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One of the most prevalent myths about science and religion is that the rise of faith, or at least orthodoxy, spelled doom for the nascent sciences.
One model produced to embody this idea was Galileo’s classic run-in with the Catholic Church. Another is the martyrdom of the fifth century Egyptian mathematician, Hypatia. According to legend, Hypatia was torn from her chariot and slaughtered in an Alexandrian church by a mob of fanatical Christians. There was a pamphlet written about it in 1720 by one John Toland with this astonishing title (take a deep breath before reading): The History of a Most Beautiful Lady; Who Was Torn to Pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria to Gratify the Pride, Emulation, and Cruelty of the Archbishop, Commonly but Undeservedly titled Saint Cyril.
This story has been held up for centuries as an example of what happens when enlightened science runs into conflict with any form of religious belief. But is that accurate? Not according to a recent biography of Hypatia by Maria Dzielska. Dzielska reveals that Hypatia was party to a local political struggle with the aforementioned Cyril of Dubious Saintliness—whom Dzielska styles “an ambitious and ruthless churchman eager to extend his authority”—and Orestes, the Roman Imperial Prefect of the region, also a friend of Hypatia.
Orestes, like Cyril, was a Christian. But Cyril did not like Orestes because the Prefect challenged his own authority and ambitions. Cyril used Orestes’ friendship with the pagan Hypatia to blacken his reputation. To add spice to the sauce, Cyril charged the poor old woman with witchcraft.
Orestes, however, was Cyril’s target, not Hypatia. He was a target for political reasons, not religious or scientific ones. Cyril never went after natural philosophers as a class, though he attacked pagans viciously. Despite his actions, science and mathematics flourished in Alexandria for decades to come. The historical record does not bear out the claim that the rise of Christianity as a faith tolled the death knell of scientific pursuit.
The late science historian Dr. David C. Lindberg offered the idea that the misleading accounts found in such volumes as Charles Freeman’s Closing of the Western Mind are “attempts to keep alive an old myth: the portrayal of early Christianity as a haven of anti-intellectualism, a fountainhead of antiscientific sentiment,” and the cause of what have come to be known as the Dark Ages in Europe.
So, whence the myth?
Lindberg looks at the statements of Tertullian and other religious philosophers which were expressive of a certain disdain for “Athens” (shorthand for pagan scholarship). Tatian, a second century Mesopotamian scholar and contemporary of Tertullian, asked:
What noble thing have you produced by your pursuit of philosophy? What of your most eminent men has been free from vain boasting? . . . Wherefore be not led away by the solemn assemblies of philosophers who are no philosophers, who dogmatize the crude fancies of the moment. – Galileo Goes to Jail, p. 11.
Tatian, here, is concerned with the “fruits” of philosophy, with what it actually produces. Baha’u’llah expressed a similar sentiment:
Knowledge is like unto wings for the being (of man) and is like a ladder for ascending. To acquire knowledge is incumbent upon all, but of those sciences which may profit the people of the earth, and not such sciences as being in mere words and end in mere words. – Baha’i World Faith, p. 189.
But then he adds this:
The possessors of sciences and arts have a great right among the people of the world. Indeed, the real treasury of man is his knowledge. Knowledge is the means of honor, prosperity, joy, gladness, happiness and exaltation. – Ibid.
Context is everything. It is not knowledge that Tertullian and Tatian disparaged, but dogmatism built upon “crude fancies” and intellectual fads. Their attitude toward philosophical dogmatism must be taken in context with the fact that they and their colleagues used the methods of Greek philosophy in their own areas of study and thought. They aligned their ideas with such congenial bed-fellows as Platonism or Neoplatonism, Stoicism, Aristotelian and neo-Pythagorean schools of philosophy.
Lindberg asks a fascinating and altogether critical question: “What did these religious and philosophical traditions have to do with science?”
At this point in history, “science” as a discipline didn’t exist, and its progenitor—called natural philosophy—wasn’t distinct from religion or philosophy in general. There were, of course, beliefs about nature, medicine, wellness, sickness, natural phenomena and life in general. These things were studied and written about, often with emphasis on their relationship to God or gods. The idea that religious folk of this period were dullards who didn’t think of anything beyond the pages of the Bible (if indeed they possessed such a document), is cartoonish at best. The study of the natural world was the province of Christian thinkers and non-Christian thinkers alike. It would be centuries before these avenues of thought were posted with street signs that read “Science” and “Religion”.
What Christian philosophers were arguing, really, was the purpose of knowledge, and the appropriate attitude toward what one could ferret out of physical reality. In the course of this argument, they revealed a keen understanding and mastery of the methodologies also employed in the philosophies they opposed. Indeed, they were opposed, not to natural philosophy, but to certain philosophical principles that they concluded—rationally—were irrelevant, fruitless, or even misleading. Given Christ’s emphasis on the Christian’s life bearing fruit, this is not surprising.
Far from denigrating knowledge, the early Christian thinkers promoted the benefits of a knowledgeable congregation. It was in this context that Augustine deplored the ignorance of some of his fellow Christians:
Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements . . . about the motion and orbit of the stars . . . and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to, as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel [a non-Christian] to hear a Christian . . . talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
Augustine and his fellows applied Greco-Roman philosophical methodologies to both natural phenomena and Biblical interpretation. No surprise, then, that some of the greatest scientific achievements and discoveries that underlie Western science were made by religious scholars or that the chief agent encouraging this discovery and achievement was the Christian church.
Beyond the screeds of fanatics on both “sides” of the aisle (both Christian and non-Christian cited Tertullian to support their views) the difference between the “scientific” and “religious” ideologies was largely one of attitude. The Christian natural philosophers advocated applied knowledge—knowledge that was not an end unto itself, but rather a tool to be used toward an understanding of the purpose of human existence.
Next time, I’d like to consider the diametrically opposed views of the medieval church as an agency that promoted or suppressed the growth of science.
Next: Did the Medieval Church Suppress Science?