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.