Christianity and the Beginning of Science

Aristotle began Metaphysics with a bold assertion: “All men desire to know.”[i] This probably seems reasonable to anyone who has had a child who wants to know everything from why they have to go to sleep to why they have to eat cooked carrots. Somehow knowing why something is the way it is makes it that much more tolerable, even if we don’t want to be that way. Knowledge is of immense value. Once you know how a bicycle works, you might be able to figure out how to ride it, or how to make a better bicycle. Knowing how to relate to others allows us to get along in societies, get married and have children who want to know why? Why? WHY?

Given that people have an innate desire to know things, why is it that the most powerful tool ever invented for investigating nature, the scientific method, took so long to develop? It’s difficult to argue that it is because our ancestors were dull; history tells us that they were brilliant. For example, the ancient Greeks were were amazing architects, artists, warriors, politicians and philosophers; why were they not equally amazing natural scientists? Yes, Aristotle, whose beliefs tended toward monotheism, did some of what we would today call science, but clearly natural science was not a major contribution of Greek civilization.

The flowering of science over the past millennium appears suggestively correlated with development of the Christian faith, but the idea that Christianity played a role in the development of science has been stridently argued against. Cases against Christianity were made in Victorian times by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, respectively authors of History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. More recently, militant atheists including Richard Dawkins have argued that religion in general is detrimental to societies and holds back the advancement of knowledge.[ii] Well, all religions except Dawkins’ Atheism of course.

It should be noted that the science of today is built upon knowledge from the past and that this knowledge was not all from Christian sources. Much pre-Christian knowledge and thinking was preserved by the Muslim world, which shares much with the Judeo-Christian monotheistic view of reality. Muslims also invented the essential art of algebra as well as the Arabic numbering system. This system of numbers coupled with the Hindu invention of zero produced the Hindu-Arabic numbering system without which much of science as it is practiced today is difficult to imagine. Many other examples demonstrate the knowledge and achievements of non-Christian cultures. But still, the brute fact remains that it was in the Christian culture of Europe, particularly Western Europe, where the modern natural sciences bloomed into the disciplines from which we benefit so extensively today. This correlation between science and Christianity suggests that this belief system could not be an impossible impediment to the development of science and may have played a positive role in its development.

An alternative explanation might be that western Europeans are intellectually superior, so they invented science. This racist view is refuted by the racial diversity of those actually doing science today. Further, the intellectual achievements of other races were at least on a par with pagan Europeans. Finally, even if this theory were true, it is worth noting that pagan Europeans did not develop modern science until after Christianity arrived in Europe.

The assertion that the Christian faith in someway hinders the advancement of science is plainly false given the prevailing religious belief where modern science developed, the faith of those who developed it and those Christians who currently work as productive scientists. From the great scientists of the past – including the likes of Newton, Kepler, Pasteur and von Braun – to those of the present, Christians have excelled in all major fields of science. At present, Bible-believing Christians thrive in fields as diverse as nuclear physics, molecular genetics and paleontology. If Christian faith is a hindrance to scientists’ productivity, it is not obvious, and some even claim that it has been an important guide and motivation in their scientific endeavors.[iii]

Christian faith is clearly not a hindrance to science, but could it have played any positive role in the development of the modern discipline? To understand why Christianity provided an excellent foundation on which science could develop requires consideration of three fundamental questions that a reasonable person might ask about science:

  1. Is science potentially productive?
  2. Is science safe?
  3. Is science potentially interesting?

Answers to these questions will vary depending on how one views God. For example, it may be an observation that nature acts in a uniform way, but this is not an expectation that Atheism obviously suggests, even though many Atheists embrace uniformitarianism. If there is no consistent God who created or preserves nature, there could be no prediction that things will essentially stay the same. Animism and Polytheism also do not necessarily encourage an expectation that laws of nature will be consistent. In the case of Animism, the spirit in each object may “animate” it in different ways. Polytheism may invoke a pantheon of gods who have different personalities, interests, and so on. Thus, in this view, nature is not the consistent product of a single God, but the product of many gods who may influence matter in different ways on different occasions as illustrated in the classical works of Homer.[iv]

Without an expectation of consistency, Atheism, Animism and Polytheism do not suggest that the study of nature is likely to be useful. With little reason to look for patterns that illustrate consistently operating laws of nature, there is no logical interpretation to put on empirical data; it simply is.

On the other hand, Monotheism may encourage belief in nature’s consistency, assuming God is not schizophrenic. If nature is consistent because a consistent God created it, He sustains it, or both, then looking for patterns in nature has the potential to be useful, because they can be used to predict similar patterns in the future. This is explicitly encouraged in the Christian understanding of a creator and sustainer God who is “the same yesterday, today and forever.”[v] While Pantheism may have a different formulation – because God does not transcend nature, but is nature itself – it may be possible within Pantheism to have a similar expectation, although it may not be as clearly formulated as in the Christian scriptures.

The second question – “Is science safe?” – is answered in the same way by the Christian formulation of Monotheism and Atheism, both suggest that studying the material world is safe, but for different reasons. In Christianity, God encourages humans to study the creation as a faith-building exercise. For example, the Psalmist asserts, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork.”[vi] This seems to be an encouragement to study the sky and atmosphere to learn more about God’s glory, not a threat that there may be some danger involved. In the case of Atheism, as there is no god who could possibly be upset by the study of nature, it should be a perfectly safe pastime.

On the other hand, investigating the material world may not be safe from an Animist perspective. The spirits may become angry and exact punishment on the investigator. Simple acts necessary for survival seem to require the constant intervention of shamans, wearing of fetishes and offerings to various objects including trees, rocks, mountains, rivers, lakes, etc. A perceived danger may also exist for polytheists who might upset gods jealous of mere mortals gaining knowledge of their secrets. For Pantheists, much would depend upon how much personification of nature is involved and what, if any, personality is attributed to nature. It seems that most Pantheists would regard the study of nature as a safe activity.

The third question deals with how interesting nature might be. The Atheistic materialistic formulation of Darwinism essentially makes nature the creator of itself; and thus study of nature may be of interest to those who are curious about their beginnings. On the other hand, Animism tends to concentrate on the soul or spirit in matter. Over the course of history, Animists seem to have concentrated on how to manipulate nature and the personal fate of individuals by interaction with spirits, rather than the actual matter from which things are made. Without an expectation of consistency in the behavior of matter, nature might be viewed as capricious and with some foreboding, but because its study is unlikely to be productive, it is difficult to see a motivation based strictly on this belief.

A similar argument could be made about polytheism. With capricious gods controlling nature, divining how the gods will act seems much more interesting than attempting probably fruitless search for natural laws which may not exist. This may explain why philosophy could flourish in ancient Greece with its worship of a pantheon of gods. Philosophy occurs in the ideal world of ideas, where presuppositions can be taken to their logical conclusion with minimal input from the apparently chaotic empirical world.

It is easy to see that Pantheists and at least Christian Monotheists would be highly motivated to study nature: Pantheists because nature is God and thus studying nature tells them about God, Christians because nature is God’s handiwork and thus we can learn about Him by studying what He has created. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.”[vii]

The answers of various theologies to questions about the productivity, safety and potential interest of science are summarized in Table 1. These answers should be taken as indicative rather than absolute because so much variability exists within each belief system. With that in mind, it is clear that at least Christian monotheism provides strong encouragement to study the material world. The astronomer Johannes Kepler put this elegantly: “To God there are, in the whole material world, material laws, figures and relations of special excellency and of the most appropriate order. . . . Those laws are within the grasp of the human mind; God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share his own thoughts.”[viii]

The blossoming of science in the West can be seen as the product of a number of variables. Among these, economic growth, availability of basic education, invention of better means of communication (particularly printing), rediscovery of old knowledge and better methods of handling numbers must all have played a role, but prevailing Christian beliefs cannot be ignored as a major part of the equation. Not all brands of Christianity uniformly view God as the transcendent lawgiver, free to create as He chose, Who created a world that was good. Still to the degree that Christianity, or any other religion, embraces these views, it encourages the study of nature as a means of gaining practical knowledge, as a way of experiencing beauty and as a means of better understanding the Creator. In addition, it does not encompass superstitious beliefs that discourage the study of nature; although there are, no doubt, instances when the Christian church acted as a political broker in the world of science with detrimental results.

In sum, it is reasonable to assert that Christianity was an essential component of the culture in which modern science developed because it provided a more encouraging worldview for the investigation of nature than did alternative belief systems. If Aristotle was right, that “all men desire to know,” the desire to know about the creation had to wait until Christianity provided the necessary metaphysical foundation for gaining knowledge about the world.

Table 1

Productive?

Safe?

Interesting?

Atheism

No

Yes

Maybe

Pantheism

Maybe

Probably

Yes

Animism

No

Maybe not

No

Monotheism

Yes

Yes

Yes

Polytheism

No

Maybe not

No

*Note that because of variations within these major beliefs about God/s the answers given in this matrix should not be taken as definitive, merely indicative of what a reasonable person might conclude.


[i] Aristotle. 350 BC. Metaphysics, Book I. Translated by W. D. Ross available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.1.i.html

[ii] See, for example: Dawkins R. 2006. The God Delusion. New York: Haughton Mifflin.

[iii] Numerous examples could be cited, but see, for example, the work of Harold Coffin on fossil forests: Coffin HG. Research on the Yellowstone Petrified Forests, Chapter 18, pp 230-249 in Coffin HG, Brown RH, Gibson LJ. 2005. Origin by Design Revised Edition. Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, MD.

[iv] Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey contain endless accounts of the Greek pantheon interfering in the lives of men and workings of nature in ways that, from a human perspective, lack coherence.

[v] Hebrews 13:8 KJV.

[vi] Psalm 19:1 KJV.

[vii] Romans 1:20 KJV.

[viii] Kepler, J. (1599). Letter to Herwart von Hohenburg reprinted in Johannes Kepler: Life and Letters. Carola Baumgardt, 1951. Philosophical Library, New York. p 50.

________________________________________________________________

Tim Standish

Geoscience Research Institute

March 25, 2013

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