This Blog is sure to generate controversy so let me say right up front that I do not in any way mean to pick on or poke at any particular belief or creed. I want to explore, in a general conversational way, the history of the conflict between Science and Religion. I realize that any look at historical events is always subjective and I admit that try as one might, it is impossible not to view past events through some type of filter, whether it be acquired bias or experiential perception.
This is a very dicey discussion because whether we like it or not certain religious movements have had a greater or lesser effect on the events of world history and human events. It is impossible to discuss some topics without treading on sensitive ground and I do not, in any way, wish to criticize or offend. On the other hand, I do willing admit that I believe individuals throughout history have used the cloak of organized religion to forward their own personal agendas, often to the detriment of the organization. Such, I believe, is the case with the conflict between Science and Religion.
To begin though, let’s talk about happier times, times when theologians and natural philosophers – the name given to people we now call scientists – were not only on the same page but actually complimented each other’s work. You see, the natural philosopher was devoted to trying to explain observed and accepted realities. For example, since the beginning of time (Whenever that was) people have observed that birds – admittedly heavier than air creatures – could fly. Men wondered at the graceful way that an eagle or an albatross could soar without even flapping their wings and stay aloft seemingly endlessly. Human experience taught that all other things that were heavier than air fell to the ground when released. Why then did birds dance aloft in seeming defiance of the universal laws of gravity that influenced everything else?
The ‘Science’ of natural philosophy attempted to explain the ‘truths’ that people observed. Both human experience and the teachings (admittedly often wrong or superstitious) of theologians left the populace with a set of ‘facts’ that existed without explanation or understanding. What were the stars? Why did the sun rise higher in the summer than in the winter? How did the moon cycle through a complete period of new to full every 28 days? Who was God? To whom did the prophets speak when they received revelation? Who were the angels and the demons that both blessed and plagued the people? All matters of the natural and the unseen world were the source material with which the natural philosophers worked.
Aristotle was perhaps the most accomplished at his trade, leaving his mark on a form of science known as Aristotelian Physics which lived on for over 2000 years before a timid little Englishman named Isaac Newton dared challenge him. There were others though, even before Aristotle, who made remarkable observations and posited insightful theories about the things around them. Democritus gave us the term Atom (from the Greek ‘Atomos”) millennia before John Dalton found it through the gasses he studied. Archimedes took a bath and comprehended displacement thus forwarding the science of ship building and further defining the difference between mass and volume.
So too, early philosophers took ideas and statements from the Bible to be fact. Their faith in biblical declarations ultimately led to discoveries in astronomy and cosmology. However, just as with misperceptions about the nature of the observable world around them, early philosophers often strayed far afield due to interpretational errors of scriptural revelation. Other times local traditions and religious practices would be modified to adapt to the conclusions of the philosophers. One example of this was with the earliest scientists, then known as ‘Astrologers’.
Astrologers fulfilled a far more crucial and legitimate purpose in those early years than they do today. It was their observations of the solar and lunar cycles that determined much of the pattern of early agrarian life. They told farmers when to plant and when to harvest. Their observations of weather patterns led to the first weather forecasting. As they built a body of observations about the world we live in their conclusions found their way into scripture and spiritual teaching. The traditional wisdom ” red sky in the morning, sailor take warning, red sky at night sailor’s delight” comes from the New Testament statement by Jesus to the Pharisees as found in Matthew 16:2,3;
When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.
And in the morning, It will be foul weather today: for the sky is red and lowering.
This early observation found its way into religious teaching after natural philosophers and astrologers noticed the pattern of approach and retreating weather patterns and their effect on the morning and evening skies.
Science and religion enjoyed a generally peaceful partnership for many centuries, the one explaining the ‘how and why’ to the other’s ‘what’. It was a partnership that was to continue more or less uninterrupted until the 4th century A.D.
As Christianity took hold around the Mediterranean, and more specifically throughout the Roman Empire, it was at first met with resistance from the governing bodies. Religion had always been perceived as a wonderful way to control large masses of people. It was therefore a threat to have a religion, or more correctly, a religious movement, take hold without government sanction. Any power base that arose without the support of the governing power was automatically deemed a threat to the stability of the society and efforts were expended to put it down before full blown rebellion erupted. Thus it was for the Roman Empire.
Constantine, last emperor of the Roman Empire, at first tried to quell the rising fervor of the emerging Christians. As his efforts failed to have the anticipated affect he made the bold and audacious move to adopt the movement as the new official theology of the previously polytheistic Roman society. Simultaneously, the Roman Empire ceased and the Holy Roman Empire emerged.
The adoption of Christianity by the Roman Emperor was more than a simple name change. All the Roman Emperors had struggled with the challenge of maintaining their tenuous grip on the disparate components of their far flung empire. The adoption of a single religious movement, one that was spreading fairly simultaneously throughout the Mediterranean was a unifying move that brought the individual groups together. Or at least that was the plan.
The first task that Constantine had to undertake was to unify the individual Christian groups doctrinally. During the three hundred plus years since the crucifixion of Jesus, Christianity had taken hold throughout the land. It grew quickly but differing people had adopted individual and differing interpretations of what Christianity was all about. Constantine convoked a grand council in Nicaea in Bithynia (Now Turkey) in 325 A.D.to address this issue. At this council he charged the gathered pastors and bishops with the mandate to begin the process of establishing a single, unified or ‘Catholic’ doctrine. This council of Nicaea was the first of a series of convocations called synods that met to ultimately create one unified doctrine for everything under the Sun – literally! They had to address issues such as whether or not space was a vacuum, or the nature of the stars and their motions, or the Sun itself; just what was it? Of course the synods decided ecclesiastical issues as well, such as the nature and place of Mary, mother of Jesus; issues of life and death and birth and baptism and the proper observance of Easter and so on and so on. This was a formidable task – and a noble one. It should have been the crowning achievement of the Roman Empire; except for one –make that two things! At the conclusion of the effort to find their Catholic doctrine they included two doctrines that set in motion a conflict that would be the cause of such horror and death as the world had seldom seen.
The first offending doctrine was essentially that the doctrine was infallible, it could not be wrong, and anyone who disagreed with it, or taught a doctrine contrary to it, was considered heretic and subject to the judgment of death. The second doctrine was that the Pope was infallible and could never do or be wrong. Again, anyone who disagreed with this doctrine was considered heretic and faced death, often by the most gruesome and inhuman manner.
For a while these doctrines were survivable and the church flourished, expanding the reach of the church and the Roman Empire significantly. This reach endured for a thousand years, until the fourteenth century.
The renaissance began, more or less, in Florence Italy in the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century. Cosimo Medici and family began a series of patronages of artisans, thinkers and scientists who eventually changed the world. Men like Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and Galileo changed how people viewed the world. Collectively they sought order and reason against a backdrop of what had become tyranny and abuse afforded by absolute power. Unrighteous men were wielding the power of the church in unrighteous ways. This caused conflict among a populace too afraid and too cowed to speak up, but not too unaware to notice that the things they saw and suffered through were wrong.
Men of science were beginning to observe things that didn’t fit within the Catholic doctrines but they faced horrific persecutions when they voiced their findings. In what should have and could have become a period of rich enlightenment for the church darkness reigned instead due to the inflexibility of the doctrine held infallible by declaration. To change doctrine to fit the observable truths becoming evident would have been to admit that the doctrine had been wrong. This would have implied that the church was wrong when it declared that the doctrine was true in the beginning. The church could not be wrong or every part of it could be held up to scrutiny and modification. Instead of growing with the growing body of knowledge, the church had to stick stubbornly to its dogma. Because of this good men and women died. Men like Copernicus, who simply wanted to understand the mechanics of the stars and planets revolving around him, were persecuted and censured by the church. Copernicus’ work was soundly condemned by the church and Galileo was rebuked for forwarding Copernicus’ ideas and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. Another follower of Copernicus, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake on Feb. 17, 1600.
Galileo’s crime and condemnation is the perfect example of the growing rift between science and religion. It occurred in several steps but perhaps the seminal event occurred when Galileo turned his newly fashioned telescope on the brightest planet in the night sky. Jupiter is probably the easiest identifiable object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon. What Galileo saw when he focused his invention on it was shocking! He saw four distinct lesser stars next to it. He continued to observe Jupiter every night for a time and he recorded his observations in a book. After a month or so his conclusion was undeniable, the objects next to Jupiter were moons and they were orbiting Jupiter! This was heretical because of the doctrine that said that every object in the sky orbited Earth – the center of the universe – and no object could orbit anything else. Galileo chose to believe his own eyes over the decisions made by unlearned men over a thousand years before. Those four moons, forever known as the Galilean Moons, were orbiting Jupiter and no priest, bishop or Pope could make it otherwise.
The church’s unwillingness to adapt its doctrine to accommodate emerging technology put it at odds with observant men and women who saw conflict in other areas of doctrinal confusion. Soon, people realized that the church could talk about spiritual things but it was no arbiter of observable and verifiable truths that were becoming more and more discoverable. Really for the first time, scientific method and observation had to step outside of the church to continue. This, in spite of the fact that the church had, and still maintains to this day, the Vatican observatory where many good and valid observations were made. In fact, the calendar we use today, the Gregorian Calendar was made to correct errors that had crept into the Julian Calendar ever since 46 B.C. That effort was ordered by Pope Gregory XIII who directed his Vatican Astronomers to correct the calendar according to the solar cycles so that the correct observance of Easter could be held.
Other scientists broke free of the shackles of the church and brought forth new truths about the world. One of Galileo’s admirers, Evangelista Torricelli, determined that, contrary to established dogma, the atmosphere was indeed finite and ended with the vacuum of space.
The rift between science and religion was growing and the church made no attempt to stem it other than to condemn those who practiced the ‘dark arts’. Scientists, on the other hand, grew bolder, often holding in derision the superstitious and foolish beliefs of the church. By the time the church came around and began to embrace undeniable truths it was too late. The idea that religion could hold any truths worthy of scientific study quickly faded.
Sadly, today many in the scientific community- though not all to be sure – view religion as the domain for the foolish and the uneducated. This is grossly unfair but understandable. The tragedy is that common perception places on the Catholic Church in particular, and religion in general, the stigma of ignorance as to things of the world. I would propose that well intended efforts of sincere but uneducated men unfairly placed the stink of error and falsehood upon the scriptures when, in fact, the scriptures could just as easily have been misunderstood and misinterpreted but which, at their core and with the proper interpretation, are true!
Let us not condemn the whole because part of it may or may not have been correctly deciphered. The scriptures – correctly interpreted – may yet hold many wonderful truths and great treasures waiting to be mined.