The legendary myths of the conflict between faith and science
How many of our judgments are born from mistaken perceptions, without questioning them?

Author: Staff | Source:


A widely disseminated perception is that the Catholic Church maintains a defensive and intolerant attitude to science. The presumed fear would be focused on the sooner or later scientific progress would displace religion. Narratives absolutely fanciful contribute to perpetuating and extending this assumption. Suffice it to mention the readers, both Christians and non-Christians, who believe blindly in the truthfulness of the delirious events narrated in novels such as "The Da Vinci Code".

The perception can be defined as the reception, elaboration and interpretation of the information. But how many of our judgments are born from mistaken perceptions, without questioning them? It is precisely in this field that the belief that religion and science are destined for conflict comes into being. Is this elaboration and interpretation accurate? If we practiced authentic history, that is, moving away from the suppositions, placing in the balance the impulse given by the Church to science, versus the misunderstandings and conflicts, what would prevail would be the contributions.

Let's practice a simple exercise: what is the first idea that comes to mind when we analyze the confrontations between faith and science? Surely Galileo. Do we record any other acts of ecclesiastical opposition to scientific advancement? We'd probably stay thinking, quietly. It is not an occasion now to go into details, although it is worth affirming that in the so-called "Galileo case" the church did not oppose science. Indeed, most of the misunderstandings were caused by Galileo himself. In many occasions the Church has regretted the polemics that arose around the teachings of Galileo proceeding the Holy See to rehabilitate it in the XVIII century. In the year 1979 St. John Paul II deplored the moral sufferings to which the wise Pisano was submitted by ecclesiastical organisms. The pope also regretted that these complex polemics, tinged with intransigence by both sides, have induced many to establish unnecessary oppositions between science and faith (1).

Another misperception, on which we want to stop in this article, is the one that affirms that the church was strongly opposed to the explorations of Columbus because it feared that it was demonstrated that the Earth was round, contravening presumed biblical teachings, who claimed that the planet was flat. Is this true? Did Christopher Columbus prove that the Earth was round? Come to history.

In the year 1485 the Genoese navigator landed on the shores of the Spanish port of Palos to promote an amazing company: The voyage to the Indies. Columbus belonged to the caste of indomitable adventurers who were behind a route that would lead them to the East. Applied self-taught, he kept some significant books for his company in his saddlebags. With particular zeal, he had studied one of the most influential cosmographic treatises of his time, the "Imago Mundi" of Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly. With similar care he weighed the "Historia Rerum" of the Renaissance scholar Eneas Silvio Piccolomini, Pope Pius II. Both works shared the vision that the earth was round. By 1492 "all the educated people of Western Europe knew that the world was a sphere," judged the historian Samuel Eliot Morison. "Columbus never had to argue in favor of the roundness of the earth" (2).

Should the Genoese navigator have appealed to two notable clerics to scientifically support his "Company of the Indies"? Both D'Ailly and Pius II were disciples of a tradition of Catholic scholars who supported the roundness of the planet. It suffices to mention Pope Sylvester II (945-1003) and the German mystic Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). "The Earth Sphere" was the title of the popular Book of Astronomy of the English scholastic Juan de Sabrosco (c. 1200-1256), who argued that all celestial bodies, including the Earth, were spherical.

Another decisive influence was the treatise of the Cosmographer and Florentine astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, written in the year 1474, who argued that the "ocean sea" was narrow enough to allow navigation. Colón bonded Toscanelli's claims with the studies of D'Ailly, one of the main lawyers of the "narrow Atlantic" hypothesis, noting the following apostille: the end of the Spanish peninsula and the beginning of the indies are not far away one of the other (3).

The Columbian project seemed to King Don Juan of Portugal reliable enough to summon a "junta" of Cosmographers in order to examine that theory. But the commission dismissed the calculations of Columbus for finding them "vain and founded on the Imagination", because the navigator was unable to support cartographically the thesis of the "narrow ocean" (4).

Columbus achieved sticks as a refugee, as he had failed in his attempt to convince King John II of Portugal about the feasibility of reaching the indies across the Atlantic. Columbus hoped to find better opportunities in Spain, a kingdom that competed with Portugal in the opening of new ocean routes. In the vicinity of Palos he became friends with the Franciscan Friars of the Convent of the Rábida, particularly with the "star" and Cosmographer Fray Antonio de Marchena, who with his relations was paving the way for the navigator to the Spanish court.

In the year 1486 Columbus achieved the long-awaited interview with Queen Isabel the Catholic. Impressed by its constancy and loquacity, and for reasons of state that made the oriental trade attractive, the Queen agreed to appoint another commission of erudite people to examine the Columbian projects for the "Enterprise of the Indies". The site agreed to interview the navigator were the classrooms of the Colegio San Esteban de Salamanca, a respected scientific center.

With the distortion of those events is that the "myth of Columbus and the Flat Earth" is aroused. One of the most enduring lessons in the memory of schoolchildren is that of the fearless navigator defending the roundness of the Earth before a junta of stern and intransigent Salamanca judges, who tried to disqualify him before the Spanish kings as a Person of beliefs "heterodox and adventurous". Of course, according to the legend, the Spanish sages were convinced that the Earth was flat as a stamp and the voyage that Columbus was trying to undertake would lead the adventurers to rush into the jaws of the endless abyss in the confines of the Atlantic ocean.

Certainly all those scholars of Salamanca knew that the world was round, even before 1492, the year in which Columbus attained to complete his "voyage to the Indies", discovering in reality an unknown continent.

The origin of the legend of a Christopher Columbus confronting a committee of obtuse clerics comes from the pen of an American novelist and literary writer named Washington Irving, author of tales of intrigue and suspense as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Headless Horseman". It is worth clarifying that it was also a critical collection of the Catholic Church.

Passionate about Hispanic history, and thanks to a diplomatic position, Irving went to Spain in 1826 in order to study the sources related to Columbus' travels. Finding himself before notes and testimonies of the so-called "Juntas de Salamanca" of 1486, to his regret Irving found that the procedures had consisted of six sessions devoted to investigate on geographical arguments and mathematical calculations of the distances to Scooch.

Finding the somewhat arid arguments for his colorful imagination, the "novelist" defeated the "historian", so he decided to dramatize and decorate the events somewhat, sentencing in his novel "History of Life and voyages of Christopher Columbus", published in 1828, that "ignorance and repression could hide behind the robes of science". The dark Colón, helpless of friends and without any scientific title to show, had to "face an imposing multitude of secular and clerical sages, who believed him an adventurer, and at best, an enlightened one" (5) .

By dilating the imagination to the utmost, Irving describes Columbus as "assaulted with biblical quotations and writings of the Fathers of the Church" who allegedly contradicted the Earth being round: doctrinal points mixed with philosophical discussions and even with mathematical demonstrations. Despite the fact that his arguments about the "meetings" were built on fantasies, Irving allowed himself to falsify the story, lasting the myth of the intolerance of the Catholic scientists and cosmographers.

In the twilight of the XV century, no educated person seriously assumed the arguments of the "Flat Earth." Morison, perhaps uncomfortable with the scant seriousness exhibited by his compatriot, alleged: "The Talavera de Salamanca Commission did not agree. But their deliberations have been distorted by Irving and other authors, reducing their discussions if the land was round or flat. The roundness of the Earth never entered into discussion"(6).

A modern biographer of Christopher Columbus, the Briton Felipe Fernández-Armesto, was more emphatic. Referring to the "meetigs" he argues: "This episode has been the source of countless speculations and incredible legends, including the evil falsehood that the" experts "thought the world was flat" (7).

It would be inappropriate to belittle the difficulties that Columbus had to face in Spain. One of the biggest obstacles was the critical arguments of the "Talavera Commission", which raised serious doubts about the measurements and calculations of Columbus. "The experts, notes Morison, advised the queen Isabel that the" project of crossing from west to east "rested on very solid geographical foundations" (8).

Another Columbian researcher, the Hispanist Hugh Thomas, says: "Simply what Columbus assured about the distance to China and the ease of travel there could not be true" (9).

The story shows us that Columbus defended his company with hard tenacity and constancy, receiving support from a pressure group that was irresistible. He conquered the help of individuals willing to let their voices be heard in the highest instances (10).

Among the friends of Columbus were several clerics such as the intelligent Franciscan Marchena; the monk Jerónimo Deza, later appointed Archbishop of Seville, to whom the Scout attributed the merit of having assured that his discoveries were made in the service of Castile; And the Prior of the Rábida, Juan Pérez, who persuaded the Queen to grant Columbus a last chance to express his plans. Finally Isabel the Catholic accepted the conditions of the navigator, authorizing to "discover and acquire certain islands and lands in the sea". On August 3, 1492, the admiral departed from the port of Palos for his Atlantic adventure, catching sight of American lands on October 12th of that year.

Opinions such as those expressed by Irving allow us to foresee that after years, perhaps decades of research conducted by researchers and historians who prove otherwise, the ancient myths of the intransigence of Catholicism against science remain Stubbornly standing. The story of Columbus and the roundness of the earth are a metaphor for the succession of unsubstantiated legends that seem to have a life of its own, feeding off fantasies. They make up the "urban legends" of the present.

Despite the fictional character of his stories, Irving received the enthusiastic support of scholars such as Andrew Dickson White, founder of Cornell University, who published his "History of the war between science and Christian theology", a sounding work and away from all critical seriousness, which deepened the fable that religion, in particular Catholicism, and science were confronted in an indispensable dispute. "That myth that has become a privileged argument of atheism in its attack on religion", says sociologist Rodney Stark (11).

Both the most diligent researcher and the person "on foot" need not worry when they confront the facts seriously, both scientific and historical. The conflict arises when you try to sustain an affirmation from wrong and subjective perceptions, in order to promote an ideological postulate. As Pope Benedict XVI said a few years ago in a beautiful reflection: "Scientists and researchers do not need to renounce their faith or their reason; rather, both must be valued in reciprocal fecundity" (12).


1.S.S. John PAUL II, speech to the Academy of Sciences, 10/11/1979.
2.Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America, Oxford University Press, New York 1974, p. 27.
3. Salvador de Madariaga, life of the very magnificent Mr. Christopher Columbus, Sudamericana, Buenos Aires 1942, p. 144.
4. Samuel Eliot Morison, Ob. cit., p. 31Ver Washington Irving. Columbus: His Life and Voyages, Putman and Sons, New York 1914, p. 35.
5.Morison, Ob cit., p. 38.
6.Felipe Fernández-Armesto. Colón, Folio, Madrid 2004, p. 88.
7. Ob. cit., p. 40.
8. Hugh Thomas. The Spanish Empire. From Colón to Magallanes, Planeta, Barcelona 2003, p. 81.
9. Samuel Eliot Morison, Ob. cit., p. 39
10. Rodney Stark.False Conflict: Christianity Is Not Only Compatible with Science, it created it, in The American Enterprise, October-November, 2003.
11. S.S. Benedict XVI. Solemnity of the Epiphany, 6/1/2009


Share on Google+

Inappropriate ads? |

Another one window