Coyne's Twisted History of Science & Religion

By Alex B. Berezow & James Hannam

Jerry Coyne is an esteemed evolutionary biologist. But, together with the other New Atheists, he vehemently berates religion in a way that can detract from his important work of explaining evolution to the layperson.

In his latest post on the topic, he promotes the false belief that there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion, and he even makes the wild (and admittedly unproven) claim “that had there been no Christianity, if after the fall of Rome atheism had pervaded the Western world, science would have developed earlier and be far more advanced than it is now.” (For some thoughts on that theory, see this post.)

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Historians have long realized that the great conflict between science and religion is a myth. But it continues to be an article of faith among the New Atheists. In contrast to his views on evolution, Dr. Coyne thinks that he can ignore the evidence from history and disregard the settled view of experts in the field. But, being a scholar and a rational man, we’re sure that he will change his mind if shown to be wrong.

So let’s examine some of the reasons Dr. Coyne presents for rejecting the consensus view of historians that Christianity has generally been supportive of science (notwithstanding some quarrels along the way).

Dr. Coyne states:

Christianity was around for a millennium without much science being done; “modern” science really started as a going concern in the 17th century. Why did that take so long if Christianity was so important in fostering science?

Actually, historians start the Western scientific tradition with the “12th Century Renaissance” 500 years before Galileo. If you want to know why there were not many people doing natural philosophy before that, the answer includes words like “barbarian invasions,” “collapse of civilization,” “Huns,” “Goths,” and “Vikings.” The fact that some scientific knowledge survived the upheaval after the fall of the Roman Empire was largely due to the Church.

Dr. Coyne goes on to say:

If you think of science as rational and empirical investigation of the natural world, it originated not with Christianity but with the ancient Greeks, and was also promulgated for a while by Islam.

This is only half-true. Science is a lot more than just reason and observation. You need experiments too. For example, the Greeks, following Aristotle, thought that heavy objects must fall faster than light ones. It takes two seconds to disprove that by an experiment that involves dropping a pebble and a rock. But for a thousand years, no one did. There didn’t seem to be much point in testing a theory they already thought to be true. That’s probably why the Greeks were so good at geometry, as Dr. Coyne notes, because progress in mathematics is largely based on reason alone.

Dr. Coyne then borrows an argument from Dr. Richard Carrier:

Carrier makes the point that there was no scientific revolution in the eastern half of the Christian world. Why was that?

The premise is wrong. What’s truly amazing is just how much science early Christians were doing. John Philoponus (c. 490 – c. 570) was one of the first Christian professors in Alexandria. Historians today are stunned by his achievements.

As a Christian, Philoponus was happy to ditch pagan orthodoxy and start afresh. So he was the first to actually do the experiment of dropping stones, proving Aristotle wrong about falling objects. Alas, shortly after he died, Egypt was invaded by the Persians and then by the Arabs. Alexandria lost its status as an important center of learning, while the Byzantine Empire went into siege mode as it fought an existential struggle for survival. Not a great environment for science!

Dr. Coyne then writes:

Religion has of course also repressed the search for knowledge. Not only do we have the cases of Galileo and Bruno, but also the active discouragement of the use of reason by many church fathers, especially Martin Luther…

If Giordano Bruno were alive today, Jerry Coyne would be denouncing him as a woo merchant. Nothing excuses the Church for burning him at the stake, but historians know that science wasn’t the reason for his conviction; instead, it was his neo-pagan mysticism that got him into so much trouble.

It is truly amazing how many alleged instances of Christianity holding back science turn out to be completely bogus. Legends that the Church banned zero, fought lightning rods or anesthesia, excommunicated Halley’s Comet, and forbade human dissection all turn out to be false. The most widely cited example – the persecution of Galileo – was as much about politics as science. (Galileo purposefully insulted the Pope, which was not a wise move. For more on Bruno, the trial of Galileo, and a whole lot more, see James Hannam’s book, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.)

Dr. Coyne continues:

There was and still is, of course, opposition to science by Christians. The greatest opponent of biology’s greatest theory—evolution—has always been Christianity.

Untrue. The writings of influential Church Father Thomas Aquinas hint that he would have accepted evolution. Besides, singling out Christianity as uniquely opposed to “biology’s greatest theories” overlooks the biggest enemy of genetics in the 20th Century: Soviet Communism. Communists rejected the work of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel (the latter, of course, a Catholic monk). Instead, they embraced the Stalin-approved Lamarckian vision of Trofim Lysenko, setting back Soviet genetics by decades.

Dr. Coyne then writes:

Early scientists were Christians, at least in the west, because everyone was a Christian then.

What is truly interesting is how many great scientists were intensely religious, even by the standards of their own time. Johannes Kepler’s scientific manuscripts include him breaking spontaneously into prayer. Blaise Pascal is as famous for being an apologist for Christianity as he is a mathematician and physicist. Isaac Newton was so religious he spent more time on biblical chronology than physics. Michael Faraday was a member of an ascetic group called the Sandemanians. And these are just a handful of examples. There are many more.

Dr. Coyne’s next claim shows he doesn’t understand what Christianity brought to science:

All progress in science, whether ancient or modern, came from ignoring or rejecting the idea of divine intervention.

Well, not really. Scientific progress depended on a metaphysical system that explained why nature follows orderly laws that nonetheless need not correspond to our rational intuitions. The Christian belief in a Deity who freely created a universe in which moral creatures could exercise choices was just right for the job.

Today, as Dr. Coyne points out, scientists are much less likely to be religious. That’s because science has become such a successful venture in its own right. Scientists can just ignore metaphysical questions because they know the scientific method works. That doesn’t mean that science has answered questions like, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” With the exception of a handful of theoretical physicists, science has just largely given up asking them.

We have not covered all of Dr. Coyne’s post. It packs an impressive amount of error and misunderstanding into a very small space. The truth about the history of science and religion is far more complicated than Dr. Coyne would have you believe.

Dr. Alex B. Berezow is the founding editor of RealClearScience and co-author of Science Left Behind. He holds a PhD in microbiology from the University of Washington. Dr. James Hannam is the author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. He holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge.

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