He Blinded Me with Science: Conversations with an Atheist on The Christian Roots of Reason and Science

Over at the Atheist blog, Cross Examined, Bob Seidensticker, posted an article that examines the debt secular society owes to Christianity.  Last night, Bob and I agreed to attempt a respectful “interfaith” discussion about various topics, beginning with a look at the relationship between Christianity and the roots of science and reason.   Here is the first exchange in that discussion.

Bob:   (Here’s) a popular article argues that all of us—atheists, too—owe a great debt to Christianity. It grounds the stable Western society that we take for granted. (Or does it?)

Dr. Greg:  Interesting.  Rodney Stark, a prominent sociologist of religion (an agnostic last I saw) argues in, The Victory of Reason, that the West owes its reliance on reason, itself, to Christianity.  It’s a pretty audacious claim, but his argument is that in order to engage in scientific inquiry at all, you have to believe in an orderly universe in the first place which is impossible unless you believe in a God who not only creates, but agrees to live by the rules of his own creation.  If I believe in tree spirits, for example, who’s to say that tree would decide to be in the same place tomorrow?  What could I possibly gain by studying it? The inquiry might even be offensive. Likewise, if I believe in a capricious god who would/could do anything at any time, it would never even occur to me to ask the kinds of questions science asks because it would never even dawn on me that such questions could be answered (hence the lack of significant, sustained,  scientific inquiry in traditional and eastern cultures.  History shows that science happens in these cultures,  but only in fits and starts and not as a sustained enterprise).  The Christian God however, not only created the universe, but wedded himself to his creation eternally (Christians believe that Jesus Christ is eternally human and divine and has “divinized” creation through the incarnation), so while God could do whatever he wants in theory, he has made a covenant with creation to play by his own rules in order  that we may know him better by studying his fingerprints on creation, which is a reflection of him.  Science and reason are made possible because suddenly it occurs to me that I can learn something about God by studying nature,  because not only did God make the universe, but he made it in his image, unites himself eternally to it (so now I can understand something about his inner life as well (i.e., the doctrine of the trinity) by studying creation), and abides by the rules of his own creation (except in those very rare instances we call miracles–which are the exceptions that prove the rule).  Stark makes an interesting case that I really can’t do justice here.  It’s a good read though.

Bob: Or, you could not have any supernatural presupposition and just follow the scientific facts about the natural world where they point. Do the fundamental axioms (that is, those that we can’t derive from still-more-fundamental laws) have to be taken on faith? Of course not—we test them. If we found an exception to 1 + 1 = 2 (“Dang! We forgot to test it on avocados, and it doesn’t seem to work for them.”) then we’d incorporate that exception.

“if I believe in a capricious god who would/could do anything at any time”

Yes, a consistent god does seem to be important. But I’m not sure you have it with the Christian god. Some Christians (perhaps not you) will use human analogies to God as a teacher or parent. God is more loving, just, reliable, etc. than any human. But when it comes to difficult issues (God’s demand of genocide or his support for slavery, for example), then suddenly there are exceptions and God follows his own rules. God isn’t good by example, so he becomes good by definition.

“hence the lack of significant, sustained, scientific inquiry in traditional and eastern cultures.”

The West is at the top of the pyramid at the moment, but let’s not get too cocky. Before the Enlightenment, the Islamic Golden Age made Christian Europe look pretty primitive. And before that, you’ve got paper, gunpowder, printing, etc. from China. I’m sure you can think of other examples. I don’t see anything about Christianity particularly laudable that made Europe unique in a positive way for science.

I’d be more impressed with Christian’s support for science if we got anything of a technical or scientific nature out of the Bible.

“he has made a covenant with creation to play by his own rules in order that we may know him better by studying his fingerprints on creation, which is a reflection of him”

Is this theology or science? That is: do you have evidence of this or is this just what you believe?

“Science and reason are made possible because suddenly it occurs to me that I can learn something about God by studying nature”

How would this world look different if there *weren’t* a god behind it? That is, how can we tell that your statement is correct?

Dr. Greg:  Thanks for those thoughts.  We’re off to a good start.  Just to clarify, I’m just paraphrasing Stark’s argument, not asserting anything original.   That said, the problem that I have with your argument is that you’re presupposing a naturalistic, atheistic origin of science which is simply not supported by the history of science.  It certainly could have happened the way you said, but it didn’t.  Unless I’m misunderstanding you, you seem to be missing the basic question which is how does it dawn on someone to ask scientific questions–and more importantly, develop a system of sustained,scientific thought- in the first place?   I agreed with you in my original post that different cultures rooted in different religious traditions besides Christianity made discrete, scientific discoveries, but the scientific method, itself–the vey process that makes sustained scientific inquiry possible–was invented by Christians (Francis Bacon and William of Occam were both Franciscan friars) and promoted by Christians  (the majority of the scientific disciplines, from genetics to stratigraphy were founded by priests).  Why?  Because Christian epistemology believes as I described above and the naturalistic view you champion is dependent upon those presuppositions, not the other way around.  History shows this to be true.     On a side note, One thing you and I are going to have in common is that I don’t care much for what “some Christians say.”   Lots of people say plenty of idiotic things but that doesn’t make their views representative of anything, or for that matter, accurate.  As a Catholic Christian, I’ll be arguing from that dataset.   I appreciated your comments.  Thank you for the opportunity to kick these ideas around with you.

Bob:  “the problem that I have with your argument is that you’re presupposing a naturalistic, atheistic origin of science”

Not by my understanding of the word “presuppose.” That’s certainly where the evidence points, but I’m open to contrary evidence.

“you seem to be missing the basic question which is how does it dawn on someone to ask scientific questions”   Actually, I’m missing why this points to Christianity.

“Why? Because Christian epistemology believes as I described above and the naturalistic view you champion is dependent upon those presuppositions”

You need to answer the last question in my previous comment: How would this world look different if there *weren’t* a god behind it?

Dr. Greg: Bob, you’ll probably think this is ironic, but I can’t answer the question because you’re asking me to indulge in a fantasy.  Answering , “How would this world look different if there *weren’t* a god behind it?”  is irrelevant because the historical record does not support the idea that science evolves in an atheistic context. I’m concerned with facts here; the actual history of science.   Science can certainly be done with an atheistic mindset, of course it can, but only if that atheist accepts–unwittingly–the Christian cosmological mindset that asserts that the universe is orderly in the first place.   The idea that the universe is orderly is not supported merely by experience.  Mere observation would lead most objective people to believe that the universe is chaotic and unknowable, and that’s exactly what pre-Christian history shows.  The idea that the universe is orderly and possible to study in a systematic way is an idea rooted in Christian revelation.  Not mere reason.

 

I’ll post more as/if it develops.

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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

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  • abb3w

    I think you’re giving more credit to Christianity per se than it is due, and neglecting the influence of Aristotle, particularly the defense of his work by Averroes against Al-Ghazali. Partly because of this, I’d strongly disagree that the “idea that the universe is orderly” is intrinsically Christian; while of a minority school, Averroes was Muslim, working from the ideas of a pre-Christian pagan.

    I’d also disagree that this idea necessarily “presupposes” Christianity, as it may be taken directly (without justification from philosophical priors) as an independent axiom. In fact, it seems necessary, since a description of evidence (abstractly) would exist under the Refutation, and just as self-consistent. Loosely, Ramsey’s theorem indicates for any size island of order, there is a sufficiently large size where any sea of chaos must contain at least one such local island. Such alternative is possible under Refutation, which cannot be ruled out by any evidence; thus can only be ruled out by taking the Affirmation, or other Axiom reducible to a case/equivalent thereof.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments and I agree. Rodney Stark does a better job responded to these specific objections in Victory of Reason than I could. I recommend it highly. Also, see my next response to Bob for another important reason science never developed in a meaningful way before Christianity. Thanks for taking the time to write. I hope you’ll visit often. Dr.Greg

    • Theodore Seeber

      The groups of Muslims who advanced science (as opposed to those who won the Caliphate and exterminated those who advanced science) all had the same mindset as the Catholic- that God is rational.

      And in fact, they got that idea from Roman Gaul and Catholic Spain.

      So I’m not sure if your counter example is actually a counter example at all.

      • abb3w

        I’m not sure either.

        Averroes did live in Spain, but under the Al-Andalus moorish rule. The question would seem to be, can his ideas be traced to explicitly Christian roots prior to this? That would appear problematic, as my understanding is that his commentaries were largely responsible for the re-introduction to Europe of the work of Aristotle, which pre-1100s Christendom had largely neglected since the Justinian exile of the Aristoteleans to Persia. However, I’m not a scholar, and it’s been decades since my European History class. Can you provide evidence support your claim that the ideas primarily flowed the other direction?

        More critically, that’s merely necessary and not sufficient. There’s also the question of whether anything beyond that of the classical (pre-Christian) Greek work was added and passed.

  • Becca

    Re “different cultures rooted in different religious traditions besides Christianity made discrete, scientific discoveries, but the scientific method, itself–the very process that makes sustained scientific inquiry possible–was invented by Christians (Roger Bacon and William of Occam were both Franciscan friars) and promoted by Christians (the majority of the scientific disciplines, from genetics to stratigraphy were founded by priests). Why? Because Christian epistemology believes as I described above and the naturalistic view you champion is dependent upon those presuppositions, not the other way around. History shows this to be true.”

    Islam and Christian epistemologies are very similar, and both religions in their medieval forms went through a similar debate between nominalism and realism; do read Averroes and Al-Ghazali. Ockham and Bacon are part of a tradition which spans both cultures, yet one culture entered the scientific era, while the other did not. I think the similarity between these two religions in medieval debate, especially, argues against a specifically Christian cause behind science.

    Islam and Christianity stopped developing along similar lines in the late Middle Ages, when the Sunni world experienced unification under the Ottomans, and Western Christianity experienced a radical breakdown of tradition, to a radical splintering of the church thanks to the Reformation. One could argue that the Reformation began the long decline of Christianity as a cultural force, and that medieval epistemologies evolved to support a secular, scientific worldview as a result of that breakdown. Islam, which had the same epistemology, never experienced a period like the Reformation, and never experienced a scientific revolution.

    PS. That many medieval priests dabbled in what we, today, describe as science is not surprising, as the vast majority of the educated people of the middle ages happened to be priests, and neither Christianity nor Islam frowned upon curiosity about the natural world. Both were influenced by the ancient Greeks, who were fascinated by the natural world.

    PPS. Most scientific disciplines were not founded by priests; most scientific disciplines do not list a “founder.” Chemistry, for instance, goes back to Democritus, a pagan Greek. Astronomy is older than Stonehenge. Physics and biology list no founders. Genetics would clearly be Mendel, and he is definitely a monk. Geology? We get a monk and a farmer battling it out. We’ll have an unknown Ottoman and Jenner battle it out for immunology, I guess. Let’s give credit to the artists Leonardo and Goethe for color theory.

    Honestly, trying to figure out who “founded” which discipline, when it comes to concepts as ancient as these is like trying to argue about who invented baklava. No one knows.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      Meh…I’m not buying the similarity between Christian and Islamic epistemologies. Islam believes in a God who must be free to do whatever he wants, including contradicting himself. Belief in that sort of God stops reason in its tracks. Why study anything if God can just unmake it all tomorrow?

      This, btw, was Pope Benedict’s point in his Regensburg Address that caused so much controvery. Take a look then tell me that Islam and Christianity think the same way about the world.

      Regarding your assertion about the founders of various disciplines. Nonsense. It’s a bit out of fashion because of PC infected sensibilities hate seeming to favor old white Christian men. But every discipline has spoken of so-and-so as the “father of the this” and the “Father of that” forever. Saying that someone is the founder or father of something doesn’t mean it never happened before. It just means that such and such person did more than anyone else before him or her in that point of history to organize a system of thought around that thing. Sharing the intellectual wealth with previous contributors is not the same as robbing stakeholders of their rightful share.

      That said, I do appreciate you taking the time to write, and while I disagree, I thought your comments were interesting and well-presented. I hope you’ll check back often.

      • abb3w

        The strain of Islam which believes in a God who must be free to do whatever he wants, including contradicting himself is that of Al-Ghazali; Averroes disagreed strongly. However, merely because Al-Ghazali’s school largely prevails to the modern day, does not make Averroes not Islamic.

  • Brian Westley

    “Science can certainly be done with an atheistic mindset, of course it can, but only if that atheist accepts–unwittingly–the Christian cosmological mindset that asserts that the universe is orderly in the first place.”

    This is just another attempt to claim something as “Christian” when it isn’t, the way some Christians claim that, say, the abolition of slavery was due to Christianity.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      Outrage is not an argument. Back it up or shut it up.

      • Sven

        Who said anything about “outrage”? You made a claim and Mr. Westley disagrees.

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  • John Kaiser

    The biggest help that religion gave to science is – by educating some bright men and giving them idle time and resources. Religion in and of it’s self has only provided the enviroment of quiet time needed to think deeply about a subject.


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