Societies live by their mythologies, which become so passionately held that it’s usually risky to challenge them.  Having said that, one major component of contemporary secularist mythology really has to be confronted, because it is so influential, so widely reflected in even the saner mass media, and so totally wrong.  I’m referring to the familiar theory that Christianity is opposed to any form of scientific advance, which means that human progress defines itself in opposition to religion.

Although you can find some version of that view in any number of New Atheist rants, it surfaces regularly in seriously intended documentaries about the history of science, about pioneers like Galileo and Darwin.  When you have a scientist who incontestably was passionately religious—think of Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel—then you have to portray him in perpetual conflict with the constricting orthodoxies of his faith.  One recent newspaper cartoon imagined how much better the world might have been if the Bible had contained a single verse saying, “The world is full of interesting stuff.  Go out and discover it!”  Of course, such a phrase perfectly epitomizes the historic Christian attitude to science.  In large measure, that attitude explains why the West created the modern world.

The obscurantist myth is easy to explain.  If a society regards progress as a fundamental part of its ideology, then of necessity it has to exaggerate the newness of its own advances, while minimizing and denigrating anything associated with traditional attitudes.  This idea was consecrated in such popular histories as John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874):

The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.

Draper’s fantastic polemic underlies the popular vision of Columbus insisting that the world was round, to the derision of ignoramus monks who warned that he would fall off the edge.  In reality, Christian scholars had known for a thousand years that the world was round.  Their quarrel with Columbus was that the upstart navigator thought it was much smaller than they believed, and the Church consensus was dead right.  Nobody could sail 3,000 miles west of Spain and hit Japan.  Still, the myth of Christian backwardness and superstition is too useful to be discarded because it merely happens to be bogus.

But how do you contradict this kind of prejudice?  You can chip away at particular corners of the mythology, as when historian Jeffrey Burton Russell efficiently demolished the “Christian flat earth” myth.  Or you can point to all those great scientists who were Christian—if not always orthodox—and who worked to glorify God.  It was Sir Isaac Newton whose Principia proclaimed that

This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being . . . and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God.

We can never produce enough examples to disprove the overarching theory that the churches always hated science, no matter how many achievements we may cite by Father X or the Reverend Y.  But we can recall and celebrate the core principles upon which they acted, those principles that for a millennium guided the advance of Western intellectual life.

The central idea is beautifully summarized in the title of the work by pioneering English naturalist John Ray, who in 1691 glorified The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation.  Like so many before and after him—well into the 20th century—Ray was grounding his scientific work in a primary theme in Christian thought.  For centuries, the world’s greatest Christian church was Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, which commemorated not a “Saint Sophia,” but the creative Holy Wisdom through which the world was made.  Yes, God demands faith, but He has also left tokens of His Wisdom throughout Creation, and has granted His creatures the intelligence and the desire to seek them and make them known, both for his glory and for the benefit of mankind.  In exploring the world, in revealing the heavens, believers are not violating mysteries that should be kept hidden but discovering those things that God meant to be brought to light.

For Christians, then, science is not the enemy but something closer to a form of worship.  That is the inconvenient truth.