Myth: There is no war between science and Christianity.

Fact: The Church has persecuted or opposed almost every great scientist of the last 500 years.


The Church has never been on the cutting edge of science -- on the contrary, it has been the one persecuting scientists. The list of those who earned the wrath of the Church reads like a Who's Who of Science: Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Halley, Darwin, Hubble, even Bertrand Russell. The Church has also been on the wrong side of the social sciences for over 1,500 years, actively promoting slavery, anti-Semitism, the torture and murder of women as witches, sexual repression, censorship and the Inquisition, Crusades and other aggressive wars, and capital punishment for misdemeanors. This has given rise to a Christian field called apologetics, which attempts to defend the Church's errors, even claiming that science and Christianity are compatible friends, not enemies. But the atrocities and scientific errors were too profound, and stretched on for too many millennia, to be defended in any reasonable manner.


Most Christians will deny it, but there is a long tradition of warfare between science and Christianity. The source of this conflict stems from the fact that both attempt to do the same thing: to explain the world around us, and offer solutions to our problems. The difference between these two attempts is basically one of age. Religion comprises very old explanations and solutions; science, newer ones. And because they differ, they enter into conflict.

For example, all human societies have attempted to answer the question: "Where do we come from?" In ancient Israel, the answer was God and Creation, as described in the book of Genesis. But as human knowledge has advanced and grown, different explanations have arisen: namely, the Big Bang and evolution. Because people loathe being proven wrong, the appearance of new explanations has been threatening, and they react with hostility to these rival accounts.

The threat was all the greater for the Christian Church, because it prided itself on being the source of All Truth, guided by an omniscient God. (The term "Christian Church" in this essay refers to its spiritual leaders, leading theologians, writers of sacred canon, and any members defending the orthodox or fundamentalist viewpoint.) Being proven wrong on any count therefore had disastrous implications for the Church, not only because it undermined its authority, but its political and economic power as well. Not surprisingly, the Church moved energetically against scholars attempting to make scientific progress, branding their work as "heresy" and persecuting them to the fullest extent that they could. The full range of the Church's actions included harassment, discrimination, censorship, slander, scorn, abuse, threats, persecution, forced recantations, torture and burning at the stake. The list of great scientists opposed by the Church reads like a Who's Who of Science: Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Halley, Darwin, Hubble, even Bertrand Russell. At no time has the Church been on the cutting edge of science -- it has opposed virtually all scientific progress for nearly 2,000 years. And Protestants would prove to be just as hostile to science as Catholics.

The war between Christianity and science has raged so long and bitterly that even 100 years ago, Andrew White, a former president of Cornell University, was able to write a huge two-volume history of the conflict entitled The Warfare Of Science With Theology. (1) Exhaustively covering hundreds of historical cases, he was able to demonstrate that the Church generally repeats the same three-step process whenever confronted by a threatening scientific discovery:

This process has occurred like clockwork down through history, resulting in a Christian Church today that is completely unrecognizable from the Early Christian Church -- indeed, if the two could ever meet, they would denounce each other as heretics. No Christian today could even begin to defend the Absolute Truth that the Church proclaimed a mere 500 years ago. This included the following beliefs: The scientists who challenged this Absolute Truth came to bitter ends. Although the vast majority were Christians themselves who had no desire to harm the Church, their findings were completely unacceptable to the popes, saints and theologians who were already committed to a previous version of the truth. Here is what happened to some of the most famous scientists:

Copernicus had concluded by 1500 A.D. that that the sun is the center of the solar system, but he kept his theories secret for 30 years, not wishing to draw the wrath of the Church. Shortly after publishing Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, he died of old age, and was thus spared their angry response. But they got their revenge anyway, by burying him in a grave that marked none of his great accomplishments, but said: "I ask not the grace accorded to Paul; not that given to Peter; give me only the favour which Thou didst show to the thief on the cross." Then they kept silent about his work for 70 years -- until the appearance of Galileo.

Bruno had no such luck; when he publicly defended Copernicus, the Inquisition arrested him, tortured and burned him at the stake.

Galileo, often called "the Father of Modern Science," was the first astronomer to claim actual evidence that the earth was not the center of the universe, but revolved around the sun. For this, Galileo came under intense criticism and persecution from the Church. Pope Urban VIII personally gave the order in 1633 that Galileo, then an old man of 70, should be threatened with torture if he did not renounce the heresy that the earth revolved around the sun. Under repeated threats of torture, Galileo finally renounced his beliefs. He was then placed under house arrest, and not freed even after he went blind. Technically, the Catholic Church never convicted Galileo of heresy (only a "vehement suspicion of heresy") but it did make clear that the "heresy" in question was defined as the belief that the earth rotated around the sun. And, to leave absolutely no doubt about how completely it condemned the ideas of Galileo, the Church censored and prohibited all books supporting his scientific findings for over 200 years. This censorship was placed in the Index of Prohibited Books, which was personally signed by every pope who renewed it. Protestants would be mistaken in thinking this is a Catholic embarrassment only. Every Protestant church before 1800 rose in bitter opposition to the "atheistic" findings of Galileo.

Campanella was tortured seven times by the Inquisition for a number of heresies, one of which was writing Defense of Galileo.

Rene Descartes, alarmed by the Inquisition's persecution of Galileo, delayed his plans to publish The World, a book that agreed with Galileo's views. Later he wrote Meditations on First Philosophy, which introduced the idea that truth can be discovered only through scientific investigation and the scientific method. This earned the hostility of the Church, and their persecution caused Descartes much suffering. This great philosopher, who is famous for attempting a logical proof of God's existence, was called an atheist, and his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books. Protestant theologians in his resident Holland wanted him tortured and put to death.

Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Edmond Halley were pioneers in describing the orbits of celestial bodies like comets and planets. The orderly laws of nature they described contradicted the Church's belief that comets were thrown in anger from the right hand of God, or that they portended disaster and war. For over a hundred years the Church argued against them -- to describe how heated, bitter and personal this debate grew in a single paragraph is impossible. But Halley secured the final victory by accurately predicting the return of the comet that now bears his name. All three would have been brought before the Inquisition had they not been Protestant.

Isaac Newton kept his true religious beliefs secret, for fear of persecution, until literally his dying day. He privately rejected his native Anglican Church at about age 30, convinced that its teachings about Christ's divinity and the existence of a Trinity were a fraud. He instead accepted Arianism, a 4th century Christian heresy. Only on his deathbed did he reveal his true beliefs by rejecting the Anglican sacrament. (2) Many Christians opposed his scientific findings as well, for everyone had previously believed that God actively and frequently intervened in the ordinary events of the universe. Christians charged that he "took from God that direct action on his works so constantly ascribed to him in Scripture and transferred it to material mechanism," and that he "substituted gravitation for Providence."

Georges Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon, one of the more colorful scientists in history, was the first to study fossils and suggest that life forms had changed in the past. The proto-version of evolution earned him the enmity the Church, which forced him to resign from his Sorbonne University position and recant his views. The Church then humiliated him by publishing his recantation.

William Buckland, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz, and Adam Sedgewick were all 19th century Christian geologists who originally set out to prove the story of creation and Noah's Flood. But despite their best attempts to reconcile their discoveries with the Bible, their findings kept pointing in the other direction: namely, the earth was several billion years old, not 6,000. One by one, they recanted their belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis and accepted the findings of modern geology. For their intellectual honesty, they came under terrific attack from the Church, which hurled epithets like "infidel," "impugner of the sacred record," and "assailant of the volume of God." Their geology was condemned as "a dark art," "dangerous and disreputable," "a forbidden province," "infernal artillery" and "an awful evasion of the testimony of revelation."

Robert Chambers created a major scandal in 1844 when he published an anonymous best-selling book entitled The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The book contained the blasphemous suggestion that an orderly progression in the changes of fossils indicated that species themselves had evolved. Religious leaders demanded to learn the identity of the author and denounced the book in the angriest terms possible. The ensuing controversy proved that Chambers had made the correct decision to publish anonymously.

Charles Darwin knew that his revolutionary theories on natural selection would invite the full fury of the Christian world. He therefore delayed publishing his theory for over 20 years, agonizing over the decision of whether or not to publish. His hand was forced in 1858, when he learned that the naturalist Alfred Wallace was about to publish the same theory. His fears proved true -- the reaction from the Church was shock, disappointment and anger. The world-wide attacks on his character, theories and personal life are common knowledge now, but he was saved from physical harm for two reasons. First, nearly the entire scientific community was quick to see the soundness of his theories, and rallied immediately to his defense. Second, the age of the Inquisition and other torture-based persecutions had finally passed.

Bertrand Russell found that Christian persecution exists even in the 20th century. One of the greatest of modern philosophers, Russell angered many Christians with his essay, Why I am not a Christian. And they exacted their revenge in 1940, when Russell accepted an appointment at the College of the City of New York. The Christian community launched a furious and protracted campaign to prevent the appointment, printing slanderous accusations of homosexuality, child molestation, public nudity and lechery. (This, for his mildly liberal views on sex, which would be considered tame by today's standards.) Even New York's highest political officials joined the assault, calling him a "dog" who should be "tarred and feathered and driven out of the country." Christians sued in court to prevent Russell's appointment, and in a trial filled with legal howlers, Russell was barred from teaching in New York State -- in a word, censored. (3)

The above examples are only the highpoints of this history. To see just how consistently and bitterly the Church opposed hundreds of lesser scientists, one should read Andrew White's The Warfare Of Science With Theology.

The social sciences

The Church has not only been proven wrong time and again in the natural sciences. It has also erred repeatedly in the social sciences. Consider the following examples:

For 1,500 years, the Christian empire was a slave-owning and slave-trading empire, with popes and their bishops writing the rules over what constituted "just and unjust slavery." Monarchs routinely reported to the pope for permission to practice new forms of slavery, such as Indian or African slavery; indeed, the first African slave market in Europe was opened by papal decree. True, all societies and cultures have practiced slavery, but the Christian empire was the first to systematize it, mass-produce it, and make it a major part of an international economy. No other slave empire came close to its sheer size and brutality. Scholars estimate that at least 10 million Africans died on the horrific slave ship voyages to America alone, and another 60 million once they arrived.

Protestant as well as Catholic slave-owners defended their actions from the pages of the Bible, claiming that Negroes were condemned to slavery because they were supposedly descendants of Caanan, whom God cursed in Genesis 9. In fact, most of the world's bitter debate about slavery occurred in Biblical terms. The first opposition to slavery came from the Quaker church, and the issue would eventually split four American churches into Northern and Southern factions. But the most relentlessly pro-slavery institution was the Roman Catholic Church. It was not until after the American Civil War, when the world's navies had already shut down the slave trade, that the Catholic Church finally abandoned its idea of "just and unjust" slavery, issuing its first condemnation of all slavery in 1888. (4)

The Church also condemned Jews for rejecting and killing Christ, and proceeded to persecute Jews for over a thousand years. From the 5th to 18th centuries, a major event involving the slaughter, persecution or expulsion of thousands of Jews occurred every decade. (5) Modern anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust of 6 million Jews, has its roots in the Church's long tradition of Jewish persecution. The fact is, Nazi Germany did not have one original idea. All of their philosophies came from anti-Semites of past centuries, much of it from the Christian Church. Indeed, when Hitler (who was raised a Catholic, but later became an atheist) became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he met with the German Catholic leadership and openly identified with their anti-Semitism. Historian Guenter Lewy writes: Medieval Christians had forced Jews to identify themselves by wearing the yellow "Badge of Shame;" the Nazis did likewise by making them wear the Star of David. Medieval Christians accused Jews of a secret international conspiracy to take over the world by poisoning Christian wells with the Black Death; the Nazis also accused the Jews of secretly plotting to take over the world through international Jewish finance. Christians during the Spanish Inquisition taught that the Jews were naturally inferior due to their mala sangra, or "bad blood;" the Nazis taught that the Jews were genetically inferior and subhuman. Even the death machine of Auschwitz found its predecessor in the death machine of the Inquisition, which systematically and indiscriminately tortured and burned Jews by the tens of thousands, for no other reason than they were Jews. Today, the white hoods and the crosses of the Ku Klux Klan are taken from 14th century Christian history, when Christians adopted these icons to slaughter the Jews who were supposedly responsible for spreading the Black Death. (7)

As for women in Christian Europe, they were considered chattel -- no less a man's possession than his ox or plow -- and it was often legal in many provinces to beat a wife if she displeased her husband. In Christian literature and doctrine, penned by both pope and saint alike, there is a long and uniform tradition of hatred for women. Just one of countless examples is Odo of Cluny's famous statement that "to embrace a woman is to embrace a sack of manure." Christian misogyny (both Catholic and Protestant) reached its peak during the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, when over 110,000 women were tried for the crime of witchcraft. Most trials included brutal torture to secure a confession. Some 60,000 were executed, most of them burned at the stake. (8)

The Church also declared its hostility to sex from the very beginning, in contrast to all the other world's religions, which view sex as a great blessing from God. Even ancient Judaism had relatively liberal views on sex, allowing sex between anyone as long as it was not with someone else's wife, a close relative, or a member of the same sex. But when Christianity spread into the Greek world, it absorbed the then-current philosophy of Greek Stoicism, which argued that sex was a great evil. The Church Father Origen even castrated himself so as to avoid temptation. Angry denunciations of sex filled the writings of the Church Fathers; their diatribes set the trajectory of Christian attitudes towards sex for the next two millennia. Some announced in public that they would no longer have sex with their wives. Women were portrayed as sex-starved animals who lured otherwise pure and chaste Christian men to their doom. It doesn't take a modern psychologist to recognize that these men were unwittingly describing themselves. (9)

Christianity also proved to be the world's greatest warring religion, launching more wars of aggression than any other religion in history. In fact, until recent times, every war in Western history was waged in the name of God. The peak of the Christian wars was the Crusades, when Catholic clerics would preach from town to town, whipping up hatred and hysteria among impoverished serfs against the "infidels" occupying the Holy Land. The Crusaders convinced many peasants to drop their hammer and plows on the spur of the moment and embark on a completely uncertain journey to an unknown place a thousand miles away. Along the way, the frenzied mob murdered, looted and raped all the Jews they found. Once they reached the Holy Land, they slaughtered the infidel until the blood flowed up to "the knees of their horses." (10) Popes repeated these Crusades for four centuries. It is a sign of how much the Lord blessed these Crusades that by the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, the Muslim forces had driven into the heart of Europe.

When it came to law and order, Christian Europe was committed to the severe punishment of criminals; it tried to force people into moral behavior on pain of death. Stealing sheep (a crime usually prompted by starvation) was punished by hanging. In the New World, the Puritans obsession with punishing and humiliating criminals in public was not much of an exaggeration over the Old World approach. It is interesting to note, however, that this zero tolerance for crime did nothing to solve Europe's massive crime problem. Highway brigands were so numerous that it was actually considered dangerous to travel between cities. And Puritan records show that they still had to deal with extensive crime, some as outrageous as barnyard sodomy, despite the fact many such crimes carried a certain death sentence. (11)

Modern social science has resulted in many moral advances over these policies, which were advocated at the highest levels of the Church for some 1,500 years. Both Catholics and Protestants wrote libraries of books justifying these horrific social policies, and rose in outrage against anyone who dared challenge them.

Christian apologetics

Christians have gone to great lengths to develop a set of arguments defending themselves from what would otherwise be a damning indictment of history.

One is Cardinal Baronius' famous remark that "the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." But this is demonstrably false. From the writers of the Old Testament to the popes and prophets of the modern Christian Church, the authors of Judeo-Christianity have attempted to explain just about everything that piqued their curiosity. This ranged from disease (a possession of devils) to the earth's origins (a six-day Creation week), from rain (an opening of water windows in the sky) to the arrangement of planets (hung like ornaments from the giant tent covering that formed the earth's sky). These explanatory efforts were real enough that Church elders could feel threatened by the appearance of rival scientific theories. Baronius' often-quoted remark is both historically and Biblically incorrect.

Another defense is that the Church cannot be blamed for everything done in its name. Granted, humans are not perfect, but one would certainly expect the Church leadership to be more divinely guided than the rest of us. The fact that popes and saints alike could promote slavery for 1,500 years without a single overt correction from God strongly suggests that they did not enjoy the access to him that they boasted.

And this highlights the central problem with Christian apologetics. If the Church were truly the source of All Truth, then it would have been on the cutting edge of science, not the persecutors of it. Instead of a vast field of theology entitled "apologetics," there should be something like "celebritics," a field celebrating all the scientific vindications of the Bible. But this field doesn't exist, and that is something else the apologists have to defend.

Return to Overview


1. Unless otherwise indicated, all history concerning the Church's conflict with the natural sciences comes from Andrew White, The Warfare of Science with Theology (1895). This excellent and exhaustive work, whose scholarship has stood the test of time (and been enlarged by modern scholars), can be found online at

2. Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest, (Cambridge, 1980).

3. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, and other essays on religion and related subjects (1957).

4. This history of slavery is based on the following sources: Forest G. Wood, The Arrogance of Faith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990); John H. Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom, 6th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1988); John F. Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church (London: Barry Rose Publishers, 1975); David M. Reimers, White Protestantism and the Negro (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965); H. Shelton Smith, In His Image, But... (Durham: Duke University Press, 1972).

5. For a comprehensive timeline of anti-Semitic atrocities that span the last 2,000 years, see Heinrich H. Graetz, History of the Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1898), 5 vols.

6. Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (London and New York) 1964, p. 50ff.

7. Hoods and crosses: Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Ballantine) 1978, p. 113.

8. De Lamar Jensen, Reformation Europe, 2nd ed. (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992), p. 392.

9. For a horrific look at the sexual history of the Christian Church, see Karen Armstrong, The Gospel According to Woman (London: Elm Tree Books, 1986); James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987); Geoffrey Parrinder, Sex in the World's Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Rosemary R. Ruether, New Woman, New Earth (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975); Reay Tannahill, Sex in History, rev. ed. (London: Cardinal Books, 1980 and 1989).

10. Quoted in Malcolm Hay, The Roots of Christian Anti-Semitism (New York: Freedom Library Press) 1981, p. 27.

11. John Winthrop, The History of New England from 1630 to 1649 (Boston) 1853, II, p. 73.