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Science and religion have always been at war with one another, right? Isn't that what we've all been taught? Isn't that what the trial of Galileo was all about? In fact this widely held view is a distortion of the historical truth. On the contrary, historians over the past fifty years have revealed that for most of history science and religion have been deeply entwined.

Historian Ronald Numbers, an expert on the relationship between science and religion, points out that for hundreds of years one of the most prevailing models in Western culture was what was known as the "two books" - these being the books of Scripture and the book of Nature. From the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century most people in the Western world believed that both books were the work of God, and so "it was impossible that the two should conflict."

MosquesWhen we look at the history of science, we see that in fact it owes an immense debt to the religious world. In the early Middle Ages - a time when Christian Europe turned away from scientific thinking - the science, mathematics, and astronomy of the ancient Greeks was kept alive in the Islamic world, where it was further developed and enriched by Moslem scholars. In the thirteenth century when this scientific heritage began to filter back into Western Europe, it was originally taken up by Christian monks and theologians.

Throughout the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, most scientific leaders were men of the church, They included the great medieval champion of mathematical science Robert Grosseteste (Bishop of Oxford, and the man who reinvigorated the science of geometric optics); the medieval champion of experimental science Roger Bacon (a Franciscan monk, sometimes known as the medieval Galileo); the fifteenth century proto-physicist Nicholas of Cusa (a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church and the man who first championed the idea of an infinite universe); and Nicholas Copernicus (a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral, and the man who more than any other introduced the idea of a sun-centered cosmos.)

Up until the eighteenth century, most of those in Europe studying science were indeed men of deep religious faith, many of them formally schooled in theology. In part that was because the church controlled the institutes of higher learning - particularly the universities, which had originally been set up as training grounds for the clergy and other church functionaries.

In popular mythology, the "scientific revolution" of the seventeenth century is commonly said to mark a fundamental break between science and religion. But nothing could be further from the truth. Almost all the great pioneers and founders of the new science were religious men who wanted a science that would harmonize with their faith. All three founders of the new heliocentric cosmology - Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton - saw their new vision of the universe as an offshoot of their theology. Newton. in particular, was a religious fanatic whose whole life work can be seen as a search for God. Even the infamous Galileo was a committed Catholic who wanted nothing more than for the Pope to endorse his vision of the heavens.

GalileoNot until the eighteenth century do we see a fundamental break between science and religion. In the new rationalistic climate of the Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that science and religion were two separate domains that must be kept apart. But even in the eighteenth century there was no idea of a warfare between the two spheres. That idea only arose in the late nineteenth century, particularly after the publication of Charles Darwin's revolutionary book, "On the Evolution of Species by Means of Natural Selection." In the wake of this book, some Christian believers and theologians began to see science as a threat to their faith. On the other hand, some scientists also began to see religion as a threat to scientific freedom. Although there have always been people on both sides who did not see a conflict between science and Christian faith, nonetheless this "warfare" model has had a powerful influence on Western thinking throughout the twentieth century.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Margaret Wertheim

Reload History Topic

Separation of Science and Religion
The Birth of Modern Cosmology
Topic Index

See also:

Physics and Cosmology
The Relation of Science & Religion
The Faith of Scientists
Literal and Symbolic Truths
What Science Can Learn From Religion
What Religion Can Learn From Science
Questions, Answers and Ongoing Dialogue
Sir Isaac Newton
Charles Darwin
Books on Science and Religion