Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Conflict Between Science and Christianity

There has been some very silly talk lately about how the conflict between Christianity and science is very recent, and how the very idea that they conflicted in earlier times is just a recent notion, based in ignorance of history.

Well, it may be that it has only been recently, since the mid-19th century or so, since one has been able to say such completely obvious things as that Christianity has hampered the progress of science without endangering one's academic career, if one had one. (It seems one can't always say such things on HP today, hence this post.)

Freedom of inquiry is an essential part of science. Pre-Christian Graeco-Roman antiquity may not have been perfect, but it was very free in some ways. Philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers and others were free to speculate about the nature of the universe, and atheism, although not widespread, was certainly not life-threatening. Changing one's religion was an everyday occurrence, not the occasion for the batting of an eye.

Then the Christians took over, and for about 1,200 years, from around AD 400 to 1600, from when Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire until the time that people finally began to fight back successfully against the madness, there was a complete, brutal clampdown on intellectual activity in the West. There was one one last gasp of paganism around AD 400, represented by writers such as Ammianus, Claudian, Symmachus and Ausonius, the last three of whom were all friends with one another. Later in the 5th century Hypatia, a philosopher in Alexandria, was ripped to shreds by a Christian mob acting under the orders of the local bishop. The recent movie Agorastars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia and speculates that she may have been speculating about heliocentrism at the time of her murder, and so that heliocentrism died with her, not to be rivived by Copernicus for over a thousand years, in a book his friends wouldn't let him publish while he was still alive for the fear that he would be killed for it. We don't know for sure what Hypatia was doing, other than that it was not Christian. Her works were destroyed with many other non-Christian philosophical and scientific works all over the Empire as Christianity tightened its hold over everything. Plato's Academy, the world's first university and by far the most prominent center of learning in the pre-Christian Classical world, lasted until the mid-6th century before the authorities shut it down.

It makes me very angry when apologists claim the scientific work of, for instance, Galileo as the work of the Church, when people after Galileo were killed for witchcraft and atheism and heresy, when Galileo himself knew that he had to have his later work smuggled to Holland to be published after his death. If you dispute that freedom of inquiry is essential on order for science to flourish, there's very little for us to discuss. If you think I'm exaggerating about the oppression conditions under Christianty, name one European atheist or pagan in the millenium between Hypatia and Hobbes, except, possibly, Boethius. It's true that not everyone in medieval Europe was a Christian. There were also Jews, who were allowed to live as second-class citizens suffering occasional massacres and deportation, and some Muslims whose very existence struck deep horror into the heart of every good Christian.

Yes, some science was done in medieval Europe. It was done in spite of Christianity, not because of it.

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