Through the European history, there were numerous cases of the clashes between religion and science. The names of Giordano Bruno and Galileo are commonly associated with the fight against scientific development and new theories. The Middle Ages have somehow hindered the development of new theories in science, but the Counter-Reformation period in Europe is, in fact, the time associated with the greatest level of ostracism in the European history. This study is focused on the development of science in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It will provide a critical analysis of the role of religion in scientific development and make a conclusion if the impact of Christianity has actually been a dramatic one.
The first thing one should do is to define the historical circumstances in which the scientists of the 16th and 17th centuries have lived. On the one hand, it was the time of Renaissance. Great minds have gained new inspiration from the works of Ancient artists and philosophers. Art, science, and philosophy were on the peak of development. At the same time, Humanism was developed as one of the basic ideas of the Renaissance period. Together with a number of other factors the ideas of Humanism have led to the Protestant Reformation that consequently led to a response from the Roman Catholic Church.
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Counter-Reformation that started in the second half of the sixteenth century was a reaction to the weakening Catholic religion. Thus, the papacy wanted to renew her strength and used very strict methods to gain the power back. Church began a mass intrusion in all spheres of social life. All the ideas of Renaissance and Reformation were considered dangerous and were severely punished (Shea 116). Consequently, by the end of the sixteenth century the Catholic Church has regained its’ power and became even more influential. Its’ influence extended to all spheres of life, “it reached beyond the religious realm to ethics, politics, philosophy, art, and even manners and customs”(Shea 117). After having regained the power, the greatest fear of the pope was losing it again, and the papacy did everything in order to keep everything under control.
Many famous scientists have lived in times of Counter-Reformation and have suffered from the orthodox views of the church. The main attacks on artists and scientists were conducted in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Many literary, scientific and philosophical works were condemned, and people were made to abandon their ideas. Moreover, physical abuse and imprisonment were common methods used for persuasion. For example, Tommaso Campanella, Giordano Bruno, and Francesco Pucci were put to jail for their ideas (Shea 117). The latter two were executed by burning at the stake.
Many scientists and philosophers have suffered from the negative influence of the Catholic Church, but, at the same time, it is essential to note that many scientific breakthroughs were made by clerics. The famous Nicholas Copernicus, whose theories were actively discussed in the seventeenth centuries, was not just a devoted Catholic, but he was even a priest (Galileo, “Letter” 178). His work was initiated by the Bishop of Fossombrone and published with the support of the Catholic Church. At the times of Copernicus, his works on the movement of planets and the ideas of heliocentrism received no objections from the Church and his teachings were commonly approved. Galileo later developed and justified the theory of Copernicus. Although as well as his predecessor, Galileo was a Catholic and had a great respect for the Church. Neither of scientists has tried to go against the Scripture. On the contrary, both were using pieces from the Holy Texts in their works. Therefore, it is unfair to say that religion has always been presented in opposition to science.
The major scientific debate, which involved both Copernicus and Galileo, focused on the structure of the universe and astronomic theories. The Catholic Church strongly supported the Aristotelian idea that the earth is located in the middle of the universe and heavens are turning around it. Nevertheless, the new generation of scientists believed that it would be more reasonable to have the earth moving instead of the rotation of the whole universe around one planet (Shea 118). Galileo strongly believed that for the nature it would not be rational “to make an immense number of extremely large bodies move…to achieve what could have been done by a moderate movement of one single body” (“Dialogue” 117).
According to common knowledge, Galileo was condemned for his heliocentric ideas. Conversely, this was not the main reason because previously Copernicus has introduced the same theory and it received no objections from the Catholic Church. The changed political situation and strict and orthodox papal control led to the review of the Copernican theory. As a result, there were four main ideas of the Galilean theory that put the scientist in danger: the possibility of life on other planets, the location of hell, anthropocentric purpose of creation, and Christ’s ascension (Shea 124). These four issues might sound strange for a modern person, but they were of great importance to the religious people of the seventeenth century. From Galilean theory about the motion of earth and sun being in the center theologians made four conclusions. Firstly, as Galileo saw a similarity between earth and moon someone might assume that the moon is as inhabited as the earth. Secondly, the move of the earth would have made Christ’s ascension quite impossible. Thirdly, if the hell were perceived to be in the center of the earth because this place was the most remote one from Heaven then in case of the sun being in the center of everything hell had to be in another place. And lastly, understanding that there are other planets revolving about the sun would never correlate with the idea of mankind’s uniqueness (Shea 125). Therefore, the Catholic Church thought that Galileo’s work goes against Scriptures and thus is a dangerous piece of literature. The conclusion is that Galileo’s condemnation was based on the assumptions made from his work and on a number of political circumstances (Shea 132).
Galileo relied on the Copernicus’ treatment of the relations between science and the Holy Bible. Neither of the scientists tried to contradict the Scripture. Though, if the research presented some new information and proved the doctrines, then that would not “contradict the Scriptures when they were rightly understood” (Galileo, “Letter” 180). Moreover, Galileo has moved further and proposed a clear definition between the spheres of scientific interest and those covered in the Bible. The scientist believed that God gave people senses to study everything that is available for human understanding while the Scriptures were given to explain everything that was above the mental abilities of a person (Shea 126). In the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina Galileo provides another argument of his respect for the Holy Texts. The scientist states that people have a right to study and discuss the ways in which Nature operates because none of this information was mentioned in the Scripture. Galileo believes that the Holy Spirit purposefully avoided this knowledge because it was unnecessary for the achievement of salvation as the highest goal of people (Galileo, “Letter” 185). Therefore, people have a right to doubt existing theories.
One could note that so far this study was focused only on one part of Christianity – the Catholic Church while at the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were at least two other Christian Churches: the Protestant and the Anglican. These two present a visible contrast to the actions of the pope and the Catholic Church. Protestants and Anglicans were much more supportive of scientific developments and have even provided assistance to many scientists who have suffered from the oppression of the papacy. For example, Galileo’s last work the Two New Sciences was illegally transferred to the Netherlands and published there (Shea 132). Hence, it would be unfair to state that all Christian religions have hindered the development of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Thanks to the freedoms provided by the Protestant and Anglican churches, scientists had a lot of possibilities for their work and studies. As a result, the seventeenth century became a time of scientific explorations and research. Though researchers used the works of Ancient philosophers as a background for their studies, there was a huge difference in methods. Instead of philosophical assumptions of Ancient philosophers the scientists of the seventeenth century used practice and experiments. This was the time of first written-up experiment created by Robert Boyle (Vickers 45). An entirely new sphere of literature provided strict and concise descriptions of experiments and their possible conclusions. This form of literary work avoided the use of literary elements and vivid descriptions. The written-up experiments of Boyle became the first examples of modern scientific papers. At the same time, it is essential to note that despite all the practical knowledge and empirical approach Robert Boyle, as well as other scientists of the century remained a religious person (Vickers 47).
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries religion played a significant role in the life of people. Despite the secularization of states, it was the time of active involvement of the Catholic Church in the social affairs of the society. The Church tried to control such spheres as art, science, and philosophy, which has resulted in mass condemnations, imprisonments, and even executions of cultural and scientific elite. At the same time, the Protestant and Anglican states provided much more freedoms for scientific research. Therefore, it would not be reasonable to conclude that Christianity as a whole created obstacles on the way of scientific development. It was rather a period in the development of the Catholic Church. In no case, it should be assumed that Christianity as a religion hindered the process of scientific progress.