Without Christianity, There Would Be No Science
“The common belief that… the actual relations between religion and science over the last few centuries have been marked by deep and enduring hostility is not only historically inaccurate, but actually a caricature so grotesque that what needs to be explained is how it could possibly have achieved any degree of respectability.”
–Cambridge University Historian of Science Colin Russell
A buzzfeed.com post lists 12 widely held historical myths, including:
–The pyramids of Giza were built by slaves (excavations of nearby tombs suggest that paid laborers willingly built the pyramids).
–Napoleon Bonaparte was unusually short (he was actually 5’7″, which was above average height for his time).
–Christopher Columbus demonstrated that the Earth was round (this had actually been known since the time of the ancient Greeks).
To this list of historical misconceptions should be added the myth that Christian belief is a hinderance to the growth of modern science. In point of fact, without Christianity, there would be no science. Historian of science Ronald Numbers notes:
“Generations of historians and sociologists have discovered many ways in which Christians, Christian beliefs, and Christian institutions played crucial roles in fashioning the tenets, methods, and institutions of what in time became modern science. They found that some forms of Christianity provided the motivation to study nature systematically; sociologist Robert Merton, for example, argued seventy years ago that Puritan belief and practice spurred seventeenth-century century Englishmen to embrace science. Scholars still debate what Merton got right and what he got wrong, and in the intervening years they have drawn a far more detailed portrait of the varied nature of the religious impetus to study nature.”
“Although they disagree about nuances, today almost all historians agree that Christianity (Catholicism as well as Protestantism) moved many early-modern intellectuals to study nature systematically. Historians have also found that notions borrowed from Christian belief found their ways into scientific discourse, with glorious results; the very notion that nature is lawful, some scholars argue, was borrowed from Christian theology.”
Concepts with Christian origins are necessary for modern science
Regarding Numbers’ above comments about the lawfulness of nature, please recall that the purpose of the scientific method is to discover regular, repeatable, and predictable (law-like) patterns in nature, such as the laws of physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics. This is why the scientific method demands that experiments be repeatable. Only a worldview which perceives nature as conforming to laws could give birth to the scientific method.
The Christian worldview declares that nature follows the laws instituted by God. As Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry (and a Christian), put it: “The nature of this or that body is but the law of God prescribed to it [and] to speak properly, a law [is] but a notional rule of acting according to the declared will of a superior.” Or, as James Joule, the propounder of the first law of thermodynamics (also a Christian), put it: “It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed.”
Nancy Pearcey elaborates on specifically how Christian belief was a crucial ingredient in the birth of science in The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy:
Science “demands some kind of unique soil in which to flourish.” Deprived of that soil, it is “as capable of decay and death as any other human activity, such as a religion or a system of government.” What is that unique soil? [Science writer Lauren] Eiseley identifies it, somewhat reluctantly, as the Christian faith. “In one of those strange permutations of which history yields occasional rare examples,” he says, “it is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear, articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself.”
Eiseley is not alone in observing that the Christian faith in many ways inspired the birth of modern science. Science historians have developed a renewed respect for the Middle Ages, including a renewed respect for the Christian worldview culturally and intellectually dominant during that period. Today a wide range of scholars recognize that Christianity provided both intellectual presuppositions and moral sanction for the development of modern science.
Science is the study of nature, and the possibility of science depends upon one’s attitude toward nature. Biblical religion gave to Western culture several of its fundamental assumptions about the natural world. To begin with, the Bible teaches that nature is real. If this seems too obvious to mention, recall that many belief systems regard nature as unreal. Various forms of pantheism and idealism teach that finite, particular things are merely “appearances” of the One, the Absolute, the Infinite. Individuality and separateness are illusions. Hinduism, for instance, teaches that the everyday world of material objects is maya, illusion. It is doubtful whether a philosophy that so denigrates the material world would be capable of inspiring the careful attention to it that is so necessary for science.
Many scientists, too, have noted that Christianity was a necessary ingredient for science.
But the stance that Christian belief is a necessary ingredient for science is not limited to historians of science. Prominent scientists have also taken notice of this truth. Indeed, the very person credited with establishing the scientific method, the 17th century scientist and philosopher of science Sir Francis Bacon, was himself a Christian. Bacon wrote:
“It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy brings about man’s mind to religion: for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity.”
Similarly, physicist Paul Davies, winner of the 2001 Kelvin Medal issued by the Institute of Physics and the winner of the 2002 Faraday Prize issued by the Royal Society (amongst other awards), writes:
“People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature–the laws of physics–are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least they do not do so in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least partly comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.”
There can be no doubt: Atheism is quite fashionable in current day academia. But, as Davies elucidates above, even a hardened atheist scientist must borrow elements of Judeo-Christian theology in order to perform science. For example, how can the atheist worldview explain why matter so consistently follows natural laws? In short, atheism cannot explain this orderliness of the universe, but rather, must merely assume it to be a brute fact. But to accept brute facts without explanation is, well…brutish. Biochemist Melvin Calvin, winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the Calvin Cycle, echoes Davies’ above points:
“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.”
Famed English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead discusses how Christian belief furnished the conceptual framework in which science could take root, and his view that the possibility of science was “an unconscious derivative of medieval [Christian] theology”:
“When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality. Remember that I am not talking of the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries. By this I mean the instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words.”
“In Asia, the conceptions of God were of a being who was either too arbitrary or too impersonal for such ideas to have much effect on instinctive habits of mind. Any definite occurrence might be due to the fiat of an irrational despot, or might issue from some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things. There was not the same confidence as in the intelligible rationality of a personal being. I am not arguing that the European trust in the scrutability of nature was logically justified even by its own theology. My only point is to understand how it arose. My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative of medieval theology.”
Christianity provides the conceptual framework for science to flourish
Philosopher William Lane Craig elaborates on the specific philosophical assumptions, derived from Christianity, which serve as an underlying conceptual framework necessary for science:
Christianity furnishes the conceptual framework in which science can flourish. Science is not something that is natural to mankind. …Although glimmerings of science appeared among the ancient Greeks and Chinese, modern science is the child of European civilization. Why is this so? It is due to the unique contribution of the Christian faith to Western culture. As [science writer] Eiseley states, “it is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear, articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself.” In contrast to pantheistic or animistic religions, Christianity does not view the world as divine or as indwelt by spirits, but rather as the natural product of a transcendent Creator who designed and brought it into being. Thus, the world is a rational place which is open to exploration and discovery.
Furthermore, the whole scientific enterprise is based on certain assumptions which cannot be proved scientifically, but which are guaranteed by the Christian world view; for example: the laws of logic, the orderly nature of the external world, the reliability of our cognitive faculties in knowing the world, and the objectivity of the moral values used in science. I want to emphasize that science could not even exist without these assumptions, and yet these assumptions cannot be proved scientifically. They are philosophical assumptions which, interestingly, are part and parcel of a Christian world view. Thus, religion is relevant to science in that it can furnish a conceptual framework in which science can exist. More than that, the Christian religion historically did furnish the conceptual framework in which modern science was born and nurtured.
The Galileo affair was not a religious opposition to science
“Hold it,” I can almost hear atheist readers of this post shouting, “The church’s suppression of Galileo’s scientific insights show that Christianity was a hinderance to science!!” This, however, is another widely held historical misconception. Tom Gilson describes what REALLY happened between Galileo and the church in True Reason:
Galileo’s problem was not simply that he challenged the authority of the Church. The issue was far more complex. Galileo also upset secular professors whose careers were dedicated to the older cosmology. Prior to the 16th century, most educated people (regardless of religious persuasion) accepted the primary cosmological model of the ancient Greeks, who believed Earth sat stationary while the sun revolved around it. When Galileo offered scientific evidence against this model, he “rattled the cages” of both the Church and academia.
Galileo made three costly mistakes in his diplomacy (or lack thereof) that led to his reproof. First, he broke his promise not to teach that Copernicanism was true. Given that the evidence for heliocentrism was inconclusive at the time, Galileo agreed not to teach its truth. But he went back on his word with the release of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.
Second, Galileo openly mocked the pope in this same book through a fictitious dialogue between two people— himself and the pope. This was especially odd since Pope Urban VIII was both a friend and supporter. Galileo named the pope Simplicio, which means “simpleton” or “buffoon.” Galileo’s character was articulate and elegant as he responded to the foolish and simplistic remarks of Simplicio. Needless to say, the pope was not amused.
Galileo was neither executed nor persecuted by the Church for his diplomatic blunders. After his trial before the Inquisition, he was placed under the care of the archbishop of Siena, who housed him in his beautiful palace for five months. Galileo was then released to his home in Florence where he received a Church pension for the rest of his life. He was able to continue his scientific research in areas unrelated to heliocentrism.
As Gilson notes, the Galileo incident is so frequently cited by those hostile towards Christianity precisely because they cannot come up with another example in which Christianity allegedly hindered the advancement of science. Further, one could easily draw a parallel between Galileo and modern day scientists who find their careers in peril for challenging Darwinist orthodoxy. (I discuss the persistence of Darwinism, despite its diminishing scientific basis, in The Mythology of Atheism and There’s Nothing Random About Evolution). Indeed, scientists from throughout history have encountered stiff resistance from their colleagues (both secular and otherwise) for challenging a reigning scientific paradigm. The tendency of scientists to resist challenges to scientific theories upon which they have built their careers caused physicist Max Planck, the founder of quantum physics, to sarcastically quip, “Science advances one funeral at a time.”