Myth: There is no war between science and Christianity.
Fact: The Church has persecuted or opposed almost every great scientist of the last
The Church has never been on the cutting edge of science --
on the contrary, it has been the one persecuting scientists. The list
of those who earned the wrath of the Church reads like a Who's
Who of Science: Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Descartes, Newton,
Halley, Darwin, Hubble, even Bertrand Russell. The Church has
also been on the wrong side of the social sciences for over 1,500
years, actively promoting slavery, anti-Semitism, the torture
and murder of women as witches, sexual repression, censorship
and the Inquisition, Crusades and other aggressive wars, and capital
punishment for misdemeanors. This has given rise to a Christian
field called apologetics, which attempts to defend the
Church's errors, even claiming that science and Christianity are
compatible friends, not enemies. But the atrocities and scientific
errors were too profound, and stretched on for too many millennia,
to be defended in any reasonable manner.
Most Christians will deny it, but there is a long tradition
of warfare between science and Christianity. The source of this
conflict stems from the fact that both attempt to do the same
thing: to explain the world around us, and offer solutions to
our problems. The difference between these two attempts is basically
one of age. Religion comprises very old explanations and solutions;
science, newer ones. And because they differ, they enter into
For example, all human societies have attempted to answer the
question: "Where do we come from?" In ancient Israel,
the answer was God and Creation, as described in the book of Genesis.
But as human knowledge has advanced and grown, different explanations
have arisen: namely, the Big Bang and evolution. Because people
loathe being proven wrong, the appearance of new explanations
has been threatening, and they react with hostility to these rival
The threat was all the greater for the Christian Church, because
it prided itself on being the source of All Truth, guided by
an omniscient God. (The term "Christian Church" in this essay refers to
its spiritual leaders, leading theologians, writers of sacred canon,
and any members defending the orthodox or fundamentalist viewpoint.)
Being proven wrong on any count therefore had disastrous implications
for the Church, not only because it undermined its authority, but
its political and economic power as well. Not
surprisingly, the Church moved energetically against scholars
attempting to make scientific progress, branding their work as
"heresy" and persecuting them to the fullest extent
that they could. The full range of the Church's actions included
harassment, discrimination, censorship, slander, scorn, abuse,
threats, persecution, forced recantations, torture and burning
at the stake. The list of great scientists opposed by the Church
reads like a Who's Who of Science: Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo,
Descartes, Newton, Halley, Darwin, Hubble, even Bertrand Russell.
At no time has
the Church been on the cutting edge of science
-- it has opposed virtually all scientific progress for nearly
2,000 years. And Protestants would prove to be just as hostile
to science as Catholics.
The war between Christianity and science has raged so long and
bitterly that even 100 years ago, Andrew White, a former president
of Cornell University, was able to write a huge two-volume history
of the conflict entitled The Warfare Of Science With Theology.
(1) Exhaustively covering hundreds of historical cases, he was
able to demonstrate that the Church generally repeats the same
three-step process whenever confronted by a threatening scientific
This process has occurred like clockwork down through history,
resulting in a Christian Church today that is completely unrecognizable
from the Early Christian Church -- indeed, if the two could ever meet,
they would denounce each other as heretics. No Christian today
could even begin to defend the Absolute Truth that the Church
proclaimed a mere 500 years ago. This included the following beliefs:
First, the Church tries to crush the "heretical" view,
often through censorship and persecution of the scientist.
- But as the evidence supporting the scientific viewpoint inevitably
grows, the Church struggles to find a compromise position that
incorporates both viewpoints.
- Eventually, the scientific victory is complete, and the Church
is left to indulge in apologetics, a field of study that
explains away and defends the Church's actions. In this stage,
it is common for apologists to claim that there is not, and never
was, any conflict between the Church and science.
The scientists who challenged this Absolute Truth came to bitter
ends. Although the vast majority were Christians themselves who
had no desire to harm the Church, their findings were completely
unacceptable to the popes, saints and theologians who were already
committed to a previous version of the truth. Here is what happened
to some of the most famous scientists:
- The earth was flat, in accordance with its many descriptions in
the Bible. Catholic bishops warned Columbus that he would fall
off the edge of the earth for his lack of faith.
- The earth was also the center of the universe, and the sun and
planets rotated around it, fixed in crystal spheres.
- Comets were not celestial bodies obeying the laws of physics;
they were fireballs thrown in anger from the right hand of God,
and they were messengers of doom and despair.
- The ordinary events of nature were not caused by routine laws of nature, like
physics or chemistry. Instead, they were the result of magic, miracles,
and angels or demons who actively caused and intervened in ordinary events.
- Living in abject filth, debasing the body, and refusing any sanitation or
hygiene was viewed as a glory to God, and a means to salvation. Many saints
were praised for refusing to wash for most of their lives! (It showed
that they were not "vain" or "proud.") John Wesley's famous remark that
"Cleanliness is next to godliness" was a decidely modern viewpoint, one that
greatly reduced the plagues and diseases that ravaged Europe.
- Both disease and insanity were either a punishment of God or a possession by devils,
and using modern medicine to thwart the will of God was a sin.
When Dr. Zabdiel Boylston first inoculated his own son against
smallpox in 1721, the Church immediately attacked him; they claimed
that injecting someone with a weakened strain of smallpox was
"poisoning," and that it was blasphemy "to infect
a family in the morning with smallpox and to pray to God in the
evening against the disease."
- Lightning was also considered a punishment of sinners by God;
when Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod, Christians
everywhere bitterly assailed him for robbing God of his judgment.
- Bad weather and ferocious storms that ruined crops and killed
people were supposed to be the result of Satan's demons stirring
trouble. These demons were supposed to be frightened off by the
ringing of loud bells; that is why churches traditionally have
bells in their steeples.
- The European forests were supposed to be filled with witches,
gremlins, fairies, leprechauns, dwarfs, ogres, incubi, succubi,
and spirits of the dead. They were thought to range from friendly
and mischievous to violent and dangerous, and they were blamed
or credited for much unexplained phenomena. The Church, from the
Pope on down, blessed various holy relics and prayers that could
be used to ward off these creatures.
- One of the most bitterly fought "truths" was the supposed
evil of usury, which is nothing more than the loaning of money
for interest. For 1,700 years the Church saved its greatest condemnations
for money-lenders. Dante reserved his most tortuous sections of
hell for them. Today, of course, we consider modern banking practices
to be a great benefit to society, one of the reasons why modern
economies function so well. But it was not always so.
Copernicus had concluded by 1500 A.D. that that the sun
is the center of the solar system, but he kept his theories secret
for 30 years, not wishing to draw the wrath of the Church. Shortly
after publishing Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, he
died of old age, and was thus spared their angry response. But
they got their revenge anyway, by burying him in a grave that
marked none of his great accomplishments, but said: "I ask
not the grace accorded to Paul; not that given to Peter; give
me only the favour which Thou didst show to the thief on the cross."
Then they kept silent about his work for 70 years -- until the
appearance of Galileo.
Bruno had no such luck; when he publicly defended Copernicus,
the Inquisition arrested him, tortured and burned him at the stake.
Galileo, often called "the Father of Modern Science,"
was the first astronomer to claim actual evidence that the earth
was not the center of the universe, but revolved around
the sun. For this, Galileo came under intense criticism and persecution
from the Church. Pope Urban VIII personally gave the order in
1633 that Galileo, then an old man of 70, should be threatened
with torture if he did not renounce the heresy that the earth
revolved around the sun. Under repeated threats of torture, Galileo
finally renounced his beliefs. He was then placed under house
arrest, and not freed even after he went blind. Technically, the
Catholic Church never convicted Galileo of heresy (only a "vehement
suspicion of heresy") but it did make clear that the
"heresy" in question was defined as the belief that
the earth rotated around the sun. And, to leave absolutely no
doubt about how completely it condemned the ideas of Galileo,
the Church censored and prohibited all books supporting his scientific
findings for over 200 years. This censorship was placed in the
Index of Prohibited Books, which was personally signed
by every pope who renewed it. Protestants would be mistaken in
thinking this is a Catholic embarrassment only. Every Protestant
church before 1800 rose in bitter opposition to the "atheistic"
findings of Galileo.
Campanella was tortured seven times by the Inquisition
for a number of heresies, one of which was writing Defense
Rene Descartes, alarmed by the Inquisition's persecution
of Galileo, delayed his plans to publish The World, a book
that agreed with Galileo's views. Later he wrote Meditations
on First Philosophy, which introduced the idea that truth
can be discovered only through scientific investigation and the
scientific method. This earned the hostility of the Church,
and their persecution caused Descartes much suffering. This great philosopher,
who is famous for attempting a logical proof of God's existence, was
called an atheist, and his works were placed on the Index of
Prohibited Books. Protestant theologians in his resident Holland
wanted him tortured and put to death.
Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Edmond Halley were
pioneers in describing the orbits of celestial bodies like comets
and planets. The orderly laws of nature they described contradicted
the Church's belief that comets were thrown in anger from the
right hand of God, or that they portended disaster and war. For
over a hundred years the Church argued against them -- to describe
how heated, bitter and personal this debate grew in a single paragraph
is impossible. But Halley secured the final victory by accurately
predicting the return of the comet that now bears his name. All
three would have been brought before the Inquisition had they
not been Protestant.
Isaac Newton kept his true religious beliefs secret, for
fear of persecution, until literally his dying day. He privately
rejected his native Anglican Church at about age 30, convinced
that its teachings about Christ's divinity and the existence of
a Trinity were a fraud. He instead accepted Arianism, a 4th
century Christian heresy. Only on his deathbed did he reveal his
true beliefs by rejecting the Anglican sacrament. (2) Many Christians
opposed his scientific findings as well, for everyone had previously
believed that God actively and frequently intervened in the ordinary
events of the universe. Christians charged that he "took
from God that direct action on his works so constantly ascribed
to him in Scripture and transferred it to material mechanism,"
and that he "substituted gravitation for Providence."
Georges Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon, one of the more
colorful scientists in history, was the first to study fossils
and suggest that life forms had changed in the past. The proto-version
of evolution earned him the enmity the Church, which forced him
to resign from his Sorbonne University position and recant his
views. The Church then humiliated him by publishing his recantation.
William Buckland, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz, and
Adam Sedgewick were all 19th century Christian
geologists who originally set out to prove the story of creation
and Noah's Flood. But despite their best attempts to reconcile
their discoveries with the Bible, their findings kept pointing in
the other direction: namely, the earth was several billion years
old, not 6,000. One by one, they recanted their belief in the
literal interpretation of Genesis and accepted the findings of
modern geology. For their intellectual honesty, they came under
terrific attack from the Church, which hurled epithets like "infidel,"
"impugner of the sacred record," and "assailant
of the volume of God." Their geology was condemned as "a
dark art," "dangerous and disreputable," "a
forbidden province," "infernal artillery" and "an
awful evasion of the testimony of revelation."
Robert Chambers created a major scandal in 1844 when he
published an anonymous best-selling book entitled The Vestiges
of the Natural History of Creation. The book contained the
blasphemous suggestion that an orderly progression in the changes
of fossils indicated that species themselves had evolved. Religious
leaders demanded to learn the identity of the author and denounced
the book in the angriest terms possible. The ensuing controversy
proved that Chambers had made the correct decision to publish
Charles Darwin knew that his revolutionary theories on
natural selection would invite the full fury of the Christian
world. He therefore delayed publishing his theory for over 20
years, agonizing over the decision of whether or not to publish.
His hand was forced in 1858, when he learned that the naturalist
Alfred Wallace was about to publish the same theory. His fears
proved true -- the reaction from the Church was shock, disappointment
and anger. The world-wide attacks on his character, theories and
personal life are common knowledge now, but he was saved from
physical harm for two reasons. First, nearly the entire scientific
community was quick to see the soundness of his theories, and
rallied immediately to his defense. Second, the age of the Inquisition
and other torture-based persecutions had finally passed.
Bertrand Russell found that Christian persecution exists
even in the 20th century. One of the greatest of modern
philosophers, Russell angered many Christians with his essay,
Why I am not a Christian. And they exacted their revenge
in 1940, when Russell accepted an appointment at the College of
the City of New York. The Christian community launched a furious
and protracted campaign to prevent the appointment, printing slanderous
accusations of homosexuality, child molestation, public nudity and lechery.
(This, for his mildly liberal views on sex, which would be considered
tame by today's standards.) Even New York's highest political
officials joined the assault, calling him a "dog" who
should be "tarred and feathered and driven out of the country."
Christians sued in court to prevent Russell's appointment, and
in a trial filled with legal howlers, Russell was barred from teaching
in New York State -- in a word, censored. (3)
The above examples are only the highpoints of this history. To see just
how consistently and bitterly the Church opposed hundreds of lesser scientists,
one should read Andrew White's
The Warfare Of Science With Theology.
The social sciences
The Church has not only been proven wrong time and again in
the natural sciences. It has also erred repeatedly in the social
sciences. Consider the following examples:
For 1,500 years, the Christian empire was a slave-owning and slave-trading
empire, with popes and their bishops writing the rules over what
constituted "just and unjust slavery." Monarchs routinely
reported to the pope for permission to practice new forms of slavery,
such as Indian or African slavery; indeed, the first African slave
market in Europe was opened by papal decree. True, all societies
and cultures have practiced slavery, but the Christian empire
was the first to systematize it, mass-produce it, and make it
a major part of an international economy. No other slave empire
came close to its sheer size and brutality. Scholars estimate
that at least 10 million Africans died on the horrific slave ship
voyages to America alone, and another 60 million once they arrived.
Protestant as well as Catholic slave-owners defended their actions
from the pages of the Bible, claiming that Negroes were condemned
to slavery because they were supposedly descendants of Caanan,
whom God cursed in Genesis 9. In fact, most of the world's bitter
debate about slavery occurred in Biblical terms. The first opposition
to slavery came from the Quaker church, and the issue would eventually
split four American churches into Northern and Southern factions.
But the most relentlessly pro-slavery institution was the Roman
Catholic Church. It was not until after the American Civil
War, when the world's navies had already shut down the slave trade,
that the Catholic Church finally abandoned its idea of "just
and unjust" slavery, issuing its first condemnation of all
slavery in 1888. (4)
The Church also condemned Jews for rejecting and killing Christ,
and proceeded to persecute Jews for over a thousand years. From
the 5th to 18th centuries, a major event involving the slaughter,
persecution or expulsion of thousands of Jews occurred every
decade. (5) Modern anti-Semitism, which culminated in the
Holocaust of 6 million Jews, has its roots in the Church's long
tradition of Jewish persecution. The fact is, Nazi Germany did
not have one original idea. All of their philosophies came from
anti-Semites of past centuries, much of it from the Christian
Church. Indeed, when Hitler (who was raised a Catholic, but later
became an atheist) became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he met
with the German Catholic leadership and openly identified with
their anti-Semitism. Historian Guenter Lewy writes:
On 26 April 1933 Hitler had a conversation with Bishop Berning
and Monsignor Steinmann [the Catholic leadership in Germany].
The subject was the common fight against liberalism, Socialism
and Bolshevism, discussed in the friendliest terms. In the course
of the conversation Hitler said that he was only doing to the
Jews what the church had done to them over the past fifteen hundred
years. The prelates did not contradict him. (6)
Medieval Christians had forced Jews to identify themselves by
wearing the yellow "Badge of Shame;" the Nazis did likewise
by making them wear the Star of David. Medieval Christians accused
Jews of a secret international conspiracy to take over the world
by poisoning Christian wells with the Black Death; the Nazis also
accused the Jews of secretly plotting to take over the world through
international Jewish finance. Christians during the Spanish Inquisition
taught that the Jews were naturally inferior due to their mala
sangra, or "bad blood;" the Nazis taught that the
Jews were genetically inferior and subhuman. Even the death machine
of Auschwitz found its predecessor in the death machine of the
Inquisition, which systematically and indiscriminately tortured
and burned Jews by the tens of thousands, for no other reason
than they were Jews. Today, the white hoods and the crosses of
the Ku Klux Klan are taken from 14th century Christian history,
when Christians adopted these icons to slaughter the Jews who
were supposedly responsible for spreading the Black Death. (7)
As for women in Christian Europe, they were considered chattel
-- no less a man's possession than his ox or plow -- and it was
often legal in many provinces to beat a wife if she displeased
her husband. In Christian literature and doctrine, penned by both
pope and saint alike, there is a long and uniform tradition of
hatred for women. Just one of countless examples is Odo of Cluny's
famous statement that "to embrace a woman is to embrace a
sack of manure." Christian misogyny (both Catholic and Protestant)
reached its peak during the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries,
when over 110,000 women were tried for the crime of witchcraft.
Most trials included brutal torture to secure a confession. Some
60,000 were executed, most of them burned at the stake. (8)
The Church also declared its hostility to sex from the very beginning,
in contrast to all the other world's religions, which view sex
as a great blessing from God. Even ancient Judaism had relatively
liberal views on sex, allowing sex between anyone as long as it
was not with someone else's wife, a close relative, or a member
of the same sex. But when Christianity spread into the Greek world,
it absorbed the then-current philosophy of Greek Stoicism, which
argued that sex was a great evil. The Church Father Origen even
castrated himself so as to avoid temptation. Angry
denunciations of sex filled the writings of the Church Fathers; their diatribes
set the trajectory of Christian attitudes towards sex for the next two
millennia. Some announced in public that they would no longer
have sex with their wives. Women were portrayed as sex-starved
animals who lured otherwise pure and chaste Christian men to their
doom. It doesn't take a modern psychologist to recognize that
these men were unwittingly describing themselves. (9)
Christianity also proved to be the world's greatest warring religion,
launching more wars of aggression than any other religion in history.
In fact, until recent times, every war in Western history was
waged in the name of God. The peak of the Christian wars was the
Crusades, when Catholic clerics would preach from town to town,
whipping up hatred and hysteria among impoverished serfs against
the "infidels" occupying the Holy Land. The Crusaders
convinced many peasants to drop their hammer and plows on the
spur of the moment and embark on a completely uncertain journey
to an unknown place a thousand miles away. Along the way, the
frenzied mob murdered, looted and raped all the Jews they found.
Once they reached the Holy Land, they slaughtered the infidel
until the blood flowed up to "the knees of their horses."
(10) Popes repeated these Crusades for four centuries. It is a
sign of how much the Lord blessed these Crusades that by the time
of the Reformation in the 16th century, the Muslim forces had
driven into the heart of Europe.
When it came to law and order, Christian Europe was committed
to the severe punishment of criminals; it tried to force people
into moral behavior on pain of death. Stealing sheep (a crime
usually prompted by starvation) was punished by hanging. In the
New World, the Puritans obsession with punishing and humiliating
criminals in public was not much of an exaggeration over the Old
World approach. It is interesting to note, however, that this
zero tolerance for crime did nothing to solve Europe's massive
crime problem. Highway brigands were so numerous that it was actually
considered dangerous to travel between cities. And Puritan records
show that they still had to deal with extensive crime, some as
outrageous as barnyard sodomy, despite the fact many such crimes
carried a certain death sentence. (11)
Modern social science has resulted in many moral advances over
these policies, which were advocated at the highest levels of
the Church for some 1,500 years. Both Catholics and Protestants
wrote libraries of books justifying these horrific social policies,
and rose in outrage against anyone who dared challenge them.
Christians have gone to great lengths to develop a set of arguments defending
themselves from what would otherwise be a damning indictment
One is Cardinal Baronius' famous remark that "the Bible teaches
us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." But this
is demonstrably false. From the writers of the Old Testament to
the popes and prophets of the modern Christian Church, the authors of
Judeo-Christianity have attempted to explain just about everything that piqued their
curiosity. This ranged from disease (a possession of devils) to
the earth's origins (a six-day Creation week), from rain (an opening
of water windows in the sky) to the arrangement of planets (hung
like ornaments from the giant tent covering that formed the earth's
sky). These explanatory efforts were real enough that Church elders
could feel threatened by the appearance of rival scientific theories.
Baronius' often-quoted remark is both historically and Biblically incorrect.
Another defense is that the Church cannot be blamed for everything
done in its name. Granted, humans are not perfect, but one would
certainly expect the Church leadership to be more divinely guided
than the rest of us. The fact that popes and saints alike could
promote slavery for 1,500 years without a single overt correction
from God strongly suggests that they did not enjoy the access
to him that they boasted.
And this highlights the central problem with Christian apologetics.
If the Church were truly the source of All Truth, then it would
have been on the cutting edge of science, not the persecutors
of it. Instead of a vast field of theology entitled "apologetics,"
there should be something like "celebritics," a field
celebrating all the scientific vindications of the Bible. But
this field doesn't exist, and that is something else the apologists
have to defend.
Return to Overview
1. Unless otherwise indicated, all history concerning the
Church's conflict with the natural sciences comes from Andrew
White, The Warfare of Science with Theology (1895). This
excellent and exhaustive work, whose scholarship has stood the
test of time (and been enlarged by modern scholars), can be found
2. Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest, (Cambridge, 1980).
3. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, and other essays
on religion and related subjects (1957).
4. This history of slavery is based on the following sources:
Forest G. Wood, The Arrogance of Faith (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, Inc., 1990); John H. Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr.,
From Slavery to Freedom, 6th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Inc., 1988); John F. Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church
(London: Barry Rose Publishers, 1975); David M. Reimers, White
Protestantism and the Negro (New York: Oxford University Press,
1965); H. Shelton Smith, In His Image, But... (Durham:
Duke University Press, 1972).
5. For a comprehensive timeline of anti-Semitic atrocities that
span the last 2,000 years, see Heinrich H. Graetz, History
of the Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society
of America, 1898), 5 vols.
6. Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany
(London and New York) 1964, p. 50ff.
7. Hoods and crosses: Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant
Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Ballantine)
1978, p. 113.
8. De Lamar Jensen, Reformation Europe, 2nd
ed. (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992), p. 392.
9. For a horrific look at the sexual history of the Christian
Church, see Karen Armstrong, The Gospel According to Woman
(London: Elm Tree Books, 1986); James A. Brundage, Law, Sex,
and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1987); Geoffrey Parrinder, Sex in the World's
Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Rosemary
R. Ruether, New Woman, New Earth (New York: The Seabury
Press, 1975); Reay Tannahill, Sex in History, rev. ed.
(London: Cardinal Books, 1980 and 1989).
10. Quoted in Malcolm Hay, The Roots of Christian Anti-Semitism
(New York: Freedom Library Press) 1981, p. 27.
11. John Winthrop, The History of New England from 1630 to
1649 (Boston) 1853, II, p. 73.