So, You Want to Learn About the History of Science and Christianity? Five Key Works to Get You Started.

By Derrick Peterson

In the mindset of many, Christianity and science are two entities that have, historically speaking, always been at war.  Much to the surprise of many, no doubt, professional historians rarely-if ever-speak of a historical "warfare" of science and Christianity.  In fact in many (and sometimes surprisingly strange) ways, Christianity helped foster science.  Not only this, but the large scale claim of a "warfare" of science and Christianity is now typically held up a particularly clear examples of how not to do history - grand categories do the lifting instead of careful and charitable historical organization.

The literature on reconsidering and carefully nuancing the various facets of the fascinating relationship(s) between Christianity and science is so vast as to render it fairly intimidating to know just where to start.  As such, we offer here a few of the books we have found most helpful to get some footing.  Here we are sticking to general introductions on the history of science and Christianity.  In a future post we will introduce a few works on more particular segments of the history of faith and science.

1.) Ronald Numbers, ed., Galileo Goes to Jail, and Other Myths About Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2010), 320pp.

An extremely fun read, this and it's recent sequel Newton's Apple and Other Myths About Science, are probably the easiest and best places to start for anyone looking to dive in to the histories of Christianity (or more broadly, religion), and science.  Covering topics ranging from the title's suggestion, to whether Christianity was responsible for the demise of ancient science, whether the church taught the earth was flat, or to more obscure topics like theologians supposedly prohibiting dissections, each essay is very brief (usually 8-11 pages) and very informative.

2.) Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2015), 320pp.

An amazing work based on Peter Harrison's 2011 Gifford Lectures, it is in our opinion one of the most important books published on the topic of religion and science in the last 20 or 30 years.  Yes, it's that good.  Harrison investigates how we came to carve up our world with the categories "science" and "religion" and, by doing so, he demonstrates that in many ways both categories are modern twins that often represent a radical re-working, or even departure, from older forms of faith and knowledge.  Harrison goes on to argue that many of the supposed conflicts of "science" and "religion" are artifacts of how the categories themselves were constructed over time.  We cannot do justice to the argument here, nonetheless this is a pivotal work that anyone who is interested in the topic should pick up and read.

3.) John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, 2014), 552pp.

When we noted Harrison's book above was the "most important published in the last twenty" or so years, we made that judgment by going back to this book by John Hedley Brooke. Originally published in 1991, this is widely conceived by expertsin the field as a path-setting volume for the following years of scholarship. As a historical survey,  Brooke argues the thesis that the so-called "warfare" narrative between science and religion is untenable.  This is an absolutely fantastic book bristling with insights.  Brooke has an uncanny knack for sensing the ambiguities within historically held positions, and indeed is ever-vigilante to point out to the (sometimes bewildered!) reader the nuances and complexities that must go into even asking the proper historical questions.  

Just one little nugget to wet the appetite: when asking: "how did the church react to the Copernican hypothesis?" Brooke points out that this is a "deliciously ambiguous" question.  Why? Because, though quite alien to our common mindset today, there was still a prevalent and strict (largely Aristotelian) distinction between appreciating a theory as a mathematical construct (which many did) that was able to make predictions, and understanding it as aphysical theory (which many did not, even when accepting its mathematical niceties) describing the makeup of the universe.  At this point Brooke makes the slightly mind bending observation: "this means that at the time it would be more radical to consider the theory as a physical description and to reject it, than to accept it as a mere mathematical model."  As such to ask: who was a Copernican? is not quite the right question, for it assumes the modern perspective that to accept a theory means one also accepts the myriad of its physical implications.  But this is precisely to miss the complexities of the historical positions actually held.

4.) James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Regnery, 2011), 448pp.

Hannam's work is a wonderfully readable introduction to what might seem like an obscure topic (if you want a more technical, but highly rewarding read, we also recommend Ed Grant's God and Reason in the Middle Ages).  Surely the backward Dark Ages didn't contribute to science?  Wasn't there a scientific revolution in the 17th century, and this precisely as we emerged from medieval backwardness?  Hannam notes quite rightly that the very idea of there being a "Dark Ages" is a bunch of historical nonsense, and nearly no professional historian would be caught dead speaking in such terms today. 

Focusing on more practical developments in science during the middle ages such as the stirrups, horseshoes, plows, and other devices, Hannam demonstrates that the Middle Ages were a time of great technical innovation.  Square in Hannam's sights is the dismantling of the epithet "Medieval" to mean "scientifically backward."  Ironically, as he points out, if we wanted to talk about a "scientifically backward" era (though he does not descend into this polemic) one would have to cite the Romans (!) here, not the "Middle Ages" of Scholasticism.  Despite monumental achievements like the aqueducts, the Romans had no notable scientific advancements over the Greeks, they merely applied Roman power and rigor to previously established technique.

5.) Gary Ferngren, ed. Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction (Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2002), 416pp.

Edited by Gary Ferngren, who teaches history of science at Oregon State University, this is in our opinion the most useful multiple-contributor volume on the market. Contributors touch on everything from the Galileo controversy, to Darwin and the scopes trial, to geology and beyond.  As a companion volume, we would also highly recommend When Science and Christianity Meet which is also incredibly useful and readable.  If you are a glutton for punishment, check out God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science as well, though the essays are much longer and more technical.

That's it for now (though that should keep anyone busy for a little while). Like we said, there is a nearly infinite amount of fascinating books that relate to this topic, and in the future we will revisit the them by also introducing some books focusing on more specific examples than general introductions.