Hart: Atheist Delusions—Chapter Six

Chapter six is entitled “The Death and Rebirth of Science.” In this chapter Hart dissolves one of the most, if not the most, pernicious myths of modern times. In short, that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has been “against” science and some sort of impediment to its “progress”—almost its eternal enemy. Hart writes,

Of all the ineradicable myths concerning a Christian Dark Ages, none enjoys greater currency that the wildly romantic fable of a golden age of Hellenistic science brought to an abrupt halt by the church’s “war against reason.”

Hart then goes on to point out two books written in the 19th Century, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), and History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) that were, it seems, the primary sources for this tale. These two books exercised an inordinate influence in academia and, of course, eventually much of it filtered down to the general public. But, as Hart notes,

Fortunately, respectable historians of science today have no use for either of these books and are well aware that the supposed war between Christian theology and Western science is mythology of the purest water. Unhappily, a myth can be discredited and still be devoutly believed.

And that is where we find ourselves today. Those who continue to believe this myth, for the most part, are scarcely aware it comes from entirely simplistic and shallow, if not outright, false accounts. For most, it is something they’ve imbibed fifth and sixth hand by now; it is little more than conventional wisdom. It is usually nothing more than a quote here, a conversation there, an anecdote remembered, the knowing look shot at the other as each bemoans the “ignorance” of religion in its “war” against science. If one were to ask however, where their knowledge of this “war” comes, he is likely to get something as substantive as “Oh, everyone knows that.” Oh, really, I guess that settles it.

Hart spends most of the chapter demythologizing the stories surrounding the figures Copernicus and Galileo. Part of the modern myth, for instance, is that there was an illuminated age of Greek empirical science, a light which was then extinguished by Christianity. Hart quotes one historian who claims that after Constantine, only the Islamic world made use of Greek science and medicine. It is also imagined that astronomical studies ceased “for more than a thousand years after the last recorded astronomical observation in the Greek world,” until Copernicus (1473-1543) arrives upon the scene. Hart writes in response,

First, the suggestion that astronomy suddenly ceased in the Western world in the fifth century, or that it was not pursued by Christians, is simply absurd…to suggest that Copernicus merely took up a thread that had been severed by the church in antiquity and arrived at his hypothesis by his own unaided lights defies not only the historical record but all historical logic. Copernicus, having matriculated at a number of Christian universities, was heir to a long tradition of Christian scholastic mathematical and theoretical work in astronomy and the science of motion, stretching back at least to the early thirteenth century; but for this tradition, his thought would have had no theoretical basis.

Hart then goes on to give a very interesting and concise historical background to the time of Copernicus and then Galileo. Much of the chapter of course deals with the ever trotted out story of Galileo and how the church shut him up and fought his findings. The actual story is much more complex. The conflict had much more to do with “proud” and “intemperate” egos clashing than any thing like a conflict between faith and science. People who anachronistically imagine Galileo as some modern liberal hero of empirical science standing against the ignorance of poor churchmen and their faith are simply historically challenged.

In reference to the two figures of Copernicus and Galileo and how they are used in the modern myth to completely eclipse the fuller and more accurate picture of the relation between science and Christianity, he writes,

It has tended to obscure the rather significant reality that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian scientists educated in Christian universities and following a Christian tradition of scientific and mathematical speculation overturned a pagan cosmology and physics, and arrived at conclusions that would have been unimaginable within the confines of the Hellenistic scientific traditions. For despite all the vague talk of ancient or medieval “science,” pagan, Muslim, or Christian, what we mean today by science—its methods, its controls and guiding principles, its desire to unite theory to empirical discovery, its trust in a unified set of physical laws, and so on—came into existence, for whatever reasons, and for better or worse, only within Christendom, and under the hands of believing Christians.

Finally, I thought this quote best summed up the chapter:

Clearly, at any rate, to return to the topic at hand, any claim that the history of Western science comprises two epochs of light—the Hellenistic and the modern—separated by a long, dark interval of Christian ignorance and fanaticism is altogether absurd. The very notion that there was ever such a thing as ancient Greek or Roman “science” in the modern sense is pure illusion.

Again, and I think it cannot be stated often enough: The story the atheist/radical secularist tells in this area (Science v. Religion) is nothing more than a tall tale told to each other over the fence and passed down from one gullible and historically illiterate soul to the other.

This entry was posted in atheism, Books. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Hart: Atheist Delusions—Chapter Six

  1. Burk Braun says:

    This would all be safely water under the bridge were it not for the “war” going on right now between religion and science, viz in the field of evolution. While religious sophisticates pooh-pooh any conflict as the unfortunate literalism of American bumpkins, the basic problem is that the superstition (and “Orthodoxy”) they subscribe to, high or low, is fundamentally opposed to perceiving reality on the humble terms it presents to us.

    The church was indeed involved in astronomy in its heyday, as long as it found ways to reconcile it with its own pre-conceived views, whether biblical or Ptolemaic, adopted by special dispensation as being suitably ancient, if not scriptural. At that time, observations did not present philosophical problems, since their point was to refine the calendar and locate Easter. Precious little serious investigation about how things actually worked was done, since the reigning paradigms were essentially still astrology.

    It was only with Copernicus and his highly literate and well-connected advocate, Galileo, that the church met a paradigm outside its own control and not springing from its own imaginary fixations. The egos involved were not only personal, but institutional. What did the church decide to do? To sponsor free and open debate to get to the bottom of the true facts about the celestial heavens? Apparently not. Galileo ended up on the index for 200 years, along with Copernicus (belatedly, once they figured out what was going on), and Kepler too.

    If you want the real story, I have the book (Santillana), which is quite a good read. Galileo’s < HREF="http://www.bard.edu/admission/forms/pdfs/galileo.pdf" REL="nofollow">Starry Messenger<>, in translation, is also an informative and key document, showing his clarity of exposition and thought, which was what the church felt to be so threatening, and rightly so. Galileo was showing them to be fools, first for being wrong about their bread-and-butter realm, and far more importantly for their hubris to think that they had some authoritative (perhaps even infallible!) reason to think as they did.

    I’d agree in one thing- that the Hellenistic world was far from perfect, and had quite a ways to go in scientific and other terms. But at least it was dedicated to open debate and a plurality of schools, which is far more than you can say about the Orthodox hunters of heretics that succeeded, and extinguished, it.


  2. Darrell says:

    This response, as to the historical comments, is, in my view, nonsense- the very sort of thing Hart’s book and this chapter was meant to address. So, no need to spend any time. However, I would definitely encourage people to check out the book you suggest, “The Crime of Galileo” if this Time review and first reviewer (reader posted) is correct:

    “In the gallery of what might be called the martyrs of thought, the image of Galileo recanting before the Italian Inquisition stirs the minds of educated modern men second only to the picture of Socrates drinking the Hemlock. That image of Galileo is out of focus . . . because it has been distorted by three centuries of rationalist prejudice and clerical polemics. To refocus it clearly, within the logic of its own time . . . “—Time

    “A great book! It appears that Galileo is not the perfect icon, after all, for atheistic, modern day academia. The book shows how academia itself, with complete indifference for truth, erupted against Galileo in an effort to protect cherished allegiances to long held Aristotelian philosophies and misguided ideas. It demonstrates how academia was primarily responsible for the inquisitions and suppressions filed against Galileo, and how they used rhetoric and demagoguery to incite church authorities to become involved. “Those he feared,” according to the author, “were the professors,” not ecclesiastical authorities (p 8). And “like Galileo, Copernicus had foreseen resistance not at all from the Church authorities but from vested academic interests”(p 16). “It was not … religious convictions that stood in the way but simply … Aristotelian conditioning and … fear of scandal” (p 104). The author supports his case with a thorough and chronological review of the letters and legal records of the time.”

    So, your point again?


  3. Burk Braun says:

    Well, here are a few quotes from the book, first from Cardinal Bellarmine directly, referring to Galileo’s first warning, years before his arrest:

    <>“… the declaration made by the Holy Father and published by the Sacred Congregation of the Index has been notified to him [Signor Galileo], wherein it is set forth that the doctrine attributed to Copernicus, that the earth moves around the sun and that sun is stationary in the center of the world and does not move from east to west, is contrary to the Holy Scriptures and therefore cannot be defended or held.”<>And a Santillana comments later on:

    <>“Urban VIII must have felt the issuing of the Dialogue at this juncture as a churlishly planned aggravation of Fate. Although harassed by politics, he was intelligent enough to perceive that the argument about the heavens threatened the very bases of the educational system established since Trent; he could appreciate the reasons of the incensed Jesuits, who told him that this kind of thing was potentially more disastrous that Luther or Calvin.”<>And later, of Galileo:

    <>“His city had lost her freedom on the field of Gavinana a century before; now she had lost her intellectual life at the hands of the Holy office. We can date back to that day, indeed, the time when Florentine civilization, which had carried the world since the thirteenth century, practically vanished from history.”<>In short, Hart is blowing smoke. He is after all, a theoligian first and foremost.


  4. Darrell says:

    I’m afraid the only smoke here is coming from you. Hart is first and foremost a scholar with a breadth of knowledge in languages (ancient and modern), history, literature, the humanities, and of course theology/philosophy that few can match. That Hart is a theolgian is a help not a hinderance, given the subject matter. And, after all, most of those who truly believe the story he is unmasking are often scientists who usually have little or no training in these areas.

    You are taking a quote here and a quote there out of the book, but are forgetting the over-all summary and movement of the book, which is noted in the Time’s review. Even Hart points out areas where the church was unreflective or just made some stupid decisions. So what? That hardly confirms the points you are trying to make—it only confirms that the churchmen at that time were human. You are missing the forest for the trees. The quotes above take nothing away from the book’s helping break the spell of centuries of “rationalist prejudice and clerical polemics.” Is the Time’s review of the book incorrect? I’m sure the reviewer for Time read the same quotes you note above—why did they come away with a view that seems much closer to Hart’s than yours?

    Here is another quote:

    “…a major part of the Church’s intellectuals were on the side of Galileo, while the clearest opposition to him came from secular ideas.” (pg. xii)

    Notice that this quote is from the beginning of the book laying out a main idea or thought. Maybe you could expound on that quote…once the smoke clears.


Comments are closed.