Christianity propped up Science for 1000 years

Extract from The Beginnings of Western Science, David C. Lindberg: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London, (c) 1992 — page 149: THE ROLE OF CHRISTIANITY

Christianity grew from a small Jewish sect in a remote corner of the Roman Empire into a major religious force in the third century and the state religion by the end of the fourth… [so], how did the dominance of Christianity affect knowledge of, and attitudes toward, nature? The standard answer, developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and widely propagated in the twentieth, maintains that Christianity presents serious obstacles to the advancement of science and, indeed, sent the scientific enterprise into a tailspin from which it did not recover for more than a thousand years. The truth, as we shall see, is far different and much more complicated.

One of the charges frequently levelled against the church is that it was broadly anti-intellectual — that the leaders of the church preferred faith to reason and ignorance to education. In fact, this is a considerable distortion. Although Christianity seems at first to have appealed to the poor and disenfranchised, it soon reached out to the upper classes, including the educated. Christians quickly recognized that if the Bible was to be read, literacy would have to be encouraged, and in the long run Christianity became the major patron of European education and a major borrower from the classical intellectual tradition.

[following paragraphs mention:]

  • when the church developed a serious intellectual tradition.. it came to put the tools of ..Greek philosophy, especially Platonism, to Christian use
  • the use of Greek methods was a little controversial but Augustine advocated making it the handmaiden of religion

Whether this represents a blow against the scientific enterprise or modest, but welcome, support for it, depends largely on the attitudes and expectations that one brings to the question. If we compare the early church to a modern research university or the National Science Foundation, the church will prove to have failed abysmally as a supporter of science and natural philosophy. But such a comparison is obviously unfair. If, instead, we compare the support given to the study of nature by the early church with the support available from any other comparable social institution, it will become apparent that the church was one of the major patrons — perhaps *the* major patron — of scientific learning. Its patronage may have been limited and selective, but limited and selective patronage is better than no patronage at all.

[following paragraphs mention:]

  • handmaiden status for science is not an unusual autonomy of science is an attractive ideal but for much of its history the question has not been *whether* science will function as handmaiden but *which* mistress it will serve.
  • One of the ways in which the church became a patron of learning was through the creation and support of schools…
  • At its zenith, Rome boasted an educational system that provided an impressive measure of educational opportunity for members of the upper class throughout the Empire.
  • As the Empire declined, so did its educational program. .. deterioration was gradual

The relationship of Christianity to the demise of classical education is an extremely difficult and complex problem.. We might expect the Church to have moved quickly to establish an alternative, Christian educational system, or the pagan schools radically transformed into Christian institutions. However, neither event occurred. The fact is that the majority of the early church fathers valued their own classical education and, while recognizing its deficiencies and dangers, could concieve of no viable alternative to it; consequently, instead of repudiating the classical culture of the schools they endeavored to appropriate it and build upon it. Substantial numbers of Christians continued to send their children to Roman schools…

There is no question that knowledge of Greek natural philosophy and mathematical science had fallen off precipitously, and few original contributions to it appeared in Western Europe during the early centuries of the medieval period (roughly 400- 1000). If we are looking for new observational data or telling criticism of existing theory we will find little of it here. Creativity was not lacking, but it was directed toward other tasks– survival, the pursuit of religious values in a barbaric and inhospitable world, … The contribution of the religious culture of the early Middle Ages to the scientific movement was thus one of preservation and transmission. The monasteries served as transmitters of literacy and … science or natural philosophy … through a period when literacy and scholarship were severely threatened. Without them, Western Europe would not have had more science, but less.


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