Christianity: Absolutely Crucial to the Origin of Science

Christianity: Absolutely Crucial to the Origin of Science October 18, 2015

Original title: Christianity’s Central Role in the Conception and Development of Modern Science


Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996): (Jewish) philosopher of science and author of the hugely influential work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In his book, The Copernican Revolution, he wrote:  “[M]odern scientists inherited from their medieval predecessors … an unbounded faith in the power of human reason to solve the problems of nature.”  [Wikipedia / Fair Use image]


Psalm 19:1 (RSV) The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Psalm 111:2
 Great are the works of the LORD,
studied by all who have pleasure in them.

Wisdom of Solomon 11:20 . . . But thou hast arranged all things by measure
and number and weight.

Proverbs 25:2 It is the glory of God to conceal things,
but the glory of kings is to search things out.

Acts 17:28 . . . In him we live and move and have our being . . .

Romans 1:19-20 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse;

Colossians 1:16-17 . . . all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Hebrews 1:3 . . . upholding the universe by his word of power . . .

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This constitutes Chapter One of my book, Science and Christianity: Close Partners or Mortal Enemies? (2010, 301 pages).

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It’s very fashionable nowadays for atheists (including atheist scientists) to make extreme claims about the alleged utter incompatibility between Christianity and science. It is said that the two are antithetical, or that God was ruled out of science or disproven by scientific findings (particularly Darwinian evolution) long ago, or that science proceeds forward based on reason and evidence, whereas religion (being faith-based) supposedly has no reason and cares little or nothing for evidence, or that one cannot consistently be a Christian and also a “real” scientist.

Mano Singham, an adjunct associate professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University and author of God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), quintessentially exhibited this mentality in an online article:

[T]he fact that some scientists are religious is not evidence of the compatibility of science and religion. As Michael Shermer, founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, says in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (A.W.H. Freeman/Owl Book, 2002), “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” Jerry Coyne, a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, notes, “True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.”

(“The New War Between Science and Religion,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 May 2010)

Statements along these general lines could be multiplied ad infinitumad nauseum. It’s been this way, unfortunately, for quite some time. The famous and influential philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) proclaimed in his essay Why I am Not a Christian (1927):

Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place the churches in all these centuries have made it.

Social critic and rapier wit H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) informed us poor Troglodyte Christians, in several ridiculous utterances:

A man full of faith is simply one who has lost (or never had) the capacity for clear and realistic thought. He is not a mere ass: he is actually ill.

Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.

The Christian church, in its attitude toward science, shows the mind of a more or less enlightened man of the Thirteenth Century. It no longer believes that the earth is flat, but it is still convinced that prayer can cure after medicine fails.

The believing mind is externally impervious to evidence. The most that can be accomplished with it is to induce it to substitute one delusion for another. It rejects all overt evidence as wicked.

Various permutations of these ultra-intolerant, condescending themes are observed all the time in agnostic / atheist, scientific, and pseudo-scientific circles. Documenting even a thousandth of them would fill up a volume thicker than the most in-depth dictionary.

I shall contend in what follows, that not only are science and Christianity compatible, but that modern science would not have even gotten off the ground if it hadn’t been for medieval, scholastic, Catholic thought for the previous several hundred years: in the realm of empiricism and scientific observation.

Moreover, I shall demonstrate that the foundations of modern science (once it did get off the ground in the 16th century) were overwhelmingly Christian or at least theistic. Other important scientists through the years had religious views that were sub-theistic, such as deism or pantheism (Einstein). To say that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible is literally a nonsensical statement that would obliterate science at its very roots and presuppositions and bedrock premises. It’s a self-defeating proposition. It is “historically illiterate” to propose such a ludicrous notion.

One cannot exist only in the present. Present-day science didn’t jump out of a vacuum, fully developed. It has a history of assumptions that were built upon and expanded. These were unable to be separated from Christianity. Since they are intrinsic to the scientific enterprise, it is is impossible now to attempt to separate science and Christianity altogether, as if the past and the history of science was not what it was. Oftentimes, scientists (and atheists who wax eloquently and dogmatically about science) are as historically uninformed as they are unacquainted with philosophy in general or the philosophical roots of science itself.

Modern science, in order to function and proceed at all, had to accept several unproven axioms. And these axioms were essentially derived from Christianity. Eminent physicist Paul Davies (as far as I can tell, an Einstein-like pantheist, but not a theist) makes the basic, introductory-type observations in this regard:

[S]cience has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. . . .

. . . to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour. . . .

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe. . . .

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

(“Taking Science on Faith,” New York Times, 11-24-07)

He expressed similar thoughts in his 1995 Templeton Prize Address:

It was from the intellectual ferment brought about by the merging of Greek philosophy and Judaeo-Islamic-Christian thought, that modern science emerged, with its unidirectional linear time, its insistence on nature’s rationality, and its emphasis on mathematical principles. All the early scientists such as Newton were religious in one way or another. They saw their science as a means of uncovering traces of God’s handiwork in the universe. What we now call the laws of physics they regarded as God’s abstract creation: thoughts, so to speak, in the mind of God. So in doing science, they supposed, one might be able to glimpse the mind of God. . . . science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological world view. . . .

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) also saw this clearly 85 years ago:

In the first place, there can be no living science unless there is a widespread instinctive conviction in the existence of an Order Of Things. And, in particular, of an Order Of Nature . . . The inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner . . . must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God . . .

My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.

The faith in the order of nature that has made possible the growth of science is a particular example of a deeper faith. This faith cannot be justified by any inductive generalisation. It springs from direct inspection of the nature of things as disclosed in our immediate present experience.

(Science and the Modern World, reprinted by Free Press, 1997, pp. 3-4, 13, 18)

One of the leading philosophers of science, Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), elucidated the medieval background in his book, The Copernican Revolution (New York: Vintage Books / Random House, 1959):

After the Dark Ages the Church began to support a learned tradition as abstract, subtle, and rigorous as any the world has known . . . The Copernican theory evolved within a learned tradition sponsored and supported by the Church . . . (p. 106)

The centuries of scholasticism are the centuries in which the tradition of ancient science and philosophy was simultaneously reconstituted, assimilated, and tested for adequacy. As weak spots were discovered, they immediately became the foci for the first effective research in the modern world. The great new scientific theories of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries all originate from rents torn by scholastic criticism in the fabric of Aristotelian thought. Most of those theories also embody key concepts created by scholastic science. And more important than these is the attitude that modern scientists inherited from their medieval predecessors: an unbounded faith in the power of human reason to solve the problems of nature. (p. 123)

Historian of science James Hannam, in his marvelously informative treatise, “Christianity and the Rise of Science,” stated:

I have often come across anti Christians who simply cannot bring themselves to accept that Christianity had anything to do with the development of their beloved science. There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, they have fed themselves an unrelenting diet of nineteenth century anti religious myths like those found in Andrew Dickson White’s The Warfare of Science and Theology and John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science so they cannot bear to admit a single good thing has come from Christianity despite all the evidence around them. . . .

Others have felt that any discussion on science and religion is killed stone dead by simply mentioning the unfortunate but, in the long term, not very significant Galileo affair. . . . The second problem is that the history of science as an academic subject is still in its infancy and medieval science, which I believe is the vital period, is even more neglected due to the lack of Latin language skills.. . .

The early modern scientists were inspired by their faith to make their discoveries and saw studying the creation of God as a form of worship. . . . For the anti Christians desperate not to give credit for their own faith of scientism to the religion they hate, two questions must be answered. First, if the dominant world view of medieval Europe was as hostile to reason as they would like to suppose, why was it here rather than anywhere else that science arose? And secondly, given that nearly every one of the founders and pre founders of science were unusually devout (although not always entirely orthodox) even by the standards of their own time, why did they make the scientific breakthroughs rather than their less religiously minded contemporaries? I wonder if I will receive any answers.

Dr. Francis S. Collins (a former atheist) is Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institute of Health. He leads the Human Genome Project (mapping and sequencing human DNA, and specifically determining function). He has identified the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington’s disease and Hutchison-Gilford progeria syndrome. In an interview with Bob Abernethy of PBS, he stated:

I think there’s a common assumption that you cannot both be a rigorous, show-me-the-data scientist and a person who believes in a personal God. I would like to say that from my perspective that assumption is incorrect; that, in fact, these two areas are entirely compatible and not only can exist within the same person, but can exist in a very synthetic way, and not in a compartmentalized way. I have no reason to see a discordance between what I know as a scientist who spends all day studying the genome of humans and what I believe as somebody who pays a lot of attention to what the Bible has taught me about God and about Jesus Christ. Those are entirely compatible views. . . .

They coexist. They illuminate each other. And it is a great joy to be in a position of being able to bring both of those points of view to bear in any given day of the week. The notion that you have to sort of choose one or the other is a terrible myth that has been put forward, and which many people have bought into without really having a chance to examine the evidence.

Loren Eiseley (1907-1977), aanthropologisteducatorphilosopher, and natural science writer, who received more than 36 honorary degrees, and was himself an agnostic in religious matters, observed:

It is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear articulated fashion to the experimental method of science itself . . . It began its discoveries and made use of its method in the faith, not the knowledge, that it was dealing with a rational universe controlled by a Creator who did not act upon whim nor inference with the forces He had set in operation. The experimental method succeeded beyond man’s wildest dreams but the faith that brought it into being owes something to the Christian conception of the nature of God. It is surely one of the curious paradoxes of history that science, which professionally has little to do with faith, owes its origins to an act of faith that the universe can be rationally interpreted, and that science today is sustained by that assumption.

(Darwin’s Centenary: Evolution and the Men who Discovered it, New York: Doubleday: 1961, p. 62)

Prominent British philosopher Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943) wrote in similar fashion:

The presuppositions that go to make up this Catholic faith, preserved for many centuries by the religious institutions of Christendom, have as a matter of historical fact been the main or fundamental presuppositions of natural science ever since.

(Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford University Press: 1940), p. 227)

H. Floris Cohen, in his book, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994), described the views of science historian Benjamin Farrington (1891-1974), in his books Science in Antiquity (1936) and Greek Science (1949):

The other novel element that contributed crucially to the changed atmosphere in which the heritage of Greek science was received in western Europe is the biblical world-view, This entailed a more positive appreciation of labor, of the arts, and of the possibility of the amelioration of man’s future fate generally. . . . Greek science . . . was revitalized both by the achievements of medieval technology and by an optimistic, active world-view derived from the Bible. (pp. 248-249)

Prominent German physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1912-2007), in his book, The Relevance of Science (New York: Harper and Row: 1968, p. 163), even went so far as to conclude that modern science is a “legacy, I might even have said, a child of Christianity.”

Among many other comments that could be produced along these lines, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Melvin Calvin (1911-1997), referring to the idea that the universe has a rational order, writes:

As I try to discern the origin of that conviction, I seem to find it in a basic notion . . . enunciated first in the Western world by the ancient Hebrews: namely, that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science.

(Chemical Evolution [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969], p. 258)

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