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Debunking the Mythical Conflict Between Science and Religion

Mythical Conflict

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of giving a talk at the Royal Society in London on medieval natural philosophy. During the course of my talk, I mentioned that the great conflict between science and religion is a myth. I also covered a few of the more egregious legends that feed the myth, such as the claim that medieval people thought that the Earth is flat. Afterwards, not expecting to hear anything more on the conflict myth, I took questions. But one of the first was about Roger Bacon and William of Ockham. Weren’t they examples of scientists persecuted by the Church?

That’s the strange thing about the conflict myth: much of the evidence for it is bogus. Most people are not only ignorant of the real history of science and religion, but what they think they know is actually untrue. My interrogator at the Royal Society was misinformed about Bacon and Ockham, but had accepted what he’d heard about them because it was consistent with his overall image of the medieval Church. It’s safe to say that, when properly investigated, almost none of the allegations behind the conflict myth stack up. That’s why we hear so much about the trial of Galileo. It’s the one unambiguous example of where the Church got it wrong (even if it was not the unambiguous attack on science by religion often supposed).

So I thought readers of Strange Notions might enjoy some of the weird and wonderful ways that non-believers have told me, with a straight face, that the Church held back science. I’ll also briefly debunk each of the myths just in case you hear them yourselves.  Let’s start with Roger Bacon and William of Ockham.

Roger Bacon and William of Ockham

The origin of the story that Roger Bacon was imprisoned for his scientific theories is the Chronicle of the 24 Ministers General of the Franciscans dating from about 1370, a full century after Bacon’s alleged arrest. This document claims that he was a master of theology and imprisoned for unspecified ‘suspect novelties’. If we give this account any credence, which may be unwise given we know that Bacon never qualified as a theological master, it still has nothing to do with science.

Unlike Roger Bacon, we do know that William of Ockham was investigated for heretical statements. He failed his final exams at Oxford and was sufficiently displeased to appeal the result to the Pope. The decision took so long in coming that William eventually threw in his lot with the Holy Roman Emperor, then the Pope’s arch-enemy. It’s probably true that this meant Ockhamist philosophy was not viewed sympathetically from then on. But again, the dispute had nothing to do with science.

Did the Church Ban 'Zero'?

The myth that the Catholic Church tried to ban the use of the number zero has grown more popular in recent years. The journalist Charles Seife managed to write an entire book (Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea) about how zero was banned without ever realising his central argument has no foundation in fact. The same myth was passed on in Peter Atkins' Galileo's Finger and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s 1492. It is true that, when Arabic numbers were first introduced into the West, there was no agreement over which numeral should refer to which number. To this day, our zero means five in the Middle East. As a result of this potential for confusion, Arabic numerals were banned from some official documents. This might be the origin of the legend that the Church tried to forbid zero.

Popes, Dissections, and Gold

The Church also never objected to human dissection. This is actually quite surprising. Almost all other cultures, including Islam, ancient Rome and ancient Greece, have abhorred the cutting up of cadavers. Alarmingly, though, the vivisection of prisoners was briefly permitted by the Greek rulers of Alexandria in around 250BC. De sepulcheris, a papal bull of 1300, is occasionally advanced as evidence of a ban on human dissection. However, this bull, which forbade the boiling of bodies to render flesh from the bones, was aimed at crusaders rather than anatomists. The related myth that Vesalius, author of a famous book on anatomy published in 1543, had a run-in with the Spanish Inquisition is also discounted by historians. Vesalius died while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but there is no reason to believe that this extremely devout man had not set off for Jerusalem voluntarily.

Another medieval bull, De crimine falsi of 1317, outlawed alchemists from selling their creations as real gold.  This is occasionally trotted out as meaning the Church banned chemistry. Incongruously, the pope who issued the bull, John XII, also had an alchemy treatise attributed to him.

Comets and Lightning Rods

On the subject of things popes didn’t do, we still sometimes hear the nugget that Pope Callistus III excommunicated Halley’s Comet in 1456. This would have been a silly thing to do, but thankfully it never happened. The story appears to be based on misreading a contemporary chronicle juxtapositioning the comet with an invasion by the Turks.

Andrew Dickson White, the author of A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), popularized the idea that the Church banned lightning rods. He dug up a sermon by a Boston pastor who voiced the common concern that attracting lightning (which is what the rod does, if only to dissipate it harmlessly to ground) was possibly not a good idea. In fact, once their efficacy had been proven, we find lightning conductors sprouted from churches relatively quickly. White also seems to be the source of the persistent but baseless myth that the Church resisted the use of anesthetics.

If you read the works of Carl Sagan and similar authors, you’ll note that various martyrs for science have been canonized. It is a sad fact that both Catholics and Protestants were engaged in the despicable practice of burning heretics.

But no one was ever executed for their scientific views. For a long time, people supposed that the Renaissance magus Giordano Bruno had died for his science. He was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. But we now know he was an occultist whose support for Copernicus was not based on scientific grounds. Nor was it a reason for his execution. Pretty much all his cosmological thought can be found in a book by the fifteenth-century cardinal Nicolas of Cusa. Not even the Catholic Church would burn you at the stake for repeating the published thoughts of a cardinal.

Other occultists also drew the attention of the inquisition, including seventeenth-century father and son, Jean Baptiste and Francis Mercury van Helmont. Jean Baptiste was fascinated by the weapon salve whereby a wound could be cured by applying medicine to the implement that caused the injury rather than the injury itself. The Church was concerned when he suggested that healing miracles were really caused by this sort of natural magic. In the end, both van Helmonts were released and seem to have carried on their activities much as before. While no one should condone the activities of the Inquisition, it is surprising that an institution with such a fearsome reputation should have had such a trivial effect in the long term.

Darkening the Academies?

Going back to the earliest years of the Church, there are various other stories about how the Christians suppressed pagan learning and thus ushered in the “Dark Ages”. Some of these, such as the tales told about the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, are simply untrue. The myth that Christians destroyed the library is based on a misreading of the sources by the eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon.

Other events, like the murder of Hypatia in 415AD or the closure of the school of Athens in 529AD, did take place.  However, the Neo-Platonists of Athens were teaching a mystical philosophy that had very little to do with science as we would understand it. This contrasts with the seminal work on physics being done by the Christian John Philoponus in Alexandria at the same time. That’s not to excuse the Emperor Justinian for closing the Athenian academy, it’s just that it didn’t have any effect on the decline of ancient science. Likewise, Hypatia’s death was a terrible crime, but it doesn’t mark the end of Alexandrian natural philosophy by any means. That was only finally extinguished by the Persian and Arab invasions of the seventh century.

All these instances of bogus evidence for the conflict myth don’t even form an exhaustive list. If you hear about yet more examples of how the Church held back science, do ask for a reference and see if the story stacks up. In any case, I’d like to hear about them to add to my collection.
(Image credit: Goffs)

James Hannam

Written by

James Hannam majored in physics at the University of Oxford and has a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge. His book, published as God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science in the UK and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution in the US, was shortlisted for the book prizes of the Royal Society Science Book Prize and of the British Society for the History of Science. James was received into the Catholic Church in 1999 and lives in Kent, England with his wife and two children.

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  • ladycygnus

    Thank you - although I would love more references I suppose "there is no evidence" doesn't have a reference.

  • Andre Boillot

    I would suggest that this piece should rather be titled: "Debunking the Mythical Conflict Between Science and the Catholic Church"

    I hope I won't have to spell out the ways which certain religion traditions and science are currently at odds.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      Thanks for the suggestion, Andre.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    This was an enjoyable read. Thanks!

    Sometimes an OP garners few comments through no fault of its own. This may be one.

    Since James Hannam is a philosopher of science, perhaps he'd like to weigh in on a discussion from yesterday . . .

    Josh wrote:

    It's [a] mistake of thinking that we need something 'higher' than science to justify science. But then we would need something else 'higher' than whatever justifies science to justify what justifies science, and so on ad infinitum. Rather, one should realize the folly of attempting to cleanly divide philosophy from science and put them in a hierarchy. At the end of the day, we are just thinking about how we experience reality and we are working within philosophy and within science. Philosophy of science is science, there isn't a one way dictation from one to the other.

    Some (including me) have argued that philosophy of science is a separate field of knowledge than empirical science and that empirical science depends on a philosophy of science to validate it.

    I would add, now that I think of it, that one can do empirical science quite well without thinking about its grounding, but if you do get around to considering why the science works, you need an epistemology.

  • jakael02

    All good info. I didn't know a lot of this stuff.

  • Octavo

    It does seem to be true that the church was more interested in persecuting occultists, heretics, and Jews than it was in persecuting scientists. Scientific works were still sometimes placed on the index of banned books, though political motivations may have been involved.

    Much of the conflict between science and religion had it's genesis in the early twentieth century, but it is very much alive right now.

    Anyone who believes in creationism, geocentrism, life after death, disembodied minds, resurrections, or faith healing is in conflict with scientific understanding, though the retort I'm used to hearing here is that physicalist neuroscience isn't a valid science, in the same way that young earth creationists deny that evolutionary biology is a valid science.

    Jesse Webster

    • Paul Boillot

      I would argue that geocentrism and faith healing are the wrongest of these, since not only are they unsubstantiated, there is actual science which disprove/contradict them.

      Resurrection might have happened in the past, and if it ever occurred in the future and was studied, we could know it, although to-date it is unevidenced.

      Disembodied minds, life after death, and (deistic) creationism are not simply unevidenced claims, they are unknowable.

      • Octavo

        Life after death is not an unknowable idea - rather it is a belief contrary to empirical analysis and it results from a lack of understanding. Neuroscientists can literally watch memories forming in proteins, and even affect the process: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130910142334.htm. Our souls are literally made up of tiny cellular robots. When the brain ceases to function irreparably, we cease to exist. It's an uncomfortable truth, but it is not scientifically controversial.

        • Paul Boillot


          Look, I don't disagree with you in spirit; I am a materialist, and none of this is uncomfortable. Nature is what she is.

          But if we're going to get into these topics rigorously and honestly, it's useful to be precise about what we mean; in that pursuit, allow me to disagree with you.


          Of course any/all of these are 'knowable ideas', we're talking about them, no?

          I call life after death unknowable because we have 0 data points, and we never will. There is, and will be, no empirical evidence on the topic. (Ibid creation/gods/invisible pink unicorns)

          If the mind has machinery which is partially located outside of reality, and if that part survives death (both premises on which life-after-death is often founded), we stuck here in plain old reality will never know about it.

          As to the origins of these concepts and the cultural-psychological frameworks in which they exist and propagate: I agree.

          • Octavo

            I still don't see why you think that we have 0 data points. We have a lot of knowledge about what the brain is, and how utterly dependent our experiences are on the brain. We watch people and animals die constantly, and have collected reams of data points from the same. It's true that each one of us has not died yet, but that just means that we don't know what dying feels like.

            In order to even speculate seriously about non-physical mental machinery (like the Wathans from Ringworld, for instance), we would need to show how it interacts with the matter in our brains without leaving any traces. Sean Carroll did a pretty good job of showing how physics rules this out in the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ypyVjSaj4w.

          • Paul Boillot


            You concede that we're all alive and don't know what death feels like, and then you insist that you can't understand why I say we have 0 data points about life after death. Come on now.

            I fully take Mr. Carroll's point that we have largely complete physics theories which adequately explain almost all external physical phenomena at our Dawkinsian "Middle World" scale.

            One of the things we don't have a full picture of at our scale is the interplay between outwardly observable mental states and the electrical/physical/chemical/biological system states which correlate to them, much less to their internal analogues.

            But even if we DID fully understand the biological underpinnings of subjectivity, that wouldn't rule out the supernatural. Mr. Carroll can remind us about the complete success of QFT until he's blue in the face.

            If I postulate an impossible elf that flies in the brim of a stork's hat who takes away your consciousness at the moment of death to candy-land, it will not be possible to disprove my fabrication.

            If the consciousness that I believe I have is not entirely tied to my central nervous system, there is no test we could do to prove that, at least none that I can imagine.

            I don't believe it is, I just don't think you can prove a negative. The weight of prior (non)experience, the utility of Occam's razor, the demonstrably vacuous charlatanism of so many of the purveyors of this idea to one side, we can never prove that the supernatural doesn't exist, only that it's unnecessary.

            No matter how certain Mr. Carroll, or you, is.

          • Octavo

            I am not saying I'm certain, or that I can prove a negative. I'm saying that the preponderance of the scientific evidence leans pretty strongly in the direction that life after death isn't real.

            "If I postulate an impossible elf that flies in the brim of a stork's hat
            who takes away your consciousness at the moment of death to candy-land,
            it will not be possible to disprove my fabrication."

            I agree. No amount of evidence or reasoning can banish special pleading, evidence-free speculation, or wishful thinking.


    Death is but a transition from physical mass to pure energy. I perceive that as "soul" as known in the Catholic Church. I believe that our energy will consist of dirty colors which you will clearly see at time of "death", unless you have "Washed your garments clean"...

    • David Nickol

      Death is but a transition from physical mass to pure energy.

      The seems to imply that there is some kind of fundamental difference between matter and energy, when in reality they are two sides of the same coin. Remember e = mc^2. I think it is safe to say that a spiritual soul is considered to be neither energy nor mass.

  • Steven Carr

    If a scientist takes what appears to be some bread and what appears to be some wine, and examines them in the lab, and tells us that the substance of what he examined was bread and was wine, could any theologian ever clash with him and tell him that he is wrong about what substances he had examined?

    Or would the theologian tell the scientist that science is based on the Christian worldview that people can examine bread and wine and tell what substance they are really made out of?

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      "If a scientist takes what appears to be some bread and what appears to be some wine, and examines them in the lab, and tells us that the substance of what he examined was bread and was wine, could any theologian ever clash with him and tell him that he is wrong about what substances he had examined?"

      Steven, it seems your confusing the philosophical understanding of "substance" (per Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas) with the common parlance understanding.

      Under the philosophical view, which as Dr. Feser notes is assumed by transubstantiation, a substance cannot be determined in a laboratory by empirical measurement since it is, by definition, an immaterial property.

      • Steven Carr

        Are you really wanting to go along the route of declaring that the Church understands Aristotle's idea of 'substance' to be a non-physical thing?

        Is that really the Catholic Church's teaching of what Aristotle meant by substance?

        Because you might want to think twice before declaring that in effect the Catholic Church has little grasp of philosophy.....

        To say nothing of declaring that the body and blood of Jesus were 'immaterial things'.... :-)

        From the Plato Encyclopedia of Philosophy 'The matter of which a substance is composed may exist independently of that substance (think of the wood of which a desk is composed, which existed before the desk was made and may survive the disassembly of the desk), but it is not as such any definite individual—it is just a quantity of a certain kind of matter.'

        You are now declaring that science cannot find out what physical substance *anything* is made out of.

        You can say that, but then you can't say that the ability of science to find out the fundamental particles and forces in the universe is based on a worldview which flatly denies that science can determine what physical substances things are made out of.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          Steve, you're twisting my words. I said "substance" was an immaterial property--it's what a thing *is*. That's not to say, as you accuse me of doing, that "'substance' [is[ a non-physical thing". It is not a thing.

          "a worldview which flatly denies that science can determine what physical substances things are made out of."

          Again, this is a gross distortion. I can't and won't judge whether it is intentional or accidental, but you've badly misunderstood my point.

          "What things are made of" is not what philosophers mean by "substance." You've actually confused "substance" for "accident" here.

          I highly suggest brushing up on what Aristotle, Aquinas, and modern Catholic philosophy means by these terms. A good starting point would be Dr. Edward Feser's book, simply titled Aquinas.

          • Steven Carr

            I see.

            '"What things are made of" is not what philosophers mean by "substance."'

            Well, I assume you think that was convincing.

            It isn't.

            I shall repeat the excerpt from Stanford University's explanation of Aristotle, and then leave you to read up more about the subject.

            'From the Plato Encyclopedia of Philosophy 'The matter of which a substance is composed may exist independently of that substance (think of the wood of which a desk is composed, which existed before the desk was made and may survive the disassembly of the desk), but it is not as such any definite individual—it is just a quantity of a certain kind of matter.''

            A substance is just a quantity of a certain kind of matter,

            Who should I go for?

            Stanford University, who are simply repeating common knowledge about Aristotle.

            Or you?

            Who doesn't seem to know what 'substance' means.

            By definition, a 'substance' is the physical thing that things are made out of. (Hence the word 'substantial'....)

            It is really hard to change bread into the flesh of Jesus if you deny that the substance of the flesh of Jesus is what the flesh of Jesus is made out of.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            Stephen, I think you'll find this article helpful:


          • Steven Carr

            I see that you prefer the Catholic Encyclopedia to Stanford University.

            I prefer Stanford University's knowledge to the Catholic Church's.

            If the church contradicts what every other person understands Aristotle to have been saying, so much the worse for it.

            I still don't understand why you want to claim that the substance of the blood and body of Jesus is not anything material or physical....

            However, let me look at the article you gave.

            'he principal division; however, is that between material substance (all corporeal things) '

            Your article (which I assume you did not read), says clearly and specifically 'material substance'.

            Now to get back to the point of this topic.

            How can science be based on a worldview which denies that science can find out what things are really made of? (to say nothing of Catholics who claim that the substance of Jesus body and blood is not made out of matter!)

            And why does the Catholic Church cling to a metaphysics that is outdated, and not used by scientists?

            (Apart from a well-known liking of the church for ancient relics..... :-)

          • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

            Steven, you are confused about substance, and making it more confusing as you go. I don't think you grasp what the Church teaches either.

            Let me add to what Brandon and Dr. Feser already stated because I'm studying a priest who was well-versed in Aristotelian categories, Fr. Stanley Jaki.

            Aristotle describes 10 categories in The Categories.

            "Expressions which are in no way composite signify substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, or affection." (Part 4)

            Science, the quantitative measurement of objects in motion, can say nothing about substance. You don't measure "is" or states of being on a balance.

            The substantial form of something is something that "stands under" (sub stat) the layer of existence that can be observed.

            "A substance is just a quantity of a certain kind of matter."

            No, it's not "just" that. A substance can have a material form, but it doesn't necessarily have to be material. Substance is also not quantity.

            Last, sort of an aside but you brought it up, Aristotle's writings came to the Church after they were taken from the Greeks and studied by the Muslims who barely corrected anything in Aristotle's teaching. It was Catholics who challenged the Aristotelian idea that bodies fall at different speeds depending on weight and a Catholic who proposed, against Aristotle, the idea of impetus, which led to Newton's first law. Why? Because Catholics understood that the world had a beginning and that God created a rational universe and man in the image of God so that he could understand the rational universe, a psychology neither the Greeks or the Muslims held.

            I'd say that not only does the Church have a good understanding of Aristotle, it also has a better understanding of science and reality.

          • Steven Carr

            This is all outdated metaphysics, rejected by scientists, who think that something is made up of fundamental things like charge, quarks etc.

            If science can say nothing about substance, it is because science has left behind the out-dated philosophy of the church.

            Incidentally, how can you tell that water has ever been turned into wine, when all you can see are the (ahem) 'accidents'?

            After all, in Catholic theology what looks like wine could be the same substance as water, and nobody could ever prove that water has been turned into wine :-)

          • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

            "This is all outdated metaphysics, rejected by scientists, who think that something is made up of fundamental things like charge, quarks etc."

            Got a citation? I've never heard that, it seems to be an opinion based on a poor understanding of terms.

            The scientific consideration that all matter is made up of fundamental particles in no way contradicts the category of substance. If all matter were considered nothing but its fundamental particles, I wouldn't call you a human. I'd call you a quark cloud not distinguishable from my keyboard.

            I don't know what to make of your anti-Catholic snark, except to dismiss it as your inability to argue well.

            As for water into wine, it's because Christ said "This is my body." It'd be illogical to say that Christ is the Savior of Mankind, God Incarnate, the Creator of the Universe, and then to say, "Well, he didn't know what he was talking about." It's a matter of sound reasoning about revealed religion.

            As for proof, it depends on the urging of the mind to explain things, and if someone doesn't want to be convinced, he could deny that there's proof of a rock laying right in front of him.

          • Octavo

            What reasons do you have for thinking that the concept of substance and accidents have any antecedent in reality?

            ~Jesse Webster

          • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

            Since tone doesn't come across well in writing, I'm saying this in good humor because it's nearing 5:00 on Friday.

            How do I know there's an ontological status of objects or beings? Because I don't take a drink of beer and say, "Yum, I needed that cloud of particles." Nor do I feed my dog and say, "Oh look, another cloud of particles."

            It has to do with the way we interact with the real world. We categorize. That's how I make sense of it anyway.

          • Octavo

            I appreciate the good humor. The difference I perceive between what you're saying and what Aquinas says is that he thinks that the substance can be changed without changing the accidents. Does that mean that the bread and wine now fulfill the role of the blood of christ in an abstract ritualistic sense, or does it mean that something about the bread and wine actually changes into the literal blood and body of christ?

            Does external reality change, or does our conceptualization of it change during Mass?

          • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

            No I don't mean to contradict Aquinas, only to say that we 'know' that objects and beings are substances, that's how we approach reality. To believe Transubstantiation is an act of faith. It makes sense to a person of faith because it's what Christ said, "This is my body." It is also a mystery.

            It has everything to do with God "I Am" telling us what "is".

            I realize that isn't satisfying to non-believers and I'm not sure what to say to them. All I can say is that as I converted, there was a moment when it hit me. I believed it. I knew it. It isn't unreasonable, but it's beyond reason. Without that revelation we wouldn't have come up with this dogma.

            As a former chemist though, I didn't struggle with it at all. I've never seen atoms either, but I accept that they exist because I've interacted with them and 'put faith in my understanding' of them, and found it to predict outcomes satisfactorily. It's a connection with the material world. With the Eucharist, it's far more profound than that, it's a deep love, a connection with God in a special way.

          • Octavo

            Thank you for the response. :)

  • Tim D’Annecy

    "While no one should condone the activities of the Inquisition, it is surprising that an institution with such a fearsome reputation should have had such a trivial effect in the long term."

    Are you kidding me?
    In the long term, the Inquisition had trivial effects? You should have done some research.

    • James Hannam

      Hi Tim,

      In the context of science, which is what the article is about, it's effect wasn't very great.

      Historians have had trouble finding much long term damage to science even from Galileo's trial. The damage to the Church's reputation was far greater.

      Best wishes