Some time ago, I had a discussion with a friend who claimed that “the Church has always oppressed science,” and that it didn’t accept evolution before 1996. This is wrong, and that’s what I want to address now.

The claim is that “the Church has always oppressed science.” When I asked for any sources for this, he asked me if I had read any history. I said that I had, but that that was not the issue. He couldn’t give me any real sources, and the reason is this; the Church has never been a oppressor of science. In the fairly anti-Christian/ani-Church book Science and Religion, a selection of articles from Skeptical Inquirer, edited by Paul Kurz, a secular humanist, and published by Prometheus, not exactly a Christian publisher, Timothy Moy writes:

Unfortunately, Galileo’s trouble with the church later became a popular arcetype for the historical relationship between science and religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. (…)For most of the medieval and Renaissance periods, and even stretching into the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the primary supporter of research and teaching in the sciences was the Roman Catholic Church.[1]

So, the Church was not a opponent, but a supporter, in fact the primary supporter. Moy continues:

In fact, one historian of science, John Heilbron, har recently published a book entitled “The Sun in the Church” that documents how the Church, in the aftermath of the Galileo affair, continued to promote research into evidence for heliocentroism, even to the point of turning entire cathedrals into giant pinhole cameras to measure the apparent diameter of the solar disk at various times of the year.[2]

And listen to David C. Lindberg, from his book The Beginnings of Western Science:

How did the dominance of Christianity affect knowledge of, and attitude toward, nature? The standard answer, developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and widely propagated in the twentieth, maintains that Christianity presented serious obstacles to the advancement of science and, indeed, sent the scientific enterprise into a tailspin from which it did not recover for more than a thousand years. The truth, as we shall se, is far different and much more complictated. (…)

[If we] compare the support given to the study of nature by the early church with the support available from any other contemporary social institution, it will become apparent that the church was one of the major patrons — perhaps THE major patron — of scientific learning. Its patronage may have been limited and selective, but limited and selective patronage is better than no patronage at all.[3]

And what about evolution? In the Catholic Encyclopedia (New Advent) there is an article on evolution, published in 1909 (vol. 5), 50 years after Darwin published his book, og long before our modern discoveries within biology/evolutionary biology. The article states that “[m]ost of the so-called systematic species and genera were certainly not created as such, but originated by a process of either gradual or saltatory evolution. Changes which extend beyond the range of variation observed in the human species have thus far not been strictly demonstrated, either experimentally or historically.”

That was even surprising for me. How far had evolutionary biology come in 1909?

I claim that the belief in the Judeo-Christian God in fact does not hinder science, but gives is more “wriggle room.” In many ancient cultures, the world was seen as a illusion, and science was discarded on that account. But we say that God has made the world, and given it certain natural laws. And that opens up for science. I won’t write anything more now, but I welcome comments on this.

Notes & references:

1. Moy, Timothy, “The Galileo affair” in Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? edited by Paul Kurz (Prometheus Books, 2003), p. 143

2. Ibid

3. Lindberg, David C., The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450 (University Of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 149.151