Some argue that Christianity retards scientific progress, that it is irrational and ultimately harmful. In this view, Christianity, along with all types of religious belief, will eventually disappear. Others argue that there is no inherent contradiction between science and Christianity, that the Christian religion supports the progress of science and technology and that the whole of Western civilization stands on Christian foundations.
This essay looks at Richard Dawkins’ arguments against religion, at Rodney Stark’s arguments in support of Christianity and at Andrew Dickson White’s earlier argument, which can be described as a middle position. His contribution is similar to the more recent writing of Francis S. Collins, which is also described. In conclusion, this paper suggests that whether a writer argues that Christianity hindered or helped the progress of science is very largely determined by their prior attitude towards religion, which is why it is necessary to know something about their biographies.
Few if any set out to write on this topic with open minds. Rather, even though they claim to be scholars who look as facts to form their arguments, they set out to prove a point. What Stark argues for Christianity, Saliba does for Islam, for example, each beginning with different presuppositions. Other contributors will be referred to but the main texts examined are those by Dawkins, Stark, White and Collins. Dawkins is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.
He contends that evolution can answer all the questions we ask about life and that religion is a type of virus, or mental illness. Religion is irrational, he says. Stark, who argues strongly in favor of Christianity, as the foundation of Western civilization, including science, is a sociologist of religion who in sharp contrast to Dawkins is critical of evolution and self-identifies as Christian. He currently teaches at Baylor University, a conservative Baptist school in Texas. Professors at Baylor are expected to attend church regularly. He has defended “creationism.
White was co-founder of Cornell University, where he taught history. He wrote the book as a defense of the non-sectarian character of Cornell against those who insisted that religious tests be imposed on students and professors (Denton 88). He argues that what has hindered science has been dogmatic theology, not religion per se. Writing in the early twenty-first century, Francis Collins is a believer in God but does not set out to defend any particular form of organized Christian religion. Collins is a very distinguished scientist, having headed up the Human Genome Project.
He is also medically qualified. Dawkins emerged in the end years of the twentieth century as one of the most well known critics of religion, claiming that religious people are not merely mistaken but irrational and that religion is the cause of a great deal of pain and stupidity in the world. It causes wars such as the Crusades, retards human development and contributes absolutely nothing to human life that is positive at all. He characterizes religion as a virus and as a delusion, building here on the earlier ideas of Sigmund Freud, whose The Future of an Illusion appeared in 1928.
Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published in 2006. Freud argued that religion invents God as a psychological prop on which our hopes are projected. Mature humanity will learn that there is no God and stands alone in the universe, accepting responsibility and creating our own meaning. Dawkins set out the central argument of the book in chapter four, “Why there almost certainly is no God” arguing that there is no convincing argument to support theism, which is merely the projection of human hopes onto an imaginary “being”.
Rejecting the argument that there universe must have had a “cause”, the so-called “first-cause” he dismisses this as “skyhoorjey” or a type of wishful thinking (155). Before Dawkins, Bertrand Russell (1957) offered a similar argument, rejecting religion in general and Christianity especially as irrational. He describes religion as “pernicious” (26) citing, as do many critics of Christianity, the case of Galileo (1564-1642) who was silenced and placed under house arrest for daring to claim that the earth revolves around the sun. This challenged the accepted wisdom, that the sun circled the earth.
Russell wrote. The Church had opposed Galileo and Darwin, he said just as in his day it was opposing Freud. The Church, he said, had even defended slavery yet Christian claim to be the voice of morality in society. Christianity is represented as hindering science and rational thought from the earliest days of the church, which set out to police thinking so that no one would undermine or challenge Christian dogma. The Universities were controlled by the churches; White says that when he first visited Oxford and Cambridge in England they were completely under the authority of the Churches (xi).
Why did this occur? Largely, this resulted from the fact that after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the only institution capable of maintaining social cohesion was the Church. Many functions of the empire devolved to the Church; all schools were run by the church, which “was the greatest civilizing influence in the Middle Ages” passing “down to us most of our knowledge of the education, literature, and art of the Greeks and Romans” (McHugh and Southworth 24).
The Church was determined to prevent the spread of ideas that were perceived to threaten what the Church taught about creation, the origin of life and the existence of God, so whatever was thought to undermine this was proscribed. Yet the church only had this power because it was allied to the state, and in many respects acted for the state in protecting what was believed to be the very foundations of civilization. When we say that Christianity or the Church either hindered or helped the progress of science and technology, we are really taking about the whole society.
The church only had the power to ban books or to silence scientists because the secular authorities sanctioned this. Early attempts to translate the Bible into vernacular languages were prohibited, too, because it was feared that if anyone, untrained in theology could read and interpret the bible they might question some of the doctrines of the church. Galileo’s discovery that the earth circles around the sun was thought to undermine the Christian world-view, which posited that mankind and therefore the earth crowned creation. For this reason, the Inquisition silenced Galileo.
The example of Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) is also often cited as proof that the Church hindered scientific progress. The Church,, it is said, persecuted Vesalius (Denton 88) for his work on the structure of the human body, which challenged the conventional wisdom represented by Galen. He was investigated by the Inquisition, which accused him of atheism. He omitted in his writing to describe the heart as the seat of the soul. Supporters of Galan slandered him and refused to accept his discoveries. Yet this opposition was from the medical profession, not from the Church as such.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there is not the slightest hint of heresy in his writing (Senfelder). Was he persecuted by the Church or by fellow scientists? Famously, Darwin is cited as having attracted the ire and condemnation of the church, hindering the progress of scientific thought. Dawkins argues that evolution is the key that can unlock all the mysteries of life, proving that the idea that their was or is a “designer” is an illusion (158). Dawkins quotes a letter that he received from an anti-Darwinist that insulted Darwin and encouraged him to read a book which argues, “that the world is only eight thousand years old” (213).
Archbishop Usher, in 1650, published a book in which he calculated, from the genealogies recorded in the bible, that man had been created approximately 4000 years before the birth of Christ” (White 253). Some Christians argue that this is the correct age of creation and that science is wrong to push back the origin of the planet. The “fossil record” cited as evidence of the earth’s antiquity was explained (and still is by some Christians) as due to the “Deluge of Noah” (White 233). Collins also refers to the “young earth creationist” view that the strata of fossils at different levels resulted from the Flood (172).
Stark’s book is a defense of Christianity against the criticism that Christianity retarded science and progress. He argues that, from the earliest days, Christian thinkers were rational and committed to advancing human thought in all spheres (10). Thomas Aquinas used reason and logic to support theology and found “the most profound humanism in God’s creation” (10). Christianity, he argues, is the only religion that encouraged and stimulated science due to its belief that God is a rational being who “believes in human progress. ” God, says stark, reveals himself more fully as humans is response to human advances in knowledge (11).
Science was not only compatible with Christianity but was and is inseparable from it. Stark stresses that the most significant scientists were profoundly religious Christians (12). In a Euro-centric, arrogant and possibly racist way, he claims that science arose “only once”, that is, in Europe while what was developed in China, India, Islam and ancient Greece and Rome and elsewhere was “alchemy”. Discussing Islam, he argues that Islam lacks a conception of God that is compatible with rational enquiry or with the rise of science (20).
Not only science but also free-market capitalism stand on Christian ground, so much so that “Christianity created Western civilization” (233). In two references to Galileo he makes no mention of his arrest or silencing by the Church, stressing instead that he was a man of deep Christian faith (16; 22). Dawkins does not credit the argument that many famous scientists were men of faith, pointing out that until the nineteenth century, almost everyone, at least in public, professed belief for fear of attack.
He mentions Collins as a believer, adding that such scientists as Collins are the exception to the rule and are the subject of “amusement” within the academic community (99). Collins, however, is an internationally acclaimed geneticist and a practical, empirical scientist as opposed to Dawkins, who is a philosopher of science. Collins argues that, although silenced by the Church, Galileo was always a devout Christian (Collins 158) and that although it took 359 years for the Pope to apologize, his hello-centrism is accepted and the claim that this contradicted the Bible is no longer given credibility (156).
Collins and White both argue that it was not Christianity as faith in God that opposed Galileo but a particular, incorrect understanding of Christianity, which White calls “dogmatic theology”. If there really was no fundamental reason why Christianity should oppose Galileo, then Christianity cannot be blamed for silencing him, even if Christians can be blamed. Collins argues that Darwin’s religious beliefs “remain ambiguous” but points out that he was personally concerned about how his theory would affect religion and ended The Origin of Species with a theological affirmation (98, citing Darwin 459).
He suggests that Christian antagonism to his work has been exaggerated. He was not that “ostracized” by Church and was actually was buried in Westminster Abbey (98) a point that White also makes (83). White cites eminent Christian supporters of Darwin including Charles Kingsley and F. W Farrar as well as such opponents as Samuel Wilberforce. He speaks of the victory of evolution over theology, suggesting that Darwin has given the world a much more noble argument in favor of the universe having a designer than theology has (86).
Dawkins dismisses the idea that Darwin remained in any shape of form a theist, claiming him as a champion for rejecting faith in God (98). For Christians who do not interpret the Genesis account literally but as metaphor and allegory, as theological not a scientific account, there is no clash between evolution and “creation”, according to Collins (157). Neither White nor Collins set out to defend the historical record of the Church as having, at times, opposed science. White implies that it was ignorance, fear, even the perversion of genuine Christianity that opposed Galileo and others, not true Christianity.
The Church only had the authority and power to ban books and imprison people because it was allied with the State; the Inquisition was a state sanctioned agency. Stark, for his part, bends over backwards to avoid mentioning any criticism of the church’s attitude towards science. He denies the contribution that other cultures have made (much science did reach Europe from the Muslim world, see Saliba), celebrates Western “success” without mentioning the destruction of other cultures, that people were exploited, continents pillaged and raped to achieve this “success”.
His belligerent defense of Christianity as the fount of all science and denigration of other cultures is unconvincing, just as Dawkins’s total hostility fails to convince. The truth is almost certainly more complex, requiring a careful examination of the role of church-state relations te and how the actions of the church were understood as defending a whole way of perceiving the world, understanding life and ordering society.