From the Enlightenment until the early twentieth century, scholars generally divided history into three stages–the ancient world, regarded as brilliant though limited in its scientific understanding; the medieval world, dismissed as a time of intellectual and cultural desolation (the “dark ages”); and the modern age, heralded as a time when reason and enlightenment arose to dispel the mists of medieval superstition. But in recent years that simple schema has been challenged, particularly its negative characterization of the medieval period.
The rehabilitation of the Middle Ages began with the work of French physicist Pierre Duhem (1861- 1916).
Duhem’s work inspired other historians to probe the various ways Christianity provided an intellectual environment conducive to scientific endeavor. That such questions are even entertained indicates a dramatic turnaround in thinking about the relation between science and Christian faith. The image most of us grew up with was one of conflict and hostility. Phrases such as “the war between science and religion” are so familiar many people don’t even challenge them. Yet this conception of warfare is actually a misconception, and one of recent lineage.
Indeed, though he studied the physical creation, he was unlikely to be a scientist per se (the term “scientist” was not coined until 1834) but a churchman. Especially in the English countryside, the parson-naturalist was a common figure.
As Colin Russell tells it in his book Cross-Currents: Interactions Between Science and Faith, the idea of a war between science and religion is a relatively recent invention–one carefully nurtured by those who hope the victor in the conflict will be science. In late nineteenth century England, several small groups of scientist and scholars organized under the leadership of Thomas H. Huxley to overthrow the cultural dominance of Christianity–particularly the intellectual dominance of the Anglican church. Their goal was to secularize society, replacing the Christian worldview with scientific naturalism, a worldview that recognizes the existence of nature alone. Though secularists, they understood very well that they were replacing one religion by another, for they described their goal as the establishment of the “church scientific.” Huxley even referred to his scientific lectures as “lay sermons.”
It was during this period that a whole new literature emerged purporting to reveal the hostility religion has shown toward science throughout history. The most virulent were works by John William Draper (1811-1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918)–works regarded by most historians today as severely distorted because of the authors’ polemical purposes.
. . . It should not be surprising that Christianity was an important ally of the scientific enterprise. After all, modern science arose within a culture saturated with Christian faith. That historical fact alone is suggestive. It was Christianized Europe that became the birthplace of modern science–there and nowhere else.
(from The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy by Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton. Corssway Books, Wheaton, IL 1994.)