New Book Sheds Light on the “Dark Age”: The Religion vs. Science Myth Exposed

Michael Flannery


According to a new book by James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, many scientists and historians of science have gotten it all wrong. Citing Andrew Dickson White’s classic study, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896), Hannam insists that the work merely gives “the illusion of meticulous scholarship” and that a careful check of the references would lead anyone to “wonder how he could have maintained his opinions if he had read as much as he claimed to have done” (xvi). The alleged “ignorance” of the medieval Church whose cherished dogmas included the belief in a flat earth, geocentric theory of the universe, and a hidebound biblical literalism is all challenged with insight and skill by this Oxford/Cambridge graduate and PhD in the history of science. 

The standard rendering that the medieval Church church stood in the way of scientific advance and spent its time persecuting the leading intellects of the day like Galileo until free and open inquiry was rescued by the Renaissance humanists is shown to be utterly false. Instead, Galileo actually used the knowledge of medieval scribes in his work. In fact, Hannam shows that Kepler (not Galileo) proved heliocentric theory and that the “persecution” by the Church was really instigated by “one-eyed Aristotelian humanists who had completely lost the medieval critical attitude towards the Philosopher.” (217)

“In traditional histories,” writes Hannam, 

the rise of humanism is usually portrayed as a ‘good thing,’ but the truth is that the humanists almost managed to destroy 300 years of progress in natural philosophy. By discarding the advances made by medieval scholars together with so many of the manuscripts that contained them, they could have set back the advance of science by centuries. Einstein might have had to do the work of Newton. The reason that progress in science was not held back (although it arguably didn’t move forward as quickly as it might have done) was that the invention of printing [ca. 1450] had guaranteed that, if nothing else, the old books were preserved. Most people forgot about them, but a few, like Galileo, used the knowledge found within. (218)

Space precludes a detailed summary of all of Hannam’s points and arguments, but the excerpts above give the flavor of his approach and argument. Suffice it to say that this book is well worth reading and having on one’s bookshelf. “Science,” a term suggested by William Whewell in 1833, doesn’t mean science itself was a nineteenth-century discovery; it was largely pursued for centuries under the rubric of “natural philosophy.” Often the medieval Church was a partner and collaborator in that endeavor. As Hannam points out about midway through the book: 

The popular image of the medieval Church as a monolithic institution opposing any sort of scientific speculation is clearly inaccurate. Natural philosophy had proven itself useful and worth supporting. It is hard to imagine how any philosophy at all would have taken place if the Curch-sponsored universities had not provided a home for it. But the price of having a rich sponsor is having to bend to their interests and avoid subjects they find controversial. Modern scientific researchers competing for funding from big companies have exactly the same problem. The Church allowed natural philosophers a much wider dispensation than many corporate interests allow their researchers today. They were free to speculate as much as they pleased so long as they avoided religious controversy. Even atominism would make a triumphant comeback in the seventeenth century. (190)

Well said. It should also be pointed out that Hannam isn’t the first to really expose the historical inaccuracies given to support the conventional wisdom that religion and science simply don’t mix. Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton’s The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (1994) has offered much the same thesis, and indeed has done so without the blemish that seems to mar Hannam’s otherwise fascinating read. That blemish occurs toward the end of the book on page 349 when Hannam quotes Isaac Newton, “All that diversity of organisms which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing . . . .” Then, in a wholly gratuitous addition answers, “It would take Charles Darwin (1809-1882) to prove Newton wrong.” Hannam doesn’t know this, he is merely succumbing — rather mindlessly — to the knee-jerk conclusion that the Darwinian “explanation” is definitive. However that “Being” is construed the increasing evidence that intelligent agency is necessary for complex life would seem to vindicate Newton over the Darwinian stillborn ideas that chance and necessity adequately explain the origin and diversity of life. In contrast, Pearcey and Thaxton make the clear and unmistakable connection between their historical thesis of science/religion complimentarity and its worldview implications.

This tells us something interesting pointed out recently in Cornelius G. Hunter’s blog, Darwin’s God. For all of Hannam’s understanding of the Great Chain of Being in the past, he seemingly fails to appreciate the chain of misinformation generated by the Darwin lobby in the present. “Science writers are at the end of the dissemination chain,” notes Hunter.

Evolutionary thought began with the theologians and philosophers. Their ideas informed institutions and culture. By the time Darwin developed his theory the ground was well prepared and all his strong arguments were non scientific. Nothing has changed today except the details. Evolutionists continue to issue their scientifically absurd proclamations that everything spontaneously arose by itself. They are absolutely certain of this, and inform us that doubters must be religious fundamentalists. Next historians, philosophers and intellectuals apply these evolutionary truths to their respective fields. The world is explained in terms of evolutionary thought. Finally the science writers regurgitate the dogma that is handed down to them. At this point the story line cannot be changed or questioned. The authorities are too intimidating and institutions too overwhelming. The ridiculous must be true. In fact, it must not even be ridiculous. 

Hannam himself serves to make Hunter’s point in his recent Nature blog. “Accusing clerics of holding back scientific development was a safe way to make a political point. The cudgels were later taken up by TH Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, in his struggle to free English science from any sort of clerical influence. Creationism did the rest of the job of persuading the public that Christianity and science are doomed to perpetual antagonism.” It’s a bit hard to know what Hannam means here since “Creationism” is a broad term with many meanings and many positions, positions not necessarily antithetical to science. As one commenter replied, “All well and good, but none of this [referring to Hannam’s Genesis of Science] history gives support to the notion that Christianity is a friend of science today.” According to this Nature blog Hannam would seem to agree. But he seems to have forgotten his own argument: his parallel between the restrictions of the medievel Church and modern researchers today (referred to earlier) is persuasive evidence that the current scientific climate is constrained — perhaps even more greatly — by secular influences today. Not the least of those constraints is the Darwinian synecdoche for “science” that has achieved such cultural hegemony that even otherwise insightful historians like Hannam can occasionally regurgitate it.

The best advice: get this book. It contains fascinating illuminations of historical notions once considered “fact” but in Hannam’s hands revealed to be the myths that they are. But shelve it right next to The Soul of Science by Pearcey and Thaxton; you’ll want that when you need to put all these revelations into some larger context. If that makes it something less than a perfect five-star review, so be it.  

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.