John Wilkins posted an excellent analysis of the never-ending catfight on how to deal with the modern relationship between science and religious belief. PZ McWirter found this post anything but excellent and duly posted his disgruntled riposte at Phyrangula (hat tip to DS ;)) thus unleashing the hoards of the Old Ones on to the comment columns of Evolving Thoughts where they preceded to pour abuse on to the head of the Aussie Anthropoid. One of these gentlemen who titles himself Greg. Tingey wrote, amongst other things, the following:
The last time science was killed by religion, we had the dark ages – we just have to point this out to the politicos …
Now as somebody who spends a lot of time trying to learn about and understand the relationship between science and religion in the Middle Ages I could not let the very strange statement go by with out comment.
First of all I must assume that Mr Tingey when using the expression ‘dark ages’ is referring to that which historians now prefer to call the Early Middle Ages, this being the period of European history that starts with the final collapse of the Roman Empire and closes with the rebirth of city culture and international trading in the High Middle Ages. Dating of this period is variable with the start varying between 400 CE and 600 CE and the close between 800 CE and 1000 CE, I will take 400 to 1000 CE as being applicable for that which I wish to say.
Romano-Hellenistic science reached a high point in the middle of the second century CE with the works of Ptolemaeus and Galen but in the Western part of the Roman Empire science and education in general had all but died out by the end of the fourth century CE. This comparatively rapid decline had absolutely nothing to do with religion but with the general collapse of the Roman civilisation a product of various complex political and social factors. In the Eastern part of the Empire science and education remained active for a longer period but it mostly consisted of conservation of existing knowledge with almost no original contributions.
Outside of Europe the first Renaissance in knowledge came about as the result of the founding of a new religion Islam. Following the initial stage of very rapid expansion, in the 7th century, the Muslims of the Arabian peninsular realised that compared to the Indians, with whom they traded, they were very ignorant and uneducated and so they set about acquiring knowledge from the Indians, Chinese and Greeks, comparatively soon they built up their own systems of science.
Within Europe the situation was very different but again here it was religion that formed, not the negative force as claimed by Mr. Tingey, but the positive force for the preservation of the sciences. The late encyclopaedists Boethius, Cassiodorus and Isidore who provided the only remaining links to Greek knowledge were all Christian scholars and it was only within the isolated Christian monasteries that the knowledge of education and science was kept alive, if only at a very low level. However, despite the low level of this knowledge preservation it provided the necessary fundament on which to build when Europe in its turn started to import knowledge from the Muslims in the 11th and 12th centuries, the people doing the importing (read translation) being all Christian scholars. Far from being the cause of the loss of scientific knowledge in the so-called dark ages, religion was the one thing that kept that knowledge alive and fuelled its Renaissance in the High Middle Ages.
For those interested in learning in more detail the true story of science in the ‘dark ages’ rather than the fantasies propagated by the likes of Mr Tingey I recommend Steve McCluskey’s excellent Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe and the relevant chapters of David C. Lindberg’s equally excellent The Beginnings of Western Science.