Did Christianity slow us down?

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Did Christianity slow us down?

Postby Elliott » 21 Aug 2011, 18:49

I work with a young man who is, if not militantly atheist, enthusiastically anti-theist. He said the other day that Christianity viciously repressed scientific advance throughout the second millennium.

This is the first I've heard about it, but I don't know enough history to agree or disagree with him.

Could people with more historical knowledge than I give their opinions on the ways that Christianity benefited/suppressed/motivated the development of Western civilisation?
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Re: Did Christianity slow us down?

Postby Michael » 22 Aug 2011, 00:01

Wow, this is a gigantic topic. I recommend breaking it down into smaller pieces.

First, your friend is making a common fallacy of reasoning, a fallacy of composition. He is generalizing from a few publicized instances of suppression or opposition to scientific research by Christians (individual Christians and groups of them) and extending it to a hostility of Christianity itself to science as a whole. Aside from the overblown incident with Galileo and backward fundamentalist Christians rejecting evolution in favour of Biblical literalism, Christians have on the whole been supportive of scientific research. Indeed, the founders of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century were all men of deep religious faith. They conceived of their quest self-consciously as an attempt to know the mind of God through studying his works.

Second, I would be interested to see what scientific advances your friend believes were suppressed. From my own study of the history and philosophy of science the most opposition I can see to scientific research is a lack of positive enthusiasm in Catholic countries on the part of the Church. Even that lack of positive support was made up for by royal institutes of scientific research like the Academie Francaise.
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Re: Did Christianity slow us down?

Postby George » 23 Aug 2011, 04:50

Elliott wrote:He said the other day that Christianity viciously repressed scientific advance throughout the second millennium.

In general? No, I don't think so. There were a few particular cases, but ground-breaking science clashes with the establishment even today.
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Re: Did Christianity slow us down?

Postby Jonathan » 23 Aug 2011, 07:36

Hi Elliott,

I think you need to consider the question differently before and after the Enlightenment/Renaissance. Before the Renaissance, ancient knowledge was passed on mainly in Christian Monasteries, but very little was added to it. After the Renaissance, the scientific method was developed and much scientific knowledge acquired by Christian scientists. So I think you have to split the question into two parts -

1) After the Renaissance, did Christianity or the Catholic Church suppress scientific advances? There are some well-known examples of this (e.g. Galileo), but it's obvious that such attempts were not very effective. This is the question your friend asked, and it is a good one, but it is wrong to project it backwards before the Renaissance. Instead we need to ask -

2) In the period between late antiquity and the Renaissance, did Christianity delay/impede the arrival of the Renaissance? (I do not mean to suggest that its advent was inevitable). Here you have weighty arguments both for and against, which I can only touch upon without going into excessive detail:

- The diversion of intellectual effort towards non-scientific avenues (religious controversy, theology, monastaries).
- Teaching that the purpose of life is to prepare for the afterworld, rather than improving the current world.
- Reinforcing the notion that truth is to be determined by scriptual or religious authority, rather than observation.
- Introduction of the notion of heresy, by which intellectual disagreement becomes punishable by death.
- Decline and closure of Greek schools in late antiquity.

- The church preserved the knowledge of writing throughout the dark ages, an achievement not to be taken for granted.
- The church preserved those ancient manuscripts which give us knowledge of the ancient world, and inspired the Renaissance.
- Many erroneous and harmful beliefs did not originate in Christianity (e.g. Alchemy, Galen's works on medicine).
- The decline of knowledge in the middle ages was a result of the barbarian conquests of the Roman Empire, which cannot be directly laid at the feet of Christianity.
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