May 22, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

“Enlightenment” History of Science Being Rewritten

It’s a common myth that enlightenment atheists gave birth to the scientific era by casting off the darkness of the Christian middle ages and replacing magical arts like alchemy with the scientific experimental method.  Historians of science know better.  A couple of recent articles help set the record straight.
    Alchemy has long had a bad rap, but that is beginning to change.  Professor Lawrence Princippe (Johns Hopkins University) has spent 30 years investigating the writings and experiments of alchemists, and has concluded that many of them were “real scientists” doing valid work in chemistry.  Among the respectable practitioners were Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.
    This does not mean that the methods of alchemists deserve a comeback, or that their belief that base metals could be turned into gold should be taken seriously, but rather that for their time, they were pursuing real scientific questions with the limited materials available to them.  Sara Reardon described the growing recovery of alchemy’s reputation in Science.1
    In a Nature blog,1 James Hannam, historian of science and author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution wrote to correct misconceptions about the relation of Christianity to science.  Right off the bat he made a list:

The ongoing clash of creationism with evolution obscures the fact that Christianity has actually had a far more positive role to play in the history of science than commonly believed.  Indeed, many of the alleged examples of religion holding back scientific progress turn out to be bogus.  For instance, the Church has never taught that the Earth is flat and, in the Middle Ages, no one thought so anyway.  Popes haven’t tried to ban zero, human dissection or lightening rods, let alone excommunicate Halley’s Comet.  No one, I am pleased to say, was ever burnt at the stake for scientific ideas.  Yet, all these stories are still regularly trotted out as examples of clerical intransigence in the face of scientific progress.

After dispensing with the myths, he listed positive cases of the church supporting science.  Churches supported the teaching of science and even built observatories into cathedrals, for example.  Hannam then pointed out that Christians did science as an act of worship when it was unprofitable.  He mentioned a historical point rarely considered:

It was only during the nineteenth century that science began to have any practical applications.  Technology had ploughed its own furrow up until the 1830s when the German chemical industry started to employ their first PhDs.  Before then, the only reason to study science was curiosity or religious piety.  Christians believed that God created the universe and ordained the laws of nature.  To study the natural world was to admire the work of God.  This could be a religious duty and inspire science when there were few other reasons to bother with it.  It was faith that led Copernicus to reject the ugly Ptolemaic universe; that drove Johannes Kepler to discover the constitution of the solar system; and that convinced James Clerk Maxwell he could reduce electromagnetism to a set of equations so elegant they take the breathe [sic] away.

Hannam went on to describe how the Middle Ages, dominated by the Church, was actually a time of innovation and progress.  Even the Dark Ages that preceded it was a time of advance, he said, in spite of the depression caused by the fall of Rome.
    Why, then, do so many people get the idea that Christianity and science are opposed?  Hannam presented a brief conspiracy theory, pointing out that the conflict of science with religion arose only during the “enlightenment” (his mock quotes and non-capitalization).

Voltaire and his fellow philosophes opposed the Catholic Church because of its close association with France’s absolute monarchy.  Accusing clerics of holding back scientific development was a safe way to make a political point.  The cudgels were later taken up by TH Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, in his struggle to free English science from any sort of clerical influence.  Creationism did the rest of the job of persuading the public that Christianity and science are doomed to perpetual antagonism.

In closing, Hannam said that both “science and religion are the two most powerful intellectual forces on the planet,” pointing out that “Both are capable of doing enormous good, but their chances of doing so are much greater if they can work together.”  He ended by congratulating Lord Martin Rees winning of the Templeton Prize as a “small step in the right direction.”

1.  Sara Reardon, “History of Science: The Alchemical Revolution,” Science, 20 May 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6032 pp. 914-915, DOI: 10.1126/science.332.6032.914.
2.  James Hannam, guest blogger for Soapbox Science, a blog of Nature, May 18, 2011.

Hannam’s article is a small step in the right direction, but he joined in the tar-and-feather-the-creationists game.  He blamed them for the “ongoing clash” today (as if they started it), and blamed them for “persuading the public that Christianity and science are doomed to perpetual antagonism” as if the Dawkins crowd is lily-white innocent in that regard.  He might as well blame the Christians in the Roman arena being attacked by wild animals and crucified for causing the “ongoing clash” with Nero.
    There is no more despised group in academia today than creationists.  Alchemists get more respect than people who take God’s word as a historical account of origins, even though the great scientists Hannam listed, including Copernicus, Kepler, Newton and Maxwell all believed it.  Maybe it takes centuries to get respect back after it has been shredded by bulldogs.
    If it weren’t for the political power they wield, evolutionists are far more deserving of the disdain they regularly dish out to creationists.  Read John Sanford’s book Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome and wonder how intelligent people could ever bring themselves to believe that mutations would create progress in fitness, and continue to believe natural selection built all the wonders of life, decades after it was demonstrated by evolution-believing secular population geneticists to be unworkable.  Re-read Jonathan Wells’ book Icons of Evolution and wonder at how intelligent people could continue to trot out such wimpy and fraudulent examples as evidence for evolution.  Watch Darwin’s Dilemma and stand aghast at how a Darwinian theory so utterly falsified by evidence could be forced onto students as the only theory deserving of a hearing.  Do you want to despise a group who believes myths, has an agenda, refuses to face facts, ignores falsifying data, accepts their world view by faith, is intransigent and pugnacious?  Look no further than the Darwin Party.
    The comments after Hannam’s blog entry are interesting.  Several readers trained in TH Huxley’s bulldog kennel tried to go after Hannam for not being vicious enough against the evil, wicked, stupid creationists.  One argued the old faith-vs-reason canard, another the NOMA line.  Hannam responded that “some of the attitudes on display in this thread are actually damaging to the cause of science” because “many people here wear their hostility to religion on their sleeves.”  While not defending creationism or intelligent design per se, he had more blame to lay at the feet of atheists: “Evolution is so tainted by its association with atheism” that many cannot analyze it objectively, he said, “And yet, new atheists keep trying to make matters worse.”
    The history of science is nuanced and colorful, defying simplistic narratives.  Hannam at least acknowledged that.  Princippe is a very knowledgeable and persuasive narrator of the history of science in his Teaching Company lecture series, but listeners should be warned that, for all the good historical facts he shares, he ends up presenting a thoroughly Darwinized theistic-evolutionary solution to science-and-religion issues (probably because a Johns Hopkins professor could not survive in academia with anything else)  Academia is rigged to always keep Darwin on top.
    Hannam and Princippe both know there are faults to find among the religious and non-religious, fools and heroes and (more often) great thinkers with flaws.  As for this site, we are not here to defend the abuses of the Catholic church nor their positions on scientific questions either current or historic.  Kepler, Newton and Maxwell and most others in our list were Protestants (that makes sense only after 1517), but Christian theism of any stripe is arguably friendlier to science than atheism, which cannot justify reason emerging from hydrogen, and thus has to plagiarize Judeo-Christian presuppositions to get off the starting line.
    As for Sir Martin Rees getting the Templeton Prize, he is about as deserving of praise for “progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine” (01/26/2006, 06/25/2010, 08/16/2005) as Darwin would have been.  The guy is a sold-out Darwinist and atheist, like Dawkins but with a little less vitriol.  Don’t hold your breath till the real ones making progress (Behe, Dembski, Meyer and others in the ID camp) win the prize.  Remember the Nobel “Peace” Prize that Yasser Arafat got for progress in blowing up Jews?  Good grief, what a mixed-up world.

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  • dhpd007 says:

    Thanks for pointing out that there are protestants after only 1517 or so. Prior to that we share the Christian history with Roman Catholics here in the west. (I’m aware of our orthodox friends, but it is our shared history with the RCs that is too often forgotten.

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