We all know the story of Galileo. Galileo is famous for trying to popularize Copernicus’s theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the Sun around the Earth. The sinfully short version of his story is that since his Copernican model contradicted the bible, he was told by the Catholic Church not to speak of it. When Galileo could not keep this promise, he was held before the Inquisition in 1633, declared a heretic, and sentenced to spend the rest of his days in house arrest.
Galileo is remembered for his discoveries in mathematics and astronomy, if not for his heresy and punishment. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, in this instance at least, is remembered as the mistaken, cartoonish villain who punished Galileo for something that we now know—the religious and nonreligious of us—to be essentially proven absolutely true. When you bring this up with a Catholic, however, they’re likely to say, “We’ve all made mistakes. How were they to know they were in the wrong? Heliocentrism contradicted their interpretation of Scripture at the time. We’ve since adjusted our interpretations to account for it.”
In other words, Catholics no longer hold to geocentrism, thanks to Galileo and the astronomers before him. The two have since reconciled; the Catholic Church cleared Galileo’s name of wrongdoing in 1992. Did you read that right? Yes, 1992. I doubt that it consoled Galileo much to be forgiven 350 years after his death.
The incident with Galileo and the Catholic Church is one famous example of a timeless and devastating phenomenon that fundamentally follows from the way that science and religion operate. I knew that religion tends to suppress questions that lead to change from orthodoxy, and science tends to encourage new and different ideas, no matter how strange. When reading Cosmos, I had the epiphany that these contrasting methods have affected whole societies and the advance of science for millennia. Carl Sagan is not a raging atheist by any stretch of the imagination, but rather an honest historian of science. He shares with readers the lives and deaths of societies that celebrated science and produced some of the greatest scientists who have had the privilege and money to become famous.
There is something odd here, though. Take a look at these two timelines; the one on the left reaches from 600 B.C.E. to 2000 A.D., and it includes an overlapping but slightly different crew than the one on the right, which reaches from 600 B.C.E. to 500 A.D. You can tell from the one on the left why Sagan chose to end the one on the right with the death of Hypatia: in a way, centuries of scientific innovations died with her. Those great discoveries would not resurface for 1,000 years.
Why is that? Our greatest clue in these two timelines is the note that in the 5th century A.D. came the onset of the “Dark Ages”. If you’ve spent a lot of time around atheists like I have, then you have probably heard some variation of, “The last time that the Church ruled the state, we called it the Dark Ages! Hahaha!” In fact, it wasn’t necessarily called The Dark Ages simply because religion was just awful, but I’d venture to say that the Catholic Church did heavily affect and slow scientific progress.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was taken over by the Catholic Church. This makes sense so far (at least to me), knowing that it was Catholic mobs who, err, “dragged [Hypatia of the Alexandrian Library] from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones” (p. 336) in 415 A.D. thanks to their association of science and learning with the demonized concept of paganism. It’s worth noting that the Catholic archbishop responsible for this was made a saint.
Just because the Catholic Church’s reign viciously ended the marketplace of ideas that was the Alexandrian Library, no great scientific discoveries were made in Europe for 1,000 years, and scientists were declared heretics, doesn’t mean that religion always resists scientific progress. After all, the whole “Dark Ages” fiasco is just an isolated incident, and besides, correlation doesn’t equal causation. Let’s instead turn our attention to what societies might look like if they aren’t under a great religious influence.
Thanks to Carl Sagan, I am now a huge fan of the spirit of discovery in Ionian Greece from 600 to 400 B.C. Before Cosmos, I had never even heard of it. According to Sagan, the Ionians were watching as their Eastern Mediterranean neighbors argued over the attributes of gods like Zeus and Marduk when they themselves wondered, “If one of them must have been made up by priests, then why not both?” And they pondered what was instead causing the great regularities of nature if not gods. Unlike the priests and scribes, many of these Ionian thinkers were the sons of sailors, farmers, and weavers (p. 176) who worked hands-on, which led them to be inclined to do their own experiments. Here are some of the greatest Ionian or Ionian-inspired scientists introduced to me by Carl Sagan in “The Backbone of Night”:
• Thales of Miletus – A geometer. Influenced Euclid and Newton. Retold a Babylonian story about dry land emerging from water, typically said to be the work of the god Marduk, but “left Marduk out.”
• Anaximander of Miletus – Calculated the length of the year and seasons using a stick. Believed that the Earth was not suspended from the heavens (although it was still at the center of the universe). Had a pretty accurate idea of evolution and infinite worlds (planets), and did not attribute the cause of anything to a divine mind. Was complained about by St. Augustine.
• Theodorus of Cyrene – Invented the key, the ruler, the carpenter’s square, the level, the lathe, bronze casting, and central heating.
• Hippocrates of Cos – Established a famous medical tradition. Said, “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.”
• Empedocles of Akragas – Had an idea that light travels at a (not infinite but very) fast speed. Had some Darwin-esque ideas of extinction and evolution. Oh yeah, and he discovered air.
• Anaxagorus of Athens – Said the moon shines by reflected light, and came up with phases of the moon using geometry of the Earth, Moon, and Sun. Became friends with Pericles, the leader of Athens, but Pericles’ political rivals took out their anger on Anaxagorus and convicted and imprisoned him because of religious impiety.
• Democritus of Abdera – Pretty accurately predicted a lot of facts about astronomy. Realized that perception is due to matter and not the gods. Invented the word “atom”. Thought religion was evil and immortal souls and god do not exist. Said, “Nothing exists, but atoms and the void.” He wasn’t persecuted, but his books were later burned, as was urged by Plato.
• Aristarchus of Samos – Proposed heliocentrism. Inspired Copernicus, who popularized the idea 1800 years later. People called for him to be condemned.
Whether these men were true atheists or not is debatable, but they were certainly all materialists, and many of them were at odds with religion—especially the use of religion to explain phenomena that could be explained naturally. On the other hand, in the interest of being honest and not just a mean God-hater, I should probably disclose some other issues that came into play as to why the Ionian tradition was lost for so long. Yes, I truly believe that religion played a role, but so did slavery and a superstitious cult.
The leader of Ionia in 540 B.C.E. was named Polycrates. At first glance, it may sound like he was a hero for science, being “a generous patron of the arts, sciences, and engineering” (p. 178). That’s not the whole story, though. He “oppressed his own people” and had a wall built to keep out his neighbors, whom he feared would invade after he had made war with them. This wall, you’ve probably guessed, was made by slaves. The Ionian tradition would end 125 years after the wall was finished, so it doesn’t seem like it was directly tied to its downfall.
However, it seems likely that this hands-on mercantile approach that gave rise to the thinkers of Ionia also made their economy soar—on the backs of slaves. It became understood that manual labor was undignified and suited only for slaves, but the death knell for Ionian science plays when one remembers that many experiments fall under the category of “manual labor” in their requirement to get one’s hands dirty and not sit back and philosophize. The slaves were not free to do science. The scientists were “too dignified” to do the dirty work. There was no one left to actually do the science, because those who could, had spent too much time looking up at the stars to see all the suffering that was around them. In the end, it was their ideas that suffered as well, being lost forever.
One mathematician who comes to mind here is Pythagoras. You’ve heard of him and his theorem in geometry class. We can thank him for that, but he arguably did more harm than good. He took math and essentially made a mysterious cult out of it, in which he urged his disciples not to perform experiments. Even worse was the non-self-correcting nature of his work. He believed math to be perfect and rational (and given to us from the gods), but on discovering the square root of two (at which time he came up with the word “irrational”), he panicked and hid its existence from the masses, making mathematics an exclusive endeavor for him and his followers. He removed the freedom of thought and the democracy from math.
Likewise, this issue with slavery and an unwillingness to address the society from which discovery springs also affected the city of Alexandria from 336 B.C.E. to 415 A.D. This city was founded on some strikingly humanist values: “Alexander encouraged respect for alien cultures and the open-minded pursuit of knowledge” (p. 18). What’s more, Alexandria was home to an incredibly diverse population of various races and religions. If we think of it only in terms of short-lived scientific successes, we’d be thrilled. Here are some notable figures as told on page 19 of Cosmos:
• Eratosthenes – Determined the circumference of the earth using sticks.
• Hipparchus – Mapped constellations.
• Euclid – Systematized geometry.
• Dionysius – Defined the parts of speech, “did for the study of language what Euclid did for geometry.”
• Herophilus – Established that the brain, not the heart, is the seat of intelligence.
• Heron of Alexandria – Invented trains, wrote the first book about robotics.
• Apollonius of Perga – Demonstrated the forms of the conic sections (ellipse, parabola, and hyperbola) which are the curves that planets, comets, and stars follow in their orbits.
• Archimedes – Mechanical genius.
• Ptolemy – Astronomer, geographer, and astrologer.
• Hypatia of Alexandria – Mathematician, astronomer, and the last scientist to work in the Alexandrian library.
Of course, I wouldn’t want to forget the most famous of them all, Plato. Or do I? You may know that Plato was a great influence on Christianity, but did you know that he was a follower of the superstitious Pythagorus? Plato followed in Pythagorus’s footsteps in matters of rejection of materialism, suppression of scientific ideas, and comfort in a slave society. Plato and Aristotle “offered justifications for oppression. They served tyrants. . . . Plato . . . actually used the metaphor of slavery to connect his politics with his cosmology” (p. 188). Thanks to the elitism of science in Alexandria, “Science never captured the imagination of the multitude. There was no counterbalance to stagnation, to pessimism, to the most abject surrenders to mysticism. When, at long last, the mob came to burn the Library down, there was nobody to stop them” (p. 335).
Is Religion the Enemy of Science?
I set out to write this post after realizing that when we atheists blame religion for the downfall of various scientific civilizations, we might actually be onto something. I thought about it and researched, and I found that religion is often to blame, but it doesn’t usually do everything on its own. It seems that scientists tend to get too confident, as if their enterprises are immortal, and forget that as soon as people stop trusting them, they could turn to the easy comforts of religion instead. We must not let superstition run unchecked, and we must be wary of tyrants—religious or not.
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. 1st ed. New York, New York: Carl Sagan Productions, 1980.
Note: It was brought to my attention months after writing this post that some of the details about ancient Greece in Cosmos (my source) were wrong, specifically in regards to Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria. I haven’t yet edited this post to reflect them, but I highly suggest you check out this post for greater detail on what is and what is not true about these topics.