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I often hear that the rate of innovation was very high during ancient times in Greece and the Roman empire. I've also heard that the rate of innovation was reduced once the Catholic Church gained strength. Is there any clear evidence to support (or disprove) this?

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I haven't heard this regarding innovation, but I have heard it regarding science and natural philosophy, where the dominance of the catholic church quite clearly slowed down the progress (case in point: Galileo). – Lennart Regebro Dec 3 '11 at 12:10
@LennartRegebro - Galileo thing wasn't quite as obvious a case of stifling innovation as anti-church propaganda would have you believe (and I have very little reason to like Catholics, so there's no bias there). – DVK Dec 3 '11 at 16:30
I don't have the references or time to assemble them so making it a comment. The innovation rate was affected but not necessarily/always in strictly causative way. The influences were partially economic (there was more leisure time for natural philosophy in Ancient Greece/Rome due to surplus); and partly geopolitical (less resources due to wars, invasions etc...).... – DVK Dec 3 '11 at 16:35
@LennartRegebro - he wasn't strictly speaking sentenced for his research. He was sentenced for telling the Church how to teach scripture. Also, it's not quite that the Church went after him for being a scientist. He was ratted on by fellow scientists whose toes he rather painfully stepped on (not quite Mr. Personality, he), and for a long while, he was being defended by the two consecutive Popes and a couple of Cardinals, who very extensively tried to keep him away from Inquisition - and more likely than not, in the end got hurt mostly due to political reasons. – DVK Dec 6 '11 at 4:38
@DVK: I'm sorry, but I have to say that this sounds like you are making up excuses. The reason he got sentenced was that his science undermined the authority of the church by showing it to be wrong. Obviously this is political, that's the whole point. The church controlled publishing and refused to let him publish a book on the subject, until he agreed to include arguments both for and against. But his book was very biased and made fun of the arguments against, so he ended up in court. That may have been stupid of him, but without the church trying to stop science, it wouldn't have happened. – Lennart Regebro Dec 6 '11 at 8:16

5 Answers 5

up vote 18 down vote accepted

It would be very interesting to see a chart of rate of innovation over time in western civilization.

Of course, this begs the question of what is "innovation". Do you count number of inventions? Do you give more weight to inventions that would have long lasting significance through history? Or ones that may have been less influential but providing a huge impact at the time? Or ones that represented great leaps in intellect? Do you count scientific discoveries as innovations if they had no immediate tangible effect on society?

For instance, the Romans were quite influential and important in Western history, but they certainly did not have anything resembling an R&D department (perhaps excepting in the gladiator pits). Yet they were skilled at productizing other civilization's innovations. Due to their omnipresence and the long duration of the empire they can be credited with a number of innovations yet I would still score their rate of innovation as quite low.

The Dark Ages following the Roman Empire (very roughly 500-1000 AD) were a time of low innovation certainly. A lot of knowledge simply disappeared during these times. This had nothing to do with religion however, and more to do with socio-political factors. If anything, the Irish monks deserve a huge share of credit for their work transcribing greek texts to keep that learning alive in the west.

The Middle Ages (loosely 1000-1500) in contrast were a period of increasing innovation. Part of this was rediscovering or relearning from the past, and I think they deserve credit for this! But this period also brought a number of completely new traditions in agriculture, art, medicine, economics, mathematics, politics, and so on which form the foundations of society today.

What role did the Church play during this period? If anything I would have to credit them as a promoter of innovation, or at least of higher education. The Catholic Church in this period was the only source of advanced education, and in fact many of the earliest philosophers, mathematicians, and proto-scientists were themselves clergy members. Much of the greatest art, sculpture, literature, and science of this middle period was arrived at due to the patronage of the church.

Galileo serves as a turning point. But I think it has less to do with him specifically, nor his particular findings, than the general trend of scientific skepticism and inquiry that Galileo and his peers represented, and the evolution of society to a more heterogeneous R&D environment. More specifically, prior to the invention of the printing press, transmission of knowledge depended upon scribes - of whom the Church had a distinct monopoly; with the printing press, they quickly lost that monopoly and had to resort to more conspicuous methods of exerting authority.

A demarcation point can also be found here. Prior to this, the general consensus of Church intellectuals would be that all philosophy, science, and mathematics could be derived to the Will of God. Any study of these topics could be equated to a study of God Himself. But at this point there was a general view that further investigation into these topics would serve to diminish God or at least increase questioning into His existence.

The Scientific Revolution, which followed the Middle Ages and was more part of (or at least foundation of) the Renaissance, saw the increased involvement of the Church as a reactionary suppressor of innovation. Questions continued to be raised that organized religion could not effectively answer. Thus, organized religion quite naturally shifted to a more suppressive relationship with knowledge. And that's what we tend to remember today.

As negative as I am on the Roman Catholic Church in general, I don't think they can be credited with anything more than a modest influence. In a few specific periods they were definitely detrimental, but in other periods they had a strong positive force.

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Very nice answer, cogently and objectively presented. – Felix Goldberg May 4 '13 at 13:19
+1 - Ditto to Felix's comment. – user2590 Jul 24 '13 at 23:00

Quite the contrary as Rodney Stark pointed out in The Victory of Reason - the Catholic church itself promoted most of the societal conditions that allowed the Middle Class to take hold, and in so doing also promote the nurture of science and industry.

Chief among these were personal property rights (stemming from the idea that we were God's stewards) and equality before God in all judicial matters (hence the rule of law). The ideas for patent and copyright also come out of respect for the Imago Dei in all men.

Stark also points out the explicitly Christian roots of the Renaissance, which stemmed from a religious effort to go ad fontes - back to the sources - first of Christianity (hence the glorification of Rome), then to the society in which Christianity flourished.

Stark spends a great deal of time talking about the factors that eventually led Southern Europe (Catholic) to eventually decline after the Reformation - and these mostly boil down to the Roman Catholic church siding with strong men who could protect the church over against the very ideals for which the church stood.

It's a good read and will make the case very persuasively.

Also, along these lines is How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. There the thesis is that if it were not for the church in Ireland, we would have lost most of the learning and literature of Rome.

If you're looking to make the anti-clerical case, look to Edward Gibbon's polemic Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. He'll make the case, but most historians agree that it is a polemic moreso than a valid historical argument.

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Reading through the comments above, I'm beginning to think the purpose of this question isn't to make an answer but fuel a fire. I'm disappointed, because the works I cite above will provide a lot of the statistics you're looking for. They just might not make the case some people want to make. – Affable Geek Dec 15 '11 at 21:23
I withdrew the downvote since looking back, it was unfair but I still disagree strongly with this answer for several reasons. 1. Christianity was dominant for nearly a 1000 years before conditions finally began to improve. That alone makes it hard to attribute any good changes to Christianity itself. Rather given the Inquisition and cases like Galileo, it seems more likely that the Catholic Church was either helpless (which I think is partly true) or wasn't interested in any improvement of the general welfare. – Opt Dec 16 '11 at 6:36
Further, I'd argue that the good things that the church did accomplish (like preserving the ancient manuscripts, being a center of learning during the late Middle Ages) were not due to Christianity but because the Church was expected to be somewhat of a scholarly institution. 2. It promotes Christianity as being somehow special compared to Islam or Judaism when the substantive differences between them are negligible. – Opt Dec 16 '11 at 6:36
3. Given the historical and modern clashes between science and religion, I don't think the answer really makes a case for religion not hampering innovation. Given Stark's writings against the very well tested theory of evolution, I would personally take anything he writes with a grain of salt. 4. I don't think the answer gives a sense of the different viewpoints out there. One can hold a view not as extreme as Gibbon's which is still critical of the influence of religion on innovation. – Opt Dec 16 '11 at 6:36
Last comment, the historical reason for patents and copyright was to promote innovation. Attributing it to the "respect for Imago Dei in all men" (which I doubt given the monstrosities committed by humans) is like attributing the invention of the nuclear bomb to H.G. Wells since he talks about a very powerful bomb in his novel. I would argue similarly against your other contentions regarding property rights and the rule of law. – Opt Dec 16 '11 at 6:41

The Middle Ages reduced innovation in the Middle Ages. If anything, the Church was the only thing keeping Western Europe literate during that time (and even then, just barely). The fact that any books from earlier times survived at all we have Church scribes to thank for.

Knowledge and the dissemination of knowledge is the lifeblood of what you would call "innovation". They were certianly repressive about a lot of things, and certianly could have been more free and open about information, but without the Catholic Church all literary activity in Europe, including the preservation of old knowledge, would have ceased completely.

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The church destroyed all non-liturgical writing to begin with. Most of what we have of the Classics were translated back into greek and latin from Aramaic and Arabic after the crusades and the reconquista. Even then, the non-aristotelian classics were suppressed until the Renaissance. The church was very thorough in stamping down heresy - any scholarly work that didn't toe the line was destroyed and its author disciplined or worse. The large body of medieval secular literature puts lie to the claim the church kept writing alive. – RI Swamp Yankee Jun 20 '12 at 19:11
@RISwampYankee - Perhaps. But considering pretty much all "scholarly work" done in Europe before the Renaissance was being done by members of the Clergy, the fact that they didn't allow some things cannot be used to wipe out the fact that they did allow others. Without them it would have been nothing. – T.E.D. Jun 20 '12 at 21:07
@RISwampYankee - "The large body of medieval secular literature puts lie to the claim the church kept writing alive." How so? As in your answer, above, this statement is a non sequitur - you have proved nothing. Who were those writers of secular literature? Where/how did those writers learn how to write? "Large Amount"? Where are your statistics? By whose standards? What is the amount of written secular literature per capita vs other times? Vs religious literature? As in your answer, you have stated a meaningless, unsubstantiated assertion, that proves nothing with respect to the question. – user2590 Aug 1 '13 at 21:13

The greatest destruction of knowledge caused by Christianity occurred much earlier at the start of the dark ages. The burning of the library at Alexandria and the murder of Hypatia (she was skinned alive with oyster shells) is but one famous example of the damage wrought at that time by christian mobs. These were made up of people who expected the world to end any day and who had often given away all their possessions to follow some wandering preacher. They moved across the countryside like a plague of locusts and were very destructive. As most couldn't read they burned pretty much anything written just in case it might be heretical and killed anyone who could write in case they might be a heretic or witch. The church ironically was responsible for saving much written material from these mobs as only they had the authority to turn the mobs away. While the church was mostly concerned with saving records of early church history they saved many other documents in the process.

In the middle ages the church was more interested in controlling and suppressing knowledge rather than outright destroying it. Ironically Galileo appeared towards the end of this period when knowledge was starting to escape from church control.

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Hypatia was killed by order of the Church for being a scientist who dared to believe things that were contrary to Holy Scripture... and so was Giordano Bruno. In between, there were a lot of people killed and documents declared heretic.

Then there is the Index Liborum Prohibitorum - an Index of Prohibited Books - that made scientific texts like Kepeler's unavailable in Catholic countries from the creation of the printing press until well into the 18th century.

Let's look at some of the scientists banned by the Index:

  • Pascal
  • Bacon
  • Copernicus
  • Galileo
  • Hume

So, there's some direct evidence, altho the Index is more early modern than medieval.

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Bruno was sentenced for his anti-church philosophy rather than cosmology and Galileo really fell foul of party politics. The others were mostly banned because they were in protestant countries after the reformation, rather like the US communist book banning in the 60s. By the 18C the church's power to really effect anything was declining. – none Jun 20 '12 at 21:36
@mbg - More importantly in my book, the 18C is long after the Middle Ages. RIY does admit that, but IMHO it doesn't belong in an answer for that reason. Also Hypatia was killed before the Middle Ages, so she also doesn't belong here. Bruno was after the Middle Ages, so he doesn't either. (Note: Still not downvoting. Its not a bad answer, just one where almost all the content should be removed :-) ). – T.E.D. Jun 20 '12 at 22:20
+1 for Hypatia. Although the real reason (as usual) are a little more complicated. See Maria Dzielska's biography for more information. – Sardathrion Jun 22 '12 at 12:20
It is a stretch to say Hypatia was "killed by order of the Church". The Church simply had no such power in Roman Empire, even after Christianity became the state religion. Hypatia was killed by a mob because of her perceived connection to the prefect of Alexandria. – Nemanja Trifunovic Sep 12 '12 at 12:33
-1:"direct evidence... more early modern than medieval. " 1) you have refuted your own answer with this remark.(see Bryce's answer) 2) No 'direct evidence' here: The banning of certain books does not prove anything with respect to the 'reduction of innovation': Explain how the banning of those books impacted innovation in concrete ways. And in spite of the church bans, it's obvious from the history of science that these books were printed, read and spread throughout the western world, resulting in great innovations. So one can argue that influence of any Church here was effectively moot. – – user2590 Jul 24 '13 at 23:15

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