A toy from roughly the time of Jesus shows what little Christianity did to improve society when it had the chance.
In the first century CE, Hero of Alexandria described the aeolipile, a steam-powered toy. It was a hollow metal sphere that rotated on an axle. The axle was hollow and carried steam into the sphere from a boiler below. The steam exited the sphere through two jets, which made it spin.
Remarkably, this steam turbine was never more than a curiosity. The Roman Empire built roads, bridges, coliseums, temples, and aqueducts that weren’t surpassed for centuries. If they had applied their engineering ingenuity to the ideas latent in this toy, the Romans might have developed steam-driven machinery 1700 years before the Industrial Revolution.
With the Christianization of the Empire in the fourth century, Christianity had the opportunity to improve the lot of its flock. Where was its Industrial Revolution? Where at least was the blossoming of a new, nurturing society driven by scientific innovation?
The Bible promised that God’s people would be vastly more prosperous than others. Jesus said, “No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age.” God said, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse … and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”
The period when Christianity was in charge in Europe didn’t stand out for the flowering of science and technology. There was innovation during the medieval period (eyeglasses, the water wheel, metal armor and gunpowder weapons, castles, crop rotation, and others), but that was in spite of Christianity, not because of it. In fact, much of this wasn’t native innovation but the adoption of foreign inventions.
The ledger on social improvement is also uninspired. For example, European countries didn’t outlaw slavery until 1500 years after Christianity took charge of European morality. Laws against slavery passed despite the teachings of the Bible, not in keeping with them.
Christianity could drive innovation if it wanted to. Consider the remarkable period of cathedral building beginning in the thirteenth century and the Church’s patronage of art during the Renaissance. But the technological and scientific advances driven by the Church were just to glorify itself. Any benefit to the people was inadvertent, and creating a better society wasn’t a goal of the church.
Science, not religion, delivered the health and prosperity that we have today. A peasant living in Europe in the year 1100 would have noticed little improvement a century later. Contrast that with the enormous jump between a century ago and today.
Christianity looks like just another human institution. There’s no evidence that it channels the power of the Creator of the universe.
Continue to chapter 5.
Image credit: Wikimedia, public domain
“No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me”: Mark 10:29–30.
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse … and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven”: Malachi 3:10.
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