Stupid Arguments Christians Should Avoid #49: Science is Built on Christianity

Stupid Arguments Christians Should Avoid #49: Science is Built on Christianity February 6, 2020


It’s time for another episode of our favorite soap opera! For the first installment of this thrilling series of stupid Christian arguments, go here.

Today let’s explore the claim that modern science has Christianity as its foundation. And that “The New Atheists are sawing off the branch on which science is sitting.” And that “the only hope for science now is a rebirth of faith.”

Those quotes are from “Abandon God, and Science Will Die,” published at the conservative Christian ministry The Stream. Let’s consider the argument.

What those other ancient civilizations lacked

Those cultures from the ancient past—Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Chinese, and more—were impressive. However:

There’s one thing that each of these [ancient] civilizations lacked, which wouldn’t make an appearance until the Christian Middle Ages: experimental science that yields a reliable understanding of the material world and hence technological advancements that better human life.

A coincidence? Nope—we’re told that it’s because Europe was Christian that modern science developed there. The author admits that Archimedes created impressive inventions and Galen made important medical discoveries but states that no one at the time followed up on those inventions.

Compare those civilizations with Christian Europe

Did God particularly favor Christianity with a blessing of scientific progress? Let’s be skeptical for a moment and consider what those other civilizations produced. Egypt developed the science and engineering to built pyramids; the 500-year-long Islamic Golden Age left a record of its achievements in our vocabulary with words like alchemy, algebra, alcohol, and most of named stars; and China developed moveable type, paper, and gunpowder. Christian Europe inherited base 10 positional notation, the numeral zero, and decimal fractions.

And look at what else can’t be credited to Christian Europe. The Roman Empire excelled at civil engineering and gave Europe roads, dams, and aqueducts. Only with the Gothic cathedrals in the 1200s did European architecture rival what Rome had done more than a millennium earlier.

Or consider Greece. The Acropolis of Athens is a building complex that was built centuries before the time of Jesus and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Their summary of the Acropolis reads in part: “On this hill were born Democracy, Philosophy, Theatre, Freedom of Expression and Speech, which provide to this day the intellectual and spiritual foundation for the contemporary world and its values.” Wow—apparently Christian Europe wasn’t uniquely favored by God.

So what’s the argument here? Merely that earlier cultures had science but not experimental science? Okay, but neither did Christian Europe for well over a thousand years! So much for Christianity providing the secret recipe to unlock the secrets of Nature.

And think about how the works of Aristotle were treated once rediscovered and popularized in Europe in the 1200s. Initially rejected by the Church, Aristotelian thinking became more mainstream with the work of Thomas Aquinas. But Aristotle’s works weren’t treated as a jumping off point to exciting new science. Because of their new connection to the church, these ideas became unchallengeable dogma, which is the opposite of experimental science.

Christians wanting to show Christianity as the catalyst for science are quick to point to colleges founded and supported by the Church. The article states, “M.I.T. and NASA were made possible on Mount Sinai.” But these medieval colleges bear little resemblance to the MIT of today. They were initially built to train clergy, and evidence-based science was not in the syllabus.

If the rate of scientific progress that we saw beginning in, say, 1800 began instead in 380 when Christianity became the Roman Empire’s state religion, this argument would have some weight. But that isn’t what history tells us, and there’s very little left of this “science was built on Christianity” argument.

But wait—there’s more!

The article reveals why Christianity is different.

What set the Christian West apart? It was the unique worldview of the Jews, implanted in the rationalism of Greece and Rome, and guaranteed by faith.

Tell me more about this guarantee. Show me that faith does anything in the real world and that “guaranteed by faith” means something. Note that you can make that kind of demand of science, and it will deliver.

Next time, we’ll look at the five traits of Christianity that (according to the article) make it a unique incubator for science.

Continued in part 2.

If something good happens to a Christian—
he feels some bliss while praying, say,
or he sees some positive change in his life—
then we’re told that God is good.
But when children by the tens of thousands
are torn from their parents’ arms and drowned
[in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami],
we’re told that God is mysterious.
This is how you play tennis without the net.
— Sam Harris (video @5:01)

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Image from Stephen Bowler, CC license

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • nmgirl

    When I started selling insurance, I was told to look at the track record (ratings) of the guarantor. I can guarantee you a million dollars next week, but that guarantee has no value.

    • On the topic of foolish claims, I remember seeing (in the back of a comic book?) some product that was proudly celebrated as “guaranteed placebo!!” I guess, like the Nigerian prince scams, they want to winnow out the smart ones.

    • Michael Neville

      There was a cartoon I saw years ago with someone talking to an insurance salesman:
      “So what exactly is life insurance?”
      “It’s a bet between you and the insurance company that you’ll pay them more money before you die than they’ll pay when you die.”
      “What if I die first?”
      “Then you win!”

  • Gussie FinkNottle

    So are we counting astrology and alchemy as “experimental sciences?” That article was old but still a good read. I especially enjoyed how he listed “Newton, Kepler, Leibniz and Galileo” in no particular order as if Newton was just pulling theories out of his butt.

    • Lord Backwater

      He had a capacious butt.

    • epeeist

      So are we counting astrology and alchemy as “experimental sciences?”

      Astrology is a pseudo-science.

      • Lex Lata

        An ancient pseudo-science of astonishing longevity and popularity. Even now, in the 21st century, polling indicates that roughly 1 in 4 of us (in the United States, at least) believes our personal destiny is somehow tied to the movement of vastly distant celestial bodies, for Crom’s sake. Truly a testament to the abiding credulity of Homo sapiens.

  • Lex Lata

    By my reckoning, the article at The Stream is just an extended non sequitur. Even if one were to grant that Christian institutions, philosophy, and individuals materially influenced the development of Western science (and I think that’s largely true, with room for disagreement on degrees and details), it does not at all follow that the God of Abraham necessarily exists, or that continued Christian belief is a requirement to engage in either theoretical or practical scientific inquiry in the 21st century. The operating principles of modern science are retained, used, and modified based on experience, observation, and utility, not underlying theological postulates.

    Science works just as well without belief in Yahweh as the Latin alphabet, algebra, and theater work without belief in Jupiter, Allah, and Athena.

    • eric

      Yes exactly. History and methodology are different things. It may be hard to tease apart the historical influences, but empirically there seems to be no support at all and a heck of a lot of counter-cases to the idea that communities need Christianity or to be Christian to use the methodology of science.

    • epeeist

      By my reckoning, the article at The Stream is merely an extended non sequitur.

      Yep, and of a particular type at that. Going back to another topic beloved of theists, the cause of deaths in the likes of the Soviet Union being caused by atheism. In the past I have reduced this to:

      P1: Stalin was an atheist;
      P2: Stalin had millions of people killed;
      C: Stalin had people killed in the cause of atheism.

      Here we have exactly the same form of argument:

      P1: Christianity was/is the prevalent world view in the West;
      P2: Modern science developed in the West;
      C: Christianity was responsible for the development of modern science.

      In each case one attribute is picked and all others ignored. As I have also said before, if you want to connect the two premisses to the conclusion then in both these cases you need causal warrants.

  • Lord Backwater
    • epeeist

      Not a good one to raise, most historians of science have little time for the “conflict hypothesis” these days, regarding it as simplistic.

      • Lord Backwater

        Well bleep them. You can’t dismiss a 900 page book by pointing out one or two minor errors.

        • It’s more than just that. Nowadays the entire book is rejected. Have you read anything that’s recent on the topic?

  • There was a piece on the CBC this past weekend offering the hypothesis that the enlightenment happened because of the introduction of coffee. Michael Pollan offers his premise that because the water was so polluted in Europe, that people were drunk all of the time because they drank so much beer. The rise of coffeehouses in Europe allowed intellectuals to gather and discuss ideas, and not be drunk.

    You can read more, and listen to the full interview, at [[Michael Pollan’s deep dive into caffeine reveals a world hooked on a substance that helped share out world]]

    I’ve always been skeptical of Christianity’s claims about being a primary factor in the rise of the enlightenment when it had 1400 years of control but couldn’t be bothered. This offers an interesting alternative.

  • Brian Curtis

    “guaranteed by faith” = tacked on at the end in a desperate attempt to pretend that religion contributed something.

    • JustAnotherAtheist2

      Pretty much. I’m not even sure what it could otherwise be.

    • Otto

      Terms and Conditions apply…

  • Ann Kah

    This is so over-the-top that it fits into the category of “not even wrong”. You just have to look at the american schools that try their best to sneak in “intelligent design” (aka creationism in a lab coat) instead of the science of genetics and evolution; we don’t even need to cite Galileo.

  • We will probably never know what would have happened to science and technology had Christianity at best been reduced to a Jewish sect, but I suspect the scientific method would have been developed sooner or later somewhere, even if maybe not in Europe -I’m leaving open the possibility of Islam appearing even without Christianity-. Same for technological progress, even if it’s debatable if stuff as steam engines would have appeared having slaves.

    Middle Ages Universities were also anything but similar to modern ones.

    • Brian Shanahan

      Greece was close to developing it in the 400s BCE, before religious fanaticism intervened.

  • Bob Jase

    Just look how Christian establishments have greeted science with open arms holding torches and pitchforks as they still do today.

  • Michael Neville

    Because of the Enlightenment Darwin might be denounced by Bishop “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce* but he didn’t have to worry about being brought before the Inquisition like Galileo or Giordano Bruno were.

    *Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873) was Bishop of Oxford and a noted public speaker. He got his nickname from a comment by Benjamin Disraeli that the bishop’s manner was “unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous”.

    • epeeist

      Because of the Enlightenment Darwin might be denounced by Bishop “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce* but he didn’t have to worry about being brought before the Inquisition like Galileo or Giordano Bruno were.

      Religion lost its power to subject people to sanctions during and after the Enlightenment, one could argue that it was this weakening that allowed science to flourish.

      One piece of corroboration for this view would come from the (humanist) Renaissance, something that occurred when religion was also in turmoil due to the reformation and counter-reformation. This was another time that science made progress.

      • abb3w

        Better science often allows better engineering.
        Better engineering often enables winning wars.
        Losing wars puts a society at a disadvantage.

        There seem to have been earlier flourishings of science (or at least engineering) at other points in history in other parts of the world. Is there anything that those have in common?

        • If you’re looking for common threads, one occurs to me: government shutting it down.

          1. In the 1400s, China’s emperor shut down what had been an active project to find and trade with other countries by ship.

          2. The 500-year-long Islamic Golden Age began to end in 1258 with the Mongol invasion. But it was a new religious conservatism within the Muslim empire that actually shut down what had been a pro-scientific-progress environment.

          I can imagine others: epidemic, for example. The Plague of Justinian (541 CE) shut down an ongoing attempt to reunite the two Roman Empires.

        • abb3w

          Also, such shutdowns generally don’t trigger an absolute decline; rather, they more often trigger a decrease in the rate of technological advancement. If you have a lead, it takes a while to lose it, or for the loss to become obviously painful.

          Plagues seem another matter. However, that starts getting to the “Guns, Germs, and Steel” hypothesis of Jared Diamond.

        • Greg G.

          Glad I continued to read before posting as I was going to mention Jared Diamond and GGS.

        • Phil Rimmer

          The religious leaders used the argument toward the end of the Islamic Golden Age (a period of which enlightened and cultural Muslims can be proud and should strive to recapture) that everything that could be known was now known. Pack up your alembics and astrolabes, folks, your work is done.

          Christendom had neither the money nor the cultural bandwidth to both preserve and progress the Greek philosophers and scientists. At best its record was patchy. Moorish Spain was a major vector of the Renaissance.

        • epeeist

          Is there anything that those have in common?

          One of the things mentioned by Steven Weinberg in his To Explain the World for scientific advancement in Alexandria is commerce between states. This is again repeated in the Renaissance, giving the West access to material from Persia and Arabia. Francis Bacon was mainly concerned with increasing commerce and English power with his challenge to the way natural philosophy was being done at the time.

        • Michael Neville

          Even winning wars changes a society. There are political, economic and social changes whenever a country is involved in a war.

          After World War II, the two major victors, the US and USSR, started the Cold War, which included the stalemate of the Korean War and the fiasco of the Vietnam War. The USSR had problems with their satellites like the Hungarian Revolt, the Prague Spring and the rise of Solidarity in Poland. In 1960 Mexico had more kilometers of paved roads than the USSR did. Internally the US underwent McCarthyism. The USSR collapsed in the 1980s because the Soviet Union was a Third World country with a huge, expensive military.

          Wars cost money. World War II cost the US $228 billion (over $3.5 trillion in today’s dollars) and the US hasn’t stopped paying for that war even now, with pensions and medical care for veterans. My father was wounded in World War II. Shortly before he died in 2012 he estimated he’d received over $500,000 in pension plus years of treatment in VA hospitals.

          In today’s Afghanistan war, many soldiers are coming back with PTSD or other mental illnesses. Marriages and family relationships are strained due to stress and anxiety, guilt, grief and other emotions which have not been addressed by the military or by society when they return. War can wipe out a generation of men and cause a dip in birth rates. Women become single parents because their husbands died in war. Over 60 million people died in World War II. It took Poland three generations to recover socially and economically from World War II.

    • There was no Inquisition in England to begin with. Bruno also was no scientist. As for Wilberforce, his arguments did not only cite religion but science of the time. In any case the Church of England came onboard with evolution very quickly.

      • Michael Neville

        The Inquisition per se may not have been in England but hunting heretics was a pastime for people like Sir Thomas More. Queen Mary had Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley burned at the stake for being Protestant bishops. The last person in England to be burned as a heretic was Edward Wightman, executed in 1612 by the Church of England for rejecting Trinitarianism. He was burned three weeks after Bartholomew Legate was burned at the stake for being a Puritan.

        • Oh yes, I know. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I also had people put to death (not always by burning) for heresy or other forms of religious dissent. This also predated them. So my point was that they didn’t have the Inquisition specifically, a body of clergy tasked to root out heretics etc.

      • Ignorant Amos

        Maybe.

        The Detection of Heresy in Late Medieval England

        The English crown was enthusiastic in its pursuit of heresy (as Forrest points out, this very enthusiasm making secular power appear ironically Wycliffite in its determination to exercise ecclesiastical jurisdiction), and throughout the period one sees a mixture of royal and ecclesiastical law and governance in the repression of Lollardy. But, Forrest argues, the former should not be seen as indicating an essential English independence from ‘continental’ canonical procedures; the nature of medieval canon law meant that local application was always subject to the particular politics of the moment. In turning to the episcopate—who, particularly after 1413, were the mainstay of anti-heresy actions—Forrest demonstrates how the activities of English bishops share many features with continental inquisitors; and, he suggests, there may even be a hint of papally-appointed inquisition in England (beyond the obvious, but oft-forgotten, fact of Templar prosecutions in the early-fourteenth century).

        https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/587

        • I’ll read that, thank you.

        • I think that all aligns to what I’ve said. This was more informal and very decentralized in comparison with the Papsl, Portuguese or the Spanish Inquisitions. Nor was it so extensive from what I can tell thus far. Still, very interesting. I really want to read that book now.

  • Matt Brooker (Syncretocrat)

    Proverbs 9:10 says “The fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy one is understanding,” yet it wasn’t until we took god out of the equation, using the scientific method, that we really began to understand how the world works. All believers are left with is claiming that god is in some way a guarantor for the regularity and comprehensibility of science – in which case I invite the believer to produce their deity and then demonstrate that it does in fact provide such a guarantee.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake. Galileo was kept under house arrest. Nuff said.

    actually some google-fu turned up this which lists a few more…
    http://www.unamsanctamcatholicam.com/history/historical-apologetics/79-history/596-scientists-executed-by-the-catholic-church.html

    • Bruno was no scientist. Galileo’s case was complicated.

      Did you read your own link? It’s saying those are all myths.

      • BertB

        Bruno wasn’t a scientist, but he openly declared that the earth orbited the sun, and that stars were distant suns which might have planets like earth that supported life. Such ideas were considered heretical at the time.

        • He did advocate heliocentrism apparently, and possibly the rest. We know little about the specifics however as the full record of his trial is lost. However, this point was of allegedly persecuted scientists, and he wasn’t that (as we agree). Bruno’s cosmology it seems was heavily based on mysticism borrowed from Egyptian mythology. That was what the Church condemned. It was hardly scientific.

  • RichardSRussell

    1809 February 12 was, by sheer coincidence (not the hand of God), the birthdate of both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. My friends at the Madison Skeptics Meetup are celebrating it (a bit early) this Saturday with a Darwin-Lincoln Enlightenment Day party and dinner. I hope it’s a tradition that catches on. It celebrates actual human beings who actually advanced knowledge, did stuff, and helped make the world a better place, something the mystery mongers of mystic malarkey contend occurs only when God happens to feel like it.

    PS: As part of the party, we’re playing Enlightenment Trivia. If you’d like a copy of the questions for a similar shindig of your own, just ask me at RichardSRussell@tds.net.

  • abb3w

    Zmirak does not seem to grasp the difference between a sufficient condition and a necessary condition; nor grasp that “random” does not require uniform probability for all outcomes; that for some applications, Bayesian probabilities may be useful even when they are neither nil nor unary, particularly in the context of faith versus trust; and that there is a categorical difference between questions of “is” and questions of “ought”.

    • Why bother with all that when you can just act on a word from the Lord?

      • abb3w

        While a word from the Lord may occasionally allow persuading others, even Ken Ham appears to think that doing so takes a minor miracle.

    • eric

      I doubt Christianity was even necessary. More like a historical contingency. You might as well claim the black death was necessary for science, as it is often cited as one of the indirect contributers to the Renaissance (it disrupted power structures, creating a lot of opportunity for social and cultural change).

      • abb3w

        That is, while it might have helped, so might quite a variety of other similarly virulent pestilences.

  • I’ve heard this claim many times. They never explicitly explain why a Christian belief is necessary that I’ve seen. And it would be difficult, particularly since so many scientists now aren’t Christians. Not to mention that many sources of the scientific method were also pagans or Muslims. While it is true the scientific revolution began in the Christian West, that does not show it was based on Christian belief. Nor, even if it had been, that can have no other basis. To most scientists, I imagine, this is simple: science works. Philosophical bases for its efficacy may be interesting, but don’t alter this fact.

    • JustAnotherAtheist2

      What’s more, theists still need to make all the same presuppositions about reason and sensory input and external reality, etc., so god doesn’t actual accomplish anything. He’s just an extraneous presumption to give the superficial appearance of justification.

      Amusingly, that the shared presuppositions are in need of justification is yet another superfluous presumption, which weakens the soundness of theistic rationale even further.

      • Yes, very true. Theists of course claim their philosophy can support this while naturalism can’t. I’m not convinced of the latter, and in any case by the logic they use against the problem of evil, God could have good reason to deceive us. I’ve read one Catholic who said naturalism is self-refuting yet also that God keeps things mysterious enough so that naturalism is a viable belief. Self-contradiction much? Plus this means God’s being mysterious can systematically deceive people. How then are they to blame for rational disbelief?

        I’d agree it needs to be shown that these things require justification, rather than simply being our “basic beliefs” as some put it.

  • RichardSRussell

    The essence of experimental science is hypothesis testing in which the specific goal is to falsify the hypothesis. This is the 180° antithesis of what religion’s all about.

    “Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.”

    • eric

      Then there’s the black cat analogy…

      “Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.
      Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there.
      Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there, and shouting “I found it!”
      Science is like being in a dark room looking for a black cat while using a flashlight.”

  • Otto

    My question is always…’what specifically about Christianity is/was required for science to develop?’

    I have yet to get a direct answer to the question, saying science did make gains in Christian culture is not enough, they need to explain what about Christianity is necessary for science.

    • Zeta

      Otto: “what about Christianity is necessary for science.”

      For some Christians, the fact that a scientist is also a Christian is good enough. A few years ago, an apologist proudly claimed on another blog that “the origins of the Big Bang theory came from a priest.”

      He of course was referring to Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest, who found a solution to Einstein’s Field Equations in 1927. No response from him after I asked him a simple question: “Did Lemaître use any Christian dogma/doctrine in his research?”

      Note: Actually Alexander Friedmann had proposed a similar solution in 1922, five years before Lemaître.

      • Brian Shanahan

        Lemâitre on science & god:

        “As far as I see, such a theory [of the primeval atom] remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being. He may keep, for the bottom of space-time, the same attitude of mind he has been able to adopt for events occurring in non-singular places in space-time. For the believer, it removes any attempt to familiarity with God, as were Laplace’s chiquenaude or Jeans’ finger. It is consonant with the wording of Isaiah speaking of the “Hidden God” hidden even in the beginning of the universe … Science has not to surrender in face of the Universe and when Pascal tries to infer the existence of God from the supposed infinitude of Nature, we may think that he is looking in the wrong direction.”

        Clearly the man kept science & religion strictly separate & didn’t think religion influenced science.

    • Ficino

      I’ve seen Christians argue that things need to have stable essences and need something to guarantee their continued existence, otherwise, if only atoms exist moving at random in the void, then things could poof in and out of existence or could morph randomly into other things. No creator God, they say, no stable nature to study.

      Some Christians also say you need to posit a qualitative difference between creator and creation. On pantheism, they say, if everything is God, then there is no subject-object difference between the scientist and that which the scientist studies. It’s all just God.

      • Otto

        Even if that argument is accepted (obviously no reason to), it does not point to Christianity specifically.

      • Sample1

        …if only atoms exist moving at random in the void, then things could poof in and out of existence…

        When young, maybe around 10, I had a habit of reading dictionaries (my mom refused to spell words for me) and then encyclopedias. When I got to blackholes I lost childhood innocence. Monsters out there that nothing could stop! Today there is no worrying evidence that our planet is in danger of blackholes.

        But getting back to your blockquote. Though they’re wrong in how they’ve framed their objections with atoms and randomness “poofing out of existence,” is plausible for an event that would laugh in the face of a singularity barreling toward it. Phase transition. Liquid water changes phases to ice or gas. That’s a type of phase transition. Now extend that to the universe as a whole.

        We don’t know exactly how the fundamental constants of nature retain their numerical values. But should the mass of certain particles change (the Higgs), in all likelihood, everything we know would vanish as a phase transition. Like Thanos snapping his fingers. Poof. At least it would be instantaneous, whereas with a blackhole we’d witness some of its destruction before annihilation (more asteroid hits as the outer planets/Oort cloud rip apart). And unlike the predictions of a far future of maximal expansion/dilution hundreds of trillions of years from now, a phase transition could happen before you finish reading this.

        Sleep well,

        Mike
        Edit done.

  • Brian Shanahan

    Given that experimental methodology was largely born in the Enlightenment, a philosophical and cultural movement born in reaction to and largely in opposition to christianity, I would say the article is starting off on very shaky ground.

    But then again christians love trying to claim ideas after they failed to supress them, despite their best efforts.

  • Rudy R

    The OP of The Stream article conveniently omitted the Christian roadblocks to scientific endeavors as well. Galileo comes to mind. One must also consider the cooling effect on science by the Church and how much scientific progress was stunted, because it conflicted with the Bible.