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A brief history of lies about the church

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THE first big lie is that the scientific revolution of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment banished the gloom and superstition of the Dark Ages and the medieval period. In fact, the so-called Dark Ages were not dark at all: they were a period of astonishing technological progress. For example, the Battle of Tours in AD 732 – when Charles Martel saved Europe from Muslim domination – was the first occasion when knights fought in full armour. They could do so because of the invention of stirrups and the Norman saddle. The ancient Romans had neither stirrups nor an effective saddle, so a knight trying to wield his lance would fall off.

Developments on the battlefield led European farming technologists to invent the horse collar. This allowed farmers throughout the continent to switch from using oxen to horses for ploughing, greatly increasing speed with the result that there was an immense increase in food production. The Romans shod their horses in sandals – typically, Nero had some made in silver – which slipped off and caused the steeds to go lame. The Dark Ages saw the invention of iron shoes by which horses could travel over hard ground and cover much more territory without injury.

Other inventions which preceded the Renaissance by centuries were waterwheels, mills, camshafts, mechanical clocks and the compass.

The next big lie is that it was not until the voyages of Columbus and Magellan that we learnt the world is not flat but round. This is nonsense. Among the scholars of the Dark Ages who taught that the world is round were Venerable Bede (673-735); Bishop Virgilius of Salzburg – 8th century; Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) is usually credited in the book of lies with overturning the silly flat-earth view of the superstitious medieval church. Actually, Copernicus was taught the heliocentric theory by his medieval theological professors. Nicole Oresme (1325-1382) wrote: ‘The earth turns, rather than the heavens.’Oresme was the most outstanding of the medieval scientists and he saw no conflict between science and religion. After teaching science as Rector of the University of Paris, he became Bishop of Lisieux. And the universities themselves were not the product of the Renaissance: they were invented by the medieval church.

Then there is the lie that the Renaissance began with the contributions of Islamic philosophers or Byzantine survivors from the fall of Constantinople who had rediscovered classical Greek learning. Not true. The reason Greek learning had not been fully assimilated was that the language of the Dark Ages was Latin. The Renaissance was actually the creation of the church, whose scholars for the first time between 1125 and 1200 translated most of the Greek manuscripts into Latin and made them generally available.

Another big lie is that medical science was held back because the church would not allow the dissection of corpses. But it was medieval churchmen who permitted dissection and so improved their knowledge of anatomy and pathology. The Greeks, the Romans and the Muslims all forbade dissection because they believed the dignity of the human body would not permit it. The church was not so hindered, because of course the church possessed the liberating doctrine of the immortal soul – what St Paul called the somapneumatikon, the spiritual body. You want proof of all this? The Christian scholastic Mondino de Luzzi (1270-1326) wrote a textbook on the dissection of corpses.

Ah, but what about the Galileo affair? Everybody knows the church persecuted Galileo. Well, he was disciplined, but this was rather for the way he arrogantly presented his ideas than for the ideas themselves. When Galileo published his book Assayer in 1623, he dedicated it to his friend Cardinal Barberini who went on to become Pope Urban VIII. As William Shea said, ‘Galileo had no doubts about God. Had he been less devout, he could have refused the summons to Rome – Venice offered him asylum, but he turned it down.’ What about Galileo himself then, always presented as a rebel against the church? What were his core beliefs? Fortunately, we have Galileo’s own written record, and this is what he wrote: ‘The book of nature is a book written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics.’

Let’s turn to Isaac Newton. He wrote a great deal of theology and said nice things about God, but those who hate Christianity tell lies about Newton too: they say he only pretended to be devout for politeness’s sake and for a quiet life. Fortunately, John Maynard Keynes bought all Newton’s papers in the 1930s and discovered what Newton wrote, not for appearance but in his private letters. To his friend Bentley, Newton wrote: ‘The true God is a living, intelligent, powerful being . . . he governs all things and knows all things that are done or can be done . . . he endures for ever and is everywhere present.’

So how about that other controversy, Darwinism and the theory of evolution? It turns out that the severest critics of Darwinian theory are not theologians but Darwinians in our own time expressing doubt about their own methods. So Stephen Jay Gould denied that great bedrock of the theory of evolution – the missing link between old species and new. Gould wrote: ‘The evolutionary diagrams that adorn our textbooks are based on inference not the evidence of fossils.’

Modern Darwinians and palaeontologists such as Steven M Stanley have declared openly that the lack of fossil evidence for the theory of evolution has been suppressed from the time of Darwin himself onwards. The distinguished historical scientist Niles Eldredge wrote: ‘We palaeontologists have said that the history of life supports the principle of gradual transmutations of species all the while knowing that really it does not.’

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to sign up to Bible Belt literalism. Those who take the Bible literally are compelled by their own dogmas to the absurd conjecture that, if God really does have a right hand, it might be gloved. And do the eyes of the Lord look at us through a pair of spectacles?

I think some theory of the gradual development of life on earth is still the best hypothesis available. But Darwinism does not even begin to explain how inanimate matter could have turned into life and how primitive and microscopic life forms could turn into creatures with the mind and consciousness of Bach and Einstein.

There is no conflict between science and Christianity. The conflict is between Christianity and ideological atheists such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot and T H Huxley, right down to that prince bigot of our own time, Richard Dawkins. These people lie about the history of science as a way of attacking the faith. But in all the statistical surveys of working scientists, you find that many of them are believers – moreover that those who belong to the so-called hard sciences such as physics and mathematics are the firmest believers.

It is not only that there is no conflict between Christianity and science: without Christianity, there would be no science. No other civilisation or culture, ancient or modern has invented science – only the Christianity of the Dark Ages and the medieval period. This is because Christianity has declared since the opening verse of St John’s gospel that God is reasonable. And this reasonable God made the world in his own reasonable image: to be discovered and understood by the rationality he has implanted in us by his Spirit.

Let me end by quoting two authors, one ancient and one modern. A N Whitehead, co-author with Bertrand Russell of Principia Mathematica, wrote: ‘There is but one source for science: it must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.’

Finally, against irrationality and superstition, from St Augustine: ‘Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.’

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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