Myths about Science and Religion: The Rise of Christianity was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science

David C. Lindberg begins with one of the most common myths found in the science and religion debate, that “the rise of Christianity was responsible for the demise of ancient science.” He relates the story of Hypatia, a young pagan philosopher and mathematician, popular and influential because of “her defense of science against Christianity.” But she was murdered, as the story has it, by the early church father Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 376-444), along with a mob of enraged Christians zealots.

Lindberg argues that this story has been “a staple of anti-Christian polemics since the early Enlightenment.” Beginning with Irish “freethinker” John Toland’s 1720 pamphlet Hypatia: or, The History of a Most Beautiful, Most Virtuous, Most Learned and in Every Way Accomplished Lady; Who Was Torn to Pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria, to Gratify the Pride, Emulation, and Cruelty of the Archbishop, Commonly but Undeservedly Titled St. Cyril to more recently Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (2003), Hypatia’s death has been indicative of the “inherent” conflict between science and religion. However, this interpretation of the event is purely mythological. According to Lindberg, Hypatia’s death had “everything to do with local politics and virtually nothing to do with science.” It is an old myth used to portray early Christianity as a “haven of anti-intellectualism.”

No doubt, there were early Christian writers who condemned Greek philosophy, as when the apostle Paul warned the Colossians to “see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Col 2.8), or Tertullian’s (ca. 160-240) famous (if not much maligned) declaration “what indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”

But as Lindberg correctly points out, “the very writers who denounced Greek philosophy also employed its methodology and incorporated large portions of its content in their own systems of thought.” When looking at early Christian writers we need to “look beyond rhetoric to actual practice; it is one thing to deride the classical science and the philosophical systems that undergirded them…another to abandon them” completely. In fact, these early Christian writers must be seen as “insiders to this [Greek philosophical] tradition” who attempted to formulate an alternative philosophy based on Christian principles. Their opposition was to certain aspect of the classical tradition, and in fact had very little to do with the classical sciences.

For example, although Augustine of Hippo (354-430) cautioned Christians against using pagan writing, he also said that knowledge of natural phenomena is important for proper biblical exegesis. Augustine even decried the ignorance of some Christians:

Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to, as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel [a non-Christian] to hear a Christian…talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

Lindberg concludes his short essay with three important points worth mulling over: (1) early Christian writers may have seen the sciences as secondary because their primary concerns were, appropriately enough, the establishment of Christian doctrine, defense of the faith, and the edification of believers—in other words, pastoral obligations; but (2), secondary concern does not mean no concern, and, despite what others have maintained, Christian theology often provided the presuppositions, sanctions, and motivations for examining nature; and (3) no institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church.

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