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Religion and science: need there be a clash?

By Stephen Cheleda - posted Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Religion, in the form of various pagan rituals, existed in Europe and elsewhere during prehistoric times, but the story of creation, which seems to be the bane of scientists, has been embedded in Western culture since Christianity was firmly established in Europe. Creationism was given intellectual weight by Ptolemy’s observation of the position of the Earth relative to the Sun and the other planets. Ptolemy, the greatest astronomer of the time who wrote extensively, described a system of planetary motion where the Earth was at the centre of the universe, and the Sun the moon and the stars move round in perfect circles, while the then known planets move around in smaller circles called epicycles.

Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the world fitted the literal interpretation of the Bible perfectly. Over the following centuries every state and church institution derived its raison d’être from divine authority.

Gradually, observers such as Copernicus and Kepler, increasingly found inaccuracies in Ptolemy’s description of cycles and epicycles: they found that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe, but it moved round the Sun. But how can this observation be reconciled with the profoundly held view that we were at the centre of all creation?


Finally, Galileo with his most powerful telescope and, combined with his accurate calculations, came to the conclusion that the Earth and the then known planets do indeed move around the Sun.

Galileo was a well-known and very influential scientist of his day. His observations, if published, would reverberate throughout Europe, and everyone would question the authority of the church’s teachings. This was not going to be allowed to happen. In 1633 Galileo was summoned to attend the Inquisition, was made to recant his observations, and was barred from publishing them.

However, despite the best efforts of the Inquisition, (the “secret” or the “thought” police of the time) scientific inquiry continued to burgeon in every field of human activity.

At the beginning of the 19th century there was an upsurge in scientific inquiry. In particular there was a great interest in fossil hunting among those who had the means or the inclination to do so. All sorts of strange and huge bones were discovered. How did those fossils get into the layers of rock? Why are fossils of marine shells found on top of hills?

All these pointed to our Earth being considerably older than the 6,000 years suggested by the literal interpretation of the Bible.

The scientific observations of the time culminated by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species in 1859. The Theory of Evolution placed a permanent question mark over the literal interpretation of the Bible. Some claimed that it disproved the existence of any deity.


Yet, in spite of all the scientific evidence, and the determined expositions of evolutionary biologists, belief in creation persists in western cultures. How can this be explained? Like in the past, when the church pontificated about scientific evidence that was not in their area of expertise, are some scientists of today making profound claims about complex human relations, about which they have inadequate evidence?

Science is like an evolving and gigantic jigsaw (if there can be such thing) where every new piece has to relate to what is there already. An important part of scientific inquiry is that one should constantly question a theory.

There are several important claims made by some scientists as to why religious beliefs are an impediment to human progress. These can be summed up as:

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About the Author

Stephen Cheleda was born in Budapest in 1938 and has lived in the UK since December 1956. After working in industry, he became a teacher of Mathematics in 1971. Stephen did an MA in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. He retired in 2003.

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