian Ronald Numbers ruefully notes, "Despite a developing consensus among scholars that science and Christianity have not been at war, the notion of conflict has refused to die." It is about time we buried it.
James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at http://bedejournal.blogspot.com and recently published God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The Sunday Times called it "a spirited jaunt through centuries of scientific development" that "captures the wonder of the medieval world: its inspirational curiosity and its engaging strangeness."