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Science and religion: The big lies

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WHEN I was in my teens and flexing my muscles in the back streets of Leeds, my dad gave me some good advice: ‘Never argue with a drunk.’ I’ve learned that there are others with whom it is unadvisable – nay, impossible – to argue. Among them are those who complained that a recent theological piece I wrote for TCW was ‘showering is us with religious rubbish . . . beliefs of fairyland . . . the sacrifice of our capacity for critical thinking’. 

Piffle spouted by ignoramuses. Here’s why . . .

The biggest issue in public debate today is the relationship between science and religion. It is a difficult subject made treacherous by opponents of the Christian faith who spread lies about both Christianity and science with the deliberate aim of destroying our faith.

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 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 only fall off.

Developments on the battlefield showed European farming technologists how to invent the horse collar. This allowed the farmers throughout the continent to switch from using oxen to horses for ploughing with the result that there was an immense increase in food production. The ancient Romans shod their horses in sandals – Nero had some made in silver – which slipped off and caused the horses to go lame. The Dark Ages invented 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 spherical. This is nonsense. Among the scholars of the Dark Ages who taught that the world is round were Venerable Bede – his dates 673-735; Bishop Virgilus of Salzburg, 8th century; Hildegaard of Bingen (1098-1179) and St Thomas Aquinas.

Copernicus 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 d’Oresme (1325-1382) wrote: ‘The earth turns, rather than the heavens.’

Another big lie is that medical science was held back because the church wouldn’t allow the dissection of corpses. But it was medieval churchmen who permitted dissection and improved their knowledge of anatomy and pathology as a direct result. The Greeks, the Romans and the Muslims all forbade dissection because 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. Barberini enjoyed it because of the many skits Galileo had included in it about the Jesuits. 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, always presented as a rebel against the church? What were his core beliefs? Fortunately, we have Galileo’s 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 the sake of politeness 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’s sake but in 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 evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould denied that great bedrock of the theory of evolution – the missing link between old species and new. Gould wrote as follows: ‘The evolutionary diagrams that adorn our textbooks are based on inference, not the evidence of fossils.’

Modern Darwinians and paleontologists such as Steven Stanley have declared openly that the lack of fossil evidence for the theory of evolution has been suppressed since the time of Darwin himself. Niles Eldridge said recently, ‘We palaeontologists have said that the history of life supports the principle of gradual transmutation of species all the while knowing that really it does not.’

Now I’m not about to sign up to Bible-belt literalism. 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 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 the majority 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.

Specifically, as R G Collingwood pointed out in An Essay on Metaphysics, it is the doctrine of the Trinity, as set out in the Athanasian Creed, which provides the paradigm that makes science possible:

‘By believing in the Father, the doctors of the church meant (always with reference solely to the procedure of natural science) absolutely presupposing that there is a world of nature which is always and indivisibly one world. By believing in the Son they meant absolutely presupposing that this one natural world is nevertheless a multiplicity of natural realms. By believing in the Holy Ghost they mean absolutely presupposing that the world of nature, throughout its entire fabric, is a world not merely of things but of events or movements.

‘These presuppositions must be made, they said, by anyone who wished to be “saved”; saved, that is to say, from the moral and intellectual bankruptcy, the collapse of science and civilisation, which was overtaking the pagan world.’

Never mind Christian apologists, here’s one of the most outstanding scientists of the last century, A N Whitehead, co-author with Bertrand Russell of Principia Mathematica. He wrote: ‘There is but one source for science: It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.’

Thanks for what you taught me all those years ago, dad. Here’s another piece of advice: never argue with an idiot.

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

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