Myths about Science and Religion: The Rise of Christianity was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science

David C. Lindberg begins with one of the most common myths found in the science and religion debate, that “the rise of Christianity was responsible for the demise of ancient science.” He relates the story of Hypatia, a young pagan philosopher and mathematician, popular and influential because of “her defense of science against Christianity.” But she was murdered, as the story has it, by the early church father Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 376-444), along with a mob of enraged Christians zealots.

Lindberg argues that this story has been “a staple of anti-Christian polemics since the early Enlightenment.” Beginning with Irish “freethinker” John Toland’s 1720 pamphlet Hypatia: or, The History of a Most Beautiful, Most Virtuous, Most Learned and in Every Way Accomplished Lady; Who Was Torn to Pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria, to Gratify the Pride, Emulation, and Cruelty of the Archbishop, Commonly but Undeservedly Titled St. Cyril to more recently Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (2003), Hypatia’s death has been indicative of the “inherent” conflict between science and religion. However, this interpretation of the event is purely mythological. According to Lindberg, Hypatia’s death had “everything to do with local politics and virtually nothing to do with science.” It is an old myth used to portray early Christianity as a “haven of anti-intellectualism.”

No doubt, there were early Christian writers who condemned Greek philosophy, as when the apostle Paul warned the Colossians to “see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Col 2.8), or Tertullian’s (ca. 160-240) famous (if not much maligned) declaration “what indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”

But as Lindberg correctly points out, “the very writers who denounced Greek philosophy also employed its methodology and incorporated large portions of its content in their own systems of thought.” When looking at early Christian writers we need to “look beyond rhetoric to actual practice; it is one thing to deride the classical science and the philosophical systems that undergirded them…another to abandon them” completely. In fact, these early Christian writers must be seen as “insiders to this [Greek philosophical] tradition” who attempted to formulate an alternative philosophy based on Christian principles. Their opposition was to certain aspect of the classical tradition, and in fact had very little to do with the classical sciences.

For example, although Augustine of Hippo (354-430) cautioned Christians against using pagan writing, he also said that knowledge of natural phenomena is important for proper biblical exegesis. Augustine even decried the ignorance of some Christians:

Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to, as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel [a non-Christian] to hear a Christian…talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

Lindberg concludes his short essay with three important points worth mulling over: (1) early Christian writers may have seen the sciences as secondary because their primary concerns were, appropriately enough, the establishment of Christian doctrine, defense of the faith, and the edification of believers—in other words, pastoral obligations; but (2), secondary concern does not mean no concern, and, despite what others have maintained, Christian theology often provided the presuppositions, sanctions, and motivations for examining nature; and (3) no institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church.

Myths about Science and Religion

I have just finished reading Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009), edited by Ronald L. Numbers. It is quite the gem. Most of the chapters serve as good introductions to various issues in the history of science, each also providing an abundant bibliography to pursue further studies. Besides other books I will be reviewing here, I will go over some of my favorite myths found in this book from time to time in future posts. For anyone who is interested, this is a great introductory text.

Companies and their Macinations

A recent New York Times article, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” written by Charles Duhigg, provides an excellent example of how our habits can make us easy targets for marketers and corporations.


Finding the time

It is difficult finding the time to write. Our school is still in “spring” break, so I have taken the opportunity to start planning for the next semester, brainstorming projects, exams, activities, and games for the high school students. The entire day is full of this.

When I get home I go to the gym and then study French. I also want to finish off some books I’ve wanted to read for some time.

Too many excuses. But they are good excuses. Finding a balance will be difficult. Perhaps I can devote the weekends to posting some lingering thoughts. Yet another goal.


Big Questions Indeed

I recently found this website, Big Questions Online. Published by the John Templeton Foundation, it aims “ to ask and explore the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality, with a focus on science, religion, markets, morals, and the dynamic intersection among them.” One of its leading articles is an interview with Robert Bellah about his new book Religion in Human Evolution. I also recently read Bellah’s 1964 essay “Religious Evolution” in the American Sociological Review. I will post my reflections on Bellah’s theoretical scheme for the evolution of religion sometime this weekend.

Back to work

My wife and I have just returned from a busy week vacationing in Seoul and other parts of northern South Korea. My teaching schedule for the new semester will begin on Monday. It will be good to get back to work. I also need to continue my French studies.

Yesterday I spent the day catching up on news articles, downloading articles from different journals, organizing my bookmarks, etc., etc. Whenever I do that I feel like I’ve wasted an entire day. But I needed to do it. I cannot function otherwise. I need order.

Today will be dedicated to finishing the next chapter of Carl Olson’s Theory and Method in the Study of Religion: A Selection of Critical Readings (2003). The text is slightly dated, but the articles and authors selected in this reader set the precedent for much of the discussion today. I will discuss each chapter in future posts.

Also, a good bit of French today. I feel like I’m so far behind my peers. I must remember: La patience est l’art d’espérer.


I’m a recent graduate with a BA in Religious Studies and Philosophy and an MA in Church History. Somehow, I find myself today teaching English to Korean high school students in a small village in on the southeastern side of South Korea. My experiences in Korea have been exciting, disappointing, frustrating, and educational, sometimes in that order and sometimes all at once. (Of course I will have to write about them in future posts.) At the same time, I’m using my time here to prepare for doctoral studies in the near future.

I’ve also recently turned 30, and I think it’s high-time to start jotting down my philosophies, musings, and general thoughts on life. I will use this site for such purposes.