International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus

by Edward Grant

Introductory Essay by William R. Shea

It is often believed that the tension between science and religion began with Galileo. In this fascinating book, Edward Grant shows that the clash occurred much earlier. The first victim of religious persecution was Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (c. 500-428 B.C.), the last of the Ionian pre-Socratic natural philosophers and a friend of Pericles. Anaxagoras was apparently charged with impiety because he conjectured that the Sun was a mass of red hot metal. This resulted in his banishment from Athens and, according to Diogenes Laertius (fl. early third century A.D.), he committed suicide. What this reveals about the relations between science and religion is that the Greeks believed that the celestial region was divine and, therefore, denounced Anaxagoras when he said that the Sun was merely a piece of incandescent metal.

Another clash between science and religion occurred in pre-Christian times. In the third century B.C., Aristarchus of Samos declared that it was the Earth and not the Sun that moved, and Cleanthes the Stoic (263-232 B.C.), the second head of the Stoic school, is reported to have found this objectionable because the "hearth of the universe" had been removed from the center of the world. But nothing happened to Aristarchus, and no such charge was ever brought officially by a religious or a governmental body, and no case similar to Anaxagoras' arose in the Greek world prior to the Christian era.

The relations between science and religion in the late ancient and medieval period were intimately bound up with the works of Aristotle (394-322 B.C.), and Grant offers an interesting survey of Christian attitudes to Greek philosophy and science.

The last chapter in the volume compares the way science and religion interacted in the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic world, and the Latin West. The vital element in the long-term relationship between science and religion is the separation of Church and state. Christians wanted to be left alone to worship as they pleased and, hence, advocated a separation of Church and state, which became an inherent feature of the relations between the two entities long after Christianity became the state religion. This stood in sharp contrast to the Byzantine Greek Orthodox Church and to Islamic Society. When the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Western Christianity continued with its separation of Church and state. Indeed, as the centuries passed, some nation states became more powerful than the Church and, with the advent of the Protestant Reformation, the sphere of influence of the Catholic Church diminished further. As nation states gained parity with the Church and eventually surpassed it in power and influence,science and natural philosophy had as much, if not more, to fear from the states as from the Church.

A useful selection of primary sources is included at the end of the volume in order to illustrate some of the major ideas discussed in the book.