“My screed was meant as a protest against Theology and Parsondom in general–both of which are in my mind the natural and irreconcilable enemies of Science. Few see it but I believe we are on the eve of a new Reformation and if I have a wish to live thirty years, it is that I may see the foot of Science on the necks of her enemies.” (1859)
— Thomas Huxley
But the great atheists, indeed are hypocrites; which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling; so as they must needs be cauterized in the end… They that deny a God, destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts, by his body; and, if he be not of kin to God, by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.” (1612)
— Francis Bacon
These are harsh times for religious believers: with popular intellectuals like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker frequently decrying the harms of religion; with Harvard University’s recent appointment of an atheist as its chief chaplain; with an increasing number of millennials and Gen Z-ers turning to atheism as what they believe to be the only rational position concerning the existence of God, we have come to live in a society where communities, by and in which churches are founded, have shattered into disjointed fragments of families and individuals.
And yet we should all remember the words of Fulton Sheen, that the Church has never suited the times in which it lived, for if it suited the times it would perish with them, and not survive them. Modern atheists spurn the Church as a vestige of humanity’s superstitious past that is out of place in our enlightened age of science and reason, and therefore ought to be eradicated. They adduce Galileo’s indictment at the hands of the Inquisition for his defense of heliocentrism as proof that the Church is an anti-science establishment that stifles the truth. Yet, as Tom Holland reminds us in Dominion, Galileo never succeeded in validating heliocentrism; that honor belongs instead to the little-known 18th century English priest and astronomer, James Bradley, whom the late physicist Freeman Dyson credited as being the father of modern experimental physics. Nor was heliocentrism an ab ovo product of the European Renaissance, as Michael Bonner reminds us in his remarkable forthcoming book In Defense of Civilization, for it had not originated in the work of Copernicus, but much earlier in the work of the Persian astronomer, Tusi. It is ironic, then, that Copernicus and Galileo are often lauded as the two leading figureheads of heliocentrism when the work originated with an Islamic theologian and was validated at last by a priest.
But the works of the Islamic Golden Age had already begun making their way into Europe centuries before Tusi, as for example with the Jewish scholar Abraham bar Hiyya’s Latin translations of Arabic mathematical treatises, and it is from the work of another Iberian, Abner of Burgos (a Talmudic scholar turned Christian), that Copernicus is thought to have borrowed the idea of the “Tusi couple” essential to his theory of heliocentrism. Moreover, it did not take long after Tusi’s death for his work to arrive in the Byzantium, thanks to the Greek bishop and astronomer, Gregory Chioniades. In 1295, Bishop Gregory traveled to Tabriz (not far from the Maragheh observatory founded by Tusi some three decades earlier), where he studied for a time and collected a number of Persian and Arabic works on math and astronomy that he brought back with him to Constantinople, establishing a school of astronomy there.
Bishop Gregory was not an odd case. Avicenna, al-Baghdadi and Galileo, for example, had all come to develop their research on motion based on the work of the 6th century theologian, John Philoponus. Nor were Byzantine advances limited to the hard sciences: It was in and throughout the Byzantine Empire that hospitals first flourished — including the first charitable hospitals established to serve the poor, which soon followed in the Islamic world. Incidentally, the harshest criticism of this monumental achievement would come some 1,300 years later, in the wake of the Enlightenment, by one of its most revered figures — Charles Darwin, in his Descent of Man:
“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”
And it is a mistake to consider religion as antithetical to the scientific success of the Enlightenment, since many of the most notable scientists of the Enlightenment were in fact Christians. In mathematics and physics, so consequential were the discoveries of Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz, Leonhard Euler, Alessandro Volta, Augustin Cauchy, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, James Joule and Lord Kelvin that they still bear their names. Modern chemistry was almost wholly founded by Antoine Lavoisier (a Catholic who was beheaded in France’s atheistic Reign of Terror), Robert Boyle and John Dalton, with Lavoisier and Dalton having been preceded by Mikhail Lomonosov, who discovered the law of conservation of mass. No less influential were the discoveries of Christians in biology and medicine: Carl Linnaeus is considered as the father of modern taxonomy, Albrecht von Haller, the father of modern physiology, Louis Pasteur, the father of modern microbiology, Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, and Joseph Lister, the father of modern surgery. All these men were devout Christians; Mendel was also an abbot.
Huxley was mistaken: The enemies of science are not those who believe in God, but those who attempt to turn Him into a scientific subject; not the priests of the Church of God who, like John Wilkins, John Michell and Samuel Vince, pursued their scientific interests outside the pulpit, but the priests of the Church of Science who, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Wolfram, remain ever in their pulpits where nothing is sacred; not those who aspire to lead their own lives with humility, but those who promise to lead others with arrogance.
The atheists are right when they say that we ought to be wary of those who would make us believe that a book, and not a voice, is fundamental to religion. At the same time, however, we ought to be wary of those who would make us believe that facts are fundamental to science, and not the questions we ask and the way in which we approach them. The enemies of science and religion may be more alike than we have been led to think.