A Short History of Science and Religion
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Article Index
A Short History of Science and Religion
The Ancient World
The Greek Contribution
Rise of Christtianity
Dark and Middle Ages
Enlightenment
Rise of Science and Philosophy
Galileo, Newton, Kant
Reason
Modern Times
Personal Theology
All Pages

Ernie Stokely 9-25-2007

Flemmish WoodcutHow did science and religion come to the current state of affairs where there are sharp disagreements about things like the teaching of evolution and the permission to do stem cell research? These pages are presented as a very brief overview of the history of science and religion. There are many links off of the SPAFER site that will take you to more detailed discussions of the brief summary presented here. This writing is not presented as being complete by any means, and by design selects those names and events that might best give a flavor to the complete historical story. Also, this writing chronicles the history of science and primarily Christianity. The stories of Judaism and Islam are not covered in detail except as they impact the science-Christianity story. These histories can be found on the Web using key words and a Google search. This presentation has been made to Sunday school classes at Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church and St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Imagine yourself sitting around a campfire 15-20,000 years ago somewhere in the area of Mesopotamia. Look to the sky ablaze with stars without light and air pollution. (Have you ever been out West on a cold winter's night away from light pollution and looked up? It is truly a wondrous sight not to be forgotten!)

The ancients were equally humbled by the night sky, by the rising and setting of the sun and moon, the change of the seasons, etc. The human mind wants to try and understand, to rationalize its surroundings. Thus, our species was led to postulate the presence of mystical beings, a god or gods who had powers beyond those of the human. There is no time here to talk about the evolution of our god concepts, but I heartily recommend to you Karen Armstrong's book, The History of God. God concepts have evolved over the millennia. According to Armstrong, very ancient humans that preceded the Hebrew tribes had a monotheistic God called the Sky God (monotheism is ancient), but this god was apparently so remote he/she was replaced by more accessible multiple gods, and polytheism became the norm. (One of the more popular was a female goddess called Great Mother. Sadly, the female component of our current God model was lost somewhere toward the end of the Middle Ages ... but that is another story!) Monotheistic god notions leading to our current monotheistic god of the Abrahamic religions re-emerged starting about 14,000 years ago. Read Armstrong's book to find out more about this interesting evolution.

Cosmology of the Bible – Science began as an observational (no experimental evidence) description of the observable cosmos, i.e., the sky and the earth. In the Bronze and Iron Ages the sky was thought to be a thin dome containing the stars.  In the Old Testament, God was in the sky surrounded by angels and stars (I Kings 22:19; II Chronicles 18:18). The earth was flat as well and was the center of the known universe, with all stars and planets thought to be moving around the earth. The waters contained all kinds of mythical creatures (see passages in Psalms and elsewhere). Hell was below the earth somewhere, and is depicted differently in different beliefs and in different parts of the Bible. There is little in the New Testament to suggest what the writers believed about the cosmos of their times, but the scant evidence suggests that they either rejected or did not know about the Greek contributions to astronomy, and that they continued to believe the Old Testament stories about the universe. You can read more about Biblical cosmology in Wikipedia here or for more on cosmologies in other religions, see here.

sombrerogalaxy

Modern Cosmology - Let's quickly jump to the present and take a very fast romp through some humbling facts from what we currently know about the universe that we can observe (much of our universe is not observable by us). If we take a string 10 feet long and let it represent the roughly 15 billion years since the "big bang," we see that about 2/3 way down the string (4.8 billion years ago) we have the creation of our galaxy and the coalescence of our planet Earth. Just a short billion years later we have evidence of the first simple single-cell life forms. These were probably archaebacteria that developed around fumaroles in the deep ocean. Life had evolved on earth! That is just eight inches down the 10' string from the formation of the earth. So, it took about a billion years of chemical experiments on the earth for life to evolve. It was just a wink in time ago, or only about 235 million years (less than two inches on the string from the present!) when the dinosaurs roamed the earth.

So, where is our species, homo sapiens, on this scale? How much distance on the string would we occupy? Well, if you take the time on the earth of our species to be about 50,000 years when our current species is thought to have become distinctly evolved from our nearest primate ancestor, we occupy a distance of 1/2 the width of a human hair on our 15 foot string!! We are indeed so very, very recent on the planet.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, a modest galaxy as galaxies go, is over 100,000 light years across. That is the distance light would travel going at 186,000 miles per second in 100,000 years! In our galaxy there are estimated to be over 400 billion stars. Yet, there are 125 billion galaxies in the observable universe. This means there are over 5,000 billion billion estimated stars in the observable universe, more stars than there are grains of sand on all the beaches on the entire planet Earth!

Now let me give you some science factoids at the micro scale. Our spiral DNA molecule (see here for scientific details), composed of nucleic acid base pairs connected together in a spiral, is present in every cell and contains the code to make any cell in our body. Every living cell on the planet, be it bacteria, animal, or plant, has roughtly the same kind of biochemical machinery in its cell(s). There are 3.2 billion base pairs in the human genome, yet there are over 4,000 known diseases that are caused by an error in a single base pair. The human genome contains 23 chromosomes and about 20,000-25,000 genes (each gene codes for one or more proteins), as do most mammals. Plants have 40,000-50,000 genes (more than us marvelous humans ... isn't that interesting?), mice also have about 20,000 genes; in the nematode (C. elegans) that feasts on the roots of my tomato plants each summer, the number is around 19 000; in a yeast cell (S. cerevisiae) that rises our bread there are approximately 6,000 genes; and the microbe responsible for tuberculosis has around 4,000. 97% of the human genome does not code for a protein and we are just now beginning the process of understanding the function of this part of the genome. Between humans, our DNA differs by only 0.2 per cent, or 1 in 500 base pairs. Finally, human DNA is 99.1 per cent identical to chimpanzees. Can there be much doubt about our evolution from the flora and fauna of the past?