Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Science and Orthodox Christianity: An Overview (2 of 2)

...continued from part one.

Science and Orthodoxy during the Ottoman Period

Byzantine humanism ended with the collapse of Byzantium, and the debate about nature ceased to be a priority for Orthodox scholars. Some who had fled to Italy eventually returned to their homeland, where they made a living by teaching; while others, who had already acquired a sound Orthodox theological education and despised the Westerners, would engage in translations, mostly of astronomical works, in parallel to their theological polemics. Yet the sixteenth century in the Ottoman territories failed to produce important works on science—and certainly none that could be perceived as contradictory to faith. Most of the scientific texts that were produced by Greeks were written in Latin, and thus their work was assigned more to the European Renaissance than to the Orthodox world. In the West, Greek scholars contributed a great deal to European humanism by teaching Greek, editing ancient Greek texts, and helping Western scholars discover new gems in Byzantine manuscripts, a number of which, having survived the destruction of Eastern libraries, were carried to libraries in Western European cities.

Only a few Greeks wrote texts addressed specifically to Greeks, and most of these treatises had a practical purpose. A striking example was Emmanuel Glyzonios, who sought refuge in Venice, where he worked as an editor of Greek texts for local printing houses. He was an editor of the Psalter and anthologies of various Christian texts, but he also wrote a treatise on practical arithmetic, published in 1588 and influenced by the tradition of the Italian abaci, that included the calculation of Orthodox Easter.35 Despite the scientific “silence,” however, Orthodox monasteries seem to have practiced the teaching of natural philosophy and basic mathematics, probably as a surviving older conception of a well-rounded education. Damaskinos Stouditis (ca. 1500–1577), metropolitan of Nafpaktos and Arta, wrote popular exegetical sermons on the Bible, together with treatises on nature based on Aristotle, and extended popular Byzantine astronomical tables of the fourteenth century to his own time.36

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, however, and moving into the seventeenth, things began to change.37 In the field of theology, scholars were preoccupied with the new ideas coming from the Reformation. Many of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses coincided with Orthodox arguments against the pope, but some were irrelevant to the Orthodox tradition and others were rejected as totally heretical. It is certain that Eastern theologians paid some attention to the new ideas from the West, especially Calvinism; likewise, Luther looked toward the East, if only for a short period, in search of a foothold against the pope.38

Despite the series of polemics against the ideas of the Reformation, some scholars in the East were actually influenced by the new wave. Among these we find the very head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Cyril Loukaris (1572–1638).39 Many of his treatises were seen by his contemporaries as Calvinist, and his views quickly alarmed other Orthodox theologians, who regarded Calvinism as one more expression of Western “heretic” theology. He had a solid education from the University of Padua, which, as the place where many Greek scholars studied, played a key role in the dissemination of Aristotelian philosophy in the Eastern world. Loukaris, although he did not engage in important scientific work, strongly promoted lay education for the Orthodox of the Ottoman territories; he made an effort to bring the Patriarchal School to a higher standard and to reintroduce the teaching of science. The pro-Calvinist ideas of Loukaris probably influenced his attitude toward science, which he saw as mediating between believers and the Creation, but his stance did not come from his love for learning alone; he also sought to raise a wall against the growing influence of the Jesuits, who opened schools that taught the sciences as a way to bring Orthodox youth closer to Catholicism.

Around the same time, the most prominent figure with respect to philosophy, and especially natural philosophy, was undoubtedly Theophilus Korydalleus (1583–1646). Korydalleus was a monk and the most fervent supporter of Aristotelian philosophy of his time.40 He too had studied in Padua, taught in Zakynthos and Athens, and was appointed director of the Patriarchal School by Loukaris. In Padua he studied Western scholasticism, from which, however, he kept a relative distance, ascribing it to Catholic tradition. Instead he sought to effect a return to the Greek texts of Aristotle and focused mainly on commentaries made by Greeks, all in an effort aimed at supporting and enhancing Greek identity in the Ottoman Empire. This is perhaps the main reason that almost all of his works served as school handbooks into the nineteenth century, although the Orthodox Church, which grouped him with the pro-Calvinist Loukaris, evidenced little trust in his effort to reintroduce the teaching of science in Orthodox schools.41

One of Korydalleus’s main tenets was that Aristotelian philosophy should remain pure, purged of Platonic influences, and should not be altered within the context of a dialogue with theology. This was a major shift from the Neoplatonic Byzantine views of a Plato-filtered Aristotle. An interesting aspect of Korydalleus’s works is his position concerning the conflict between the Christian conception of the Creation and Aristotelian ideas on the eternity of substance. Although in his writings on natural philosophy he seems to be supporting the Aristotelian viewpoint, this caused absolutely no reaction within the Orthodox Church. However, other scholars felt it necessary to close the gap between the Christian faith and Aristotle by propounding a new conception of Aristotelianism. Among these was Nikolaos Koursoulas (1602–1652), educated in Rome and possibly also in Padua, who became a monk and took an active part in the theological debates of his time, in addition to writing philosophical treatises and philological reviews. Yet his main contribution is a long commentary on Aristotle in which he declared that faith and science, in its Aristotelian sense, could very well coexist. He focused on the relation of theology and science and held largely Thomistic views on the relation of theory and practice.42

After the fall of Constantinople, science teaching in the Orthodox world fell into sharp decline, as all educational institutions ceased to exist and the vast majority of scholars fled to the West, mostly Italy, together with their books. Thus the reintroduction of science in schools initiated by Korydalleus was an actual revolution for Orthodox education, and it was accompanied by a renewal of interest in Hellenic literature. But Korydalleus’s science teaching in the early sixteenth century was not concerned with the new scientific ideas of Copernicus and Galileo; the curriculum he instituted differed little from that of the Byzantine period. This is the biggest reason why historians refer to the period introduced by Loukaris and Korydalleus as “Orthodox humanism.” In fact, this was the third time Orthodox scholars turned toward the Hellenic heritage, and each time it came after major political and cultural crises. The first was after Iconoclasm in the ninth century, the second after the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, and the third after the huge political and cultural crisis due to the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and the domination of Muslim Ottomans over the world of Eastern Orthodoxy.

This late humanism of the seventeenth century goes together with the revival of national Hellenic feeling among the Greek Orthodox. After the defeat of the unionists and the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, Orthodox Greeks turned to the heritage of the Fathers, seeking wisdom that would help strengthen social integrity. Many perceived the Ottoman conquest as divine punishment for the sins that tormented the body of Byzantine society, mainly secularism and the pro-Latin feelings of the Byzantine aristocracy. Mystical and Hesychast teachings had prevailed over humanistic thought in late Byzantium, and the cultural and national relation to Hellenism had been neglected. Loukaris and the new generation of high-ranking Orthodox officials were educated in the West, and they were influenced by the admiration of Hellenic culture that European humanism had showed. Thus, they declared that the Greek Orthodox were proud heirs of the ancient Hellenes—an ideology that, although it promoted scientific teaching, delayed the reception of the new European science.

During the Ottoman period, Orthodoxy produced neither great theologians nor great scientists; Orthodox scholars, the vast majority of whom belonged to the clergy, balanced between a sterile patristic tradition and the new European philosophical ideas. These, together with contemporary science, would later be viewed by the heirs of antiunionism as an intrusion of Western Christianity into Orthodox education that would alienate students from the true dogma. Nevertheless, after the Orthodox humanist breakthrough, new generations of Orthodox scholars gradually opened Orthodoxy to the West, influenced by the wave of European modernization, which was bound to leave the Ottoman Empire far behind with respect to science and technology and, thereafter, military and economic power.

During the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century, the discussion shifted from the meaning of science and its relation to God’s creation to the content of science. Among the questions that arose among Greek scholars were: Should the Orthodox follow Aristotelian or Newtonian physics? Should they accept the heliocentric system? Should they be taught analytical geometry instead of Euclid’s? Such worries often accompanied the question of whether contemporary European philosophy—especially Malebranche and Descartes—should be taught along with selected works of ancient Greek philosophy, in particular Aristotelian logic. The position of certain Orthodox scholars, such as Methodios Anthrakites (1660–1736), seems self-contradictory: they remained Aristotelians in science teaching but they taught the new philosophy. At the end of this period, however, European modernity—new science, new philosophy, new technology, and new political and educational institutions—would make significant headway in the Orthodox world, and secularism would be accepted in a society ruled by religious leaders.43

Standing somewhere between the ancient and the modern, many clergymen supported new European ideas within the Orthodox world.44 Chrysanthos Notaras (1663–1731) is the best example of a well-educated Orthodox high official—patriarch of Jerusalem—who was positioned between modernity and Orthodox dogmatic tradition. Educated in natural philosophy, mathematics, and theology at the University of Padua, he paid an educational visit to Paris and came into contact with liberal theologians of the Catholic Church, such as Louis Ellies Du Pin, Alexandre Noël, and Michel Lequien, as well as leading astronomers, such as Giovanni Domenico Cassini.45 Apart from theology, he was interested in mathematical sciences, mainly astronomy and geodesy. He supported the creation of new schools, holding that science teaching is important for believers because such knowledge could assist them in praising God’s creation. He also promoted both formal (schools) and informal (dilettante science for the aristocracy) education. His printed book Introduction to Geometry and Spherics, although it did not support the heliocentric system that was dominant in the new science, introduced to Orthodox Christianity the methods of accuracy in measurement that characterized the new European spirit.46

The Enlightenment, like other important European ideological currents, was altered by its contact with local circumstances and aspirations as it spread to the Greek Orthodox world, resulting in a particular Hellenic synthesis; and, like any other novelty, it stirred large debates among Orthodox scholars. Its influence on the Greek Orthodox communities of the Ottoman Empire can be traced more clearly after the second half of the eighteenth century. It was closely related to the economic growth of a Greek mercantile class that formed thriving communities in European cities through trade with the Ottoman Empire. This social class was the motor of new nationalist ideas that sought to create a Greek Orthodox national state that would identify with the Hellenic tradition, rather than with the ecumenical tradition of a multinational Orthodox Christian society. Greek Orthodox Enlightenment figures viewed the new science as a vehicle for promoting modernity and fighting superstition and ignorance, which they held to be among the principal causes of their submission to Ottoman rule.47

As noted earlier, most of the scholars involved with science were clergymen. Thus, the debate between Aristotelian natural philosophy and the theories of physics that arose after Newton was, to a great extent, an internal debate within the Church rather than a clash between the Church and secular scholars. It concerned the introduction of a new science curriculum that was to replace the one implemented by Korydalleus a century before. Was the new science, born and developed in a Catholic and Protestant Europe, compatible with Orthodox tradition? This question would dominate the debate between partisans of European Enlightenment, who saw European science as the development of ancient Greek science, and traditionalists who felt more secure with a scientific curriculum almost unchanged from Byzantine times.

In 1700 Meletios Mitros (1661–1714), metropolitan of Athens, presented the first substantially detailed exposition of the heliocentric system in his manuscript Compendium of Astronomy. Meletios recognized the success of the Copernican system, for “through this hypothesis a great many issues are excellently settled, issues which studious men should not ignore, remembering what the Ecclesiast said: God gave the Heavens to human reasoning.”48 However, following the middle road, as the Jesuit astronomers did in the seventeenth century, he adopted Tycho Brahe’s system, which he judged as scientifically adequate and which allowed him to avoid issues of conscience because of its concordance with the Bible. Vikentios Damodos (ca. 1700–1752), one of the very few Orthodox scholars who was not a clergyman, expressed the same idea in his manuscript General Physiology. Damodos, a Greek educated in Venice and Padua, was the first to offer an organized presentation of the ideas of Descartes and Newton to the Greek-speaking world.49 Tycho Brahe’s system was also adopted by the most respected Orthodox scholar of the eighteenth century, Eugenios Voulgaris (1716–1806). Voulgaris had studied at the University of Padua under Giovanni Poleni, who introduced experimental physics and Newton’s science in Northern Italy.50 He was close to the Russian Empress Catherine the Great and in 1775 became archbishop of the new Russian diocese of Slaviansk and Cherson. According to Voulgaris, the Holy Texts must be the compass for the study of nature, and the Bible must not be used in a fragmentary way, as it constitutes a unique entity that contains nothing useless or extraneous. Hence, he used excerpts from the Bible to support his choice of the most reliable astronomical system, the Tychonic.51 Like Notaras, Voulgaris, influenced by the new European spirit, also found himself positioned between Orthodox tradition and modernity. Although a supporter of Tycho’s system and the literal reading of the Bible, he taught Newtonian physics in Orthodox schools, as did Nikephoros Theotokis—later also archbishop of Slaviansk and Cherson—who presented Newton’s theory in his book Elements of Physics, a work based mainly on the popular textbook Elementa Physicae, written by the Dutch popularizer of Newtonianism Peter van Muschenbroek.52

Orthodox scholars of the eighteenth century debated all the new ideas concerning nature and the universe introduced from Western Europe. The debate about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe originated from the translation by Panayotis Kodrikas (?–1827), a Greek aristocrat, of the famous Entretiens sur le pluralité des mondes by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle.53 This question was related to the biblical understanding of man as made in the image of God and of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Would the relationship between God and rational creatures living in some other part of the universe be the same? At the end of the eighteenth century, Orthodox scholars held two main views on extraterrestrial life.

The first position was represented by Eugenios Voulgaris and the director of the Patriarchal School, Sergios Makreos (?–1819), who, believing that the acceptance of such a hypothesis might cause problems in the context of Orthodox theological anthropology, rejected it unequivocally. Makreos argued that the notion of the existence of many worlds was intentionally directed against Christian faith and that, if that notion were to be accepted, human beings would have no purpose whatsoever.54 Among the supporters of extraterrestrial life, Rigas Velestinlis (1757–1798) and Benjamin Lesvios (ca. 1759–1824) asserted that the existence of superior forms of life beyond Earth is compatible with the Divine Logos. Rigas, a partisan of the Enlightenment, was a revolutionary who promoted the idea of a Balkan Orthodox state founded on ancient Greek tradition. He had written an elementary introduction to popularize the new physics, based mostly on the French Encyclopédie; there, in the part concerning the possibility of extraterrestrial life, he notes: “If we accept this hypothesis, that God created nothing without a reason, the planets have to fulfill a reason and a scope. Otherwise, why were they created? For the time being, we cannot find any other cause for their existence than being inhabited.”55 Benjamin Lesvios (1759–824), a monk who studied in Italy and Paris and participated in the Greek national revolutionary movement, believed that the rejection of the existence of extraterrestrial life was selfish, that those who rejected it could not bear the possibility that there might be others with whom they would share the Divine Inheritance. He also, taking theological considerations into account, disdained Newtonian action at a distance and accepted a form of ethereal substance, called pantachekineton.56

Despite opposition toward the new science on the part of Orthodox Aristotelians, the schools of the Orthodox communities in the Ottoman Empire did introduce it to students. Newtonian physics was taught by Eugenios Voulgaris at the school of Mount Athos, the very heart of monastic life and former bastion of the Palamists. Voulgaris also introduced Newtonian physics at the Patriarchal School in 1759; at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the main body of European science was taught there by Dorotheos Proios (1756–1821), deacon and first Greek auditor at the revolutionary French École Polytechnique, and the layman Konstantinos Koumas (1777–1836), who had studied in Vienna and was a fervent man of the Enlightenment.57 The reception of the new science by the patriarchate was not a smooth process, however, as at times it depended on political events. Voulgaris, Proios, and Koumas were all forced to leave the Patriarchal School, under varying circumstances, as a consequence of politics followed by the patriarchs, who sometimes formed ephemeral alliances with various Orthodox groups in order to ensure their tenure on the patriarchal throne. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these groups often managed to replace a patriarch with the candidate of their choice—and many patriarchs were dismissed and then reinstated several times.

The emergence of nationalist ideas in the Balkans, followed by revolutions and the formation of nation-states, brought certain Orthodox circles to believe that the new European science, together with the new European philosophy, posed a menace to the Orthodox Church. This anxiety led Patriarch Cyril VI—the one who summoned Koumas to modernize teaching at the Patriarchal School, an institution for the training of the high clergy that offered the best education for young Orthodox men in Constantinople—to support a curriculum promoting philology over science. It also brought his successor, Patriarch Gregory V, to issue an encyclical in 1821 condemning the teaching of science as an alienating element between the Orthodox and their faith.58 Both the condemner of scientific knowledge Gregory and the student of the French École Polytechnique Proios would later be proclaimed saints of the Orthodox Church because they were hanged by the Ottomans in retaliation for the outbreak of the Greek Revolution of 1821.

The Independent National Greek State

The rise of nationalism at the beginning of the nineteenth century menaced the unity of the Orthodox Church and, at the same time, changed the religious landscape for the Christians of the Ottoman Empire. After the formation of the Orthodox national states in the Balkans, relations between science and religion became more complex, varying from nation to nation, each with its own autonomous national church. The first of these national churches was the Greek, established in 1833, only three years after the founding of the independent Greek state.59 The Bulgarian Church followed in 1870, the Serbian in 1879, the Romanian in 1885, and the Albanian in 1922. These developments left the Patriarchate of Constantinople with an honorary primacy that no longer allowed it to interfere in local religious and educational affairs.

The Greek Revolution of 1821 was the first European national revolution to result in the creation of a sovereign state. Born from the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Romanticism, which engendered Philhellenism across Europe, the Greek Revolution succeeded thanks to the support of the Great Powers of the time. The ideology of the new Greek state coalesced around the classical Hellenic heritage, Christian Orthodoxy, and the exaltation of the national revolution.

Following the principle of universal education proclaimed by the French Revolution and spreading across Europe, the new Greek state created centralized education structures, organized and controlled by a special ministry—a concept that had never existed in the Ottoman Empire. From its foundation, this ministry combined education and religion; in fact, it was titled the Ministry of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs. This conflation shows, on the one hand, the desire of the new nation-state to control the Church and, on the other, the persistent notion that education could not be separated from the Orthodox religion.60 In this context, Greek scientific practice was carried out in the newly founded institutions of higher learning, such as the University of Athens and the Polytechnic School, the operating principles of which copied those of French and German establishments. Alongside these, an observatory was established with funding from a private donation. Together, these institutions were to serve in the future as the sites of most Greek scientific activity.61

The Agents of the Science and Religion Discourse in Greece

In the vibrant public sphere that emerged within the Greek state, a number of agents discussed and debated the relation between Greek Orthodoxy and the sciences. We can distinguish four main, at times overlapping, categories: para-ecclesiastical scholars, scientists, theologians, and intellectuals.

Para-ecclesiastical Scholars

After some turbulent years in the 1830s and 1840s, the Orthodox Church quickly regained its cultural and national importance, and a number of religious societies and groups arose throughout the Greek state. These were not directly controlled by the Church, although they had very strong ties with its hierarchy. Resembling equivalent societies in the Protestant world, they constituted a new phenomenon in the Orthodox Church and acted as a “fifth phalanx” for Orthodox interests. The most powerful of these societies, Zoë and Anaplassis, boasted at times that they ran dozens of schools and had several thousand members all over Greece.62 They also published homonymous journals that acted as the mouthpieces for the authors here described as “para-ecclesiastical.” Men like K. Dialeismas (1855–1921) and I. Skaltsounis (1821–1905) wrote for several decades on every topic they perceived to be threatening to Orthodox beliefs.63 These included Darwinism, materialism, and, more rarely, cosmology. Although their ideas never became mainstream within the Church, these men enjoyed the tacit blessings of very high-ranking clergy within Greece.


Scientists were a small group, no more than a hundred people, in nineteenth-century Greece. Working mostly in state-funded institutions such as the University of Athens and the Polytechnic School, they were very active in the Greek public sphere, writing popularizing articles for newspapers and magazines, publishing journals of their own, and writing textbooks for students. As a rule, Greek scientists paid lip service to Christianity and did not instigate religious confrontations. The cosmological, astronomical, or naturalistic articles of university professors such as Th. Orfanidis (1817–1886) and D. Eginitis (1862–1934) included numerous references to an almighty Christian Creator whose wisdom can be gleaned from within nature itself. A number of them, including K. Mitsopoulos (1844–1911), were in fact devout believers, ready to take up the defense of Christianity and the Greek homeland against anything seen as a threat.64 In fact, only a minority among Greek scientists active from 1832 to 1939 engaged in direct confrontation with scholars from religious circles, and this took place mainly on issues concerning Darwinism and materialistic natural philosophy. Another kind of confrontation would occur during the 1930s, when several scientists were accused of being Communist sympathizers and materialists.

Theologians and Clergymen

Clergymen were also active in the Greek public sphere—in many ways more so than scientists. Their public appearances were often fiery and passionate, but they rarely concerned points of contact between science and religion. Similar to Greek scientists, with whom they were often peers as professors at the University of Athens, high-ranking bishops and archimandrites were careful not to engage other prominent scholars in public debate. Their speeches and articles tended to be focused on general apologetics and mild condemnations of materialism. They were also particularly active in discussions about the calendar and its reform, which took place in Greece in 1922–1923 and created a grand internal controversy within the Church. As for theologians, they were a small minority among Greek scholars but, because Greek was the language of the New Testament and patristic texts, their influence on Orthodoxy outside of Greece was not negligible. Traditionally, the Faculty of Theology of the University of Athens had strong ties with the Greek Church, and many of its professors were clergymen themselves or belonged to para-ecclesiastical organizations.65 As such, when engaging in discussions of the relation between science and religion, the publications of theologians like Gr. Papamichael (1875–1956) swung back and forth between views like those expressed in the polemical writings of I. Skaltsounis and those of the milder archimandrites and archbishops of Greece.


The prevailing Greek intellectual and cultural atmosphere during the first century of the Greek state did not put special value on disciplinary identity. As a result, in the primary sources of interest on science and Orthodoxy we see many authors publishing articles and booklets on science and religion without being specialists in the domain. Doctors, Army personnel, lawyers, and novelists can all be found writing in support of or against a variety of issues, from calendar reform to the nature of miracles. Views expressed by Greek intellectuals varied depending on their ideology: some were militant proponents of Orthodoxy, whereas others were vocal and acerbic champions of scientific modernity. As such, this category of historical actors is perhaps the most interesting, since it indicates how the dialogue between science and Orthodoxy affected the more general educated public.

Points of Contact between Orthodoxy and the Sciences

The interactions between science and Greek Orthodoxy were neither planned nor guided. Thus such dialogues took place through a great variety of topics, styles, and means. Nevertheless, there are recurring themes that appear in writings in the period from the 1830s to the onset of World War II.

Mechanistic Philosophy and the Soul

The nature of the soul and its relation to the body was a regular concern throughout the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century. Initially, during the first half of the nineteenth century, the question concerned the workings of a soul in what was rapidly turning into a naturalized body. While not very frequent, articles in newspapers and journals written mostly by para-ecclesiastical scholars and general intellectuals touched on the issue in an apologetic fashion: the goal was to defend Orthodox doctrine against an emerging mechanistic explanation. However, with the spread of the materialist German philosopher Ludwig Büchner’s and the Darwinist German naturalist Ernst Haeckel’s ideas after 1880 para-ecclesiastical publications took on a much more polemical tone.66 The debate continued well into the twentieth century, with treatises against materialistic psychology appearing regularly. While Greek scientists tried to approach the issue from a purely secular viewpoint, perhaps even to disentangle the issue from Orthodoxy altogether, para-ecclesiastical scholars and theologians alike were adamant in identifying such advances as harmful to Orthodox faith and national morals.

Spontaneous Generation and Evolution

Accounts of the evolutionary emergence of life were also central in the debates between science and religion from the late nineteenth century in Greece, as elsewhere. This was the issue that consistently polarized the Greek public sphere, producing a number of political disputes. Particularly prominent in this debate was the exchange between the journal Prometheus (founded in 1890 by K. Mitsopoulos, a modernist who was at the same time devoutly Orthodox, as a “periodical of physical and applied sciences”) and the Orthodox journal Anaplassis. Both sides were unrelenting in the defense of what they saw as a moral and intellectual undertaking. An exchange of pointed articles between the two journals took place in 1890–1891, the period during which the short-lived Prometheus was published, but the issue was raised as early as 1876 and discussed as late as 1936. It is not easy to identify what the sides of the debate were, however. Many scientists, such as the University of Athens Chair of Zoology N. Apostolidis (1856–1916), proudly declared that they would not be teaching Darwinism in their university courses. Other Greek intellectuals tried to defend Darwinism, claiming that the idea of evolution actually had a Greek ancestry. Finally, the suicide of a depressive student at the University of Athens in the 1880s was linked to the teaching of Darwinism, sparking moral outrage in ecclesiastical circles.67 Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, Darwin was deemed a natural ally of the Communist cause by hard-core Communists and religious conservatives alike, and thus attacks on Darwinism amounted to attacks on Communism.

The arguments against Darwin and evolution took a variety of forms. The first line of attack concerned the scientific validity of Darwin’s and Büchner’s theses. For most authors in this period, there was no clear differentiation between Darwin, Haeckel, and Büchner, and they were rejected tout court by religious apologists and conservatives alike. Such scientific arguments were at their strongest in the 1880s and 1890s, but by the twentieth century they were already outdated. Objections were expressed on a purely ethical and philosophical basis, but these were usually accompanied by scientific points. In some cases, certain scientists, most notably the University of Athens Chair of Biology Th. Vlissidis (1866–1964), tried to harness Darwinism as an argument against Communism and materialism by showing, first, how Darwinism had been misunderstood and was in fact not antithetical to Orthodoxy at all and, second, how it proved that Marxism could never work because it was unscientific. Eugenics and survival of the fittest, in other words, were used to discredit Communism.

Magic and Spiritualism

An interesting counterpoint to the naturalism of the evolutionary debate was the treatment of spiritualism and magic. Official Orthodox dogma rejected magic and spiritualism. However, during the first decades of the twentieth century, a number of prominent para-ecclesiastical scholars confronted the issue in an attempt to deal with a growing trend among the urban population, supported by renowned proponents among the Greek literati and intellectuals.68 Seances and ghost-sightings were marshaled as weapons by para-ecclesiastical scholars in their war against mechanism and materialism. They argued that it had been scientifically proven that spiritualism was real and thus, implicitly, that materialism was wrong. They went on, however, to insist that spiritual occurrences were actually a ploy of satanic forces and so should be rejected and avoided by all faithful Christians. Thus spiritualism is a borderline case in the Greek context. Scientists and clergy acknowledged it as an issue but, for their different reasons, rejected it outright. It was scholars working at the limits of the field who found a way to involve an urban craze in their own ideological agenda.

Cosmology, Astronomy, and the Calendar

From its founding, the independent Greek Orthodox Church tacitly accepted the heliocentric system, and astronomy and cosmology became the two scientific disciplines most likely to be put forward to showcase the harmony between religion and science. Not only did astronomical and cosmological articles appear in religious journals with some frequency, but Greek astronomers were particularly cautious regarding the treatment of religion and Divine Creation. Moreover, Greek astronomers, such as D. Eginitis, were often touted as examples of virtuous and religious scientists who defied the materialistic sirens of the day.

The calculation of the calendar was the most prominent such subject to appear in the Greek public sphere. Greece used the older Julian calendar until 1923, as did the Greek Orthodox Church. Discussions that suggested moving to a variety of the Gregorian calendar appeared sporadically throughout the nineteenth century, but they were always discarded for canonical and political reasons. In the first decade of the twentieth century, a movement for a possible reform of the calendar spread through the Orthodox Church, involving the various Orthodox patriarchates and the autocephalous Churches. Greek and Serbian astronomers played a major consulting role in the deliberations, and heated debates arose within the Church concerning the relative strengths of astronomical and canonical arguments. The Greek state reformed the calendar in 1923, and, amid internal and external criticism, the Greek Church followed a year later, prompting a schism in its ranks that is still in effect.69

General Apologetics

Religious discourse was prevalent in the Greek public sphere from the 1830s onward. Greek intellectuals, members of the clergy, para-ecclesiastical scholars, and scientists wrote on a variety of subjects that fall under the rubric of general apologetics. Examples are articles on the existence of God, on the possibility of miracles in a naturalistic universe, and on the theism of great scientists. Such articles and books did not arise out of a need to confront a specific objection but were, rather, elements in a general rhetoric of religion within Greece. Just as morality was a worthy subject for a religious journal, so too was a possible logical proof of the existence of God or the religious views held by Darwin himself. The vast majority of Greek religious publications were not aimed at specialists, experts, or clergymen but were instead put forward to educate the general public. General apologetic articles very frequently appeared as part of this educational effort.


The one common thread in the various specific points of contact between science and religion in Greece was the question of materialism and naturalism. From the first decades after 1830 until well after World War II, most debates and discussions among scientists, clergymen, and intellectuals concerned reiterations of the problem of materialism. Earlier discussions pertained to the relation between the soul and a materialist body. Materialism would resurface in the discussion about Darwinism and evolution, while in the decades between the two world wars the debate focused on materialistic science as the backbone of Communism. The most pointed attacks came from para-ecclesiastical journals and authors and, more rarely, members of the clergy. Greek scientists and intellectuals rarely resorted to similarly fierce defenses of materialism, instead praising modern science and its achievements. Indeed, some even condemned materialistic explanations of science, portraying it as an idealistic enterprise. Especially after World War I, and in the context of the appearance of Socialist and Communist ideas, the identification of materialism with science acquired a political and ideological hue that was well recognized by both sides in the debate. In the end, materialism continued to be the main gripe of Greek religious scholarship on science well into the middle of the twentieth century.

* * *

In summary, beyond the specific points of contact between the sciences and Orthodox Christianity in the Greek state, there was a constant background engagement with religion in most public pronouncements by scientists and intellectuals. While specific themes elicited sporadic, or even continuous, debates, these were always engaged within the context of a general reference to religion and Orthodoxy. Greek scientists and Greek intellectuals in general never questioned the importance of Christianity—and specifically Orthodoxy—for the Greek nation. Especially during the nineteenth century, Greek scientific practice was immersed in the cultural and ideological norms of the era. These included a reverence for all the “pillars of Hellenism,” one of which was Orthodoxy, alongside language and the ideal of classical Greece.70 Thus, for many decades—indeed, until after World War I—Greek scientists and intellectuals made constant implicit and explicit references to Christianity, in a respectful and approving manner. It was only in the years just before World War II, when an atmosphere of polarization arose between a Communist academic minority and the rest of the state apparatus, that we see any kind of systematic dismissal of Orthodoxy. Even these cases, however, were rare, and the focus was a desire for the secularization of science rather than specific hostility to the Church as such.

Interestingly enough, religious and para-ecclesiastical scholars showed the same reverence toward science in their arguments that scientists showed for religion in theirs. Very rare are the cases where scientific arguments were dismissed solely on theological grounds—or even on moralistic grounds. Greek apologists took great pains to invoke contrary scientific assertions, the opinions of respected scientists, and detailed experimental results to show that, in fact, theories like evolution are wrong on scientific grounds. Thus in their articles and speeches they harnessed scientific rhetoric and argumentation, from which they went on to make ethical and moral condemnations.


Throughout the centuries, the relations between Orthodox Christianity and science have had a dynamic and complex character. This complexity is attested not only by the variety and the number of relevant texts but also by the various and multiple identities of the people who produced them. From the first encounters of Eastern Christianity with science to our own time, we have witnessed a sort of pendulum movement concerning secular knowledge about nature and the universe. This movement goes from a rational approach to nature in order to glorify God’s creation to various mystical approaches that deny the intermediation of science between man and the created world.

Indeed, the intermediation of science between believers and creation, so evident in Western Christianity at least since the late Middle Ages, was a controversial matter in the East. Down through the ages, the stress placed on divine grace as the key notion in the Orthodox doctrine of salvation led to an emphasis on theosis—deification. The theological concept of deification was identified with an ascetic ideal that emphasized a kind of dismissal of the physical world, associated with an undervaluation of discursive and demonstrative reason. Thanks to this dominant spirituality—and up until the ascendance of modernity in the nineteenth century—science and secular knowledge were not conceived by mainstream Orthodoxy as an indispensable intermediary stage in the process of human union with God.


35 On the first edition of his book see Émile Legrand, Bibliographie héllenique; ou Description raisonée des ouvrages publiés par des Grecs aux XVème et XVIème siècles, Vol. 4 (Paris: Guilmoto, 1906), p. 167.

36 The sermons were first published as Damasceni Biblion quod dicitur Thesaurus: Sermonum (Venice, 1568). The book was translated into Turkish in 1731 (Karamanli edition), as well as into Russian and Bulgarian. On Damaskenos see Gerhard Podskalsky, “Damaskenos Studites,” in Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. Walter Kasper (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1994), Vol. 2, p. 1381.

37 For the discussion regarding nature in the sixteenth–seventeenth century see Konstantinos Petsios, Ἡ περὶ φύσεως συζήτηση στὴ νεοελληνικὴ σκέψη: Ὄψεις τῆς φιλοσοφικῆς διερεύνησης ἀπὸ τὸν 15ο ὣς τὸν 19ο αἰώνα [The Conversation about Nature: Views of Philosophical Inquiry from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century] (Ioannina: Hetaireia Epirotikon Meleton, 2002).

38 For an overview of Martin Luther’s effort to open a channel of communication with the Orthodox Church see Steven Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 238–258.

39 On Cyril Loukaris see esp. G. A. Hadjiantoniou, Protestant Patriarch: The Life of Cyril Lucaris, 1572–1638, Patriarch of Constantinople (Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1961).

40 Korydalleus wrote a commentary on Aristotle; see V. Tsiotras, “The Manuscripts of Theophilos Korydalleus’ Commentaries on Aristotle’s Logic,” in Cesare Cremonini: Aspetti del pensiero e scritti, ed. E. Riondato and A. Poppi, Vol. 1 (Padua: Academia Galileiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 2000), pp. 219–248.

41 On Korydalleus’s and Loukaris’s relations to science teaching see M. Patiniotis, “Οι Pestifarae Questiones του Κυρίλλου Λουκάρεως και η ανάδυση του κορυδαλικού προγράµµατος” [The Pestifarae Questiones of C. Loukaris and the Emergence of Korydalleus’ Program], in Βυζάντιο–Βενετία–Νεότερος Ελληνισµός: Μια περιπλάνηση στον Κόσµο της Ελληνικής Επιστηµονικής Σκέψης [Byzantium–Venice–Modern Hellenism: A Survey in the World of Greek Scientific Thought], ed. G. N. Vlahakis and Efthymios Nicolaidis (Athens: NHRF, 2004), pp. 211–244.

42 On Nikolaos Koursoulas see A. Palmieri, “Coursoulas, Nicolas,” in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, Vol. 3, pp. 1983–1984.

43 For the content of science during this period see Iannis Karas et al., Ιστορία και Φιλοσοφία των Επιστηµών στον ελληνικό χώρο (17ος–19ος αιώνας) [History and Philosophy of Sciences in the Greek-Speaking World (Seventeenth–Nineteenth Century)] (Athens: Metaichmio, 2003). On Enlightenment and religion see Efthymios Nicolaidis, “The Greek Enlightenment, the Orthodox Church, and Modern Science,” in Enlightenment and Religion in the Orthodox World, ed. Paschalis M. Kitromilides (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2016), pp. 49–62.

44 For a discussion of modernity and tradition in the Greek Enlightenment see Paschalis M. Kitromilides, Enlightenment and Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2013), pp. 156–174.

45 Chrysanthos Notaras, Εισαγωγή εις τα γεωγραφικά και σφαιρικά [Introduction to Geography and the Sphere] (Paris, 1716), p. 92. For the role of Chrysanthos Notaras in science see Noël Golvers and Efthymios Nicolaidis, eds., Ferdinand Verbiest and Jesuit Science in Seventeenth-Century China: An Annotated Edition and Translation of the Constantinople Manuscript (1676) (Athens: NHRF; Leuven: Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2009).

46 Pinelopi Stathi, Χρύσανθος Νοταράς, Πατριάρχης Ιεροσολύµων, πρόδροµος του Νεοελληνικού Διαφωτισµού [Chrysanthos Notaras, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Precursor of the Greek Enlightenment] (Athens: Syndesmos ton en Athinais Megaloscholiton, 1999), p. 107. For more on Chrysanthos Notaros see Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy (cit. n. 2), pp. 151–154.

47 On the new social and cultural forces see Paschalis M. Kitromilides, Enlightenment, Nationalism, Orthodoxy: Studies in the Culture and Political Thought of Southeastern Europe (Aldershot, Surrey: Ashgate, 1994).

48 Επιτοµή Αστρονοµίας [Epitome of Astronomy], MS 5749, Panteleimon Monastery, Mount Athos, fols. 168a–168b, 172a–172b. See Konstantinos Kyriakopoulos, “Μελέτιος (Μήτρος) Αθηνών, ο γεωγράφος (1661–1714): συµβολή στη µελέτη του βίου και του έργου του και γενικότερα της εποχής του πρώιµου Διαφωτισµού” [“Meletios Mitros of Athens, the Geographer (1661–1714): Contribution to the Study of His Life and Work and Generally to the Study of the Early Enlightenment”] (Ph.D. diss., Univ. Athens, 1990).

49 On Damodos see V. Bobou-Stamati, Ο Βικέντιος Δαµοδός: Βιογραφία-Εργογραφία 1700–1754 (Vikentios Damodos: Biography—Works, 1700–1754) (Athens: MIET, 1998).

50 G. N. Vlahakis, “The Introduction of Classical Physics in Greece: The Role of the Italian Universities and Publications,” History of Universities, 1998, 9:157–180.

51 G. N. Vlahakis, “Philosophy Is the Knowledge of Things Divine and Human: Exploring the Divine Logos in the Milieu of Science during the Greek Eighteenth Century,” Almagest, 2010, 1:124–139.

52 M. Patiniotis, “Periphery Reassessed: Eugenios Voulgaris Converses with Isaac Newton,” British Journal for the History of Science, 2007, 40:471–490; and G. N. Vlahakis, “L’oeuvre scientifique de Nikiphoros Theotokis: Tentative d’approche fondée plus particulierement sur les ‘Stichia Physikis’ (Elements de Physique),” Revue des Études Sud-Est Européennes, 1987, 25:251–261.

53 Fontenelle’s book was originally published in 1686. The Greek translation by Kodrikas, enriched with many notes and additions, was published more than a century later, in 1794.

54 G. N. Vlahakis “H άλλη άποψη: H Επιτοµή Φυσικής Ακροάσεως του Σέργιου Mακραίου” [“The Other View: The Epitome of Physics by Sergios Makraeos”], in Proceedings of the Panhellenic Scientific Congress “Sciences in the Greek World” (Athens: National Hellenic Research Foundation / Trochalia, 1997), pp. 249–260. The main works of Makreos against aspects of new science were the Τρόπαιον εκ της Ελλαδικής πανοπλίας κατά των οπαδών του Κοπερνίκου [Trophy from the Greek Shield against the Followers of Copernicus] (Vienna, 1797) and Επιτοµή Φυσικής Φιλοσοφίας [Epitome of Physics] (Venice, 1816).

55 Rigas Velestinlis, Φυσικής Απάνθισµα [Florilegium of Physics] (Vienna, 1797), p. 40. See also D. Karaberopoulos, “Le florilège de Physique ‘Φυσικής απάνθισµα’ de Rhigas Velestinlis et l’Encyclopédie: Première identification d‘un modèle,” Bulletin de Liaison, 1994, 12:129–139.

56 E. Theodosiou and M. Dimitrijevic, “The Theory of Pantachekineton of Benjamin Lesvios,” Phlogiston, 2011, 18–19(3):7–32.

57 On the scientific teaching of Koumas see I. Karas, Θεόφιλος Καΐρης, Κωνσταντίνος Μ. Κούµας: Δύο πρωτοπόροι δάσκαλοι του γένους [Theophilos Kairis, Kosntantinos M. Koumas: Two Avant-garde Teachers of the Nation] (Athens: Gutenberg, 1977).

58 Ph. Iliou, Τύφλωσον κύριε τον λαόν σου: Οι προεπαναστατικές κρίσεις και ο Νικόλαος Πίκκολος [God, Blind Thy People: Prerevolutionary Crises and Nicolas Piccolo] (Athens: Poreia, 1988), pp. 47–48.

59 Ch. A. Frazee, The Orthodox Church and Independent Greece, 1821–1852 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969).

60 K. Pantelis, Συγκριτική ιστορία της Ελληνικής εκπαίδευσης [A Comparative History of Greek Education] (Athens: Vivliorama, 2004).

61 For some of the characteristics of Greek scientific practice see Kostas Tampakis, “The Once and Future Language: Communication, Terminology, and the Practice of Science in Nineteenth-and Early Twentieth-Century Greece,” History of Science, 2015, 53:438–455.

62 E. Gazi, Πατρίς Θρησκεία Οικογένεια: Η ιστορία ενός συνθήµατος [Nation, Religion, Family: The Story of a Slogan] (Athens: Polis, 2011), pp. 44–100.

63 Biographies and relevant works for all authors mentioned in this section can be found in the NARSES online database, http://narses.hpdst.gr/resources/content. The various topics and articles mentioned can also be searched via keywords.

64 K. Mitsopoulos, Επί τη εικοσιπεντατηρίδι της καθηγεσίας αυτού εν τω Εθνικώ Πανεπιστηµίω 1875–1900 [Discourse for Twenty-five Years’ Professorship, 1875–1900] (Athens, 1901), p. 22.

65 For a history of the Faculty of Theology in the University of Athens see D. Balanos, Εκατονταετηρίς 1837–1937: Ιστορία της Θεολογικής Σχολής [One Hundred Years, 1837–1937: History of the Faculty of Theology] (Athens: Pirsos, 1937).

66 Kyriakos Kyriakou and Constantine Skordoulis, “The Reception of Ernest Haeckel’s Ideas in Greece,” Almagest, 2010, 1(2):84–103.

67 Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy (cit. n. 2), pp. 180–192.

68 E. Matthiopoulos, Η τέχνη πτεροφύει εν οδύνη: Η πρόσληψη του νεορωµαντισµού στην Ελλάδα [Art Grows Wings in Sorrow: The Reception of Neo-Romanticism in Greece] (Athens: Potamos, 2005), pp. 199–252.

69 Michael A. Hoskin, “The Reception of the Calendar by Other Churches,” in Gregorian Reform of the Calendar: Proceedings of the Vatican Conference to Commemorate Its Four Hundredth Anniversary, ed. G. V. Coyne, Hoskin, and Olaf Pedersen (Vatican: Specola Vaticana, 1983), pp. 252–263.

70 Kostas Tampakis, “Onwards Facing Backwards: The Rhetoric of Science in Nineteenth-Century Greece,” Brit. J. Hist. Sci., 2014, 47:217–237.

Efthymios Nicolaidis is Director of Research at the Institute of Historical Research of the National Hellenic Research Foundation and President of the Division of History of Science and Technology/IUHPST (2012–2017). His main research interests focus on the history of science in Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, and the Greek state, the spread of modern European science, and science and religion. He is the author of the survey Science and Eastern Orthodoxy (Johns Hopkins, 2011). Institute of Historical Research, NHRF, Athens, Greece; efnicol@eie.gr.

Eudoxie Delli is a postdoctoral research associate at the National Hellenic Research Foundation. Her Ph.D. dissertation (history of philosophy) was about the relations between Byzantine philosophy and its ancient sources in the work of Michael Psellos (École Pratique des Hautes Études, 2011). Her main areas of research are Greek philosophical tradition in Byzantine thought and spirituality from an anthropological perspective, mentalities and systems of thought in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, and the relationship of philosophy and Orthodox religion. Institute of Historical Research, NHRF, Athens, Greece; euddelli@yahoo.fr.

Nikolaos Livanos is a research assistant at the Institute of Historical Research of the National Hellenic Research Foundation and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Thessaly, Volos. His main research interests focus on the study of the history of Mount Athos and Orthodox monasticism and also on the study of sources reflecting the development of collective memory and the formation of sacred space in Byzantine and post–Byzantine Orthodox monasticism. Institute of Historical Research, NHRF, Athens, Greece; nlivanos@eie.gr.

Kostas Tampakis is a postdoctoral research associate at the National Hellenic Research Foundation. His main research interest is the relations between the history of science, Orthodox Christianity, literature, and ideology. He has recently coedited a special issue on “Science and Language” for the journal History of Science (December 2015). Institute of Historical Research, NHRF, Athens, Greece; ktampakis@eie.gr.

George Vlahakis is an assistant professor at the Hellenic Open University. His main research interests focus on the history of sciences in Southeastern Europe (eighteenth–twentieth centuries), science and religion, history of earth sciences, science and society in the independent Greek state, and science and literature. Institute of Historical Research, NHRF, Athens, Greece; gvlahakis@yahoo.com.

This essay is based on the results of the research project NARSES (Nature and Religion in South Eastern European Space: Mapping Science and Eastern Christianity Relations in South Eastern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean), http://narses.hpdst.gr. The sources mentioned in the essay, biographies of the scholars involved, and an extensive bibliography can be found at the project’s website. The proceedings of the NARSES final conference, Science and Religion: International Conference, Athens, 3–5 September 2015 (Athens: NHRF, 2016), are in press and will be available (open access) on the NARSES website.