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Christian History Home > 2002 > Issue 76 > The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution: Christian History Interview - Natural Adversaries?


The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution: Christian History Interview - Natural Adversaries?
Historian David Lindberg shows that Christianity and science are not at war - and may never have been.
David Lindberg | posted 10/01/2002 12:00AM

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Has Christianity always warred with science? Or, conversely, did Christianity create science? CH asked David Lindberg, Hilldale Professor Emeritus of the History of Science and currently director of the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin.

And he should know. Lindberg specializes in the history of medieval and early modern science, especially the interaction between science and religion. His Beginnings of Western Science (University of Chicago Press, 1992) is an oft-translated standard in the field. He is also currently the general editor, jointly with Ronald Numbers, of the forthcoming eight-volume. Cambridge History of Science

Many people today have a sense that the church has always tried to quash science. Is this, indeed, the case?

This view is known as the "warfare thesis." It originated in the seventeenth century, but it came into its own with certain radical thinkers of the French Enlightenment. These people were eager to condemn the Catholic Church and went on the attack against it. So, for example, the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), a mathematician and philosopher, assured his readers that Christianity's ascension during the Middle Ages resulted in "the complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences."

So how did this myth get from eighteenth-century France to twenty-first-century North America?

The men mostly responsible are John William Draper (1811-1882) and Andrew Dixon White (1832-1918). The more influential of the two was White, first president of Cornell University, who evoked strong opposition from religious critics for the secular curriculum (emphasizing the natural sciences) that he established at Cornell.

White responded with bitter attacks on his critics, culminating in his two-volume History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion (1874). White's book, still in print, continues to be powerfully influential.

What other myths about science and Christianity are commonly accepted today?

One obvious one maintains that before Columbus, Europeans believed nearly unanimously in a flat earth—a belief allegedly drawn from certain biblical statements and enforced by the medieval church.

This myth seems to have had an eighteenth-century origin, elaborated and popularized by Washington Irving, who flagrantly fabricated evidence for it in his four-volume history of Columbus. The myth was then picked up by White and others.

The truth is that it's almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) who doubts that the earth is a sphere. In the Middle Ages, you couldn't emerge from any kind of education, cathedral school or university, without being perfectly clear about the earth's sphericity and even its approximate circumference.

Why does the myth live on?

Because it is a great illustration of other myths people fervently believe in, such as the barbaric ignorance of medieval people and the warfare thesis. You don't easily give up your best illustration of a deeply held belief.

Was there conflict between Christianity and science before the scientific revolution?

Christianity and science had a complex relationship.

Before Christ's birth, Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, and Galen had written treatises on scientific questions. These books entered medieval Christendom during the twelfth century in Latin translation from Greek and Arabic versions. Christian scholars immediately realized that these books were incredibly impressive and valuable, teaching them how to think about a wide range of scientific questions.




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