For as long as religion has existed, it has been at odds with the natural world. Inherently, humans question that which they can’t see, and are skeptical at most of what is told to them and not experienced first-hand. The human race has gone through thousands of years of bloodshed between those who believe in faith, and those who believe in nature and the science behind it: pagans killed at the hands of Christian crusaders, Native Americans destroyed and enslaved by Columbus and the Spanish conquistadores, and the persecution at the Salam witch trials are only a few examples of this phenomenon.
The Renaissance, which took place in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries, was no exception. Literally, “the re-birth,” in French, of art, language, science and knowledge, it spelled a time in which people started to steer away from the faith of the Catholic Church and toward the emerging “natural” sciences. Most importantly, a new belief that matter was imbued with the essence of God himself re-defined the role of God as a religious icon, and created a new image of him as being a part of every-day things with which man could interact with on his own accord, Church not needed. As it states in The Scientific Revolution, “by imbuing the natural world with the range of inherent active powers, Renaissance naturalism tended to dispense with the explanatory role of God, rightly conceived as the one wholly supernatural entity. That was what, more than anything, had to be opposed in the name of the proper Christian religion.” (Shapin, 43-44.)
Father Marin Mersenne, a French philosopher and mathematician as well as a member of the Catholic Order of Minims, saw what was going on as a dangerous step toward the territory of religious heresy. A scientist, though a man of the cloth as well, he forayed into the territory of metaphysics, in which metaphysics controlled the mechanical (or God and man-made) account in the natural world. By doing this and taking into account what controlled the passive matter of natural things and made them act or re-act, he was able to maintain for the public distinctions between what was “natural” and what was “supernatural”. In doing so, Mersenne and his contemporaries Descartes, Hobbes, and Boyle, (respectively, later and later in time,) were able to help smooth over a potentially hot-button issue and help the Renaissance flourish without being shut down by the Catholic Church for heresy.
In 1616, the Catholic Church decided that the Copernican theory of the Earth’s movement flew in the face of the Scriptures, and suspended publication and sale of Copernicus’ book until the matter was “corrected”. Because of this and the Church’s damnation of Galileo’s work as well, without Mersenne, it is hypothesized that scientific progress in France would have been well-stunted if there wasn’t a fore-front leader of science and mathematics in the Renaissance who was also a deeply religious man practicing both science and faith residing there at the time and supporting other Renaissance thinkers and scientific endeavors in which the Church allowed.
Maybe it was the fact that Mersenne was able to reconcile both his religious and scientific views in a greater understanding of the natural and supernatural world which appealed to the Catholic Church, but today, we owe him not only for his forays into the worlds of mathematics and metaphysics, but also for being an out-spoken and courageous champion of the Renaissance style of thinking.
1.) Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996.
2.) Biography of Marin Mersenne from St. Andrew's College: http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Mersenne.html