Challenging the “Dark Ages”

Science populariser Neil deGrasse Tyson, like Carl Sagan before him, makes much of the claim that Christianity held back science in the Middle Ages, marking it a dark time for enlightened and critical thinking.

“Ancient Greece – inferred the Earth’s shadow during Lunar Eclipses. But it was lost to the Dark Ages.”[1]

“Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend non-existent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centred on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition.”[2]

The problem with all this is – these claims are evidentially false. The notion that Christianity held back science, causing a time of darkness for humanity, does not square with the evidence from history. The Dark Ages is simply a recent myth, suggested in the last hundred years or so.

Going all the way back to the first few centuries, the early Christians happily accepted elements of the Greek natural philosophy and built upon it. They realised all truth was God’s truth, and so natural observations were seen as a “handmaiden” to observations about God.

Tertullian (155 – 220) harmonised natural philosophy with Christian theology and promoted the science of medicine.

Boethius (477 – 524) identified the laws of nature in poetry, which are foundational to science.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) said that “knowledge of nature acquires value in so far as it serves a higher purpose.”[3] In his commentary on Genesis, he applied Greek thinking about cosmology and nature in his understanding of the meaning of the Bible text. His influence on later medieval scholars was massive, and Augustine transmitted a “rich source of cosmological, physical and biblical knowledge,”[4] about the earth, its shape, its relation to the cosmos and so much more.

Development of the Academy

Critical to the development of science were the first universities. They started with Bologna in 1088 and by 1450, over fifty universities existed. The Catholic church resourced and supported the formation of the academy, giving those who worked there special privileges. The church didn’t oppose learning, it cherished it. “If the medieval church had intended to … suppress science, it made a mistake … supporting the university … [where] science found a home.”[5] The universities were self-governing and set their own syllabus. Greek and Arabic science texts were translated into Latin and taught. The church supported the development of the sciences financially, giving “more financial and social support to the study of astronomy [and the other scientific fields] for six centuries … more than any other medieval institution.”[6]

Medieval Flat Earthers?

But what about Columbus? Didn’t he prove to the narrow minded church that the earth was round and not flat? No – the spherical shape of the earth was argued by the Greeks long before the church, and the first Christian scholars carried this argumentation forward. It was not seriously challenged by anyone, taught consistently, and part of common literature from the 13th century. Medieval Christianity did not teach a flat earth. The issue for Columbus wasn’t battling narrow minded Christian theologians. And it’s a myth that the crew feared falling off the edge of the earth. Rather, they were concerned about how large the earth was, and the size of the ocean in comparison to the land.

Conclusion

The assumption that Christianity held back the development of science during the supposed Dark Ages is – a modern mis-retelling of history. Probably propagated to mischaracterise modern Christian believers as anti-intellectual. The truth is the opposite.

 

 

 

[1] https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/692939759593865216.

[2] Carl Sagan, Cosmos, (New York: Random House, 1980), 332, quoted in Michael Newton Keas, “Unbelievable 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion,” (Wilmington: ISI Booke, 2019), 27.

[3] Gary B. Fengren, editor, Science & Religion A Historical Introduction, second edition, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 41.

[4] Fengren, 42.

[5] Keas, 37.

[6] Keas, 38.

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I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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