Medieval Myths of Religion & Science

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“When Columbus lived, people thought the earth was flat.” That was supposedly what everyone believed during the Middle Ages and what the brave Columbus disproved by sailing west from Spain to get to the East Indies. As the legend goes, Columbus was one of the few who believed the earth was round. The trailer for the 1992 Ridley Scott film, 1492: Conquest of Paradise,” illustrates the common belief that in a time of “rigid faith and restless doubt”, Columbus challenged the forces of fear and ignorance. Except it seems that saying the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat, is itself mythical.

Yet this myth has been a “truth” taught to American school children for over 100 years. Emma Miller Bolenius, who wrote several schoolbooks for American children, wrote the above quote in a 1919 text. She said people in Medieval times believed the Atlantic Ocean was full of monsters and fearful waterfalls that their ships would plunge over and be destroyed. “Columbus had to fight these foolish beliefs to get men to sail with him. He felt sure the earth was round.” In reality, it was a biography of Columbus by Washington Irving, the American author of the famous short stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” who first introduced this idea to the world.

The Middle Ages was supposed to have been a time of ignorance and backwardness. People in these so-called “Dark Ages” were thought to be so ignorant (or deceived by Catholic priests) that they believed the earth was flat. To say something today is “medieval,” is to slur it as backward or ignorant. Belief in a flat earth is equated with willful ignorance, while an understanding that the earth was spherical, as with Columbus, was a sign of the beginning of modernity. This is an almost an axiomatic view that many people today take for granted.

But in her essay on the belief “That Medieval Christians Taught that the Earth Was Flat,” Lesley Cormack said that early church fathers such as Augustine (d. 420), Jerome (d. 420) and Ambrose (d. 420) all agreed that the earth was a sphere. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), Roger Bacon (d. 1294) and Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) also believed in a round, spherical earth. She said: “From the seventh century to the fourteenth, every important medieval thinker concerned about the natural world stated more or less explicitly that the world was a round globe.” Many of these even incorporated Ptolemy’s astronomy and Aristotle’s physics into their work.

Cormack said that in the nineteenth century, scholars who were interested in “promoting a new scientific and rational view of the world.” They claimed that medieval churchman suppressed the belief of the ancient Greeks and Romans that the world was round. One of these individuals was the American historian and scientist John William Draper, who believed that Columbus ushered in modernity by proving the earth was round.

Cormack began her essay with a quote from Draper’s 1874 book History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. In chapter six of his book, Draper said the traditions and policy of Roman Catholic Church “forbade it to admit any other than the flat figure of the earth.” The belief in a flat earth continued until “the question of the shape of the earth was finally settled by three sailors, Columbus, De Gama, and, above all, by Ferdinand Magellan.”

In the Introduction to Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, Ronald Numbers pointed out how Draper focused much of his condemnation upon the Roman Catholic Church partly because it then composed the majority of Christendom, partly because its demands were the most pompous, and partly because it sought to enforce those demands by civil power. But there was a more personal reason that seems to have influenced Draper in his prejudicial view of the history of the Roman Catholic Church and scientific progress. Draper never mentioned it publically, and it only came to light after his death.

Drawing from a biography of Draper by Donald Fleming, John William Draper and the Religion of Science, Numbers related a conflict that arose between Draper and his sister Elizabeth, who had converted to Catholicism. For a time, she lived with the Drapers. When her eight-year-old nephew William, one of the Draper’s children, was dying, she hid one of his favorite books, a Protestant devotional, “which he cried for.” After William’s death, she laid the devotional on Draper’s breakfast plate. “He met this cool challenge by ordering her out of the house.” He never forgave her. Numbers concluded Draper blamed the Vatican “for her unChristian and dogmatic behavior.”

Another often repeated medieval myth is that the church of the Middle Ages prohibited human dissection. As Katherine Park related, the myth “That the Medieval Church Prohibited Human Dissection” had its classic statement in another nineteenth century church and science polemic by Andrew Dickinson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White said a serious stumbling block to the beginnings of modern medicine and surgery was a belief in “the unlawfulness of meddling with the bodies of the dead.” He said Augustine held anatomy in abhorrence, while it seems Augustine actually had a more nuanced opinion.

In The City of God Augustine discussed “The Blessings with Which the Creator has filled this life.” After discussing the blessing of the mind, by which the human soul becomes capable of knowledge and receiving instruction, he turned to the gift of the body. Augustine said while every part of the body had been created for utility, they also contributed something to its beauty. Reflecting then current medical knowledge, he said this would be all the more apparent if we could see beyond the surface. No one, Augustine thought, could discover that beauty and utility. “For as to what is covered up and hidden from our view, the intricate web of veins and nerves, the vital parts of all that lies under the skin, no one can discover it.”

Anatomists, who dissect bodies of the dead, and sometimes sick persons who die under their knives (surgery?) have “inhumanly pried into the secrets of the human body.” It seems Augustine objected to those who disregarded that the human body was part of the image of God in their pursuit of knowledge, treating it like the body of a beast. He questioned the wisdom of seeking to discover the utility of parts of the body like the web of veins and nerves, which he thought could never be done. He abhorred dissection when it treated the human body like that of an animal, disregarding its intimate connection to the soul in the image of God. Katherine Park suggested another possibility here: Augustine saw the fascination with dismembering corpses as an unhealthy curiosity about matters irrelevant to salvation.

In chapter nine where White discussed “The Scientific Struggle for Anatomy,” he acknowledged that there were pockets of medical science where dissection was permitted, particularly at the greater universities “which had become somewhat emancipated from ecclesiastical control.” White singled out Andreas Vesalius, often referred to as the father of modern human anatomy, as a particular hero in this war between science and religion. White said Vesalius was charged with dissecting a living man and directed by the Inquisition to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, “as the great majority of authors assert,” to atone for his sin of doing such a dissection. He was shipwrecked and died on his return.

Modern biographers dismiss this as a myth; Vesalius was not on pilgrimage due to pressures of the Inquisition. The story originated with Hubert Lambert, a diplomat under Emperor Charles V and then under the Prince of Orange. Lambert claimed in 1565 that Vesalius had performed an autopsy on an aristocrat in Spain while the heart was still beating, which led to the Inquisition’s condemning him to death. Philip II had the sentence commuted to a pilgrimage. “The story re-surfaced several times over the next few years, living on until recent times.” See the Wikipedia entry on Andraes Vesalius for more information.

Park said human dissection was not practiced with any regularity before the end of the thirteenth century “in either pagan, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim cultures.” Greek and Roman avoidance of dissection seems to be due to the belief that corpses were ritually unclean. While early Christian culture rejected the idea of corpse pollution and did not prohibit its practice in the early Middle Ages, “there is no evidence for its practice.”  The above-discussed disapproval by Augustine may have played a role, but it was also influenced by the generally undeveloped state of medical learning “after the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century.”

The myth of the medieval church prohibiting human dissection is as strong now as when it was first invented by John Dickinson White. The late U.S. Senator, Arlen Spector, referred to it as he spoke in favor of S. 2754, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2006. He cited a 1299 papal bull by Pope Boniface VII, wrongly saying it had banned the practice of cadaver dissection. “This stopped the practice for over 300 years and greatly slowed the accumulation of education regarding human anatomy.”

It seems that Mondino de’ Liuzzi didn’t get the memo, because he produced the first known anatomy textbook based on human dissection in 1316. It remained “a staple of university medical instruction through the early sixteenth century.” Dissection was confined to Italian universities and colleges for a time. But by the late fifteenth century it had spread to northern Europe, “and by the sixteenth century it was widely performed in universities and medical colleges in both Catholic and Protestant areas.”

The essays by Leslie Cormack and Katharine Park can be found in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, edited by Ronald Numbers.


Agenda from a Dead Past

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I first became aware of John William Draper and Andrew Dickinson White from reading Alister McGrath’s book, Science & Religion soon after it was published in 1999. McGrath said they played an instrumental role in establishing the commonly held view that there was a conflict or war between science and religion. Two significant books, one by each, played central roles in the development of this false dichotomy. Draper’s 1874 book was titled: History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, and White’s 1896 book was: History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Intriguingly, McGrath observed that this conflict model appears to have emerged from the rise of the “professional scientist” in Western culture.

Within nineteenth century English society there was a growing sense of competition between the two social groups: clergy and scientific professionals. “The clergy were widely regarded as an elite at the beginning of the century, with the ‘scientific parson’ a well-established social stereotype.” An emerging professional group of scientists sought to displace the entrenched position of the clergy. By the end of the 19th century, clergy were portrayed as enemies of science and social and intellectual progress. “As a result, there was much sympathy for a model of the interaction of the sciences and religion which portrayed religion and its representatives in uncomplimentary terms.”

Timothy Larsen observed in his essay “War is Over, if You Want It: Beyond the Conflict between Faith and Science,” that in the mid-nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a scientific profession. There were “men of science” just there were “men of letters,” referring more to the pursuits of gentlemen of leisure rather than what someone did for a living. In order to hold a teaching position at Oxford or Cambridge for much of the nineteenth century you had to be ordained within the Church of England. The biologist Thomas Huxley, famous as a champion of Darwinism, could not become a university professor at either Oxford or Cambridge because of his agnosticism.

Huxley and others who aspired to turn scientific pursuits into a profession, therefore, “needed” a war between science and religion. The purpose of the war was to discredit clergymen as suitable figures to undertake scientific work in order that the new breed of professionals would have an opportunity to fill in the gap for such work created by eliminating the current men of science. It was thus tendentiously asserted that the religious convictions of clergymen disqualified them from pursuing their scientific inquiries objectively.

One of the first encounters between Huxley and the English clergy was the so-called Huxley-Wilberforce debate. John William Draper was one of the scheduled speakers for the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The organizers had to move his talk to a larger room, as they were expecting a crowd of over 500. The crowd was not really there to hear Draper, but because of the rumor that Bishop Wilberforce planned to use the occasion to critique Darwin’s recently published book, On the Origin of the Species. It was during the time for comments after Draper’s lecture that the infamous exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce occurred. While Draper’s long and reportedly boring lecture has become a historical footnote to that occasion, the importance of the moment was not lost on Draper himself.

Draper was an English-American scientist, philosopher, physician, chemist, historian and photographer. He was the first person to produce a clear photograph of a woman and the first one to compose a detailed photo of the moon in 1840. He has several important scientific discoveries to his credit and was a professor of chemistry and the president of New York University at the time of his lecture before the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

His 1860 lecture, “On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others, that the progression of organisms is determined by law,” preceded his 1862 book, The History of the Intellectual Development of Europe. He also wrote a three-volume history of the American Civil War, and famously, History of Conflict Between Religion and Science in 1874. The conflict thesis between religion and science takes its name from Draper’s book, which rejected the idea there could be harmony between religion and science. It went through fifty printings in the U.S. and was translated into ten languages. Read more about Draper here.

In his Preface, Draper said there was a great and rapidly-increasing departure from public religious faith. So widespread and powerful was this secession, that it could not be stopped. Ecclesiastical spirit no longer inspired the policy of the world. The antagonism witnessed between Religion and Science was said by Draper to be a continuation of a struggle that started when Christianity began to attain political power. Divine revelation was necessarily intolerant of contradiction; and it viewed with distain all improvement in itself that arose from “the progressive intellectual development of man.” Yet human opinions on every subject are continually liable to modification “from the irresistible advance of human knowledge.”

The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other. No one has hitherto treated the subject from this point of view. Yet from this point it presents itself to us as a living issue—in fact, as the most important of all living issues.

Darwinians claimed the gauntlet in the conflict between religion and science was first thrown at the so-called Huxley-Wilberforce “debate.” But some historians have recognized how that view was imputed onto the incident twenty to forty years after it happened by Darwin’s supporters. Draper’s book fails to mention Darwin, Huxley or Wilberforce.  But he seems to be one with Huxley in seeking to incite war or conflict between science and religion. Given his presence at the exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce and his early attempt to apply Darwin’s thought to social and political issues, it seems reasonable to see Draper’s book as one of the major “battles” of the so-called war between science and religion. See “A ‘Debate’ About Origins” for more on Huxley and Wilberforce.

John Dickinson White was the first president and a cofounder of Cornell University in 1865. According to Larsen, Cornell’s secular stance was used as a way to set it apart from the older Ivy League schools that still had mandatory chapel attendance. White said Cornell was established as an institution for advanced instruction and research where science would have an equal place with literature. He and Ezra Cornell wanted their university to be free from the “various useless trammels and vicious methods” which hampered many, if not most of the American universities and colleges at that time. They saw the sectarian character of other colleges and universities as a reason for “the poverty of advanced instruction” given in so many of them.

McGrath said many of the established denominational schools (Harvard, Yale and Princeton?) felt threatened by the new university and encouraged attacks on the new school. Both White and Cornell were accused of atheism. Angered by the accusations, White delivered a lecture in New York on December 18, 1869 entitled “The Battle Fields of Science.” An expanded version was published in 1876 as The Warfare of Science. Between 1885 and 1892, he published a series of articles in Popular Science Monthly, “New Chapters in the Warfare of Science.”  The two-volume 1896 book, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, was essentially a combination of these writings.

In his Introduction, White said while Draper saw the struggle as one between Science and Religion, he saw it as one between Science and Dogmatic Religion. While he admired Draper’s treatment of the questions involved, “More and more I saw that it was the conflict between two epochs in the evolution of human thought—the theological and the scientific.” It never entered his mind that he was doing something irreligious or unchristian by establishing Cornell as a secular institution. Far from trying to injure Christianity, he and Ezra Cornell were trying to promote it by not confounding religion and sectarianism.

McGrath observed that while perhaps White did not see religion and science as enemies, that was the impression he created by his work. “The crystallization of the ‘warfare’ metaphor in the popular mind was unquestionably catalyzed by White’s vigorously polemical writing.” For example:

In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and science, and invariably; and, on the other hand, all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed for the time to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good both of religion and science.

McGrath pointed out how the story of warfare between science and religion is alive and well within the writings of New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins as well as the Christian fundamentalists who are determined to confront secular culture wherever possible. He said this propensity towards confrontation inevitably leads to a reinforcement of a warfare model of religion and society. The natural sciences (and supremely the theory of biological evolution) are then seen “as the advance guard of the secularizing trend within society as a whole.”

In The Big Question, McGrath proposed that we move on from a narrative of a conflict between science and religion. He said that narrative is locked into the agenda of a dead past. Instead, he suggested developing a narrative of enrichment between the two—one that accepts the empirical sciences, but rejects their claim of finality. “[It] is in conflict with the scientism that has become so characteristic of the New Atheism, but it is not in conflict with science, which has always been willing to recognize its limits.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) made a series of short films available to spark discussion on several different topics related to science and religion. Here is a link to their video on the Draper-White Conflict Thesis discussed above.