By Bradley Stockwell
A few years ago if you were to have asked me whether or not religious institutions have impeded the progress of science, I would have given a vehement ‘hell yes’. I would’ve given the accounts of Giordano Bruno, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, and the many others who risked or gave their lives in the name of science as examples. However over the years I’ve learned that making such a blanket statement is rather prejudiced. This is not to say there hasn’t been significant efforts by religious institutions to repress science, but also without them, most of the principles and methodologies of modern science and medicine would’ve never been established.
The Roman Catholic Church was vital in the development of systematic nursing and hospitals, and even still today the Church remains the single greatest private provider of medical care and research facilities in the world. The Church also founded Europe’s first universities and Medieval Catholic mathematicians and philosophers such as John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Roger Bacon are considered the fathers of modern science. Furthermore, after the Fall of Rome, monasteries and convents became strongholds of academia, preserving the works of Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Simplicius and many more. Clergymen were the leading scholars of the day, studying nature, mathematics and the motion of stars. And while some may blame Christianity for the Fall of Rome and decline of intellectual culture during the Middle Ages, this claim is unjustified and is a much more complex issue probably better reserved for a history class. Additionally, many forget that while the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed, the much more Christianized eastern half remained relatively strong and continued into the 15th century as the Byzantine Empire.
Not to focus solely on Christianity, Islam also had a part in the preservation and flourishing of science. An Arab Muslim named Ibn al-Haytham, considered to be one the first theoretical physicists, made significant contributions in the fields of optics, astronomy and mathematics, and was an early advocate that a hypothesis must be proved by experiments based on confirmable procedures or mathematical evidence—essentially the scientific method. Caliphs during the Islamic Golden Age established research institutes, sent emissaries around the world in search of books, then funded projects to translate, study and preserved them. Much of the Ancient Greek science we have today would have been lost and the European Renaissance hundreds of years after would not have been possible without their efforts. Also, at one time arguably, Arabic was the language of science. The “al’s” in algebra, algorithm, alchemy and alcohol are just some of the remnants.
The Islamic world also imported ideas from Hindus, which includes the Arabic numerals we still use today and the concept of zero. Also, as mentioned in a previous post, The Spirituality of Science, I see many parallels between science and Dharmic beliefs, such as reincarnation and entropy: the universe is cyclical; life and death are just different stopping points on a grand recycling process; matter, like the body, is created and recycled, while energy, like the soul, is immortal and transferred. The correlation I find most fascinating though is the Hindu concept of Brahman to the laws of thermodynamics. According to belief, Brahman is the source of all things in the universe including reality and existence; everything comes from Brahman and everything returns to Brahman; Brahman is uncreated, external, infinite and all-embracing. You could substitute the word energy for Brahman and get a simple understanding of the applications of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. It’s funny how the world’s oldest religion, Hinduism, seemed to grasp these concepts thousands of years before science did.
In conclusion, although it’s still hard for me to look past some of the civil atrocities wrought by religious institutions—in particular when they’ve been intimately tied to a governing body, I think when you tally up the scores, science has benefited greatly from religion and any impediments are heavily outweighed. In a day when it seems popular to present everything in a dichotomous fashion—either you’re with or against us, I think it’s important to remember that for the most part, we all have what’s best in mind for humanity, and it’s when we work together that the best results are produced. Until next time, stay curious my friends.