Niall Ferguson is wrong to suggest that Christianity stifles scientific enquiry

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (probably the most photogenic city in the world). AP Photo/Murad Sezer

Television is a pretty crude medium, a blunt instrument that beats the subtlety out of most subjects. It was easy to be seduced by the latest episode of Civilization: Is the West History? Fronted by Professor Niall Ferguson, the second episode showed some lovely shots of Istanbul, which must be the world’s most photogenic city, and purported to examine, among other things, the reasons for the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

It was lovely to watch, but the viewer, lulled into an oriental reverie, was in some danger of being misled into thinking that the decline of the Ottomans was something to do with religion. It was not. What the professor showed was that at a certain point in Ottoman history, the rulers of the Empire turned their backs on science, at the behest of the powerful Muslim religious establishment (he makes the point at approximately 22 minutes in). Moreover, this happened at just the moment, in 1580, when the churches in the West “were relaxing their grip on free public enquiry”, and thus leaving the West to draw ahead of the hitherto more advanced Turks. The implication is that religion made all the difference: the West, secular and advancing; the Ottomans, religious and stagnant.

But these polarities are misleading. Western scientific advances had little to do with the decline of religion, or religion being shunted off into the private sphere. In fact religious enquiry and scientific enquiry often went together in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance was a religious movement as much as an intellectual one. And in 1580 there was little sign of anyone in Europe getting less religious; in fact quite contrary – most of the continent was in the grip of religious fervour and religious wars raged until 1648 at least. As for the Turks falling into decline because of falling behind in science – that is true enough, but the same fate befell the Chinese, who were not Muslim. The real question here is a difficult one: is Islamic culture hospitable to scientific advancement or hostile to it?

On the one hand yes: the early Islamic world was scientifically advanced and was the first to rediscover Aristotle after the dark ages. On the other hand, a place like Afghanistan under the Taliban was truly a cultural desert. So the real question is in fact: is the co-existence of Islamic culture and scientific enquiry purely accidental? That is to say, when one observes a scientifically advanced Islamic culture, is that culture scientifically advanced because it is Muslim, or despite the fact that it is Muslim? Who were the truer Muslims, great scholars like Averroes, or the dunderheads in Istanbul who disapproved of printed books and astronomy? Is there anything in Islam per se that discourages intellectual enquiry, and in particular scientific enquiry?

To answer that question, you would have to examine the Muslim understanding of revelation, something I am not qualified to do. One who has given an answer is the radical Italian priest Gianni Baget Bozzo, whose Di fronte all’islam: il grande conflitto, Genova, Marietti, 2001, is sadly not translated into English. But one can tackle the professor’s seemingly throwaway point that the West’s scientific advances were connected to the decline of ecclesiastical power. Whatever one thinks of the Galileo case, one simply cannot link Christianity with obscurantism except accidentally. There is nothing in the Christian revelation that discourages scientific enquiry; rather there is plenty that encourages it. Try the 18th psalm for starters. Again, the concept of revelation the Church teaches does not make scientific research redundant. We can never claim, and we simply do not believe, that because God has spoken we can do without science. God has spoken, but the world has its own meaning too. He created it, but he created it with its own autonomy. To believe in God is not to think the world unimportant or unworthy of attention. Quite the contrary. The professor seems to believe in a dichotomy between God and world, a dichotomy that does not exist. You do not have to plump for one or the other. It’s never either/or; it’s always both/and.

As for the Turks and their decline, that is a huge subject I will tackle another day.