It seems that a few years ago a couple of authors (Jaki, Stark) released books declaring that Christianity gave rise to modern science and medicine via the dedicated work of monks (Bacon, Aquinus) during the Middle Ages. This certainly wasn’t the history I was taught. I learned that the ancients, over thousands of years, had great engineering and scientific advances as well as passable medical advances and that all this was lost during the Mediaeval Period in Europe – aptly called the Dark Ages because European civilization lost most ancient advances with the collapse of the ancient cultures that birthed them. The work of the Ancients was picked up after the Dark Ages, during The Enlightenment, when Europeans invented the scientific method and saw reason as the best way to run a society. Was I duped?
The short answer is no. Scholars aren’t part of some big high-fiving, back patting, secret-hand-shaking conspiracy to hide the truth and they have spoken up against these books. Richard Carrier writes a rebuke and so does Andrew Bernstein.
First of all, it’s important to note that while religious scientists (Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler) made great discoveries, it is hardly because they were religious. This was the world view of the culture into which they were born. These scientists probably held a lot of questionable opinions; for instance, like most men of their time they probably thought women had an inferior intellect – should we therefore infer that such an opinion allowed them to make their great scientific discoveries? It’s important not to confuse correlation with causation.
Now, back to the mediaeval period. The first thing to understand is the monks of the Dark Ages, drew on pagan concepts of naturalism; specifically Aristotle. There weren’t any new ideas put forth here. Moreover, during this hey day of Christian rule, monks may have worked to preserve some Greek and Roman artifacts, but they destroyed countless historical sites if they deemed them to be idolatrous or just plain unChristian or let fall to ruin things they didn’t think mattered (e.g.: the Flavian Amphitheatre also renamed to The Colosseum in the Middle Ages – they couldn’t even get the name right). If things seemed to have value to the Church, they were preserved – like the Pantheon where they jammed their saints, and various basilica (once used by Romans as legal buildings). I wouldn’t be surprised if works of literature were likewise thrown away.
It appears that mediaeval Christian theology certainly was the enemy of science and medicine as well. The works of Galen evaporated from the West and were reintroduced via the Islamic world. The Greeks and Romans may have been steeped in Religion (there was no such thing as separation of church and state), but their odd superstitiousness (augury, haruspices mingled in with civic life) didn’t seem to hold back their ability to engineer (look at all those aqueducts, the Pantheon – if you were to take the Pantheon and turn it on its side, it would fit into itself!) and I doubt it would have held back their abilities to figure out more science if they didn’t off themselves as a culture. Romans tended to absorb new religions and there wasn’t much conflict between religions – you could collect them like hockey cards. They frowned on Mithraism at one point because the men were castrating themselves and Romans – you know how they like family. It’s notable that the religions that they came into conflict were the Abrahamic ones because their god demanded that they only worship him (he’s so fussy). Further, the Greeks fostered the growth of minds that questioned tradition and may be even atheistic (Epicurus), philosophical minds that had scientific results (the pre-socratics) and philosophy that encouraged rational thinking – Socrates. All this going on in a rather superstitious culture.
Indeed, as Bernstein suggests, the Church of the Middle Ages let the people languish without science and let rot all the science that had been done by the ancients.