Faith, History and the Myth of Science

For millennia, mankind languished in the darkness of superstition and ignorance. Technological innovation was unheard of, the ignorant masses living in Medieval squalor, uncomprehending of the world around them. Then Science (with a capital S) burst forth, banishing the darkness of ignorance and ushering in an age of technological advancement and discovery, in the name of Science.

At least, that’s what scientists would have us believe, and this idea has taken root in our culture to the point where it is taken as a given. As a result, people hold Science in such high esteem that anything deemed ‘unscientific’ or that contradicts ‘settled science’ is just dismissed out of hand. Indeed, in the West at least, Science is treated as a god (hence the capital) because of this idea that Science saved us from ignorance. It is the linchpin of the idea that religion, by which they mean Christianity, is outdated. After all, if ‘Christian’ Europe was a backward, unenlightened, superstitious hellscape of knuckle-dragging ignorance, and Science freed us from that, that would make Science superior to Christianity. This is the fundamental presupposition behind the idea in our culture that Christians, and Christianity, are stupid.

Even kids raised in a Christian home can have their faith shaken when they encounter this belief, usually at college. It’s certainly understandable, after all, it’s hard not to doubt at least a little, if your religion kept people in superstitious ignorance for centuries. However, for all of the confident pronouncements of professors, scientists, and edgy college kids, there is actually nothing to back up this idea that Christianity held back human development. Anyone who knows even a little bit about Medieval Europe knows that the history these Science-worshippers propound is a myth, but first, we need to talk about what science (without the capital) actually is.

Technically speaking, science is simply the application of the scientific method. To review what we all learned in elementary school, the scientific method can be summed up as:

  1. Observe a thing (phenomenon, process, expected result, etc.)
  2. Come up with a hypothesis about the aforementioned thing
  3. Test the hypothesis with an experiment (i.e. the fun part)
  4. Analyze the results of the experiment
  5. Refine the hypothesis
  6. Repeat 3-5 until you think you understand the thing pretty well. Congrats! Now you have a theory.
  7. Other people do experiments on your theory to see how you’re wrong
  8. Repeat until you stop being wrong

If this sounds a lot like trial and error with a lot more words, well, it pretty much is. Science (little s) is just trying over and over again until you get it right, but with a special name, as opposed to Science (notice the capital), which is the deification of human reason. If you’ve ever had to troubleshoot anything, you’ve used the scientific method, minus steps 7 and 8, whether you were aware of it or not. Congratulations, you’ve done science. This is what, supposedly, didn’t happen before the Enlightenment, and certainly not during the Middle Ages. However, a few examples will serve to debunk this notion quite handily.

To start with, we have the crossbow which, although the Greeks and Romans had a form of it, began gaining popularity as a military weapon in Europe in the 11th century. Previous to this, bows, javelins and some other thrown weapons were the only ranged weapons available to Medieval infantry. If the myth of science is to be believed, we would expect that these superstitious fools would avoid the new (and really brutal) weapon, especially considering that it was banned by Pope Innocent II in 1139. We can expect that the crossbow was relegated to the dustbin of history by the superstitions of religious primitives who slavishly followed the dictates of the Church.

That didn’t happen. The 12th century saw the crossbow replacing the bow in armies throughout Europe, with the exception of England. The reasons are pretty obvious in retrospect. Crossbows require less upper body strength to draw, and can inflict significantly more damage than traditional bows, including penetrating plate armor. Perhaps most crucial, the English longbow, the crossbow’s only real competitor, required a great deal of strength and years of training to operate it. The crossbow, on the other hand, can be learned in an afternoon and doesn’t require much upper body strength at all.

Everyone, from kings to mercenaries saw the advantage of a weapon any schlub can wield that can punch through a breastplate and kill a man before he knows he’s been shot. It offered the same trade as the guns that later supplanted it: replace skill with technology. Thus, despite the Pope’s condemnation, it saw wide adoption by kings wanting to raise armies, uncooperative peasants seeking to counter knights’ armor, and mercenaries looking to earn top florin (or groschen, or whatever local currency). As if that weren’t enough, the crossbow saw improvement over time with composite and steel arms replacing the solid wood of early crossbows, increasing the draw weight well beyond that of even English longbows. Crossbows continued in service until they were superseded by early firearms, in spite of Papal intransigence, in the 16th century. It also bears mention that Protestants (or as they are also known, real Christians) had no problem with crossbows, and relied rather heavily on them in wars between Catholic and Protestant kingdoms.

The crossbow wasn’t the only example of applied science in the Middle Ages, Medieval engineers also deserve credit for creating the most complicated way of yeeting a rock ever devised by man: the trebuchet. Trebuchets are a mind-boggling abomination of a physics problem, that still managed to be more accurate over longer range than the onagers and ballistae of the Romans, who were experts in siegecraft. Not only could a trebuchet hit its target, it could do so repeatedly, allowing it to knock holes in castle walls given enough time. It was also quite effective on the defense for demolishing enemy siege engines and generally making a besieging army’s life cloudy with a chance of sudden death by falling rock.

I would go on about how intricate the physics of a trebuchet are, but they require complicated math that, frankly, befuddles me. Needless to say, befuddling physics and complicated math (without a calculator!) is not the kind of thing one would expect dumb, superstitious peasants to engage in, especially when they could have built much simpler catapults like the Roman onager. But they did, and they were quite good at it, even though it certainly took some trial and error to get the thing working right.

The same process can be observed time and again throughout the Middle ages. It can be seen in the development of armor, as chainmail is replaced by full plate armor, which incorporates more rounded surfaces to deflect blows and, you guessed it, crossbow bolts. The bucket-shaped great helms of the crusaders fade away to be replaced by more rounded helmets that better protect the head by deflecting blows away from the squishy brain matter within.

Melee weapons tell much the same story as Medieval innovators invented better ways of bludgeoning, stabbing, and generally ending the lives of one’s enemies. Spears and shields gave way to halberds, billhooks and the whole variety of two-handed polearms as better armor makes shields less necessary. Swords get bigger and better as metallurgical techniques improve, while different blade shapes proliferate to deal with different threats. All examples of applied science, as Medieval smiths put knowledge gained on the battlefield into use.

Lest we think of Medieval people as simpletons who only cared about better ways of killing each other, let’s address one of the biggest misconceptions of all: that Medieval peasants were illiterate. Peasants could read in their own native language, there is plenty of evidence of them reading and writing in the regular course of their lives, whether letters, poems, signs, or even small pamphlets. What they couldn’t do, usually, was read and write in Latin, which was the standard for literacy in the Middle Ages. Someone who couldn’t read Latin was considered illiterate, even if he could write in French, English, and German. Needless to say, no peasant had the time or money to study Latin. So it’s a pretty safe guess to say that, by Medieval standards, you and I are both illiterate. Turns out Medieval people were smart enough to make the same statistical errors that our own intellectual elite routinely make.

What peasants did lack for a long time were books. Each individual book had to be written by hand, which made them fairly expensive when combined with the price of paper and getting the book bound. Translating books from Latin would be an extra expense and, since most people who could afford books could read Latin anyway, wasn’t considered necessary or worthwhile. This restricted books to the wealthy who could afford to have them made, and the clergy who could read Latin.

This changed with the invention of the printing press, which allowed them to mass produce books. The first book printed? The Bible in Latin. It was not long at all before Christians like Martin Luther and William Tyndale saw the potential of the printing press and used it to spread the Bible, translated into the language of the common man, at a price most people could afford. Once the Bible was being mass-produced, other books followed, but had it not been for the efforts of Christians working to make the Bible available to all, it would have taken much longer for books to become widely available in the common tongue.

Why talk about any of this, though? What do crossbows, trebuchets, and plate armor have to do with the Christian life in the 21st century? Remember the core of the mythology that’s been built around science: before Science, Christianity kept people in ignorance. If you hold our culture’s common assumptions about the Middle Ages, you might be taken aback by this, and have trouble answering claims based on it. For new believers, it can even cause some doubt, if you don’t know Medieval history. But after even this brief overview of Medieval people not being the crayon-munching knuckle-draggers they are depicted as in pop culture, it has just the opposite effect.

Now, when you hear an intellectual holding forth about how Christianity supposedly held humanity in ignorance until Science freed us, you can be sure of one thing: that intellectual has no clue what he’s talking about. If anything, the widespread availability of books, and the consequent rise in higher education, can be directly credited to the efforts of Medieval European Christians, who saw the potential of the printing press for bringing the Bible to the masses.

Next time you hear a credentialed buffoon proclaiming the virtues of Science over against Christianity, remember his entire position is based on a self-congratulatory lie. Science isn’t the special preserve of people smarter than you, and you shouldn’t be intimidated by people who think it is. Unsurprisingly, people who sneer at God based on their own knowledge turn out to be ignorant fools who replaced knowledge with pride, and intellect with self-congratulation. Don’t let your faith be shaken by eloquent arrogance based on a history that you now know didn’t happen. Don’t fall for the myth of Science.

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