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Alchemy to Chemistry: How Christianity turned technology into science10 min read

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One of the great and tragic myths of our time is the materialist view that faith hinders science, and has largely opposed it in the past.  AIG has a nice review of For The Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts and the End of Slavery by Rodney Stark, which addresses the revisionist history of science and faith, and how faith, and specifically the Christian faith, is responsible for the science we see today.  And here are some quotes, with my emphases in bold red.:

The Story We’ve All Been Told

Even children know that in 1492 Christopher Columbus proved the world is round. They also know that he … [faced] years of opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, which ridiculed all dissent from the biblical teaching that the world is flat. … Andrew Dickson White, founder and first president of Cornell University, and author of the most influential book ever written on the conflict between science and theology, offered this summary:

“… Columbus’ voyage greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity [yet] the Church … stumbled and persisted in going astray

… But in 1519 science gains a crushing victory. Magellan makes his famous voyage. He proves the earth to be round, for his expedition circumnavigates it … yet even this does not end the war. Many [religious] men oppose the doctrine for two hundred years longer.”

But The Story is a Big Lie

Like everyone else, I grew up with this story. It was retold in every account of Columbus’ voyage in my schoolbooks, in many movies, and always on Columbus Day. As for A.D. White’s immense study, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (in two volumes) when I was young, it was required reading … and I cited it in my second published paper.

Trouble is that almost every word of White’s account of the Columbus story is a lie. Every educated person of the time, including Roman Catholic prelates, knew the earth was round.

… So why didn’t we know they knew? Why do only specialists know now? … White himself admitted that he wrote the book to get even with Christian critics of his plans for Cornell. … many of White’s other accounts are as bogus as his report of the flat earth and Columbus. The reason we didn’t know the truth is that … for more than three centuries [the claim of inevitable and bitter warfare between religion and science has been the primary polemical device used in the atheist attack on faith. From Thomas Hobbes through Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, false claims about religion and science have been used as weapons in the battle to “free” the human mind from the “fetters of faith.”

The Real Story of Science and Christianity

In this chapter, I argue not only that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science. In demonstration of this thesis [I show that] not only did religion not cause the “Dark Ages” – nothing else did either – ”the story that after the fall of Rome a long dark night of ignorance and superstition settled over Europe is as fictional as the Columbus story. In fact this was an era of profound and rapid technological progress … the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century was the … result of [Christian scholarship] starting in the eleventh century…

Why did real science develop in Europe … and not anywhere else? I find answers to those questions in unique features of Christian theology… The Enlightenment [was] conceived initially as a propaganda ploy by militant atheists and humanists [e.g. Voltaire, Diderot and Gibbon] who attempted to claim credit for the rise of science [through promulgating] the falsehood that science required the defeat of religion’ (pp. 121-123, emphases in original).

Enlightenment In the Dark Ages – BEFORE the Humanist “Enlightenment”

Long before any so-called “Renaissance,” Europe’s technology advanced far beyond anything achieved by the ancients, with examples like waterwheels, milling technology, camshafts, clocks and the compass. While gunpowder was invented by the Chinese they never developed the gun (so it is a misnomer to call their invention “gunpowder” – they only used it in fireworks); it was Europeans who developed the gun and by the early 14th century cannon guns were all over Europe. All this progress occurred before the “rediscovery” of classical knowledge. By the late 13th century Europe was the world leader in technology, philosophy and science and this had come from centuries of interaction between Christianity and the “barbarians” who had much more sophisticated cultures than generally acknowledged (p. 134).

So basically, he seems to argue that Christianity turned knowledge, or information, into technology.  Interesting.

Christian Roots of Botany and Human Physiology – BEFORE the Enlightenment

Scholastics began the empirical tradition long before the ‘Renaissance’. Albert Magnus excelled in botany in the 13th century, putting Aristotle to the test with field observations and discarding his wrong ideas. Human physiology began at the same time using dissection of cadavers – something forbidden to classical scholars and Muslims. What allowed Christian dissection was the idea that the soul, not the body, was the essence of the human person. It began with post-mortem dissection in the 13th century and by the early 14th century it was taught in front of students. Yet our lying friend A.D. White said dissection began amid church opposition in the sixteenth century!

Interesting that the Muslim (and Jewish?) faiths prohibited the “violation” of a dead body by cutting into it.

Why Non-Christian Cultures Failed to Develop Science

A great deal of knowledge was gathered by observation and by trial and error in all ancient cultures, but this is not science. Aristotle, for example, observed widely and theorized extensively, but he did not test his theories against his observations so he was not a scientist. Alchemy and astrology were highly developed in China, Islamic regions, India and ancient Greece and Rome, but only in medieval Europe did these become the sciences of chemistry and astronomy. ‘It is the consensus among contemporary historians, philosophers and sociologists of science that real science arose only once: in Europe.’ The leading scientific figures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were overwhelmingly devout Christians who believed it their duty to comprehend God’s handiwork (pp. 123, 126-127).

But what was the Christian difference? India, China, Persia, Greece and Rome all had venerable traditions of scholarship but why did only Christian Europe develop science? Stark’s answer is simple but profound – the Christian God was rational, responsive, dependable and omnipotent and the universe was his personal creation in which his divine nature was put on display for man’s benefit and instruction. Among the passages most commonly cited by medieval scholars was: “Thou has ordered all things in measure and number and weight.” 1 Christians believed that science could be done and should be done.

In China, the Confucian and Taoist philosophies did not contain the idea that a ‘science of explanations’ would be possible so they pursued personal enlightenment and social order. The Greeks pursued learning with great zeal but there remained always a gap between their speculative philosophy and their observation. The persistence of this gap can be traced to their view of the universe – it was seen as a “living organism” with motives, influenced by a multitude of fallible gods. In the face of such arbitrary behaviour, they pursued speculative ideals that could not be subjected to empirical testing. The Islamic world embraced classical scholarship enthusiastically, and made significant progress in mathematics, astronomy and medicine, but they never developed science. Stark attributes this to their excessive zeal for the ancients – they adopted the Greek view of the universe as being inscrutable and it blocked further progress.

I don’t know if I agree with his assessment that the Chinese invention of gunpowder was not science, while it’s implementation in guns was advancement.  But he raises some interesting distinctions – like the difference between alchemy and chemistry, or astrology and astronomy.  A modern day analog might be the difference between eastern herbal medicine and the western, scientific medicine that tries to understand the chemistry behind herbal medicine – i.e. the ancients discovered things like gunpowder, but did not understand them.  Hmf.

Christianity, Islam, and Slavery

Slavery was widespread in all the great societies of history, but only in Christian Europe (and America) was it perceived to be a sin that must be abolished. Individual Christians publicly opposed slavery from the seventh century onwards, and official church moves against it began with St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. A series of popes upheld his position, beginning in 1435 and culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul III in 1537. These edicts were widely flouted, but they remain an historic testimony to Christian social justice. And why did abolition not succeed in Islam (not until recently, and slavery still persists in some places)? One obvious answer is that Muhammad bought, sold, captured and owned slaves

To Sum It Up

Gods are the fundamental feature of religions … The “wisdom of the east” did not give rise to science, nor did Zen meditation turn people’s hearts against slavery… science was not the work of Western secularists or even deists; it was entirely the work of devout believers in an active, conscious, creator God. And it was faith in the goodness of this same God and in the mission of Jesus that led other devout Christians to end slavery … Western civilization really was God-given.