Thursday, 3 May 2007

What contribution to science has been made by Christianity in its two thousand years?

A history lesson

According to Madeleine Bunting, Christianity has fostered learning and science in Europe for hundreds of years. Really?

January 29, 2007 3:14 PM | Printable version

Madeleine Bunting, in a column today, thinks that discrimination is a minor matter; we should all spend every day that the Iraq war lasts wringing our hands over it, paying no attention to anything else, least of all efforts by self-selected tendentious minorities to protect their prejudices from efforts to make our society a fairer place.

The impression of confusion is heightened by Ms Bunting's version of history, which she opposed to mine by name. She tells us that Christianity has "fostered learning and science" in Europe for "hundreds of years".

I challenge her to name one - even one small - contribution to science made by Christianity in its two thousand years; just one; and in the process perhaps she might kindly explain how, so late as 1615, after Galileo had seen the moons of Jupiter through his telescope, the great Cardinal Bellarmine could write: "read, not merely the Fathers, but modern commentators on Genesis, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Joshua; you will discover that all agree in interpreting them literally as teaching that the sun is in the heavens and revolves round the earth with immense speed, and that the earth is very distant from the heavens, at the centre of the universe, and motionless. Consider then in your prudence whether the Church can tolerate that the scriptures should be interpreted in a manner contrary to that of the holy fathers and of all modern commentators, both Latin and Greek."

"In your prudence": does Ms Bunting know what he meant? But to be more up to date, I invite her to read any of the "A Beka" books, the "Bible-based science" textbooks for the 2.5 million evangelical children home-schooled in the USA to protect them from Darwin, which tell the future rulers of the world's most powerful country that the world was created 6,000 years ago and Tyrannosaurus Rex was a vegetarian in Eden, and Adam's pet.

Ms Bunting will be on top of the mailing list for the large tome I've just spent years writing (I thank her for this advertising opportunity) on the way liberties, first of conscience, then thought, then the person, then for working people and women, were wrested from the bitter opposition of church and absolutisms premised on "divine right" and their joint legacy of oligarchies of privilege and patriarchy.

If the Catholic Church were still running Europe, Ms Bunting would not be writing for the Guardian. Actually, if this was 1950s Ireland, she might not be writing anything.

Nor might she if she were an Arab Muslim woman, among whom the illiteracy rate is 46%. Yes, Islam in its long-gone heyday made contributions to mathematics and astronomy. Mainly it transmitted Indian mathematics and Greek philosophy and science. People in the Islamic world produced some exquisite art and poetry, as people both religious and non-religious have often done in many cultures; though interestingly much of Islamic art and poetry is non-religious in content.

The one enduring positive legacy to science of Islam's best centuries is "Arabic" numerals. With respect, Ms Bunting's grip on both science and history seems a little approximate. She would do better to stick to defending the Catholic Church from the critical attentions of those opposed to discrimination.

Finally, Ms Bunting wheels out the bunkum that we (here in Britain?) live in unhappier and more spiritually impoverished times because we do not dwell - well, where? In the warm glow of Torquemada's Inquisition pyres? On a slave plantation in Jamaica? Would she prefer to be in a harem, or an undermaid in a medieval kitchen?

What rot this claim is; and it does not improve on repetition. It happens that we have the technology to make everyone "happy", as if this were by itself the great aim of things: put Prozac in the public water supply. One reason for not doing so is that norms of fulfilment and flourishing in human life rest on such richer possibilities now than when the sun went round the earth and you could be burned to death for not believing that it did.

reposted from: guardian
my: highlights / emphasis / key points / comments

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