Religion’s War With Science

January 7, 1996

Summary

Religion’s War With Science

Over the centuries religion has repeatedly looked at science as an enemy, and declared war on scientists whose findings threatened some long-cherished belief of the church. Knowing that, one of the brightest and most loyal members of this church asked me to talk about some specific examples of that warfare, and I agreed to do that. If some of the things I will tell you this morning and next Sunday seem incredible, you can find documentation for all of it in a classic 2-volume work by Andrew White, President and Professor of History at Cornell University — a study called A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. It has over 800 pages that are dense with formidable footnotes, but it’s the starting place for anyone interested in this topic.
Since science and religion have long been at odds about how the universe came into existence, let’s begin with the way the church read the two creation stories in Genesis. Although they are not alike and contradict each other in significant ways, the church insisted on reading both of them as literal fact rather than poetic truth — a mistake which cost it the respect and loyalty of many good people over the centuries. The Bible’s first creation story is actually a sophisticated hymn about a God who speaks — simply speaks the word — each day for six days and creation is complete. The second is a charming narrative by a different author in which God, using his hands to shape and form , creates the world in one day. Read as poetry, the contradictions do not matter. Read literally, as the church insisted on doing, the two stories of creation present a problem: one day or six days? The church rescued the Bible from contradicting itself by saying it happened both ways: that in some mysterious manner God created the universe in six days, but he also brought it all into existence in a moment. If your mind is like mine that may not make much sense to you, but it’s one way of preserving an infallible Bible when someone points out an obvious discrepancy.
The phrase “In the beginning” was vague, so as time passed the church wanted a specific date for creation. By working with genealogies in the Bible — a tricky and unscientific business — they decided God created the universe about 4000 years before the birth of Christ. That will surprise the modern school child who has been taught that the universe and planet Earth are billions of years old, but the church hung on to its dating long after science found it impossible. As late as the 17th century an eminent Christian scholar, Dr. John Lightfoot of England’s Cambridge University, said that as a result of his exhaustive study of Scripture the creation “took place and man was created by the Trinity on October 23, 4004 BC at 9 o’clock in the morning.” The year 4004 went into the King James Bible under the name of Archbishop Usher, and like everyone else Martin Luther believed it so strongly that he said, “We know, on the authority of Moses, that longer ago than 6000 years the world did not exist.” The church held tenaciously to this date even after it was discovered that in the year that supposedly saw the creation of the universe, human civilizations already existed in Egypt and in Asia. As evidence piled up that the earth was much, much older than church doctrine held, those who discovered the evidence were pressured to reject it. As late as the middle of the 18th century, when the great French scientist Buffon tried to show how gradually the earth came into existence, and how old it was, the theological faculty of the Sorbonne forced him to crawl on hands and knees while he surrendered with these words to the power of the church: “I abandon everything in my book respecting the formation of the earth, and generally all which may be contrary to the narrative of Moses.”
As believers noticed that some things in the world are good and some bad, they found it necessary to explain how a good God could create thorns and thistles, rabies and rattlesnakes. They found their answer in the sin of Adam and Eve. Before that, they decided, there was no disease, no poison ivy, no deadly snake or spider. They all came into existence after the Fall, church scholars said, to give us a sample of how bad things would be in hell for the disobedient. As late as the 18th century, John Wesley — founder of Methodism — agreed. Before Adam’s sin, he said, “the spider was as harmless as the fly, and did not lie in wait for blood.” Adam Clarke, on whose commentaries I cut my teeth at age 15, believed the same thing — as, of course, so did I since I knew nothing but his opinion. This whole foolish business died out among thoughtful people when in relatively recent times geology revealed the remains of multitudes of violent and nasty flesh-eating creatures all extinct ages before the appearance of human beings on this earth.
The Garden of Eden, theologians argued, was perfect, as God is perfect: even in climate it was a kind of eternal San Diego. Obviously, the weather had changed — but why? Theologians with too much time on their hands figured it out. Blistering heat and bitter cold were never intended by God, they said, but when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit God tipped the earth over on its axis and caused the extremes of climate we have suffered ever since. This is pure nonsense, of course, and turns God into a monster who punishes innocent billions for the sins of two people, but it was the only way the church had of explaining why a loving God didn’t do a better job with climate control.
One curious aspect of the corrupting of the whole world because of what happened in the Garden was the conviction that until the tempting serpent was cursed all snakes stood erect, walked, and talked. When fossil remains were found of crawling snakes that had lived aeons before the appearance of humans, intelligent Christians had to retreat from that theory also. Some animals which were not dangerous, but still seemed rather pointless, bothered church fathers like the great St. Augustine. “I confess I am ignorant,” he said, “why mice and frogs were created, or flies and worms.” Believing, as he did, that God created every creature that now exists, he had to deal with creatures regarded as superfluous, so he concluded that these life forms are meant either to punish us, or discipline us, or terrify us “so that we may not cherish and love this life.” Martin Luther generally followed St. Augustine, but in this matter he stubbornly refused. To him the fly was not just superfluous, it was a vile and damnable creature sent by the devil to vex him when he was reading books.
The earth’s shape became an item of faith early in Christian history. Reading literally certain Bible verses about the “corners of the earth,” the old church fathers declared the earth was flat and that salvation was impossible for those who believed otherwise. In that flat world heaven was “up” and hell was “down” — Biblical descriptions that made no literal sense if the earth were a globe. The great St. Augustine quoted the Apostle Paul’s comment that the message of God’s creation has “gone out…..to the end of the world” and argued that this proved the earth was flat. The idea of humans inhabiting the opposite side of a globe was abhorrent to the famous old church Father, who said that even if it were true God would not allow people to live there since if they did they could not see Christ descending through the air at his second coming. By pitting itself too quickly and too firmly against science, the church set itself up for another humliating defeat — and in 1519 it came when Magellan’s historic sea voyage proved the earth to be round, with people on the other side of the globe actually seen by his shipmates..
The church quite literally thrived on superstition throughout the Middle Ages. Comets were explained by theologians as balls of fire flung from the right hand of an angry God to warn sinners or preface some great catastrophe. Martin Luther said, “The heathen (read “scientists”) write that the comet may arise from natural causes, but God creates not one that does not foretell a sure calamity.” It was also widely believed that God used comets to announce the birth or the death of some great person, but as knowledge advanced, the church retreated once again and accepted the wise comment of one student of the natural world who said, “If we had a just idea of the universe, we should soon comprehend that the death or birth of a prince is too insignificant a matter to stir the heavens.”
The clergy assured their flocks that storms were caused by demons, and resisted any explanation that they were the result of certain natural laws. Martin Luther thought a stone thrown into a certain pond in his native region would cause a terrible storm because of the devils kept prisoners there. But, said the church, the ringing of consecrated church bells would repel the demons and stop storms, so quite naturally a ritual grew up for baptizing and consecrating the bells. Bell magic was celebrated by engravings which read: “They praise God, put to flight the clouds, affright the demons, and call the people.” A ritual in Paris for baptizing bells reads: “Whensoever this bell shall sound, it shall drive away the malign influences of the assailing spirits, the horror of their apparitions, the rush of their whirlwinds, the stroke of lightning, the harm of thunder, the disasters of storms.” Both Catholic and Protestant churches set forth forms of bell baptisms in their manuals.
Scientists, meanwhile, went quietly on with their research into natural causes of storms and lightning. In 1752 Benjamin Franklin made his famous experiments with the kite, drew an electric spark out of a cloud, and dealt a death blow to the whole fabric of theological meteorology. The church had no choice but to confess that he was right, since his lightning rod did what exorcisms and holy water and processions and ringing of bells and burning of witches had failed to do: namely, protect against lightning strikes. In Germany, within 33 years, nearly 400 church towers were damaged and 120 bellringers killed by lightning. It was, the church said, the work of the devil or the punishment of God, and lightning rods were viewed as an attempt to interfere with supernatural forces. In America, the great earthquake of l755 was widely blamed, especially in Massachusetts, to people’s putting up lightning rods. A good old Congregational pastor of Old South Church in Boston said, “Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God.” But when beautiful St. Marks Cathedral in Venice and the great Strasbourg Cathedral in France, both hurt so terribly so often by lightning, finally installed lightning rods, people saw still another proof that the discovery of natural law could make life better. But the church seldom gives up easily. I love the story of a French island’s famous monastery church which was restored in the 19th century, complete with a veritable museum of superstitious relics: pieces of the true cross, the crown of thorns, the burial sheet of Jesus, hair of the Blessed Virgin, bones of Christian martyrs — and how high up in that great church were the bells that had been baptized and consecrated, with the good bishop promising they would “drive away the prince of the power of the air” and the lightning he provokes, but how just to make sure, at the top of the central spire, way up above the relics and the altars and magical bells was placed…..a lightning rod! .[Robin, beloved laddybuck, see Priestley, History of Electricity, London, if you need documentation for the lightning stories]
One of the most dramatic of all the wars between religion and science had to do with the relationship between this earth and the sun and stars. For centuries the church taught that God personally brought the stars out from his treasurehouse and hung them in the sky each evening. The sun and the planets were moved by angels appointed to do that job, and any other view, according to St. Philastrius, is “false to the Catholic faith.” But scientists kept watching, their math and their instruments kept getting better, and finally — off on the borders of Poland — a humble scholar first spoke the truth, commonplace now but astonishing then, that the sun does NOT revolve around the planets, this earth included, but they around it. The wrath of theologians was spectacular. Catholics and Protestants alike denounced the ideas of Nicholas Copernicus as contrary to Scripture. Luther said, “This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.” Others, reading literally the great poetry of the Psalms, quoted the verse that says the sun “comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber….” The metaphor is marvelous: imagining the sun as eager to embrace the earth as a bridegroom his bride — good poetry! But read with a wooden literal-mindedness it became dogma: the earth is the center of the universe, the sun moves around it, and all the stars are hung out each evening for our enjoyment. University profesors were forced to take an oath not to teach the Copernican heresy, forbidden to make known to their students a logical scientific theory that telescopes would soon make abundantly certain. Copernicus was dying when his book appeared, and no mention was made of it on his tombstone. For this devout Christian, whose honesty had enraged the church, there were only these words: “I ask not the grace accorded to Paul; not that given to Peter; give me only the favour whichThou didst show to the thief on the cross.” It would be 30 years before a friend would dare to write on his gravestone a memorial of his incredible discovery.
One man dared speak in favor of Copernican ideas before the Pope, and as a result he was hunted from country to country until he finally turned on his pursuers with terrible invective, for which they trapped him at Venice, jailed him for six years in the dungeon of the Inquisition at Rome, then burned him alive and scattered his ashes to the winds. But truth does not die easily, and within ten years after the death of Giordano Bruno, the telescope of another daring and honest man proved the theory of Copernicus and ushered in one of the most incredible chapters in all the long, strange warfare between science and the church. I consider it an event in human history which everyone should know well, and never forget. If you wish to hear that story, please come back next Sunday.
We worship in the name of One who paid with His life for challenging old
tradition with new truth. We have honored this morning people who did
the same.We give thanks for their courage. Amen.

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