Historical Myths Part 2/∞: Christianity Kept Europe in the Dark Ages

Chances are you’ve probably seen something like this before:

The argument goes something like this: Christianity is anti-science since it places blind faith over reason (Exhibit A: the Galileo affair) and the Medieval Catholic Church suppressed scientists out of fear that their discoveries might contradict holy scripture. This is why the Roman Empire collapsed after it became Christian, which led to drastic scientific regression, followed by a millenium of darkness before people in the Renaissance finally overcame religious dogma and regained the knowledge of the classical world, which led the way for science to take off with the Englightenment.

Even if you know nothing about history, this graph should be highly suspicious. How exactly do you measure scientific advancement? And why would there be some sort of universal level of scientific advancement? Even today there are still a handful of primitive hunter-gatherer societies, whose level of development is certainly much lower than that of European societies during the “Christian Dark Ages”.

So whose scientific advancement are we measuring here? Europe’s? Then why is Egypt included here? Also a large part of the Greco-Roman world was outside of Europe. Whatever society is most advanced? Then the creator of this meme would be shooting himself in the foot by claiming that Medieval Europe was most advanced. However you slice it, this graph doesn’t seem to make sense.

So many problems, and I haven’t even started talking about history yet! According to this graph, science was far more advanced in 400 than in 1500. Here are a few of the technologies which were used in Europe in 1500 but not in 400: the three-field system, the horse collar, the stirrup, gunpowder weapons, paper, mechanical clocks, the compass, and sailing ships capable of crossing an ocean. What about the other way around? Hardly anything. Although there is certainly a number of ancient technologies and much ancient knowledge that was lost to the European world after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, almost all of that had long been recovered by 1500. By any reasonable measure of scientific or technological development, Europe in 1500 was miles ahead of Europe in 400.

It must be admitted that during much of the Middle Ages, Europe lagged behind some other civilizations, notably China. However, the blame for Europe falling behind can hardly be laid at the feet of Christianity. After the fall of Rome in the West, it was almost exclusively churchmen who preserved what they could of the classical world. When science and learning began to flourish again in Europe somewhere around the year 1000, it was the Church which led the way and for many centuries the Church was the primary patron of the sciences.

From an atheist position one might bemoan the fact that the Church used its hegemony over education and learning to promote theology over secular fields, but the fact remains that without the Church, the “Dark Ages” would have been a lot darker. In the darkest parts of the Middle Ages from about 500 to 800, hardly anyone who wasn’t a cleric could even read or write. Almost all the written records we have of that period were recorded in monasteries. And without the efforts of the Church, many more classical texts would be forever lost.

But wait, I hear you say, what about Galileo? Isn’t that a clear-cut case of the Church suppressing scientific truth out of religious zealotry? First of all, the Galileo affair took place in the 17th century, so can hardly be made responsible for a lack of scientific progress in the Middle Ages. Secondly, the Catholic Church declaring scientific theories to be heretical is highly unusual and not typical of the Church’s actions during the Middle Ages or any other time period. Note that Copernicus was free to publish his heliocentric theory during the 16th century without any condemnation from the Church.

The Catholic Church certainly does not cut a good figure in the Galileo affair and the actions of the Inquisition – declaring heliocentrism heretical in 1616 and sentencing Galileo to indefinite house arrest in 1642 for continuing to promote heliocentrism – were certainly reprehensible. However, this is not a simple case of scripture trumping science. The reason the relevant Church officials believed in geocentrism was not that they were blinded by religious faith, but that the balance of scientific evidence available at the time went against heliocentrism.

To give you a taste of the scientific controversy at the time, let me present you one of the chief arguments against heliocentrism, most notably advanced by the famous 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, the lack of observable stellar parallax.

Parallax is the visual phenomenon of objects appearing at different angles from one another depending on your viewpoint. The following image taken from the Wikipedia Commons illustrates this:

Depending on where you stand, the object appears against a different background. This everyday phenomenon should of course also be applicable to stellar objects. See if you can spot the error in the following argument with the benefit of hindsight:

  1. If the Earth orbits the Sun, we should be able to observe stellar parallax.
  2. With the best equipment available at the time, we are unable to observe stellar parallax.
  3. If 1. and 2. are true, this must mean that the parallax is very small, which implies that the distances between the Earth and the stars are so enormously large as to make the distance of Earth’s orbit insignificant in comparison.
  4. If we know the distance of a star, we can use its angular diameter (i.e. how large it appears on our field of vision) to calculate its actual size, just like we can do for terrestrial objects.
  5. Using the distances from 3. and the method from 4., we determine that all the stars would be much larger than the Sun.
  6. This seems highly unlikely, so the assumption that the Earth orbits the Sun is most likely false.

Were you able to spot the mistake? Stellar parallax does indeed exist, and due to the distances involced, is so tiny that it was first successfully measured as late as 1838 by the German astronomer Friedrich Bessel. Today we also know that while our Sun is a rather small star, it certainly isn’t much smaller than all the other stars. The problem actually lies with number four. While the process described here works just fine for terrestrial objects, it doesn’t work for stars since, as we now know, stars appear much larger to us than their actual angular diameter because of the Earth’s atmosphere and because of diffraction.

Tycho Brahe’s argument, although ultimately wrong, was highly sophisticated and could not adequately be rebutted with the knowledge available in the 16th and 17th century. The Copernicans who took on this argument actually invoked religion to try to explain away this embarrassing problem: God can make the stars as huge and as distant as he pleases.

Ultimately, the Galileo affair is an aberration. For most of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age, the Catholic Church was a great champion and benefactor of learning and science. While there are many legitimate criticisms to be made of the Church, the idea that they retarded scientific progress or plunged Europe into a millenium of darkness is absurd on even a cursory examination of the historical evidence.

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