October 21, 2013

Science, religion and the Dark Ages

I've long held a notion to post an essay about how science and religion can co-exist quite successfully but I've never gotten around to doing more than mentioning it, and not done it justice.  As part of the discussion, an entire book could be written on the subject of debunking the notion that the Dark Ages were a result of Christianity and the Roman Catholic church (in fact all organized Christian religion).

Now it looks like that portion of the effort - the Dark Ages part - is less necessary. RealClearScience has a terrific article by Alex B. Berezow and James Hannam that does a lot of that legwork in refuting the discussions of Jerry Coyne.
Historians have long realized that the great conflict between science and religion is a myth. But it continues to be an article of faith among the New Atheists. In contrast to his views on evolution, Dr. Coyne thinks that he can ignore the evidence from history and disregard the settled view of experts in the field. But, being a scholar and a rational man, we’re sure that he will change his mind if shown to be wrong.
From that premise, they take apart portions of Coyne's arguments with astute observations.
Actually, historians start the Western scientific tradition with the “12th Century Renaissance” 500 years before Galileo. If you want to know why there were not many people doing natural philosophy before that, the answer includes words like “barbarian invasions,” “collapse of civilization,” “Huns,” “Goths,” and “Vikings.” The fact that some scientific knowledge survived the upheaval after the fall of the Roman Empire was largely due to the Church.
They argue that Christianity was not a barrier to scientific achievement but that it in fact supported it in spite of all of the other factors that kept impeding progress.
What’s truly amazing is just how much science early Christians were doing. John Philoponus (c. 490 – c. 570) was one of the first Christian professors in Alexandria. Historians today are stunned by his achievements.

As a Christian, Philoponus was happy to ditch pagan orthodoxy and start afresh. So he was the first to actually do the experiment of dropping stones, proving Aristotle wrong about falling objects. Alas, shortly after he died, Egypt was invaded by the Persians and then by the Arabs. Alexandria lost its status as an important center of learning, while the Byzantine Empire went into siege mode as it fought an existential struggle for survival. Not a great environment for science!
It's worth reading, and certainly worth a lot more discussion. For too long Christianity has shouldered the blame for a millennia of turtle-like scientific progress and such is not the case.  Never has there been a need to view science as the antithesis of religion.  There have been times and places where it has been, but the story has been oversold as THE cause for delay in human progress.  However there were also times and places where monasteries were the ones keeping the candle of knowledge from flickering out entirely in Europe. Credit, where it is due, is lacking.
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