The Church’s Fear of Math

The study of mathematics posed a serious threat to early Christians. To them it was tantamount to inquiring into God’s mind and as such it was considered heretical. According to Christians there was no way that a mathematician could be a Christian. The two were mutually exclusive. This was as a result of the Church’s total acceptance of the Aristotelian cosmological view.

The fact is that Christians were opposed to mathematics because of two important mathematical concepts, zero and infinity (I will discuss the church’s approach to infinity in a later post). While Christianity avoided the concept and symbol of zero (it was a symbol of the devil!!!) both Hinduism and Buddhism embraced it with open arms. Early Christian philosophy could not accept the void or nothingness, but the void, however,  was fundamental to other ancient eastern religions.

So afraid of zero were the early Christians that the Venerable Bede, a monk preparing the Christian calendar, around the year 731, left out the year zero. The Christian Timeline is shown below where, as can be seen, the year zero is left out. This is quite different from our present-day mathematical number line. Every school child nowadays is familiar with the number line with zero separating the positive integers from the the negative integers.

Christian Timeline

Consider the following scenario. A child who was fours years old in 2AD was born,  according to the Christian Timeline, in the year 3BC. On the other hand, using the present-day Mathematical Number line, that same child would have been born in the year 2BC. Which one is correct? (I do hope that I am not confusing middle school students).

The outlook of Christians was fundamentally different from that of the ancient Greeks,  who were extremely interested in mathematics and science. According to Christians God revealed himself through the Bible and the Church. As Tertullian (third century Church author) explained, scientific research became superfluous once the gospel of Jesus Christ was available:

      We have no need of curiosity after Jesus Christ, nor of research after the gospel.   When we believe, we desire to believe nothing more. For we believe that there is nothing else that we need to believe.  (http://www.badnewsaboutchristianity.com/ea0_trad.htm)

While Christianity avoided it, (like the plague) Islam readily accepted the concept of the void. It migrated from India around the 8th century and found a ready home in Islam. according to Dirk J Struik,  “Islamic activities in the exact sciences, which began with Al-Fazari’s translation of the ‘Siddhantas’ reached its first height with a native from Khiva, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarimi, who flourished about the year 825.” (Dirk A Struik, A concise history of mathematics.)

Fibonacci enlightens Europe.

In the year 1202 zero was carried to the West by an Italian mathematician, Leonardo de Pisa, (Fibonacci) who had become enthralled with the Hindu-Arabic numerals including zero.  He was introduced to them by the Muslims while traveling in North Africa. He later took his new  found knowledge back to Europe in his book Liber Abaci.

His book was looked upon with fascination in the West. Many merchants and traders found the Hindu-Arabic numerals easier to use than the old Roman numerals. Nevertheless, the Church refused to accept the “heathen symbol”, that accursed zero. It represented that which was an anathema to Church doctrine, the void. For according to Aristotle, there could be no void. (Physics, Book IV) The Aristotelian doctrine was the doctrine of the Church.

However, a new wind was blowing. In 1543 Nicholaus Copernicus, a Polish monk, published his great work contradicting the Aristotelian doctrine and thereby shaking the very foundations of the Church. The Church was extremely unhappy about this and while Copernicus was the instigator, Giordano Bruno paid the ultimate price.

Copernicus was able to escape the wrath of the Church probably because he died soon after the publication of his work. Not so fortunate, however, was Giordano Bruno who was burnt at the stake and Galileo Galilei who was severely admonished and ordered by the Church to desist from any further publication.

Notwithstanding the anger of the Church over the apparent cracks in its doctrine, the opposition continued and more of the faithful began to accept the modern theories and abandon the Aristotelian doctrine of the Church. The fact is that there were many within the Christian community who were quite torn between the old doctrine and the new.

Enter Rene Descartes

More and more the Catholic Church started losing control of its flock. In the 16th and 17th centuries philosophers and theologians were gradually accepting the new philosophies. One such person was the mathematician and philosopher, Rene Descartes. “Rene Descartes was trained as a Jesuit, and he too, was torn between the old and the new. He rejected the void but put it at the center of his world.” (Charles Seife, Zero, the Biography of a Dangerous Idea.)

Although he recognized the symbol zero and used it in what is now known as his Cartesian plane, as a devout Catholic, he found it difficult to admit the existence of the void. He was torn between two loyalties. His loyalty to his faith won.

It was inevitable that the new ideas would overtake the Church and force its hands, however grudgingly, to abandon Aristotle and accept the new philosophy. I used the term grudgingly because even in the 18th century mathematicians were still being ridiculed by prominent churchmen. Isaac Newton was severely criticized by Bishop Berkeley who said that Newton’s theory of fluxions was incompatible with Christianity. Quite a few prominent Churchmen still felt that way up to that time.

The View Today

Today most of us think differently. Even the Church has changed its views. ”Scientific research must be encouraged and promoted, so long as it does not harm other human beings, whose dignity is inviolable from the very first stages of existence,” Pope Benedict XVI said in June 2007, the New York Times reported. (https://www.livescience.com/27790-catholic-church-and-science-history.html)

Slowly the Church has changed its views on mathematics and science. No longer are mathematicians and scientists considered sorcerers and purveyors of black magic. (I am sure both Giordano Bruno and Galileo would have preferred to live in these enlightened times.)


Let me know what you think. I will be very happy to get feedback from you because,

I am nuts about zero!!!!