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Did Christianity give birth to science?

Did Christianity give birth to science? September 12, 2008

There’s an argument often made by apologists for Christianity that modern science somehow owes it’s birth to religion. Just such a debate has popped up over on the New Humanism website between the philosopher AC Grayling and the sociologist Steven Fuller – with Fuller (a well-known defender of ‘Intelligent Design’ creationism) playing the role of religious apologist. As common in these sorts of debates, Fuller takes as read a couple of observations that are commonly assumed by the religious, but are really nothing more than reverse logic.

Firstly, science has its roots in a culture that was permeated by religion, and proto-scientists were commonly devout. Therefore, the argument goes, there is no inherent conflict between science and religion, and indeed religion provided the kickstart to science. Without religion, there would be no science.

Second (and this is an argument made by Christians, rather than the religious of other flavours), modern science arose in Europe. Since Europe of the time was predominantly Christian, there must be something especially conducive to science in Christianity.

Now it’s easy enough to ‘prove’ both of these conjectures by appealing to quotes made by proto-scientists of the medieval period (and similarly to ‘disprove’ them by quoting their persecutors). But these arguments are rarely conclusive – usually all they demonstrate is that quote-mining can allow you to hold almost any opinion you care to take up.

The fundamental flaw in both arguments made by the apologists is that, like intelligent design, they have no explanatory power. Sure, proto-scientists were religious, by and large. But that is just circumstantial. You might as well argue that racism lead to religion! Furthermore, people have been religious for as far back as we can reach. Why did they only just recently become scientific? Similarly, Christianity was the dominant religion for a thousand years before science really got started. Why the hold up? Clearly something changed, but it wasn’t the introduction of religion or Christianity.

What’s more, the Christianity we see at the beginning of the renaissance and in modern times is not the only flavour that could exist. Christianity is a pretty malleable paradigm – you can push it a long way before it breaks. Arguably, the Christianity adopted by the intellectual leading lights of the early modern era was especially conducive to critical discussion. But in which direction did cause and effect operate? Did society sculpt the religion that suited it best – rather than society be sculpted by religion. Doesn’t that seem rather more likely? After all, religion is clearly an invention of people.

In other words, there are cultural forces that led to the invention of the scientific world view. These forces were not Christianity, or religion. Rather, they shaped Christianity into a religion that could be compatible with a scientific world view. What were those forces?

There are a number of contenders. Toby Huff, author of The Rise of Early Modern Science, has produced one of the few truly cross-cultural analyses of the scientific revolution. He argues that it was the university, a uniquely European invention, that kick-started the tradition of scholarly debate that nurtured early science. And the reason Europe got universities was down to its legal system, which allowed the establishment of a ‘corporation’ as a legal entity. In Europe, students got a qualification not from the state, nor from an individual master, but rather from an independent institution. In the Islamic world, in contrast, traditions dating back to pre-islamic times fostered a tradition of independent scholars who handed out personal certificates of competency. In China, monolithic state control stifled philosophical enquiry (although technological invention, a distinctly different social construct, was encouraged).

Other factors may have played a role. A unique feature of Europe is the separation of Church and state, a relic of the Imperial origin of Christianity and the subsequent break up of the Roman Empire. This left a tension between the religious ruler in Rome and the temporal rulers at the heads of the various states – a tension that came to a head during the Investiture Controversy in the 12th Century. This contrasts with China, in which the State was the Church, and the Islamic world, which had not state machinery in the European sense.

And environmental factors might also have contributed. According to a study earlier this year, the lower incidence of transmissible disease in Europe may have made society more open and individualistic.

Whatever the reasons, it does not seem likely that Christian theology contributed in any significant way to science. Rather, the opposite seems more likely. That the open nature of European society gave birth to science and also sculpted Christianity into the religion that we in the West are familiar with today.

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