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Religious conflicts:

Other past conflicts, now settled: about
science, interest on money, lightning,
anesthetics, inoculations, earth's shape.
Active conflicts: Abortion, birth control,
LGBT rights, spanking children.

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This is continued from a previous essay

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Some conflicts from past centuries that are now settled (Cont'd):

  •  Other battles were fought between science and religion:

    • Roger Bacon (13th Century) was imprisoned for 14 years for his experiments in time pieces, optics, chemical extractions, refraction of light, etc.

    • John Barillon (14th Century) was jailed because he possessed chemical furnaces and apparatus.

    • Antonio de Dominius (15th Century) was murdered by the Inquisition for his experiments into the properties of light.

    • Theologians believed that we see lightning before thunder because "sight is nobler than hearing."

    • The Greek Pythagoreans believed that the number seven pointed symbolically to the union of the Deity with the universe. This association was picked up by the Christian church, especially during the Middle Ages. Seven was regarded as having sacred power, as in the seven cardinal virtues, seven deadly sins, seven sacraments, seven churches mentioned in the last book in the Bible, Revelation, etc. Thus it was held that there must logically be exactly seven planets. Most astronomers considered Pluto to be the ninth planet, until 2006-AUG when, by a majority vote by the International Astronomical Union's (IAU), its status was reduced to a "dwarf planet," leaving only eight planets. 1

    • Religious leaders believed for a time that a vacuum was impossible, because a vacuum implies nothing; that would mean that there would be at least a small area of the universe where God was not present. That was believed to be theologically impossible.
  • Interest on money:

    Leviticus 25:36, Deuteronomy 23:19, Psalms 15:5 and Luke 6:35 prohibit interest payments on loans. This policy was carried over from Judaism into Christianity. The rationale given by theologians was based on "natural law:" Only living entities can grow. Since money is not alive, it must remain fixed in size. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas lent their support. Usury was defined as the charging of any interest whatsoever by 28 councils of the Church and by 17 popes. Pope Clement V made it a heresy to even suggest that the idea of interest could be acceptable.

  • Fortunately, the Protestant reformer -- Calvin -- argued that usury really meant oppressively high interest rates. The Roman Catholic church reluctantly followed the Protestant lead. By the 19th century, interest had become a non-issue.

  • Lightning:

    The churches had always held that Satan, the "Prince of the Power of the Air", controlled all lightning and thunder. But in 1752, Franklin's experiment during a thunder storm proved that lightning was an electrical phenomenon. He was lucky. The experiment was replicated by an experimenter in France, who died from electrocution.

    Lightning rods were a logical development; they protected buildings wherever they were installed. Unfortunately, to install a "heretical rod" was to admit that centuries of theological teachings were false. Churches were reluctant to use them. Seventeen years after Franklin's experiment, lightning struck the unprotected Church of San Nazaro, near Venice. This ignited 200,000 pounds of powder which had been stored there for safe keeping. The explosion wiped out one sixth of the city of Brescia and killed 3,000 people. Lightning rods soon appeared on spires across Italy.

  • Anesthetics during childbirth:

    In 1846 James Simpson, a Scottish physician promoted the use of chloroform to relieve pain during childbirth. This was opposed by the Church, citing Genesis 3:16 "...I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children". The avoidance of pain during childbirth was seen as thwarting God's will. Fortunately, Simpson found a competing passage (Genesis 2:21) which describes the first surgical operation on a human; it seems to support the use of anesthetic: "...God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam.....he took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh.." In time, the Church's opposition dissipated; pain killers and anesthetics have since lost their religious significance.

  • Childhood inoculations:

    Early in the 17th Century, physicians in France and Great Britain promoted inoculations to prevent small pox. Theologians were quick to respond. Rev. Edward Massy in England preached a sermon blaming the distemper experienced by Job in the Bible upon an inoculation by Satan. Other clergy preached that the technique was being promoted by evil sorcerers and atheists. Smallpox was regarded as "a judgment of God on the sins of the avert it is but to provoke him more". Inoculation was "an encroachment on the prerogatives of Jehovah, whose right it is to wound and smite."

    Jenner's development of vaccination was similarly opposed on religious grounds. By preventing the spread of disease, they were "bidding defiance to Heaven itself - even to the will of God." In 1885, a serious epidemic of smallpox broke out in Montreal Canada. Few Protestants died because they had been mostly vaccinated. However the Roman Catholic clergy were generally opposed to the practice; they felt that God had intended a certain percentage of children to die and that God's intent should not be interfered with. Their parishioners died needlessly, and in great numbers.

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  • Birth control:

    Birth Control appears (at most) only once in the Bible. See Genesis 38:1-10: Judah (circa 1730 BCE) had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. The eldest son, Er, was "wicked in the sight of the Lord", and so God killed him. This placed the responsibility on the next eldest son to marry Er's widow, Tamar, and to have a male child. The child would then be considered the son of Er.

    Onan married the widow, but was unwilling to conceive a child which would not be considered his own. He practiced an elementary and unreliable form of birth control (coitus interruptus). God did not approve of this, and so He killed Onan as well. It is not clear whether God disapproved of Onan's refusal to follow Jewish custom and provide an heir for his brother, or of his use of birth control. Most modern commentators believe the former; many ancient Christian leaders selected the latter.

    St. Augustine (354-430 CE) commented on this biblical passage. He wrote that:

    "Where the conception of the offspring is prevented", sexual intercourse is "unlawful and wicked".

    St. Augustine did not differentiate between coitus interruptus and the rhythm method (a.k.a. Vatican Roulette). This established Church policy for centuries. Interestingly enough, later clerics totally misinterpreted this same chapter; they said that Onan's crime was masturbation, not coitus interruptus. It was believed that God killed him for what became known as "self abuse"; Onanism became a synonym for masturbation.

    The Christian Church's stand on artificial birth control was adopted by the Protestant sects after the Reformation:

    • Martin Luther equated birth control to sodomy.

    • The Synod of Dordt stated that "contraception is the same as abortion."

    • John Calvin said that birth control is "the murder of future persons."

    • John Wesley declared that contraception is "unnatural and destroys the souls of those who practice it."

    All Christian denominations remained totally opposed to contraception until the Church of England took a courageous stand in 1930 by stating that birth control might be allowable under certain conditions. Other Protestant churches quickly followed their lead. Pius XI issued an encyclical in 1930 which reiterated the traditional view of the Roman Catholic Church which bans what they describe as "artificial" methods of birth control.

    Almost all birth control methods can be considered "barrier" methods:

    • Natural Family Planning -- the only birth control method accepted by the Catholic Church, use the barrier of time by attempting to schedule sexual intercourse for those intervals when it is unlikely that the woman is ovulating.

    • Devices like condoms and diaphragms use a physical barrier to attempt to keep sperm and egg apart through birth control pills, condoms or diaphragms.

    • Hormonal birth control pills others use a medication barrier which prevents ovulation.

    In 1951, Pius XII made the first break with tradition. He said that the so-called "safe period" or "rhythm method" was lawful under certain circumstances; however other techniques remained forbidden. Pope John later set up advisory committee of specialists to study the legality of "the pill". Although the committee was stacked with individuals opposed to birth control, the majority altered their opinion during the life of the committee, after they had learned of the worldwide necessity for some means of lowering the birth rate in order to prevent unbearable levels of personal suffering. In 1968, Pope Paul VI vetoed the majority recommendation of the panel and ruled against all "artificial" methods of birth control in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. 2

    Pope Paul's decision was met with widespread criticism from many within and without the Church. The laity in North America has generally ignored the encyclical and is now widely practicing birth control. About 98% of Catholic women have done so at some time in the past and 70% currently do. 3,4 It has proven difficult for the Church to maintain control over its flock in a multi-faith, and highly secularized culture. The family size of Protestants is now essentially identical to that of Roman Catholics.

    This conflict is different from those described previously, because although the morality of birth control it has been almost unanimously settled by the public, it is still an active concern within the Roman Catholic Church - at least among the leadership.

  • The shape of the Earth:

    This is a special conflict between religion and science which we include here because:

    • It is a hoax, and

    • It is still widely believed.

    There is massive documentary evidence that the Medieval Christian Church generally accepted Pagan cosmology developed by ancient Greeks which taught that the earth was spherical.

    However, in the early 19th century, it was widely believed that the early Church taught a flat earth. Belief that the church taught a flat earth became near universal, and is only slowly dissipating today. According to the American Scientific Affiliation Conference:

    "The Historical Society of Britain some years back listed [this belief] as number one in its short compendium of the ten most common historical illusions." 5

    Some sources of the hoax were:

    • Washington Irving (1783-1859) wrote a history of Christopher Columbus in 1828. 6 The book includes "a fictitious account of Columbus's defending a round earth against misinformed clerics and university professors," in 1491. This fictional account was accepted as a historical documentary.

    • A strongly anti-religious French author, Antoine-Jean "... Letronne falsely claimed that most of the Church Fathers, including Augustine, Ambrose and Basil, held to a flat Earth. 5

    • This idea was repeated by two leading anti-religious writers, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, later in the 19th century. 7

    This hoax became imbedded in school books as early as the 1860's. It continues in some texts to the present day. Author Daniel Boorstin, wrote, as recently as 1985:

    "A Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia...afflicted the continent from...300 to at least 1300 [CE]. During those centuries Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers." 8

    The hoax continues, in ever diminishing strength. More details

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Today's debates:

Many "hot" religious debates are active today. Until the late 1990s, abortion access was the main concern among religious conservatives; equal rights for gays and lesbians including the right of loving, committed same-sex couples to marry was the second major concern. The order has since been reversed.

During the life of this web site (1995 to the present time) corporal punishment of children has risen from obscurity to be a major topic of debate, largely because of extensive longitudinal studies that have exposed the negative social and mental health caused by spanking.

If the past is any indication, all of these disputes will eventually be settled. It is unfortunate that the process cannot be accelerated. Many people suffer while various groups within society laboriously work towards a new consensus on these religiously-based conflicts.

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Pluto loses status as a planet," BBC News, 2006-AUG-24, at:
  2. Pope Paul VI, "Humanae Vitae. Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the regulation of birth," 1968-JUL-25, at:
  3. "Most Catholic women use birth control banned by church," Reuters, 2011-APR-13, at:
  4. Rachel K. Jones and Joerg Dreweke, "Countering conventional wisdom: New evidence on religion and contraceptive use," Guttmacher Institute, 2011-APR, at:
  5. Jeffry B. Russell, "The myth of the flat Earth," American Scientific Affiliation Conference, 1997-AUG-4. at:
  6. "Who invented the flat Earth?,", at:
  7. "The Form of the Earth," an excerpt from A.D. White's "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom." D. Appleton and Company, (1898). Online at:
  8. Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers: A history of man's search to know his world and himself," Random House, (1985). Read reviews or order this book

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Copyright © 1996 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-OCT-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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