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If someone learns about the history of science from Christian literature, the first thing they will probably notice is boasting about how Christians were responsible for most of the world’s scientific progress. From what I’ve seen, much Christian propaganda pridefully takes credit for the emergence of the sixteenth-century Scientific Revolution and almost every scientific advancement since then. That’s because almost all the people involved in scientific pursuits during that era were Christians. That sounds very impressive, but digging deeper you’ll find that Christians were also responsible for the lack of scientific progress preceding that revolution. That was the millennium when science slept.

It takes a much closer examination to see what scientific advancement should be credited to the religion how much should reflect the personal motivation of the individual men and women who blazed those trails.  Another way to approach this issue is to learn in what ways Christianity thwarted scientific progress. Why did it take over a thousand years from the time the Roman Emperors adopted Christianity until Europe caught up with the scientific achievements of “pagan” civilizations? That is what I plan to explore in this post.

What were the Dark Ages?

The “Dark Ages” was the roughly ten centuries that overlaid the Middle Ages, or Medieval period. To be more specific, the Dark Ages began with the collapse of Western Roman civilization—the glue that held most of European culture together. It ended with the rediscovery of the accomplishments of the ancient civilizations in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. That momentous time was known as the Renaissance and it followed a thousand years of Christianity writing science off as an unimportant worldly pursuit.

A very relevant quote

I like this quote from nineteenth century American philosopher, John William Draper because I think it sums up the Dark Ages.

He wrote, “The pagan party…asserted that knowledge is to be obtained only by the laborious exercise of human observation and human reason. The Christian party asserted that all knowledge is to be found in the Scriptures and in the traditions of the Church; that, in the written revelation, God had not only given a criterion of truth, but had furnished us with all that he intended us to know. The Scriptures, therefore, contain the sum, the end of all knowledge. The clergy, with the emperor at their back, would endure no intellectual competition. The Church thus set herself forth as the depository and arbiter of knowledge; she was ever ready to resort to the civil power to compel obedience to her decisions. She thus took a course which determined her whole future career; she became a stumbling block in the intellectual advancement of Europe for more than a thousand years.”

Next, the timeline

In this investigation, I want to focus on mathematics, science, and technology. I aim to find out what scientific progress was made in the centuries before those Dark Ages, and also show when that progress resumed. My way of studying this will be chronologically since I learn so much from timelines. I’ll use objective standards, not my own, to present the most important technological advances.

8000 BC- 3000 BC

Morphine, in the form of opium, was first used to reduce pain. – Mesopotamia

Surgical tracheostomies were performed. – Egypt

The wheel and axle was invented. – Mesopotamia

Harps were manufactured and played. – Egypt

Written language came into use. – Sumer

Willow bark, containing the derivative of aspirin, was used for pain relief.  – Sumer, Egypt

3000 BC- 1500 BC

Bronze smelting began. – Egypt, Nubia-Sudan, This gave the period the name “Bronze Age”.

Bloodletting was a favored method to “cure” diseases. – Egypt

Houses of Life operated as early hospitals and libraries. – Egypt

Concrete was invented. – Egypt

Four wheeled wagons were in use. – Mesopotamia

Roads were engineered using mortar and gutters. – Greece

Copper pipes were used in indoor plumbing. – Egypt

The first measurements of weight and volume. – Middle East, America, Indus Valley

The earliest numerical system was invented. – Egypt

Multiplication tables were in use. – Babylon

Ratios and fractions were introduced. – Egypt

The study of human anatomy was progressing. – Egypt

Square roots were recognized. – Babylon

Pulleys were invented. – Egypt, Mesopotamia

1600 BC-550 BC

Wrought iron objects were being made. The beginning of the Iron Age. – Anatolia

Healers were splinting broken bones. – Egypt

The Pythagorean theorem was developed. – India

Water clocks were invented. – Egypt

Circular geometry was understood. – Greece

The atomic theory of matter was proposed. – India

The muscular-skeletal systems were being studied. – India

Surgical sutures were first used. – Egypt

500-1 BC

First detailed written guide to surgery was written. – India

The inductive-deductive method was used to infer general principles of logic. – Greece

The Antikythera mechanism was created to predict the motion of the Sun, Moon, and planets. – Greece

Sewer systems were in use. – Etruscans of Italy

Alarm clocks were developed. – Greece

Water wheels were in use. – Greece

Cast iron objects were being made. – China

Steel was manufactured. – India

The practice of medicine was separated from religion. – Greece

Lead pipes were used in indoor plumbing. – Rome

Thorough examination of patients were being performed before making a diagnosis. – Greece

Cataract surgery was performed. – India

The discovery that moonlight is reflected sunlight. – Greece

Compound pulleys were used in cranes. – Mesopotamia

The discovery that the Earth is spherical. – Greece and India

Development of the concept of thermal expansion. – Greece

Trigonometry, geometry, and the volume of spheres and cones were all worked out. – Greece, Egypt

Bound books were being made. – India

Theorization was being accomplished that would lead to cameras. – China

The reciprocating pump was invented. – Greece

Understanding of near-sightedness and far-sightedness. – Greece

The concept of infinity was first proposed. – India

Geometric optics were explored. – Greece

Proto-logarithms were worked out. – Greece

Binary numbers were recognized. – India

Statistics became a form of mathematics. – Greece

The circumference of the Earth was accurately established. – Greece

The heliocentric model of the universe was proposed. – Greece

The first calculation of the Moon’s orbit was made. – Greece

Axial procession and planetary rotation were being understood. – Greece

The size and distances from the Earth of the Sun and Moon was being established. – Greece

1-500 AD

Herbal mixtures with antimicrobial properties were used to treat infections. – Greece, Egypt

The first public health and sanitation departments. – Romans

Heat sterilization of surgical instruments was understood to prevent infection. – Greece, Rome

Water powered milling wheels were in use. – China

Primitive steam turbines were being developed. – Egypt

The first battery was invented. – Persia

First woodblock printing was performed. – China

The compass was introduced. – China

Long division was invented. – India

The physics of optics was developed. – Greece

Detailed anatomy of mammals was understood. – Greece

Zero was first used as a number. – Greece

Negative numbers were introduced. – Greece

Hindu-Arabic number system (the one we use today) was created. – India

Elliptical orbits of planets was postulated. – India

Cube roots were developed. – India

Accurate prediction of eclipses were possible. – India

Paper making from wood rather than papyrus reeds was introduced. – China

Domed roofs were being created. – Romans

By this time the Christianized Roman Emperors were systematically destroying pagan civilization, their religion, their writings, and their academies of learning.

500- 1000AD

Correct explanation that comets were a natural event, not omens sent from the gods. – India

Roads were paved with tar. – Mesopotamia

Geared water clocks were in use. – Islamic Empire

The concept of inertia was developed. – Greece

Mathematics using zeros and negative multiplication introduced. – India

Solving of quadratic equations. – India

Estimating the periods of comets. – India

The first monofilament suture material. – Persia

Gunpowder was invented. – China

1000-1500

Inductive reasoning led to the scientific method. – Europe

Groundwork for modern optics and wave theory. – Islamic Empire

Determining true north and the magnetic declination. – China

Natural climate changes were recognized. – China

The precession of the Sun was understood. – Islamic Empire

An early form of Newton’s law for constant forces was proposed. – Jewish-Islamic

Architects began to deign and build Gothic cathedrals. – Europe

The precursor to peer reviewed scientific method was introduced. – Europe

Eyeglasses were invented and used. – Europe

The calculation of Pi was accomplished. – India

The onset of a printing press using movable type. – Europe

The 1500s was when Europe finally discovered the necessary ancient knowledge to continue where the ancients had been forced to end their progress.

1500s

Steam turbines were in use. – Ottoman Egypt

Comets were understood as astronomical, not atmospheric events. – Europe

The Heliocentric Theory was put forth. – Europe

Smallpox inoculations began. – China

Research in human anatomy resumed. – Europe

Numerous mathematical refinements were made which overlapped various fields of science. – Europe

The first recorded tracheostomy in modern times. – Europe

1600s

Discovery of Earth’s magnetic field. – Europe

Development of the optical telescope. – Europe

Laws of planetary motion understood. – Europe

Logarithms came into use. – Europe

Blood circulation was correctly understood. – Europe

The laws of falling bodies were developed. – Europe

The mercury barometer was invented. – Europe

Gas laws were discovered. – Europe

The first discovery of living cells. – Europe

Fossil layers and stratigraphy led to the study of archaeology. – Europe

The light spectrum was discovered. – Europe

Oscillation and the pendulum were studied. – Europe

The first observation of micro-organisms. – Europe

The speed of light was first measured. – Europe

The universal laws of gravitation and motion were proposed. – Europe

1700s -1800s

The cataract surgery method from sixth century was improved on. – Europe

A better suturing material than in 1000 AD was invented. – USA

Willow bark was refined into salicin, the precursor of aspirin. – Europe

The hypodermic syringe was invented. – Europe

Bloodletting was still being used as a popular medical treatment. – Europe, USA (This was not an innovation, but a sign of how primitive medicine still was.)

Evaluating the data

First, it’s apparent that the ancient scholars and inventors made amazingly more important discoveries than we modern folks give them credit for. And, it’s important to realize that those ancient scientists and inventors were not Christians. They were pagans, which originally meant “country-dwellers” or “rubes”. They were also Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and Jews. To the great minds of science, religion could not stand in the way. It was the intellectual development of the society that mattered.

From the timeline presented above, one can see that there was very little scientific or mathematical progress on the continent of Europe between 500 AD and 1500 AD. That’s because that’s the period when the continent was under the control of the Church and when science was dormant.

European scholars may have heard rumors of dramatic progress in the past and that may have stimulated their research. But they didn’t finally confirm that progress until pagan works were reintroduced to Europe through Greek and Arabic translations. Then, they had to reassess their work in light of what new knowledge was becoming available to them.

Naturally, they had fresh insights and unique observations but the ancient knowledge gave them a new foundation to build on. That’s how science works. You build on what has come before, keeping what explains a hypothesis, and disposing of what doesn’t. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, European scientists incorporating what the ancients had passed on to them and becoming the world’s most productive scientists.

European scientists had to be Christians

The reason so many Christians contributed to scientific progress after the 1500s is that Christianity was the only acceptable religion on the continent. That was other than Judaism. The Christians sometimes tolerated the Jews but never granted them equal rights.

During those medieval and Renaissance centuries, every European scientist was a Christian. There wasn’t any alternative. You were either a Christian or a heretic, and unspeakable things happened to heretics. Even if a person was an inner atheist, they’d would have been a fool to admit it. If someone had the aptitude and passion for science, they usually had to join the clergy or take the vows of a monk to fulfill that goal.

In conclusion, it appears to me that it certainly wasn’t Christianity that inspired science. It was unsuppressed curiosity and awe about how the world and the universe operated. Often scientists like Isaac Newton explored science as a way to understand the mind of God, but that seems about as far as the Christian influence went.  Minds like Newtons were the same kind that had discovered scientific principles for the millennia that science slept regardless of which God they worshipped.

 

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