Andrew Dickson (1832-1918) is responsible for one of the most influential books every written on “the conflict between science and theology”. His summary that has been copied in almost all common textbooks is as follows;
“The warfare of Columbus [with religion] the world knows well: how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted him in Portugal; how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotation from Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how, even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity… the church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray… the theological barriers to this geographical truth yielded but slowly.”
I remember hearing this from a young age. Even as most of my curriculum was christian because of my home schooling. The problem is that most accounts such as these are almost completely false.
It is obvious that today there is a common belief that science and theology or religion are at odds, and can not be reconciled. That is part of the myth is wish to help bring light on.
In fact all educated men of the medieval period knew the earth was round. As for Augustine, anyone who looks into his work will determine that he lacked enough information to make a case for a round earth. But one might actual interpret his work as a man who believed in a flat earth. He was engaged in a battle against belief in a flat earth in which their were people on the other side. Many believe he is fighting against a spherical earth theory. When he is simply engaged in argument over a disc shaped earth that had people upside down on the other side. Strange story really, but he was not opposed to reason.
Bishop Isidore of Seville (560-636) also wrote of a wheel shaped earth, in which many believe he was able to grasp the five zones with adjacent arctic zones.
The Venerable monk Bede (673-735) taught that the world was round as did Bishop Virgilius of Slazburg (720-784), Hildegard of Bengin (1098-1179), and Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), and all four became saints.
“Sphere” is the title of a popular medieval text book of astronomy written by Scholastic John Sacrobosco (1200-1256). And if that was too late, then there is ‘Ptolemy’s Almagest’ which was the most common textbook on astronomy used all throughout the middle ages, (It discusses the earths spherity, watch the video at the bottom of this page). It is obvious then that any well trained monk or Bishop would have known these things.
And just to be sure, in the very century of Columbus’ journey, Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly (1350-1420) noted, “although there are mountains and valley’s on the earth, for which it is not perfectly round, is approximates very nearly roundness.”
“as for the “sundry wise men of Spain” who challenged Columbus and advised against funding him, they not only knew the earth was round; they also knew that it was far larger then Columbus thought it was. They opposed his plan only on the grounds that he had badly underestimated the circumference of the earth and was counting on a much to short a voyage… in modern measures, Columbus claimed it was about 2,800 miles from the Canary Islands to Japan, when it is actually about 14,000 miles. Had the Western Hemisphere not existed, and Columbus had no knowledge that it did, he and his crew would have died at sea.” -Sociologist Rodney Stark
Historian Jeffery Burton Russel knew that it was not religious fanatics who clung to a scriptural claim that the earth was flat. Rather that,
“nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical, and by the fifteenth century, all doubt had disappeared.”
Edward Grant, who received a “lifetime scholarly achievement” as a historian of science noted, that there is not mention of flat earth among medieval scholars, except for refuting perceptions of flatness, as did Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly.
None of Columbus’ contemporaries, including himself, his son, or Magellan, make any mention of a flat earth. Everyone knew.
The reason many still get this wrong is has a lot to do with Enlightenment and Renaissance figures like Voltaire, Gibbon, and Diderot, themselves not scientists. There writing, history, and encyclopedias became so popularly that anything else became buried under the amount of histories re-written using Enlightenment sources.
Philosophers of science from the modern period as well as our own contemporaries, such as; A.D. White, Thomas Hobbes, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins, continue making false claims, stirring the pot of religion versus science. A historical myth has created become a culture war where it is completely unnecessary.
Just as the myth of the “dark ages” was propounded by Enlightenment figures seeking to validate their own era as one of intellectual freedom, ans superiority. There was a self-congratulatory claim to science.
Rodeny Stark outlines a list of the 52 scientific stars of the 14-15th Century.
Out of 52 scientific hero’s in physics, astronomy, mathematics, biology/physiology, 61% were considered devout, 34% conventionally religious, and 3% skeptic. Again, this was the 14th-15th century. A time when intellectual freedom was allowed, yet many remained devout, or nominal, whether Catholic or Protestant.
One such hero, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) much like Columbus has been a story in which many have set out to prove the constant battle with religion and science. In most histories Galileo is persecuted for his science by the Catholic church. Maybe an other time I could expound upon the weak historical outlook on the life of Galileo. In short he is a hero of faith, and reason, -theology, and science. He was also arrogant, and antagonistic towards a friend who happened to be the Pope Urban III. He was imprisoned, but his work was eventually recognized and reconciled with faith and scripture.
There was no battle between faith and science in the middle ages. It was loving union, in which there is bound to be a bit of tension. But it was out of the Christian faith that me were inspired to look to the heavens and begin to grasp Gods Handiwork.
Where most scientist got in trouble was when they overstepped their bounds, and challenged fundamental Christian doctrine not in connection with any new evidence. Sir Isaac Newton got in trouble for trying to rearrange the trinity. But he was a brilliant physicist who believed he had proved that behind all things in existence is an intelligent, aware, Omnipotent God.
Not only did medieval scholars and clergy believe in a spherical earth, science was not at odds with religion. In fact Christianity had an essential theological climate that gave rise to the sciences. Science was birthed out of monasteries and christian universities, and at times held in check with theology but science has aided theology as well.
Science developed in Europe because of widespread “faith in the possibility of science… derivative from medieval theology.” Alfred North Whitehead a philosopher and mathematician spoke this in 1925 to Harvard intellectuals, they were shocked, so were the many who read his papers on the subject. World famous author (Whitehead), who co-authored with Bertrand Russel are not somehow missing the point.
“The chief aim of all investigation of the external world should be to discover the rational order, and harmony imposed on it by God and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” – Johannes Kepler
Robert Boyle likewise, in writing to the Royal Society of London, wish success in “their laudable attempts to discover the Nature and Works of God”.
In conclusion it is at times said, that Greek and Roman culture is responsible for the rise of science, or that China started it, or that it was the Muslims who translated the works of Greek thinkers. In reality Greeks did astrology, and philosophy, and some of it was quite good. Thought it did not amount to science. So then to say, simply translating the works of Greek thinkers brought about science is false as well. (Also Latin speaking Europe translated the work of Ptolemy, Euclid, Aristotle, and Plato as well). Muslim scholars have often held that efforts to formulate natural laws are blasphemy in that they would seem to deny Allah’s freedom to act. Though the Chinese had many inventions, potential for science was always cut short of it in the same way it was cut short in the Roman world. There was an inevitable lack of belief in the possibility science. Christianity does not need all the credit, and I have not sought to give all credit for science to Christianity. But it is the only culture in which astrology lead to astronomy, or alchemy lead to chemistry.
The Christian Middle Ages of Europe is the place where Science became Science, very few believed in a flat earth, and scientist were not persecuted for their work. Rather than ignorance, faith and reason prevailed, and Europe made progressive strides separating itself intellectually from the rest of the pack.
C.S. Lewis was one of the most well read of all of his colleagues at Oxford on medieval times. Here is a nicely put together video with voice over from one of his papers on the subject. Enjoy.