Jason Rosenhouse is a mathematician and science blogger who has been very actively engaged in the American dispute between scientists and creationists for a number of years. Unlike many of his fellow warriors for science Jason has displayed a remarkable openness and tolerance for the thoughts and beliefs of the creationists. He attended creationist’s lectures and meetings over a number of years listening to what they have to say, engaging in non-provocative discussions with other attendees and generally trying to understand the creationist mind-set. He turned his experiences into a critically acclaimed book, Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line. Unfortunately Jason does not display the same level of tolerance and understanding for the work of historians and in particular historians of science when it comes to the historical relationship between religion and science. In his most recent blog post he talks about the aftermath of the much-trumpeted public debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. In the middle of his post Jason delivers up the following gem of a paragraph full of historical ignorance and prejudice:
I do think I have some basis for thinking that teaching Ham’s view, that science is the servant of religion and must submit its conclusions to the religious authorities for approval, has a deleterious effect on society. After all, that was the dominant view in Christiandom [sic] for quite some time, and there’s a reason that period in our history is known as the Dark Ages. The issue wasn’t simply rare cases like Galileo, where the Church actually came down on someone. It was the chilling effect of the Church’s constant policing of acceptable and unacceptable thought. That was precisely the attitude that needed to be weakened before the scientific revolution could occur.
Far from reflecting the latest considerations of the historical experts on the subject this paragraph could have been written by an enthusiastic fan of the nineteenth century Draper-White conflict between religion and science hypothesis writing in the nineteen fifties.
For a start historians have long since dropped the term Dark Ages preferring to refer to the period between the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and the rebirth of urban culture in Europe as the Early Middle Ages. As with all historical periodization’s it is difficult to give an exact beginning or end to this period but it can be considered to start somewhere between four and five hundred CE and to be over by one thousand CE. Of course Jason use of the derogatory term Dark Ages is deliberate as he wishes to place the blame for their existence in Western history on the rise of Christianity. This thesis, the rise of Christianity equals the collapse of western science, is unfortunately highly popular amongst those of the Gnu Model Army who prefer to follow their own prejudices rather than to study history. Science in Antiquity already began to collapse in the middle of the second century CE with a general decline in intellectual activity within an increasingly turbulent and unstable Roman Empire i.e. before Christianity as a religion even existed. Rome didn’t fall in a day, to coin a phrase, but declined over a period of a couple of hundred years and science declined with it. Science wasn’t dead but it was already smelling funny when Christianity first began to be a social and political force in the fourth century. The situation was exacerbated as the fall of Rome was followed by what my German neighbours call the Völkerwanderung and is known in English as the Migration Period. During the period between four and eight hundred CE successive waves of migrants flowed into Europe from the east displacing the inhabitants and generally causing chaos. Remember all those Goths, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Lombards, Suebi, Frisii, Franks, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, and Alans that you learnt and then forgot about in those boring school history lessons? It should be pointed out none of them even remotely Christian. Science flourishes in stable urban cultures, which quite simple did not exist in the Early Middle Ages in Europe. In fact science and learning in general almost completely disappeared, almost but not completely. Where were the remnants of learning conserved during these extremely turbulent times in Europe? Within the Christian monasteries that’s where!
When did this decline in learning begin to be reversed and why? The reversal started in the eighth century as Karl der Große (that’s Charlemagne for the English) conquered and united a very large part of Europe and had himself crowed Emperor. Karl was an semi-illiterate barbarian but he introduced the first European Renaissance, the Carolingian Renaissance. Why? Because he was a Christian and his Christian advisors, foremost Alcuin of York, taught him the importance of learning, education and what could best be described as proto-science. Christianity did not kill off science in the Early Middle Ages but it was responsible for reviving it. (This paragraph was modified 28.02.2014 in response to justified criticism from my wise readers. See comments!)
By about one thousand CE urban civilisation began to be re-established in Europe and with it the demand for knowledge grew. Over the next two hundred years Christian scholars created the European universities and travelled to the boundaries of Europe with the Islamic Empire where with the help of Arabic and Jewish scholars they translated the scientific works of the Greeks and the Arabs into Latin creating the so-called first scientific Renaissance. All of the European translators where Christian clerics of one sort or another. Far from blocking science or scientific discourse they reintroduced science into European culture. During the High Middle Ages, roughly twelve hundred to fifteen hundred CE, groups of scholars such as the Oxford Calculatores and the Paris Physicists absorbed, developed and expanded the scientific knowledge that the translators had made available to them. All of these scholars were Christian clerics of one sort or another.
The turn of the century between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the next Renaissance with a new influx of Greek and Roman knowledge from the original sources rather than through the multiple translations of the Arabic sources creating another push in the development of the sciences within Europe. Once again all of the scholars had received the education necessary for their work from church run Christian universities.
Jason’s next statement causes me to invoke, for the first time since I coined it, Christie’s Law: In any Internet history of science discussion on the relationship between religion and science the first person to invoke the Galileo Affair has lost. I’m not going to explain here all of the very complex motive that led a highly paranoid Pope to degrade his own favourite natural philosopher but I will repeat, not for the first time, that of all the causes for the Galileo affair a dispute between science and religion was the very least of them. A man with the ego the size of St Peter’s Basilica who had used his scientific discoveries to worm his way up the greasy pole of Northern Italian absolutist court politics in order to become a court favourite. Suffered the fate of many such a court favourite when he thought that his position gave him the freedom to take the piss out of and insult his liege lord. Actually by the standards of the time he got off very lightly, ask Essex!
Jason’s next statement, “It was the chilling effect of the Church’s constant policing of acceptable and unacceptable thought” is put quite simply historical bollocks and attributes to the Church far more control than they ever had. Removal of this non-existent control is certainly not the reason for the scientific revolution or even a condition for its taking place. The reasons for the acceleration in the acquisition of new scientific knowledge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are multitudinous and highly complex and any changes in the attitude of the Churches, don’t forget the Reformation, played at best a minimal role in the process. I suggest that Jason goes away and does some serious research on the subject before he again decides to pontificate about the causes and conditions of the so-called scientific revolution. I could give him a reading list on the subject if he’s interested.