The Triumph of Science Over Religion In the West Essay

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The Triumph of Science Over Religion In the West

By the sixteenth century, the Western experience with religion had turned bitter. The Catholic Reformation, also referred to as a Counter Reformation, was a response to the great Protestant Reformation in Europe during this period of time. There were two elements of the Catholic Reformation. First of all, Catholics were being called for a renewal of piety and of virtue in the form of renewed commitments to prayer as well as mysticism. This component of the Reformation was particularly evident in the clerical orders. The ordinary folks had nothing whatsoever to do with this component of the Reformation, seeing that even the clerical orders were not looked upon as worthy guides. Secondly, the Church was being asked to reform in order to deal with unparalleled as well as swift changes in society, and abuses that accompanied those changes.

There was turbulence witnessed in the societal structure, and one of the reasons why it was necessary to initiate the Catholic Reformation was that the humanists had revived classical pagan philosophy in the fifteenth century, using the new miracle of printing to shift the attention of society from the after life to the present. At the same time as the classical pagan philosophy was being circulated, the Church was going through a period of decline with a desiccation of scholastic thinking. Internal abuses at the Church were also well-known, and these involved simony, the sale of indulges, multiple benefices, and much more.

The Church could not be trusted as much as it was meant to be. As a matter of fact, the condition of religion in the sixteenth century was characterized by turmoil. King Henry VIII of England created the Church of England in the year 1533 A.D. by splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. Around the same time, the French Wars of Religion were waged between the Catholics and the Huguenots in France. How much confusion such chaos would have given birth to in the minds of Western Christians with respect to their religion could only be imagined. Christianity was, after all, supposed to be a religion of peace and unconditional love. The Western religion around 1500 A.D. was chiefly Christian, and the sixteenth century has been described as “probably the most intolerant period in Christian history.”

It was not the scientists that were killed during this time because they came up with new ideas. Rather, in the sixteenth century, there were thousands of people that were killed because they were called heretics. Michael Servetus was only one such individual. He was burned in 1553 A.D., alive, on the order of John Calvin in addition to the city authorities, because he had made theological speculations that Calvin was sure were falsehoods. To put it another way, the religious authorities of the time would not allow people even to deviate in their thinking with respect to religion. Christians of the West were required to think of Christianity in the way that the religious authorities felt was appropriate.

Critical thinking or questioning was not allowed by any means. What is more, the religious authorities themselves were known to be corrupt enough for places of worship to be closed down. Lindsay Clarke reports: In January, 1535, the newly appointed Vicar-General of the English Church, Thomas Cromwell, sent out his agents to conduct a commission of enquiry into the character and value of all ecclesiastical property in the kingdom. Overtly, they were reformers, exercising the new powers accorded to the Crown by the Act of Supremacy: “from time to time to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities . . . which ought or may be lawfully reformed.” But Dr. Richard Layton, Dr. Thomas Legh, Dr. John London, and the other tough-minded and venal officials chosen for the job had no doubt what the Crown expected of them.

It took them only six months to submit for Cromwell’s scrutiny an accurate and detailed tax-book, the Valor Ecclesiasticus. Along with it came evidence of corruption and scandalous immorality in England’s monasteries. Such evidence was not hard to find, for by the 16th century many of the religious houses had long since lost their sense of purpose. The religious turbulence of the sixteenth century was continued into the seventeenth century. The government of England had become known for its harassment of Catholics as well as Jesuits. On 20 May 1604, certain religious men began to plot the destruction of the government after having heard Mass. A priest knew of this plotting, and was made to pay the price of this knowledge later on.

And yet, the religious authorities of the Near and Far East were not facing religious turmoil around this time. Nor were the people of the advanced civilizations of the Near and Far East being confronted with religious confusion. Furthermore, scientists of the Near East were especially involved with their work during the sixteenth century, as for a number of centuries before. The Ottoman astronomer, Taqi al-Din, created astronomical tables in the sixteenth century. These tables were considered as accurate as the ones made by Tycho Brahe in Denmark during the same period of time. All the same, the Ottomans are known to have ceased their support for scientific innovations and research a century later, as their priorities took a shift.

The West, however, continued scientific explorations even after the sixteenth century. The East had maintained its religions. It was only the West that had showed immense intolerance toward different religious beliefs and practices, even with respect to its own faith. Whereas religious authorities stopped Westerners from thinking and reasoning, science opened up a new world to the ordinary people. They were not called heretics because of their new scientific ideas. Rather, people who came up with new scientific ideas were in the company of many others who came up with great new ideas in the scientific arena. Giordano Bruno, Girolamo Cardano, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, William Gilbert, Johannes Kepler, Paracelsus, John Napier, and Andreas Vesalius are only few of the important Western scientists of the sixteenth century.

Besides, this century saw the birthing of Copernicus’ theory, the import of new plant species from the Americas into Europe, and new inventions that revolutionized manufacturing and other features of living. The wheel-lock musket, the helicopter, the spinning wheel, the pocket watch, the diving bell, the seed drill, the camera obscura, the knitting machine, the compound microscope, the Gregorian Calendar, and the enameling of pottery were all brought into the world in the sixteenth century. So, while religion disappointed people, science brought renewed hope of existence through new products and discoveries. No scientist could be killed in the name of science. Hence, science was safely meant to stay on in the West despite the good or bad luck of religion.


1. Clark, Lindsay. “The Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century.” Available from Internet; accessed 31 March 2007. 2. Hogge, Alice. God’s Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. 3. MacroHistory. “How the Idea of Religious Tolerance Came to the West.” Available from Internet; accessed 31 March 2007. 4. Lewis, Jone Johnson. Women Saints: Doctors of the Church. London: Penguin, 1998. 5. Magic Dragon Multimedia. “Timeline 16th Century.” Available from Internet; accessed 31 March 2007. 6. Olin, John. Catholic Reformation: From Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent, 1495-1563. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990. 7. Pollen, J. H. “The Counter Reformation.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: K. Knight, 2004.

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