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The Origins of the Conflict between Science and Religion in Ancient Greece

This monograph proposes the thesis that the modern conflict between science and religion had its origins in ancient Greece at the time that the first sciences were discovered c. 500 BCE. The focus is on the science of astronomy which is usually considered the oldest science. Many contemporary scholars argue that the conflict between science and religion originated with Galileo and the Catholic Church. This book challenges that claim by contrasting the principal discoveries of 16 notables in early Greek astronomy from Thales of Miletus (624-547 BCE) to Poseidonius of Apamea (c. 130-50 BCE) with the unorthodox beliefs of 16 notables of ancient Greek philosophy from Xenophanes of Colophon (570 – 478 BCE) to Epicurus of Samos (341 – 271 BCE).

 

The discovery that the motion of the heavenly bodies were predictable undermined the early myths about the gods and shook the foundations of traditions and religious beliefs. Astronomy was of singular importance in the ancient world because the development of accurate calendars was crucial to determining when to plant and harvest crops. Additionally, this knowledge enabled the navigation of ships to trade with other cities and allowed the computation of time. Most of what we recognize as the key concepts of modern astronomy were originally discovered by the ancient Greeks: the plurality of worlds, the sphericity of the earth, the cause of lunar and solar eclipses, the distances from the earth to the moon and the sun, and the heliocentric hypothesis.

 

Even as the discoveries of the sciences weakened belief in the ancient religious myths, they changed the way man understood his world and diminished the roles of the gods. The historians, sophists and poets attributed to natural causes what had previously been believed the work of the gods, forever altering the relationship between man and the gods. In fact, the beginnings of religious unbelief can be traced to this period. Epicurus was the founder of the Epicurean school which taught that there was nothing to fear from death. The Epicureans, along with the Sceptics and Cynics, founded the novel concept of secularism which, today, dominates the cultures in the West.

 

The origins of the conflict between science and religion cannot be found in the early modern astronomers such as Copernicus and Galileo and their fights with the Catholic church but rather among the ancient astronomers who came into conflict with pagan religion more than 1,500 years previously. State religions in ancient Greece with celebration of the religious festivals were a matter of patriotism – not theology.

 

This book presents a fresh perspective on the origins of the conflict between science and religion written for the general reader. All that is required is a curiosity about how and why the conflict started. A unique feature of this book is that the ancients speak in their own words throughout, based on fragments or complete manuscripts that have survived. All sources used are readily available in local public libraries or through interlibrary loan. The most authoritative translations are employed. This book is not an opinion piece but, instead, merely relates the history of the conflict between science and religion beginning with the pre-Socratics c. 500 BCE.