Science and Religion before Darwin
One way of looking at the relations between science and religion is to do so historically, and given the preponderance of Christian writers in the history of European science, from within the Christian framework. Christianity viewed the significance of science from a number of perspectives. Early in Christian history Augustine cautioned that the sort of knowledge gained from examining the natural world (scientia) was both less certain and inferior in kind what could be gleaned from the Bible (wisdom, or sapientia). Augustine was responding to the work of the pagan Greek thinkers Aristotle and Plato, whose writings offered confident accounts of what was in the world, how to explore that world, and how to explain what was in it. For Augustine, such arrogance was to be deplored, and many pagan doctrines (such as the eternity of the world) were false, although he gave credit to Greek achievements where he thought it was due. Instead, the pursuit of natural natural knowledge, and the use of reason had to be circumscribed by the realization that the human potential to reason were puny in comparison to God's power.
A different emphasis is visible in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the great thirteenth century scholastic writer who believed that through the use of reason, human beings had been given the capacity to obtain certain truths independent of divine revelation. Aquinas sought to reconcile the work of Aristotle (whose doctrines he largely accepted when they did not flatly contradict Christian beliefs) and the truths of Christianity, and to show that they were not incompatible with each other. Philosophy could not reveal central doctrines of faith, but it was useful in other ways, such as disproving arguments against Christianity, and in understanding the causes of planetary motion.
While Aquinas was careful to submit the authority of reason to that of faith in contentious matters, some of his contemporaries were less cautious in asserting the truth of certain key Aristotelian doctrines. In 1270 and 1277, the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, had to issue condemnations of certain claims being made by university lecturers, including the statements that the world was eternal, and that certain doctrines in astrology were true. The first claim denied the creation of the world by divine fiat, while the second implied that the planets influenced human behaviour — which if true, detracted from the moral responsibility humans had for bad actions. Although a 'Thomist compromise' (i.e. after Thomas Aquinas) was accepted by most scholars in the following centuries, the tension between the claims of faith and those of philosophy threatened to break into contention.
By the Renaissance, a central issue turned on the claims of the Bible to speak authoritatively about the natural world. The Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament) clearly adheres to an Earth-centred ('geocentric' or after the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, 'Ptolemaic') system in which the Earth sits at the centre of the cosmos and the Sun revolves around it, with the minor planets (Venus and Mercury) revolving around the fiery globe. In 1543, the Polish cleric Nicholas Copernicus wrote a book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly orbs, which offered powerful arguments in favour of the view that the Earth orbited the Sun. A Sun-centred (heliocentric) cosmos flatly contradicted both the Bible and the Ptolemaic cosmos.
Early in the seventeenth century, the Roman Catholic mathematician and astronomer Galileo Galilei argued that the truth of Copernicanism was now beyond dispute and that theologians adhering to the Ptolemaic system brought their religion, and indeed religion in general, into disrepute. Like his great contemporary Johannes Kepler, and after him, Isaac Newton (both Protestants), Galileo argued that apparently false passages in the Bible would have to be reinterpreted. This however, brought him into conflict with the Catholic Church, and after a trial he was placed under house arrest in 1633.
For most Catholics scientists, the treatment handed out to Galileo by the Church was a stain on its reputation, while Protestants assumed that it betrayed the Catholic Church's inherently tyrannical tendencies. By the early eighteenth century most European natural philosophers and astronomers accepted the Copernican doctrine, and indeed would soon accept the much more sophisticated Newtonian system. On the whole, difficult passages in the Bible were understood as being written for an ignorant audience who would have been incapable of grasping the basics of physics and astronomy, the Scriptural equivalent of dumbing down.
By the end of the eighteenth century, most natural philosophers were committed Christians who viewed the Bible as a (largely) true history of humanity. For most of them, atheism seemed ludicrous, for life on Earth was too extraordinary, and too ordered, to have arisen by chance. This was an old view that was often too obvious and deeply ingrained to require defence, but advances in knowledge of the natural world seemed to display even more than before the divinely designed order of Creation. Explaining the grand design of and purposiveness in the world, was known as 'natural theology'.