Has Christianity held back the progress of science? What about Galileo?

First, here’s an article from the peer-reviewed journal Nature, probably the best peer-reviewed journal on science in the world. (H/T Letitia)

The article is written by James Hannam. He has a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge and is the author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (published in the UK as God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science).


Few topics are as open to misunderstanding as the relationship between faith and reason. The ongoing clash of creationism with evolution obscures the fact that Christianity has actually had a far more positive role to play in the history of science than commonly believed. Indeed, many of the alleged examples of religion holding back scientific progress turn out to be bogus. For instance, the Church has never taught that the Earth is flat and, in the Middle Ages, no one thought so anyway. Popes haven’t tried to ban zero, human dissection or lightening rods, let alone excommunicate Halley’s Comet. No one, I am pleased to say, was ever burnt at the stake for scientific ideas. Yet, all these stories are still regularly trotted out as examples of clerical intransigence in the face of scientific progress.

Admittedly, Galileo was put on trial for claiming it is a fact that the Earth goes around the sun, rather than just a hypothesis as the Catholic Church demanded. Still, historians have found that even his trial was as much a case of papal egotism as scientific conservatism. It hardly deserves to overshadow all the support that the Church has given to scientific investigation over the centuries.

That support took several forms. One was simply financial. Until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research. Starting in the Middle Ages, it paid for priests, monks and friars to study at the universities. The church even insisted that science and mathematics should be a compulsory part of the syllabus. And after some debate, it accepted that Greek and Arabic natural philosophy were essential tools for defending the faith. By the seventeenth century, the Jesuit order had become the leading scientific organisation in Europe, publishing thousands of papers and spreading new discoveries around the world. The cathedrals themselves were designed to double up as astronomical observatories to allow ever more accurate determination of the calendar. And of course, modern genetics was founded by a future abbot growing peas in the monastic garden.

But religious support for science took deeper forms as well. It was only during the nineteenth century that science began to have any practical applications. Technology had ploughed its own furrow up until the 1830s when the German chemical industry started to employ their first PhDs. Before then, the only reason to study science was curiosity or religious piety. Christians believed that God created the universe and ordained the laws of nature. To study the natural world was to admire the work of God. This could be a religious duty and inspire science when there were few other reasons to bother with it. It was faith that led Copernicus to reject the ugly Ptolemaic universe; that drove Johannes Kepler to discover the constitution of the solar system; and that convinced James Clerk Maxwell he could reduce electromagnetism to a set of equations so elegant they take the breathe away.

Given that the Church has not been an enemy to science, it is less surprising to find that the era which was most dominated by Christian faith, the Middle Ages, was a time of innovation and progress. Inventions like the mechanical clock, glasses, printing and accountancy all burst onto the scene in the late medieval period. In the field of physics, scholars have now found medieval theories about accelerated motion, the rotation of the earth and inertia embedded in the works of Copernicus and Galileo. Even the so-called “dark ages” from 500AD to 1000AD were actually a time of advance after the trough that followed the fall of Rome. Agricultural productivity soared with the use of heavy ploughs, horse collars, crop rotation and watermills, leading to a rapid increase in population.

I hope this will set the record straight – monotheism created experimental science. If you want atheistic science, you’re looking at things like the steady-state model, directed panspermia and man-made global warming. You could call that speculative science, I guess.

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31 thoughts on “Has Christianity held back the progress of science? What about Galileo?”

  1. Admittedly, Galileo was put on trial for claiming it is a fact that the Earth goes around the sun, rather than just a hypothesis as the Catholic Church demanded.

    So… close….

    He was put on trial for teaching it as fact, when he couldn’t support it, AFTER he swore he wouldn’t do that. Even then, he would’ve gotten away with it… if he hadn’t written a book calling his old friend, who had become Pope, a moron.

    Don’t want to complain too much, since that is STILL the closest I’ve ever seen a “science” source get to the known facts of the matter.


  2. It’s an interesting read (disclaimer: I didn’t follow the links through) but I have doubts that pointing to Galileo proves that Christianity didn’t hold back science or that it even started science. The Romans, who (mostly) pre-date Christianity, advanced scientific knowledge considerably. The Greeks too, and they had already calculated the circumference of the earth (hence to prevent someone from teaching it as fact when you had an abundance of evidence, both modern for the time and historical (the Greek contributions) is also misleading). The Chinese had discovered an enormous amount of scientific evidence all without the help of Christianity. So to claim that Christianity started modern science is to ignore all of history prior to Christianity. Societies have come and gone and as each has risen to greatness (china, Greece, Rome, etc) they have expanded scientific knowledge and progress greatly.

    And before anyone jumps all over me and mis-interprets everything I’ve written – I’m not saying Christianity contributed nothing to science, I’m just saying the claims made don’t necessarily follow from the evidence provided (or maybe at all).


    1. Oops, I did notice that I combine/mistake round/flat earth with heliocentric…I guess that’s what I get for trying to do too many things at once.


    2. Define science. It seems you’re defining it as anything even vaguely scientific– standard for common use. I’d bet they’re defining it as the scientific method, AKA modern science, AKA the dictionary definition: the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

      Incidentally, it’s not pointing at Galileo to prove that Christianity didn’t hold back science, it’s correcting the mythical narrative and pointing to a bunch of other stuff, and largely came from folks with an axe to grind. (no great shock to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance to, say, the history of genetics)


    3. Jerry,

      “hence to prevent someone from teaching it as fact when you had an abundance of evidence, both modern for the time and historical (the Greek contributions) is also misleading”

      Are you saying the Galileo controversy was over the shape of the Earth? I think that was settled by Galileo’s time and the discussion was over the position of the Earth in the universe. Granted Galileo turned out to be right but I do not think it was as well established in his time as the fact that the Earth was round (something ever educated person, clergy or not, knew). Also I think you should follow the links and maybe read James Hanaam’s book because he does not argue (as, say, Dinesh S’souza does) that Christianity was necessary for science, he argues that it was one contributing component.


      1. No – read my reply to my reply. I was trying to hurry between the meetings that my managers insist I waste my time on, getting actual work done, and reading Wintery’s site – I cringe to say it, multitasking and it caused a post that mixed concepts.

        I guess a bit rushed, but my argument was more along the lines I don’t believe it a necessary contributing factor but I don’t deny it was a contributing factor in western/christian europe. I was pointing out the other great pre-christian civilizations, and this point gets to a bit of what foxifier was saying, that they had developed a sophisticated scientific process also. Their contributions in many cases can’t be denied. The level of architecture that many of the great civilzations of history displayed show a level of mathematical and engineering sophistication I doubt could be acheived by a haphazard approach to research.


        1. You want to conflate science with engineering? If you’re going to reduce science to “they did things and learned to do them better” than any culture that used tools had “science,” let alone those that actually made tools. You need more than inventions to give evidence of science. (Shoot, look at how many inventions even these days are accidents– from vulcanized rubber to stainless steel.)

          You really might want to look into the guys Matt mentions– science, theorize-test-evaluate-theorize, universal laws, etc — is incredibly odd in human history. Probably about as odd as the notion of shared humanity; reading what we still have from the Greeks and Romans, it’s a bit shocking: they’d have someone (or a teacher and his students, hard to tell) come up with this or that idea, and then stop. A lot of the medical stuff Hippocrates came up with made sense, but a lot more didn’t…and it rolled on for several hundred years before another odd/amazing guy, Galen, came up with a bunch more, and then the “not much” happened again.
          They just didn’t figure out the system, which is so amazingly obvious when you already know about it.


  3. I believe Galileo also personally insulted the pope, so that probably didn’t help him get much slack regardless of his scientific position.

    Also, 1 Corinthians 12:2-5 seem to indicate that Paul has a Ptolemaic view of the universe where the third heaven is outside the barrier with the planetary spheres where the stars were. Therefore we have a New Testament passage that seems to assume a round earth model.


  4. Sir Isaac Newton was a brilliant Mathematician and the father of modern Physics.

    He was also a devout Christian who credited God’s help in his discoveries.

    If you have netflix look up the series, “The Universe” and watch the season final of season one. It goes through Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and mentions a devout catholic whose name escapes me who developed the “Big Bang” theory. I found his story particularly interesting.


  5. I recommend “The Soul of Science” (http://www.amazon.com/Soul-Science-Christian-Philosophy-Worldview/dp/0891077669/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1305857489&sr=1-1). The belief that a rational, immutable creator imbued the creation with these same characteristics provided a foundation for much of modern science. Looking for the underlying laws that govern the universe was a matter of “thinking God’s thoughts after him”. After all, why seek the physics behind lightning if it’s the product of a volatile and unpredictable god living on a mountaintop?


  6. For those interested, Dinesh D’Souza covers this whole account (Christianity, science, Galileo, etc.) in great detail in his book, “What’s So Great About Christianity.”

    His book is a good read. Michael Shermer even likes it…so it must be good. :p :)


  7. Also relevant to the Galileo-science issue:

    Last week my dad, a knowledgeable and strong Christian, said, “We have to admit the medieval Church made some mistakes with science, like Galileo.”

    I answered, “Some? Name the other one.”

    He couldn’t do it. Who can? I’ve studied it, and I can’t. We’ve been taught that Galileo was representative of Christianity’s wholesale opposition toward science, but even if the worst of what’s been said about Galileo were true (which it isn’t), it would still be just one incident. Not a trend.


    1. I can easily name one – Giordano Bruno. The church burned him at the stake (read: murdered him) for teaching the same thing as Galileo. To Say that the church wasn’t guilty of anything with Galileo would be to willfully ignore that Pope John Paul II apologized for threatening to torture Galileo if he didn’t recant and then sentencing him to house arrest for the remainder of his life.

      One doesn’t have to look hard to find examples of persecution of scientists or science in general. The bible had stated something along the lines of “the earth is immovable or fixed in space, blah, blah” and the church’s pattern of killing anyone that disagreed was more than enough motivation to stop many inquiring minds. It doesn’t take a lot of speculation to guess what would have happened to Galileo had he not been as famous or as liked as he was.


      1. I am not Catholic, but I will be happy to compare the hundreds of people killed by the Spanish Inquisition to the MILLIONS of people killed by consistent, committed, convicted atheists like Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, and so forth. One does not find support for what the Catholic church did in the Bible. If you are imitating the Jesus portrayed in the Bible, then you don’t kill your enemies who disagree with you on theology, you love them.

        I think that in defending the unborn in the previous decades, the Catholic church has MORE than made up for their crimes in the Inquisition, insofar as such an expiation of sins could be humanly possible.


        1. The bible is open to interpretation, so to claim that something doesn’t follow from the bible is your interpretation of that book. Others have interpreted it differently.

          Now to claim that psychopaths that don’t believe in the same god as you = atheism is ignoring some huge issues. For one, where were all the christians during these genocides? The predominantly christian US didn’t even want to enter WWII. [Removed sentence – sorry!] Stalin grew up in a very religious family…


          1. We’ve been through this before.

            Hitler and Stalin actually enacted enormously anti-Christian policies. You judge politicians by the policies they embrace, not by their honeyed words in public when they try to get elected. Barack Obama claims to be a Christian, but he is the most pro-abortion President we have ever had. Judge people by the fruit they produce.

            You grew up in a religious family, does that make you a Christian? I grew up in an Muslim/Hindu/Catholic family. I’m none of those.

            Real Christians are like William Wilberforce, who stopped slavery after 20 years of contending, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed while trying to assassinate Hitler. Judge by actions, not words or families. You should definitely watch the movie “Amazing Grace”, which is a left-leaning look at Wilberforce’s life, and also perhaps “The Blind Side”. True stories.


      2. Bruno was burned for teaching, as a religious authority, that Jesus was a magician. (along with other really funky things)

        Long quote:
        God and the world are one; matter and spirit, body and soul, are two phases of the same substance; the universe is infinite; beyond the visible world there is an infinity of other worlds, each of which is inhabited; this terrestrial globe has a soul; in fact, each and every part of it, mineral as well as plant and animal, is animated; all matter is made up of the same elements (no distinction between terrestrial and celestial matter); all souls are akin (transmigration is, therefore, not impossible). This unitary point of view is Bruno’s justification of “natural magic.” No doubt, the attempt to establish a scientific continuity among all the phenomena of nature is an important manifestation of the modern spirit, and interesting, especially on account of its appearance at the moment when the medieval point of view was being abandoned. And one can readily understand how Bruno’s effort to establish a unitary concept of nature commanded the admiration of such men as Spinoza, Jacobi, and Hegel. On the other hand, the exaggerations, the limitations, and the positive errors of his scientific system; his intolerance of even those who were working for the reforms to which he was devoted; the false analogies, fantastic allegories, and sophistical reasonings into which his emotional fervour often betrayed him have justified, in the eyes of many, Bayle’s characterization of him as “the knight-errant of philosophy.” His attitude of mind towards religious truth was that of a rationalist. Personally, he failed to feel any of the vital significance of Christianity as a religious system. It was not a Roman Inquisitor, but a Protestant divine, who said of him that he was “a man of great capacity, with infinite knowledge, but not a trace of religion.”

        It’s funny you should associate him with Galileo, since even the Galileo project (not a friendly source) points out that said notable didn’t think too highly of him.


      3. Your facts are wrong, Jerry. Bruno wasn’t killed for his stand on science but for other reasons having to do with his theological position. Draper and White perpetrated a myth concerning him, too.

        To say that the Church wasn’t guilty of anything with Galileo would be stupid, which is why I didn’t say any such thing. The facts of the case are not quite the way many of us were taught they were, but you can look at the links in the original post for the rest of that story so I don’t need to go over them here.

        If one need not look hard to find examples of scientists being persecuted, then perhaps you can name one of those examples. (Don’t try Copernicus. There’s another myth attached to his story, but in fact his problem was never with the Church, it was with other scientists.)


  8. The shift, construction and fall of the Byzantium Empire to the Ottoman Turks, can be used as a primary example illustrating why Christianity was restricted from progressing scientifically, historically, etc.


  9. Speaking of the Byzantine Empire and the Turks (Or was it the Arabs back at this time), after the fall of the West, the barbarians burned books and crushed tablets of nearly everything that had been a part of Rome. If we had relied wholly on the West to provide the knowledge that the Greeks and Romans had acquired through their time as the major source of science, we might be back even a millennium in science. The East and the Arabs/Turks kept the majority of the records intact during the European Dark Ages, and both of those civilizations can be noted for how well religion held the people together (at least during that time period).


  10. I really liked this post, but there is one thing that I am mildly skeptical of: I do not think Nature would be worthy of the BEST peer-reviewed science journal in the world, as they claimed that Wikipedia is almost as good as Britannica, and refused to explain why they would not change this statement after being confronted, and having their paper systematically dismantled. They also referenced a single study with a sample size of one patient in an attempt to refute the numerous studies, which had vastly larger sample sizes, in ranges of religious background, age, etc., which gave corroborative evidence that the human mind can survive the death of the physical body. If they were THE best, they wouldn’t slip up so spectacularly in such controversial topics.

    I’m also told that Christianity is what lead to Capitalism. I can’t find any hard data on this, nor on the thesis that socialist and communist economies lose efficiency as they expand, but these are things that I have heard where I live. Any thoughts?


    1. The Cosmos TV series is not very well done, neither the original not the remake. In the original, Carl Sagan pushed an eternal oscillating model of the universe, which was later discredited theoretically by Alan Guth, and then further discredited by empirical observations about the expanding universe. Carl Sagan’s desire to push an atheist narrative caused him to make scientific errors.

      The new series had some good content, but the narrative about Giordano Bruno was just revisionist history.

      Here is a good summary of the mistakes committed by the atheist host Neil degrasse Tyson:





      (This last link is from an atheist pro-evolution advocacy group)

      Again, Tyson’s desire to push an atheist narrative caused him to make historical errors.


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