Christianity and the Development of Science: Part 1 – A General Discussion

Introduction

Warfare and conflict are often what come to mind when thinking about the relationship between science and religion. Some of the best known examples are arguably (Gould) the flat earth, the church’s resistance to Galileo and his heliocentric system, Darwinian evolution, and the Scope’s trial in Dayton, Tennessee. The two best-known Victorian versions are John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (Cantor 290).

When taking science classwork, its relation to religion is rarely mentioned; however, Christianity had an important, positive influence on the development of science. Several years ago a professor of media technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a web page (http://web.media.mit.edu/~picard/personal.php) with links to Christians who had made major contributions to science. In the process she found an older version of the following article.

The discussion here presents some of the positive relationships between science and Christianity and will be broken into three parts:

1) the religious framework in which science developed in western Europe,

2) founding fathers of science who were devout Christians, and

3) present-day scientists who are believers.

The Development of Science in a Christian Culture

Some have suggested that modern science developed in a Judeo-Christian culture due to its perspective of God and His relation to the world (Pearcey and Thaxton 17-42; Jaki).

The personal God of Christianity is separate from nature, making abstract laws for nature reasonable (Needham 327-328); whereas, believing in impersonal nature gods would make one quite cautious about doing experiments on nature.

From the Christian monotheistic heritage, God is seen as the lawgiver. His creation should then be amenable to study using rational inquiry to investigate cause and effect relationships (Bynum, Brown and Porter 376). This is in contrast to the irrational, arbitrary gods of some other cultures. The polytheism and warring factions embedded within some belief systems would result in a natural world where rational inquiry would be useless (Whitehead 18-19).

The Genesis account of creation shows God creating a world that is good, and thus worthy of study. Humans were given dominion of the world, so necessarily would have to study how it worked. Manual labor to study the world is then not seen as degrading, but as an honorable focus of one’s life (Clark 21). For the Christian, and especially in the Puritan work ethic, science was an attractive vocation. Its goal was to give glory to God (Deason 171-172). Many venerable institutions, such as the Royal Society in England, were largely begun by Christian groups (Webster 192; Clark 16 & 22). This is in contrast to Greek culture where philosophy was held in high regard and manual labor was for slaves (Hooykaas 78-85). The Greeks thought that nature could only operate in one way and, since philosophy could determine that way, there was little need to experiment. The real world was not perfect anyway and would quite likely give erroneous results; only ideas were perfect. In some other religions, small-minded gods might be envious if man came to understand nature and might seek retribution on those who spent too much time trying (Clark 22). The fear of inquiry inherent in many other religions was banished by the love theme so prevalent in Christianity (Clark 23).

Two other tenets of Christianity supported inquiry in the natural world:

  • The biblical account sees time as linear, progressing in one direction from a creation to an apocalypse, rather than cyclical.
  • God was free to create in any way He chose; therefore, humanity must study nature to find out how it worked. One doesn’t learn about nature from the authorities, but from nature itself. (Bynum, Brown and Porter 376)

We find that the Christian picture of God (lawful and personal) and how He creates (good and freely) set a framework in which to study nature and formed the foundation for the present scientific method. In addition, since literacy was needed for Bible reading and logic was needed to defend the Christian faith, the church of the Middle Ages became the patron of education (Lindberg 149-150).

Founding Fathers: Scientific Ideas and Scripture

The scientific ideas of some of the early scientists were informed by their belief in God and reading of the Bible. In other cases their study of science informed their understanding of God and how He works.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) found that the doctrine of the Trinity suggested the three part heliocentric system of the sun, the fixed stars, and the space between them (Koestler 125).

Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) is considered to be the father of taxonomy. He instituted the binomial (two word) nomenclature still used today to define genera and species. The Linnaean system was inspired by his search for the distinct “kinds” of created organisms mentioned in Genesis (Heeren 281). Initially, Linnaeus identified the created unit with species, and wrote the line for which he later became famous, “We count as many species as different forms were created at the beginning.” After experimenting with hybridization, he identified the original progenitors created by God as a single pair for each genus, which contained the potential for differentiation over time into several species. Later he raised the category level of the first creation to orders. (Pearcey and Thaxton 102 & 254)

Lord Kelvin‘s [William Thomson] (1824-1907) second law of thermodynamics, that the dissipation of energy is a universal feature, was directly related to his theology. Here he unified two of his deepest commitments: universal natural law is created and governed by divine power and the world is progressively developing toward an inevitable end. He summarized his belief by quoting Psalm 102:26, “all of them shall wax old like a garment.” He believed that God alone could restore the original distribution or arrangement of energy in the created universe (Smith and Wise 317, 331-332 & 497; Clark 14).

James Clerk Maxwell‘s (1831-1879) abstract equations for the electromagnetic field were comparable to his religious beliefs conceived in symbolic, almost abstract terms. He proceeded from the contemplation of material relationships to spiritual truth, as he did from the model of the electromagnetic field to the equations. This is in contrast to Michael Faraday’s fundamentalist creed and his lines of force that were “as real as matter.” Maxwell was aware of the limitations of a rigidly deterministic outlook and replaced mechanical causation by a statistical approach. This was a decisive step towards quantum physics and the principle of indeterminism. He ridiculed the shallow materialism of the “Philistines” (Koestler 689-691):

In the very beginning of science,

                                    the parsons, who managed things then,

                        Being handy with hammer and chisel,

                                    made gods in the likeness of men;

                        Till Commerce arose, and at length

                                    some men of exceptional power

                        Supplanted both demons and gods by

                                    the atoms, which last to this hour.

 

                        From nothing comes nothing, they told us,

                                    nought happens by chance but by fate;

                        There is nothing but atoms and void,

                                    all else is mere whims out of date!

                        Then why should a man curry favour

                                    with beings who cannot exist,

                        To compass some petty promotion

                                    in nebulous kingdoms of mist? …

Maxwell made a deep-seated and permanent faith commitment at age twenty-two. He came away from the establishment, from his upbringing in the Church of Scotland and the Church of England, in his very personal religious quest. After his religious conversion, he was sure that the basis of religion did not lie in rationalist elaborations (Theerman 312). Maxwell freely acknowledged that science should never be considered a guide to religious truth. “The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of Biblical interpretations.” Movements from science to theology may be more than illegitimate, they may be dangerous for believers (Theerman 316).

Thomas Edison (1847-1931), while searching for a material from which to make electric light filaments said, “Somewhere in God Almighty’s workshop is dense woody growth, with fibers almost geometrically parallel and with practically no pith, from which we can make the filament the world needs.” (Clark 51)

Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) apparently came upon his idea of wireless waves extending beyond the horizon, remembering that the human mind knows no barriers to God, but can reach Him by prayer (Clark 50).

Other Comments on the Relation between Christianity and Science

The relation between science and religion was important for the early scientists. The religious motivation of the scientists was made explicit in their papers (Webster 213). They believed that facts should first be presented in a scientific paper in as impersonal a manner as possible and only at the end would they present their own conclusions. They believed this would show that it was the facts of nature alone, and not man’s cleverness in interpreting them, that would form the basis of science. God, not man, knew the meaning of the phenomena (Clark 18).

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) predicted that any effort to mix science with theology would come to no good end. He says:

. . . some of the moderns have indulged this folly, with such consummate inconsiderateness, that they have endeavoured to build a system of natural philosophy on the first chapter of Genesis, on the Book of Job, and other parts of Scripture. . . . And this folly is the more to be prevented and restrained, because not only fantastical philosophy but heretical religion spring from the absurd mixture of matters divine and human. (Albritton 40)

In the mid-1800s debates surrounding the use of teleology to support scientific inquiry centered around William Paley’s work proposing an exploration of nature within the framework of a divine designer. Between 1833 and 1840 a set of eight papers, known as the Bridgewater treatises, were published under the auspices of the Royal Society. Each was written by an eminent scientist in his own field and was designed to show the wisdom and goodness of God in creation (Clark 15).

In the early 1900s scientists made reference to the relation of God to the physical world. The Silliman Lectures on Science at Yale University were “to illustrate the presence and providence, the wisdom and goodness of God, as manifested in the natural and moral world” (Adair and Henley 22). Sir J. J. Thomson’s inaugural presidential address to the British Association as recorded in the August 26, 1909 issue of Nature concludes by saying,

“As we conquer peak after peak we see in front of us regions full of interest and beauty, but we do not see our goal, we do not see the horizon; in the distance tower still higher peaks, which will yield to those who ascend them still wider prospects, and deepen the feeling, the truth of which is emphasized by every advance in science, that ‘Great are the Works of the Lord.'”

Conclusion

Christianity has contributed in significant ways to today’s science and past scientist Christians have studied the Creator’s grand design in nature. Though science has grown and changed over time, it can still benefit from the contributions of Christian believers.

______________________________________________________________

Benjamin L. Clausen

Geoscience Research Institute

Loma Linda, California

______________________________________________________________

Sources Cited

  • Adair, Robert K. and Ernest M. Henley. “Physical Review centenary–from basic research to high technology”, Physics Today (October 1993): 22-25.
  • Albritton, Claude C., Jr. The Abyss of Time: Changing Conceptions of the Earth’s Antiquity after the Sixteenth Century. San Francisco, CA: Freeman, Cooper, 1980.
  • Bynum, William F., E. Janet Brown, and Roy Porter. Dictionary of the History of Science. Princeton Univ. Press, 1981.
  • Cantor, Geoffrey N. Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist: A Study of Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
  • Clark, Robert E. D. Science and Christianity–A Partnership. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1972.
  • Deason, Gary B. “Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature”, IN: David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds. God and Nature. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986.
  • Draper, John William. History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. New York, NY: Appleton, 1875.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay. “The Persistently Flat Earth”, Natural History 103(March 1994):12-19.
  • Heeren, Fred. Show Me God: What the Message from Space Is Telling Us About God. Wheeling, IL: Searchlight Publications, 1995.
  • Hooykaas, Reijer. Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972.
  • Jaki, Stanley L. The Road of Science and the Ways to God. of Chicago Press, 1978.
  • Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1964.
  • Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western Science: the European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • Needham, Joseph. The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West. of Toronto Press, 1969.
  • Pearcey, Nancy R. and Charles B. Thaxton. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994.
  • Smith, Crosbie W. and M. Norton Wise. Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin. New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989.
  • Theerman, Paul. “James Clerk Maxwell and religion”, American Journal of Physics 54(April 1986): 312-317.
  • Thomson, J. J. “The British Association at Winnipeg [Inaugural Address]”, Nature 81(August 26, 1909): 248-257.
  • Webster, Charles. “Puritanism, Separatism, and Science”, IN: David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds. God and Nature. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986.
  • White, Andrew Dickson. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. New York, NY: Appleton, 1897.
  • Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York, NY: MacMillan, 1925.
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One Response to Christianity and the Development of Science: Part 1 – A General Discussion

  1. ZETTI BATISTA NDOLAH says:

    The church resisted to Galileo and Darwinian evolution theories.
    The relation between Christianity and Science is rarely mentioned in schools in the process of learning.
    Christian picture on God’s creation set a framework to study nature.
    Any effort to mix science with theology would come to no good end.

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