Many wonder why modern science emerged in Europe in the 15th-17th century. According to the Book of William Reville, it is because Europe was Christian. The Creator is rational, argues the author, and was free to create the Universe in any way He [sic] chose. The world is worthy of study because it is God’s creation.
Creation is not divine so we can investigate it without impiety. Christians found, as they expected, the world to be orderly. Europe, being Christian, “was an appropriate intellectual setting in which science could take off” in the 15th-17th centuries.
I don’t know why Reville believes in a Creator, nor did I know people needed permission to investigate the Creation. Nor do I understand his conclusion that Europe became the font of modern science because it was Christian.
Why did the modern scientific revolution start in Europe? It is a complicated question and, not being an historian of science, I am reluctant to do more than offer a few comments.
Science and maths languished in Christian Europe in the Dark Ages under the Holy Roman Empire, partly because many connections had been lost with the science of ancient Greece. Fortunately, at this time, science and maths were thriving in the vibrant Islamic world – Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba, Granada. Greek geometry and astronomy were preserved in Arabic translations by Islamic scholars, while at the same time wonderful maths including the concept of zero and Indian numerals, was being assimilated from Asian cultures.
One of the most important of the preserved books was The Almagest written in Greek by Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD in Alexandria. It listed 1,022 stars with longitudes and latitudes. Ptolemy presented his own earth-centred [geocentric] model of the Solar System modified from earlier Greek models.
Any scientific work had little impact and few important advances in science or maths can be traced to the first 1,000 years of Christian Europe
Astronomy then flourished in the Islamic world. Today many stars carry Arabic names with the prefix “Al” meaning “The”. The Arabs made many contributions to Alchemy, a precursor of chemistry, and other fields. They perfected distillation using the new alembic. Many centres of learning were established, for example Al-Azhar in Cairo in 970 AD, today considered the leading Islamic university. In summary, science, maths and medicine thrived in the Muslim world for several hundred years, but hardly at all in Christian Europe. Clearly science can thrive without Christianity and vice versa.
Did Christianity make a significant contribution to science? The Church founded the early universities in Europe for the study of theology, law and medicine, the oldest being Bologna . The curriculum was limited partly because many Greek texts had been lost and few scholars knew Greek.
Any scientific work had little impact and few important advances in science or maths can be traced to the first 1,000 years of Christian Europe. There was no effective challenge to the science of Aristotle, which was dominant and fundamentally flawed.
In the 12th century European scholars made contact with the Islamic world and began to translate Arabic texts into Latin, including the Arabic translations of Greek texts. In addition to Ptolemy’s Almagest, other texts included Euclid’s Elements, the Greek founding text of geometry, and al-Khwarizmi’s Algebra; a new branch of maths.
The Pisan trader Fibonacci brought Arabic [that is Indian] arithmetic from North Africa to Italy in 1202 and his book was widely read partly because of its value to accountants. It was easier to count with Arabic numerals and zero. In philosophy, Lucretius’ epic Latin poem, De rerum natura was rediscovered in 1417, reviving interest in Epicurus and Presocratic ideas on evolution, atomic theory, etc.
During this period, science and maths began to fade in the Islamic world sundering under military attack from all sides. Knowledge advanced in Europe, as part of the Renaissance, where the scientific method emerged and strengthened. Religious ideas were forced to make space for the secular and the rational.
Scientists were patronised in the commercially powerful and politically independent city states of Italy, their books could be printed on thousands of new movable-type printing presses, so the new science spread rapidly, especially to Northern Europe. The wealthy competitive societies of the Renaissance celebrated new ideas, whether from science or from the incredible reports from Asia and the New World. The Roman world was being disturbed.
Astronomy provides the best example of how science prospered in these times and caused difficulties for the Church. The idea that everything in the sky revolved around a stationary Earth had been proposed by ancient astronomers, promoted by Aristotle, refined by Ptolemy, and adopted by Aquinas.
History shows that science thrives in vigorous societies that are open to new ideas; it struggles in theocratic or otherwise dogmatic societies
This scheme suited the Church which wanted [wants?] to preserve the idea of the Creation, when man [sic] was created by God and placed on the immovable, spherical Earth at the centre of the spherical Universe.
The rediscovery of Ptolemy’s data and calculations allowed astronomers such as Brahe, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo to read, criticise and analyse Ptolemy in detail. Their work led to the rejection by scientists of the geocentric theory of the Solar System.
Copernicus’ model with the sun at the centre of the Solar System was discussed as soon as 1514. Fearing reactions he was reluctant to publish his work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, finally agreeing with colleagues to do so in 1543, just before his death.
Kepler refined the Copernican model suggesting that the planets moved in elliptic not circular orbits. Galileo built his first telescope in 1609 and observed the moons of Jupiter on January 7th, 1610.
If moons could go around Jupiter, other objects could go around the sun. He wrote in favour of Copernicus, but was reprimanded by the Inquisition in 1616 and forbidden to teach that the Earth orbited the sun. Copernicus’ book was banned. Galileo persisted in writing freely, which finally led to his condemnation and house arrest in 1633, where he languished until his death in 1642. The Church formally opposed the heliocentric theory until well into the 19th century, finally apologising in 1992 for its treatment of Galileo.
It seems more reasonable to ask whether “religion” rather than a specific religion was important. All the great historic religions supported scholarly studies in monasteries and mosques, in universities and libraries, where some scholars wondered about the world and tried to explain it. But that had been so for centuries without science emerging.
Today, the great differences between religions and science have moved from astronomy, physics and chemistry to biology
At the time of the Renaissance, Europe was opening up in many different ways – printing, trade, travel, culture, competition. The main stimulus for science and maths clearly came from the Islamic world. Thereafter the success of science came from formal development of the scientific method of observation, hypothesis and experiment, critical thinking, free exchange of ideas and acceptance of change.
Galileo touted the military value of his telescopes. Renaissance Europe was culturally, commercially and politically ready to absorb and value science – but Christianity opposed science, it did not espouse it.
Today, the great differences between religions and science have moved from astronomy, physics and chemistry to biology. Many Christians and other believers oppose the strictly materialist theory of evolution; the Catholic Church and others have not yet taken account of modern scientific explanations of sexuality or embryology.
History shows that science thrives in vigorous societies that are open to new ideas; it struggles in theocratic or otherwise dogmatic societies. The Church inadvertently sowed some seeds of science in the literary societies of its universities in the Middle Ages, though we can be sure it did not intend or anticipate the outcome and, as soon as it saw what was coming, it did what it could to put the genie back in the test tube.
David McConnell is fellow emeritus in genetics at Trinity College Dublin – and honorary president of the Humanist Association of Ireland