Bishop Spong’s Imaginary Conflict Between Science and Christianity

By Kyle Larson

Internet atheists and agnostics are well-known for pitting science against religion. They argue that science gives us facts while religion offers only fairy tales. Therefore anyone who believes in religion is denying science. They are rejecting the thing that gave us airplanes, mobile phones, and vaccines. Is this really how it works? Do Christians reject science?

Bishop Spong thinks so.

Before going into Bishop Spong’s post-modern version of Christianity as encapsulated in the twelve theses for his version of a new Christianity for a new world, it is important to look at the false scientific presuppositions Spong uses when recounting the scientific Revolution from the 1400’s through the 1700’s. To build his case for a non-theistic and anti-supernaturalistic Christianity, Bishop Spong relies on a series of specific scientific presuppositions which create a false impression of what happened in Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries during what is known as The Scientific Revolution:

“In the 16th century, the authority of the church could no longer hold the minds of men and women in positions of obedience, so a rigorous challenge to this religious system arose for the first time. It was called “the Reformation.” During this time, the peace and security of Europe were shattered. The unifying truth by which its people and its institutions had lived was broken. Ancient claims of authority were overturned. Wars were fought seeking to restore the old order. It was a time of enormous upheaval Following that Reformation, the years rolled on and human knowledge exploded, cracking assumption after assumption made in the pre-modern world. Following that Reformation, the years rolled on and human knowledge exploded, cracking assumption after assumption made in the pre-modern world.”

Despite all the questions and the upheaval caused by the Reformation, there was no real conflict between science and Christianity. Most scientists were Christians. There were questions, certainly, but Christianity is a built on the ideas of truth and honesty. So, over the centuries, the ideas of Ptolemy and Aristotle were slowly abandoned in favor of new discoveries made by early scientists like Newton and Pascal.

The modern idea of a “conflict” between science and religion began in the mid 19th century. It was created by two authors: Andrew White (1832-1918) and William Draper (1811—1882).

Andrew Dickson White (1885)Andrew White was President of Cornell. He believed early on in the fundamental conflict between science and Christianity. Many Christians in his day called him an “infidel” for establishing Ithaca College where science would be taught as supreme over Christianity.

In December 1869, White gave a speech entitled “The Battle-Fields of Science”. In it, he tried to use historical anecdotes to prove that Christianity has been an impediment to the advancement of science. White used two famous examples of where the Church of Rome supposedly opposed the advancement of science.

The first was the burning at stake of Dominican friar Giordano Bruno. White claims Friar Bruno was burned at the stake by the Church because of his scientific views rather than because of his unfortunately timed denial of  basic Catholic doctrines during the height of the inquisition.

The second had to do with the torture and jailing of Galileo before being forced to recant his “heresies”. White claimed his persecution by the inquisition was for promoting the heliocentric theory of Copernicus rather than for publishing a book insulting the Pope and alienating his Jesuit allies with infighting.

White took his initial speech and expanded into a book entitled “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom” (1896). This book forms the basis for much of what Bishop Spong says about the conflict between science and orthodox Christianity, though Spong does not openly acknowledge White’s contribution to his thinking.

John William DraperIn the same vein as White, William Draper was especially antagonistic towards Roman Catholicism for what he believed was its opposition to the advancement of science. It began when one of Draper’s children was very sick and close to death. His sister Elizabeth, who had converted to Roman Catholicism from Protestantism, hid his son’s Protestant prayer book until he died. This infuriated Draper. He asked his sister to leave the house immediately for her “unchristian behavior” towards his son. (Numbers 2,3) This led Draper on to his crusade of denigrating the Catholic Church for its opposition to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

This internal conflict that Draper had with Roman Catholicism led him to write his book “History of The Conflict between Religion and Science” (1874). Later reviews of Draper’s book showed the shallow historical scholarship behind it. (Numbers 3)

To put this in context, before the 1800’s historical records don’t show much conflict between the discoveries of scientists and the philosophy of theologians. As the 19th century wore on, however, battle lines between scientific theory and Christian theology began to form. Darwin offered evolution as an alternative creation account. The history of the Bible, and even Jesus, was called into question by historians. Archaeology began to question the accuracy of the places and events as read in the Bible. It was during this time that White and Draper made their arguments the Christianity had a history of holding back scientific advancement.

Abd al-Ra?m?n I (Umayyad Caliph of Spain)Historians today, of course, realize how historically inaccurate White and Draper were in their assessment of the relationship between the discoveries of science and Christian theology. Yet we can go much further than this and state that the Catholic Church had no part in stifling either innovation or scientific discovery during the Middle Ages. Instead, it was Islamic pirates and warring caliphates that kept Europe in darkness. And it was the Mongol hordes crushing the caliphate that freed them to enter the Renaissance.

So Bishop Spong has not given a fair and accurate retelling of the facts of history when it comes to Christianity’s historic relationship to science, especially during the Middle Ages. Below are some facts that Bishop Spong might want to consider. First, consider the following quote by John Helibon, a historian of science, in his book The Sun in The Church:

“The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably all, other institutions.” (Shrank 21)

Second, Bishop Spong needs to come to grips with the fact that the Catholic Church was responsible for the creation of the University. At the time, thirty percent of the average University curriculum concerned the study of the natural world. This includes the study of rediscovered Greek writings and ancient knowledge reclaimed from Arabic sources. So a University education, far from being anti-science, involved many branches of both ancient and current knowledge. (Shrank 22)

Katholieke Universiteit LeuvenThirdly, the vast majority of these Cathoic Church sponsored Universities never taught on theological or biblical subjects. Instead, they focused on secular areas of learning such as logic, natural philosophy, mathematical science as well as similar subjects. (Shrank 22)

Fourthly, the Catholic Church never issued a blanket condemnation for its Universities teaching the natural sciences. Any ecclesiastical condemnation we have record of was given by a local bishop towards a local University. If the condemnation held, that particular University would no longer teach one of the natural sciences. This was usually because of an apparent conflict between faith and science.

Even when this happened, both students and professors still had many other options when it came to Church sponsored Universities that taught any one of the number of natural sciences that both students and professors might be interested in learning. For example, Toulouse University was one such Church sponsored University. It drew students from the University of Paris because the University of Paris forbade the teaching of the life and works of Aristotle.

Based on these four key historical facts, along with the unveiling of how the myth of the conflict between science and faith as embodied in the writings of White and Draper, Bishop Spong is simply mistaken in his imaginary conflict between science and Christianity

Resources consulted:

Galileo Goes To Jail And Other Myths About Science And Religion Edited by Ronald Numbers Introduction by Ronald Numbers

Myth #2—That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science by Michael H. Shrank Harvard University Press 2009