Has Religion Always Hindered the Progress of Science?
The consensus and general notion within the current zeitgeist is that religion is contrary to science, almost like bleach and rubbing alcohol, they should not be mixed. Many question the compatibility between the two. It is thought that they cannot exist together and some make it a point that only one can be subscribed to at a time. A minority, also, believes that religion had roles that were played in the history of scientific progression and still does. It can be argued that religion has been both suppressive as well additive in nature with respect to the sciences. This is due to the more superlative role religion has taken in history with respect to human society and it often affected whether or not the practice of scientific methods were deemed important, nothing of interest or a threat. Hinduism, Christianity and Islam have not always hindered the progression of science in the course of human history.
Sanchari Pal (2016) argues that modern science would not be recognisable without ancient hindus and their numerous contributions to mathematics. If one were to begin from zero, much literally in this case, the mathematician Aryabhata was one of the first people to think about the concept of zero and its uses in mathematical operations (Pal 2016). He also was the first to represent zero as a symbol (Pal 2016). Pal (2016) also mentions a decimal number system that involves the use of ten symbols to represent every number regardless of how large it is. This allowed for decimal notation that contributed to easier and faster number manipulation. The Arabs would then go on to adopt the representation of the “hind” numeric symbols and decimal system (Pal 2016). These contributions set the foundation for mathematical tools such as calculus that drive disciplines such as physics and its marvelous manifestations. Moving on to more recent times, the mathematical savant, Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) put forth the claims that his multitudinous contributions (analytical number theorems, numbers, series) were of supernatural Hindu origin and that of the influence of the goddess, Namagiri (De Cruz 2019). De Cruz (2019) also mentions that Chandra Bose (1858-1937) was also influenced by Hindu concepts such as Unity/ Aikyam and made contributions in wireless transmissions (before Marconi in 1895 but did not file for a patent). In all of the mentioned cases, Hinduism seemed to influence and even inspire scientific progression amongst these great minds.
The author of the controversial “The Genesis of Science”, James Hannam (2011), purports that Christianity was helpful to science contrary to popular notion rather than always in the way of it. The church supported scientific research in the form of financial sponsorship by allowing monks and priests to study at universities in the middle ages (Hannam 2011). Science and mathematics was made compulsory and by the end of the 17th century, the church had published numerous papers involving new discoveries (Hannam 2011). Hannam (2011) claims that cathedrals were also made into astronomical observatories to ensure accuracy of calendars which required the acceptance and propagation of Astronomy. Most popularly discussed is the contributions of the monk Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) to Biology, more specifically Genetics and Botany. He is known as the “Father of modern genetics” and his experiments with peas are considered to be the foundation to truly grasping an understanding of modern genetics (Hannam 2011). Hannam (2011) also makes the argument that it was Christian faith that inspired great thinkers like Copernicus, Kepler and Maxwell to seek out the work of God and look for the specific beauty that could be manifestations or signs of what they believed a universe made by God should be like. This led to the rejection of Ptolemaic world views, heliocentrism, laws of planetary interactions and simplistic yet elegant descriptions of electromagnetic phenomenon (respectively) (Hannam 2011). One may not be able to deny the Church and its hindrances to scientific progression at times in history but as discussed, it could be argued that it was not always a challenge and at times even encouraging.
During the 9th to 15th centuries, the Islamic world far outperformed other cultures at the time in terms of scientific knowledge and its expansion and is considered by many to have started the European scientific and cultural renaissance (Majeed 2005). The contributions to Astronomy, geometry, algebra, optics and medicine were invaluable and contemporarily, this is classified as “Arabic Science” (De Cruz 2019). So unopposed was the religion of Islam to science, most of the prominent Arabic scientists such as Omar Khayyam, Ibn Rusd and al Farabi were typically well versed and contributed to multiple disciplines (De Cruz 2019). Most popularly discussed are the advances in the medical field and is said to have laid the foundations for medical practices in Europe (Majeed 2005). Institution wise, the concepts of personal and hospital wide sanitization were developed as well as that of pharmacies and medical records (Majeed 2005). Medical publications and the discoveries and contributions within by muslims such as Abu Al Qasim Al Zahrawi, Al Razi, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina were imperative to medical practice and education in the middle ages across the Islamic world as well as that of the European, most being translated into latin and being used in European universities and upheld as the leading sources of knowledge in their respective topics (Majeed 2005). Some of these contributions include but are not limited to novel surgical techniques, pharmacology, the concept of holistic treatment and the organisation and commentary of previous works that would otherwise not have been amalgamated (Majeed 2005).
The Bayt al Hikmah or House of Wisdom was a library built in 832 by Al Mamum the Abbasid Caliph for the translation and study of Greek texts of science and philosophy and served as a home for Arabic science texts (Brown 2009). It is argued that because of this, it showed that there was an importance placed on education and preserving and propagating freely, the knowledge of philosophy and science (Brown 2009).
The Islamic world also made contributions to astronomy by the adoption of and improvement of the Ptolemaic interpretation of the universe. The Islamic Astronomer al Farghani wrote the “Elements of Astronomy on the Celestial Motions” which presented the Ptolemaic interperation as well as newer discoveries by muslim astronomers and it was the primary source of knowledge used to study Ptolemaic astronomy by Europeans (Library of Congress 2015). Al Sufi, another islamic astronomer, produced a book called “The Book of the Fixed Stars” that provided illustrations of the constellations (terrestrial perspective as well as from outside the “sphere of stars” as it was understood then) using Ptolemaic maps as well as newer Arabic contributions, the names of some of these still being used today (Library of Congress 2015). This book documented more stars within the constellations than anyone previously had and it had become the go to source of information in Europe (Library of Congress 2015). One can begin to see the trend of European schools of thought and education relying on the manifestations of scientific progress from the Islamic world at the time. This can be used to present the arguement that religion (in this case, Islam) was not only far from being a hindrance to science but was also at a point, leading in scientific reasearch, discovery and its spread during the dark ages and medieval times in Europe.
It can be seen that in each of the cases for the three largest religious traditions, there is ample evidence to support the argument that religion has not always hindered the progress of science. Islam and Hinduism seemed to take more active roles in terms of contributions and discoveries, moreso on a larger scale with the prior. At a point in European history that was considered to be the dark ages, the Islamic world was at the forefront of the collection of scientific knowledge, its expansion and propagation. One could argue that the modern world would not be possible without this period of “Islamic Renaissance”. The contributions of Hindus to the sciences such as Mathematics were also invaluable to the resulting modern world. Even the contributions of Christian scientists and their way of thinking of God and a perfect universe and the resultant contributions have induced scientific progress. Throughout history, humanity’s relationship with science has been inconsistent at best but reason and curiosity always seems to persevere even against antagonistic forces and it can be seen that religion has not always hindered the progress of science.
Brown. 2009. “Bayt Al-Hikma.” Www.Brown.Edu. 2009. https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/islamiccivilizations/8246.html.
De Cruz, Helen. 2019. “Religion and Science.” Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religion-science/#WhatScieReliHowDoTheyInte.
Hannam, James. 2011. “Science Owes Much to Both Christianity and the Middle Ages : Soapbox Science.” Nature.Com. Soapbox Science. May 18, 2011. http://blogs.nature.com/soapboxscience/2011/05/18/science-owes-much-to-both-christianity-and-the-middle-ages.
Library of Congress. 2015. “Astronomical Innovation in the Islamic World | Modeling the Cosmos | Articles and Essays | Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond | Digital Collections | Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress. 2015. https://www.loc.gov/collections/finding-our-place-in-the-cosmos-with-carl-sagan/articles-and-essays/modeling-the-cosmos/astronomical-innovation-in-the-islamic-world.
Majeed, Azeem. 2005. “How Islam Changed Medicine.” BMJ 331 (7531): 1486–87. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1486.
Pal, Sanchari. 2016. “16 Significant Science and Tech Discoveries Ancient India Gave the World.” The Better India. July 30, 2016. https://www.thebetterindia.com/63119/ancient-india-science-technology/.
PTI. 2015. “‘Modern Science Unrecognisable without Contribution of Indians.’” @businessline. March 29, 2015. https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/science/modern-science-unrecognisable-without-contribution-of-indians/article7045528.ece#:~:text=%E2%80%9CThe%20ancient%20Hindus%20also%20developed.