No, Christianity is not the root of modern science!

No, Christianity is not the root of modern science! March 28, 2008

Medieval Europe was, on the whole, notable for two things: an large amount of Christianity and an absence of anything remotely resembling modern science. Given that the Christian Dark Ages were preceded by a pagan (OK Greek) enlightenment, it’s tempting to see the two as connected. On the other hand, modern science developed in Europe against a background of Christianity – so perhaps modern science would never have developed without Christianity.

Christians of course, would like to think so. In an article in the April issue of Catholic Insight, Donald DeMarco makes the case and, at least as he argues it, it’s exceptionally weak.

The bulk of the article is taken up with an “Appeal to Authority” style defence of the work of Pierre Duhem, who in the first decades of the 20th century wrote a mammoth, 10 volume treatise on Medieval science – demolishing claims that the Medieval period was scientifically barren.

Later historians have criticised his claims that there was a continuum of scientific development from the Medieval period through into the enlightenment, arguing instead that the renaissance represented a revolution (in Kuhnian terms, a paradigm shift). According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

At the beginning of an essay on void and infinite space, Koyré quotes a passage from Duhem that has become infamous: “If we were obliged to assign a date to the birth of modern science, we would undoubtedly choose 1277, when the Bishop of Paris solemnly proclaimed that a multiplicity of worlds could exist, and that the system of celestial spheres could, without contradiction, be endowed with straight line motion” (1906-13, II.411; see also 1913-59, VII. 4). Koyré calls the two theses from the condemnations of 1277 “absurdities,” noting that they arise in a theological context, and rejects Duhem’s date for the birth of modern science; he remarks that Duhem gives another date elsewhere, corresponding to Buridan’s impetus theory being extended to the heavens, but dismisses it also, saying that “it is as false as the first date” (1961, 37n). For Koyré, the introduction of Platonic metaphysics, the mathematization of nature, marks a break with the Aristotelian Middle Ages.

The debate over when, exactly, the antecedents of modern science occurred is a fascinating topic, but it’s bizarre that DeMarco should make it such a focal point of his argument. Whenever the modern scientific outlook took hold (and it’s still far from being a majority opinion even today), it clearly did so against a background of Christianity. To argue that, therefore, science was born from Christianity is a classic case of attribution bias.

You can see this from the arguments DeMarco put forwards to support the hypothesis that Christian theology somehow promotes a scientific outlook. Here they are in full:

  • The notion that God’s creation is ordered means that the physical universe is organized in a rational manner that is consistent, unified, and free of contradiction.
  • The notion that man is created in God’s image gives him the confidence that he is capable of discovering the orderly pattern of nature.
  • Since every thing that God created is good, it is worthwhile to uncover and utilize the good wherever he finds it.
  • The idea that creation took place in time and came out of nothing, and the linearity of time, played important rules in the development of modern science

Yes, that’s right. DeMarco is actually arguing that, without Christianity, we would never have figured out that there are patterns and order to the world around us, that we can figure out those patterns, and that discovering new things is cool! Oh, and we wouldn’t have found out that things tend to happen one after the other.

It makes you wonder how on earth the Greeks and the Chinese, who made advances that put Medieval Europe in the shade, managed without the fortifying effects of Christianity. What’s more, it makes you wonder why it took 1500 years of Christianity before modern scientific notions began to be developed. It also ignores the fact that the early philosophers of science, such as Hume, were decidedly non-religious.

Religion does not inspire science – but the work of Duhem does show that is not necessarily opposed to science. In fact, as a general rule, religion approves of science – with one exception. And that’s when science comes up with results that religion doesn’t like. Whenever there have been major cultural movements rejecting science, it has always been at the instigation of religion (think of heliocentrism, the age of the earth, evolution, and now stem cell research).

And one more thing. It’s generally accepted by historians of science (e.g. John Gribbin) that the Renaissance was a revolution – a time when the old, dogmatic approach to learning was overthrown, and a new openness came to the fore.

In other words, it was the death of dogmatism, and the emergence of freethinking. And when dogmatism and free thought clash, you know which side the religious will be on, and which side the humanists, don’t you!

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