Science’s Debt to Christianity

I have elsewhere touched on the myth that Christianity is historically antagonistic to science in that Christian thinkers are responsible for many of the ideas that lead to modern science. Now James Hannam, a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge has done a much more thorough job in an article in Nature titled, Science owes much to both Christianity and the Middle Ages. The article comes via a blog post at the excellent blog Wintery Knight (which I have added to my blogroll). The article details how Christians and the church weren’t only in opposition to science, or that they merely allowed for the development of science, but the church was the primary organization driving the development of scientific research. From the article:

Until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research. Starting in the Middle Ages, it paid for priests, monks and friars to study at the universities. The church even insisted that science and mathematics should be a compulsory part of the syllabus. And after some debate, it accepted that Greek and Arabic natural philosophy were essential tools for defending the faith. By the seventeenth century, the Jesuit order had become the leading scientific organization in Europe, publishing thousands of papers and spreading new discoveries around the world. The cathedrals themselves were designed to double up as astronomical observatories to allow ever more accurate determination of the calendar. And of course, modern genetics was founded by a future abbot growing peas in the monastic garden.

But religious support for science took deeper forms as well. It was only during the nineteenth century that science began to have any practical applications. Technology had ploughed its own furrow up until the 1830s when the German chemical industry started to employ their first PhDs. Before then, the only reason to study science was curiosity or religious piety. Christians believed that God created the universe and ordained the laws of nature. To study the natural world was to admire the work of God. This could be a religious duty and inspire science when there were few other reasons to bother with it. It was faith that led Copernicus to reject the ugly Ptolemaic universe; that drove Johannes Kepler to discover the constitution of the solar system; and that convinced James Clerk Maxwell he could reduce electromagnetism to a set of equations so elegant they take the breathe away.

Given that the Church has not been an enemy to science, it is less surprising to find that the era which was most dominated by Christian faith, the Middle Ages, was a time of innovation and progress. Inventions like the mechanical clock, glasses, printing and accountancy all burst onto the scene in the late medieval period. In the field of physics, scholars have now found medieval theories about accelerated motion, the rotation of the earth and inertia embedded in the works of Copernicus and Galileo. Even the so-called “dark ages” from 500AD to 1000AD were actually a time of advance after the trough that followed the fall of Rome. Agricultural productivity soared with the use of heavy ploughs, horse collars, crop rotation and watermills, leading to a rapid increase in population.

As I read this I am struck at how ignorant secularists and atheists are of history. The meme that Christianity holds back science is simply false – and the idea that science is primarily the result of ontological naturalism is just as false. Given that the New Atheists are so wrong on this fundamental fact, on what issue can they be trusted to get the facts right?

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14 Responses to Science’s Debt to Christianity

  1. The Judge says:

    From the article: “Nonetheless, today, science and religion are the two most powerful intellectual forces on the planet.” — self-congratulatory bullshit that completely undermines the credibility of the article’s author in my view.

  2. jackhudson says:

    I really have no idea where you got that from Judge.

    If I said as a Christian and opponent of Communism, “Communism is one of the most powerful intellectual forces on the planet”, the statement would either be true or not true. As such, if a Communist said the same thing, it wouldn’t be ‘self-congratulatory’, it would either be true or not true.

    It is true that science and religion are the most powerful intellectual forces on the planet – saying as much as nothing to do with self-promotion, particularly as it isn’t a claim that having such power is good.

  3. The Judge says:

    In my opinion, Jack, it’s pointless rhetoric. How on earth do you define or understand an ‘intellectual force’? What arena does it play out on? How does it gain cogency and agency? What is the ‘resistance’ that calls for the presence of a force? And why are science and religion more intellectually relevant than, say, art? How can you project a dichotomy between these two intellectual forces when your very article is trying to deconstruct that dichotomy as an optical illusion? And “today” as opposed to when, exactly, and what makes “today” historically anomalous?

    What really gets to me is less the concept than the way it is used. A genuine theory of intellectual discourse is something I would appreciate. But throwing these terms around casually, with this tone that implies how their immensely significant consequences are in fact a matter of common knowledge, is something that irritates me to no end. In fact, it’s half the reason I took my distances from academia – because past a certain point, they no longer teach you to think, they simply train you to express yourself in the most effective academic rhetoric. Original thinking and clever ideas are castigated for failing to comply to these little tricks. A sentence like that in what is otherwise an interesting article is a genuine kick in the gut – it signals an author who is not thinking, nor even *interested* in thinking, but only in convincing, by throwing around important words and pretending like he knows what they mean.

    Perhaps the nature of my sensitivity has not been made clear in the past exchanges we’ve had. I don’t like being lied to. I don’t like rhetorical arguments. I don’t like writers who don’t treat their readers as their equals. I’m having a similar disagreement over at Mike’s blog for almost the same exact reason — people throwing out rhetoric and trying to pass this patronising bullshit for poetry:
    http://www.theaunicornist.com/2011/05/poem-from-closet-atheist.html

  4. The Judge says:

    Also, the fact that I have this problem with atheists and Christians alike does much to illustrate a point I never stop re-discovering – that a person’s specific faith (or lack thereof) is a question which has little, if anything, to do with whether s/he is a good person.

  5. jackhudson says:

    Judge, I would understand ‘intellectual force’ to be something that motivates the acquisition of knowledge or understanding. I don’t think he is necessarily saying that today is unique in this regard, merely that it is true for today. And while art might be such a force, I would say it is more aptly described as a medium by which such a force acts.

    Overall though I think you are making too much of a single phrase; and missing forest for the  trees.

    I do think your points are interesting and worthy of a different discussion. I would be interested in what you think of this article:

    http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_2_beauty.html

  6. Nate says:

    Too often hindsight is mistaken for wisdom. There will always be opposition to parts of science. Why? Because many times it is new and unknown and the fear of, or at least the mistrust of, the unknown is natural and many times helpful.

    There is much criticism of science that has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. The power of science is often breathtaking and were everything just accepted and hungered for I think we would live in a very scary world, if we lived at all.

    The question asked most often is, and should be, “maybe we can, but should we?”. Sometimes people see the answer as no. It could be moral reasons, or many times safety reasons. This question often leads to more research, more testing and eventually either the acceptance or discarding of a new discovery.

    Don’t mistake our hindsight that the various religions were unfounded in their criticisms of many things in the past for wisdom, it isn’t.

  7. Nate says:

    Oh and Christianity certainly does hold back science sometimes.

    Why in the world is that a bad thing? You know what else holds back science? Government regulation, and few have issues with that.

  8. Mike D says:

    Personally, I find it quite incidental that many great scientists were also Christians. Big whoop. Isaac Newton was an alchemist. The guy who established algebra as a legitimate discipline was Muslim. The overwhelming majority of scientists in the NAS today are atheist or agnostic. Academic philosophers and physicists all over the world are overwhelmingly non-religious. Big deal.

    It’s a little narrow, I think, to attempt to establish Christianity (or any other ideology, for that matter) as the architect of modern science just because some influential scientists happened to be Christians. Empiricism as formal philosophy started way back with Greek philosophers. Big deal. There’s certainly nothing in Judeo-Christian scriptures that advocates for epistemic naturalism or empiricism.

    It’s not incidental that religious institutions have and still do systematically repress scientific knowledge, from Galileo to the political activism of the Discovery Institute. That doesn’t mean that religion is in principle diametrically opposed to science, but that certain dogmas very much are.

  9. jackhudson says:

    The article isn’t predicated on certain scientists being Christian, and clarifies the Galileo incident.

  10. Mike D says:

    Uh, he doesn’t “clarify” the Galileo incident, he simply rationalizes it contextually, claiming that it’s not quite so big of a deal because the church did other things that supported science.

    Secondly, he claims, “Before then, the only reason to study science was curiosity or religious piety. Christians believed that God created the universe and ordained the laws of nature. To study the natural world was to admire the work of God. This could be a religious duty and inspire science when there were few other reasons to bother with it. It was faith that led Copernicus to reject the ugly Ptolemaic universe; that drove Johannes Kepler to discover the constitution of the solar system; and that convinced James Clerk Maxwell he could reduce electromagnetism to a set of equations so elegant they take the breathe away.” He doesn’t provide any citations, but even if he’s right, it’s all irrelevant. People are motivated by all kinds of reasons to do science, regardless of their beliefs or lack thereof.

    I’ve no objection to the notion that the institution of the church in some instances was an ally of scientific progress. Even now, the Vatican is famous for its observatory, and the Templeton Foundation gives generous grants for research. That does not change the fact that the church has in many instances repressed or countered scientific advancement, nor does it change the fact virtually all of the impassioned objections to evolution and theoretical cosmology comes from those motivated by religious dogmas who find that science doesn’t comport with their beliefs.

  11. jackhudson says:

    I’ve no objection to the notion that the institution of the church in some instances was an ally of scientific progress. Even now, the Vatican is famous for its observatory, and the Templeton Foundation gives generous grants for research. That does not change the fact that the church has in many instances repressed or countered scientific advancement, nor does it change the fact virtually all of the impassioned objections to evolution and theoretical cosmology comes from those motivated by religious dogmas who find that science doesn’t comport with their beliefs.

    Actually, he makes it quite clear that the Church was the primary instigator of scientific research and development in the Middle Ages. And the Protestant Reformation, with it’s openness to investigation and inquiry, was integral to the origination of modern scientific methods.

    All of this contradicts completely the New Atheist meme that religious belief is inherently antagonistic to science.

  12. The Judge says:

    Judge, I would understand ‘intellectual force’ to be something that motivates the acquisition of knowledge or understanding.

    It’s a reading congruent with the article, but it doesn’t have any grounds in the language itself. This use of vague language to obscure rather than make a point is what really gets to me, and ultimately undermines the credibility of the writer.

    All of this contradicts completely the New Atheist meme that religious belief is inherently antagonistic to science.

    Do not get ahead of yourself. The New Atheist meme in its current form is less about the history of the two ideologies than about ways of thinking. If faith is defined as simply “believing without evidence,” then it’s self-evidently antagonistic to scientific thinking.

    The article you linked on beauty was very interesting. I thought it started out promisingly and then lost itself. I’ll try and discuss it more thoroughly in the future. I may do so on my blog if it gets too extensive, in which case I’ll pass you the link.

  13. [...] notions of ‘primitive’ man. And I have recently detailed the essential role the Church played in the development of science. Most of these findings are relatively uncontroversial – they don’t in and of themselves [...]

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