There is a template that many books on science or science history follow when they touch upon the relations of science and religion: Bold Scientist Persecuted by the Church for Thinking New Thoughts. The Galileo case does to a large extent fit the template, but few if any other cases do. Darwin was not persecuted by any church and was buried with great honor in Westminster Abbey. Giordano Bruno was not burned at the stake for believing in a plurality of worlds, as suggested by countless books on astronomy. Teilhard de Chardin was not disciplined by the Church because he believed in evolution. (The June 30, 1962, monitum of the Holy Office explicitly said that that it was "prescinding from a judgment about those points that concern the positive sciences.") On and on goes the list of manufactured martyrs to scientific truth at the hands of bigoted ecclesiastics.
However, we religious folk deserve a lot of the blame for the distortions of scientific history, because we have allowed the real story to go largely untold, when we ought to be at the forefront in telling it. Most people, including most scientists, do not realize that the majority of the great founders of modern science, up until at least the middle of the nineteenth century, were religious believers and often very devout. This includes such giants as Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Lavoisier, Faraday, Maxwell, and Pasteur. Even less well known is that many important scientific discoveries were made by clergymen. Everyone knows about Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who founded modern genetics, but there are numerous other examples: One of the two founders of the Big Bang theory was a Belgian priest/physicist named Georges Lemaître . The first asteroid was discovered by a priest named Giuseppe Piazzi . Fr. René-Just Häuy is called the "father of crystallography." Fr. Christoph Scheiner was one of the discoverers of sunspots and discovered the rotation of the sun on its axis.
An extremely important effect in physics called the "diffraction" of light was discovered by Fr. Francesco Grimaldi in the seventeenth century (something no physics textbook that I have ever seen bothers to mention, so that few scientists are aware of it). One of the top biologists in the world in the eighteenth century was Fr. Lazzaro Spallanzani . Among his many accomplishments was to disprove the theory of "spontaneous generation." (Pasteur later made use of Spallanzani’s work in doing his own famous experiments disproving spontaneous generation.)
Fr. Marin Mersenne is considered the "father of acoustics." Many of the basic facts about wave motion and sound that are taught in freshman physics courses were discovered by Mersenne (though, again, textbooks never mention this). The first "binary star" was discovered by Fr. Giovanni Riccioli . One of the founders of modern astrophysics was Fr. Angelo Secchi . Priests also figure prominently in the history of mathematics, including Nicholas Oresme , fourteenth-century bishop of Lisieux, who was the first to graph mathematical functions and who discovered how to combine exponents (he also had important ideas in physics); Girolamo Saccheri , a forerunner of non-Euclidean geometry; Francesco Cavalieri , who made important contributions to the foundation of integral calculus; and Bernhard Bolzano , one of the people who helped put calculus and the theory of real numbers on a more rigorous basis.
One of the most impressive priest/scientists is Niels Stensen (also known as Nicolaus Steno). Stensen, who lived in the mid-seventeenth century, made major contributions to four branches of science: anatomy, geology, paleontology, and crystallography. He is considered, in fact, one of the founders of the science of geology. It is his theories of the origin of geological strata that unlocked the history of the earth. Stensen was a convert to Catholicism who became a priest and eventually a bishop. As a bishop he was known for his severe asceticism and his labors on behalf of the poor. In 1988, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Fortunately, there is a wonderful biography of Stensen that came out in 2003, entitled The Seashell on the Mountaintop: How Nicolaus Steno Solved an Ancient Mystery and Created a Science of the Earth . The author, Alan Cutler, does not seem to be religious himself, but takes pains to counteract the very slanted conventional picture of the relationship between science and religion. It is a wonderfully readable book. One can only hope that this book is part of a trend that will bring to the attention of scientists and the general public the glorious record of religious believers and of the Church in science.
(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)