Posted by jlwile on July 19, 2011
During the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, P.Z. Myers (my favorite atheist) said:
Science and religion are incompatible in the same sense that the serious pursuit of knowledge about reality is incompatible with [expletive]…. Religion makes smart people do stupid things, and scientists do not like stupid.
Obviously, Dr. Myers hasn’t studied much of the history of science, since it shows quite the opposite. Indeed, history shows that modern science is a product of Christianity.
Dr. James Hannam recently wrote a book entitled, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, and he makes a very strong case that modern science is specifically a product of medieval Christian thought. As I mentioned in a previous post, Dr. James Hannam is a graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge. He earned his physics degree from Oxford, and then he went to Cambridge to earn a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science. Thus, he is very qualified to write on this subject. He states his thesis in his introduction:
This book will show how much of the science and technology that we now take for granted has medieval origins. (p. xiii)
The book then goes on to give a wealth of evidence to support that thesis.
He works through the Middle Ages in roughly chronological order, discussing the science (which was called “natural philosophy” back then) that was being done at the time and highlighting the major players in Christianity and Christian thought. Along the way, he demolishes several myths, such as the idea that the church banned human dissection. Indeed, rather than banning human dissection, Pope Innocent III (who was pontiff from 1198 to 1216) is on record ordering a forensic examination of a murder victim. Hannam even shows a drawing from a fifteenth-century medical textbook that illustrates a human dissection in progress. Since that medical textbook was used in the church-backed universities, it is clear that the Medieval church did not ban dissections!
How many times have you heard that the early church believed that the earth was flat? This is another myth Hannam destroys. He quotes Boethius, a Christian who wrote a book entitled Consolation of Philosophy back in the year 524. The quote shows quite clearly that even back then, Christian philosophers knew the earth was a sphere. Hannam then says:
The myth that a flat earth was part of Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages appears to have originated with Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), who wrongly claimed that geographers had been put on trial for impiety after asserting the contrary. (p. 28)
In addition to destroying myths, Hannam spends a lot of time showing how scientific concepts that were produced in the Middle Ages were later used by the scientific greats with whom we are familiar today. For example, nearly everyone recognizes the name “Galileo.” Of course, there are very good reasons for this. He is truly one of the great luminaries in the history of science. He is best known for producing evidence for the fact that the sun is at the center of our solar system, but he did a lot of other incredible work as well. For example, he did many experiments on motion, and those experiments helped Newton to formulate his famous laws of motion.
Have you ever heard the name “William Heytesbury?” Probably not. Nevertheless, he wrote a book entitled Rules for Solving Logical Puzzles about 300 years prior to Galileo’s book on motion. Guess what? Galileo’s discussion of a body in free fall is eerily similar to Heytesbury’s discussion of a body that is undergoing uniform acceleration (which is what happens in free fall). In fact, they both use essentially the same drawing to advance their argument! So at least some of the work of Galileo was built on the work of a Christian scholar from the Middle Ages. Over and over again, Hannam masterfully shows that most of the foundations for modern science were laid down by Christian philosophers in the Middle Ages.
More importantly, however, he shows how fundamental the Medieval Christian Church was for making the work of those scientists possible. Not only did the church-backed universities, which were primarily intended to educate the clergy, play a central role in promulgating scientific thought during the Middle Ages, Hannam points out this very important fact:
The metaphysical cornerstone of modern science is often overlooked. We take it for granted and we do not worry about why people began studying nature in the first place…Medieval scholars thought that nature followed the rules that God had ordained for it. Because God was consistent and not capricious, these natural laws were constant and worth scrutinizing.
Without that metaphysical assumption, which is inherently a theistic assumption, it wouldn’t make sense to study nature to understand how it works. Scientists today don’t even think about why they expect nature to behave in a predictable fashion. They know it does, because lots of experiments show that it does. History tells us that it was Medieval Christianity that gave this important assumption to science.
In the end, I strongly recommend this book. Not only will you see a lot of the myths that you have believed about the Medieval church crumble, but you will also come to a deep appreciation of how Christianity was absolutely necessary for the development of modern science.