A Brief History
On October 27, 1553, a Spanish scientist versed in many disciplines, Michael Servetus, was burned at the stake for heresy. The first researcher to correctly identify pulmonary circulation as the aeration of the blood through the lungs, his mind was a valuable tool for the Renaissance world that was snuffed out because of religious bigotry, a problem history has seen again and again over the years. Does religion continue to suppress the advance of science? Are religion and science incompatible? Today we look at some of the ways religion and science have crossed swords over the years, including some of controversies that remain today between people of science and people of faith.
Michael Servetus, born in The Kingdom of Aragon (modern Spain) around 1511, was an educated man capable of reading Greek and Latin and was an academic of note, studying an incredible array of subjects, including theology and the Bible, mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, medicine and anatomy, pharmacology, cartography and even poetry. His greatest expertise lay in the field of medicine and anatomy. Servetus ran afoul of the Catholic Church with his writings denouncing the idea of the Holy Trinity. On the other hand, the Catholic Church ran afoul of Servetus by layering luxury and riches on the Pope and his Cardinals, something Servetus found distasteful. Servetus became enamored of the Protestant Reformation, with Calvinism in particular, and had to flee from France, where he was working as a physician, to Geneva on his way to Italy where he thought he could find refuge. Meanwhile, the deep thinkers in France burned books written by Servetus, as book burning is a hallmark of idiots that try to suppress the human advance of knowledge and thoughts. Part of the ideas that Servetus espoused that got him into trouble with the Catholic Church was his questioning of pre-destination. Servetus thought the idea that some great master plan of God’s pre-ordained whether or not a person’s soul was fated to either Heaven or Hell was in conflict with what Servetus thought of as free will. (The incompatibility of free will vs. God’s Plan continues to result in fierce religious debate today.) Servetus made the blunder of attending a service by Calvin himself in Geneva and was arrested after the service. With French Inquisitors demanding extradition, Calvin was under pressure to defend his own Christian orthodoxy, and Calvin in turn denounced Servetus who was convicted of Nontrinitarianism (including being against the baptism of infants) and some sort of accusation about being a homosexual. Servetus defended himself against the sexual charge by pointing out that he suffered from a serious inguinal hernia that precluded him from having sex. Servetus was of course convicted and the murderous mob involved had a problem. In Geneva the penalty for a foreigner being convicted of blasphemy or heresy was banishment. Numerous religious figures were consulted, even Martin Luther himself, and it was decided to have Michael Servetus burned anyway, and atop a pyre of his own books for good measure. Thus, at the age of 42 (about), the life of one of the great minds of the 16th Century was lost because of religious persecution.
Religion has also impeded the advance of medicine and the study of anatomy by making the study of cadavers taboo. Medical researchers routinely had to rely on stolen corpses to conduct detailed dissections to study human anatomy. One can only speculate about the delay caused by religion in learning about human anatomy and functions. Early healers were often accused as witches and were persecuted, even killed, delaying the exploitation of their findings and expansion on their knowledge. Even today, the debate about stem cell research is largely a religious argument against harvesting stem cells for the research. While adult stem cells are freely used for research and treatment, it is the embryonic stem cells that generate religious opposition. At stake is the possibility of using embryonic stem cell treatment to cure paralysis, blindness, and other currently incurable medical situations.
A much discussed area of science that was stifled by religion for many years was the understanding of the Earth’s place in the cosmos. First Copernicus (Nikolai Kopernik) and then Galileo had to hide their true findings and beliefs about the solar system being Heliocentric (the planets revolve around the sun) instead of Geocentric (the sun and other planets revolve around the Earth), Copernicus remained quiet until he was already dead and Galileo was forced to recant and live in isolation for his heresy. The Catholic Church did not allow the distribution and reading of scientific heliocentric texts until 1822, 2 centuries after Copernicus proved the model of the solar system and Galileo spread the word.
Blaming God for various events also stifles scientific examination of the causes and effects of human and natural actions. Pat Robertson, a television preacher of some note, famously claimed the earthquake in Haiti (2010, 160,000 to 316,000 killed) was retribution from God for the Haitians getting their independence from France (1791) through a deal with the Devil. This sort of buffoonery is akin to blaming Hurricane Katrina on the lifestyle of the people of New Orleans, which is supposedly un-Godlike somehow. It took real science to figure out that putting lightning rods on buildings prevented the destruction of the buildings during thunderstorms, not merely accepting that Zeus was throwing lightning bolts to punish people.
A major controversy that continues today between religion and science is faith healing and the belief that using modern medicine is somehow cheating God out of the opportunity to decide if someone lives or dies. All sorts of lawsuits and criminal cases have been filed in the United States, where people expect their right to religious freedom to be unfettered by other people’s beliefs and judgments. Many a snake handler has died after being bitten by a venomous snake and refusing medical care, and the subject of minor children that have their parents decide to avoid modern treatment for completely treatable conditions resulting in the death of the child is sure to raise a heated argument.
The creationist side of how the Earth and human beings came about has stifled scientific inquiry into those subjects, stifled by those that insist the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that people co-existed with dinosaurs. The science of evolution is often a main target of creationists that would prevent the teaching of evolution in our schools if they could. Climate change and other environmental factors also come into play when the science is limited by rigid creationism.
Another ridiculous limiting factor on science courtesy of religion is the condemnation of science developed by a scientist from a faith other people do not believe in. Albert Einstein, possibly the smartest man in the world at the time, had to flee Europe to avoid persecution for being Jewish. Almost as bad as if the anti-Semites had known he was really an atheist! (Speaking of which, the late Stephen Hawking revealed in writings after his death that he too was an atheist, as are a great many of today’s and yesterday’s scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Bill Nye the Science Guy, George Crile, Edmund Halley, Alfred Nobel, Carl Sagan, Richard Leakey, Erns Mach, Linus Pauling, Ivan Pavlov, Niels Bohr, Pierre and Marie Curie and many, many others. Would we refuse the discoveries of these scientists or their teachings because of religion? Some people would! The work of Sigmund Freud was largely condemned by anti-Semites because of Freud’s Jewishness (probably atheism), and yet Freud is the Father of Psychoanalysis. His books were burned in 1930’s Germany along with those of other Jewish scientists and thinkers. Scientists of the atheistic point of view often condemn religion for causing people to take at face value mythical explanations for natural occurrences and phenomena instead of piquing the imagination of smart people to investigate and figure things out. These atheists bluntly accuse religion of keeping people stupid but happy at the expense of expanding the volume of human knowledge.
Obviously, we believe that religion is at least sometimes an impediment to scientific learning and research. Just how bad the problem is escapes us, so perhaps our readers can help shed some light on the depth or non-depth as it may be of the “problem.” Please share instances you believe religion has stifles science, or if you are of the opinion that religion in no way is a limiting factor on science, please explain to the rest of our readers why it is not.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should creationism be taught in public schools alongside or instead of evolution? Carl Sagan once said there are at least 100 billion galaxies of 100 billion stars each (based on observations from Earth). Do you believe him? (A 2010 study estimated a minimum of 300 sextillion stars in the known Universe!) Does science undermine religion? Does religion undermine science? Are the 2 compatible? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Ecklund, Elaine Howard. Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Ecklund, Elaine Howard and Chrisopher Scheitle. Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Fuller, Steve. Science vs. Religion: Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution. Polity, 2013.
The featured image in this article, an engraving by Christian Fritzsch (1695–1769) of Miguel Servet, Miguel de Villanueva (1511 – 1553) from circa 1740, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.