Myths about Science and Religion: That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science

In these posts I have often focused on the close interaction between science, or natural philosophy, and Christianity. But as Noah J. Efron helpfully reminds us in his entry in Galileo goes to Jail, “Christian ideas about nature were not exclusively Christian ideas.”

Efron admits that the claim that Christianity led to modern science captures something true and important. In this context he makes reference to Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark, who in his recent book, For the Glory of God (2003), asserts:

Christianity created Western Civilization. Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls. Without a theology committed to reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were, say, 1800: A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists. A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos. A world where most infants do not live to the age of five and many women die in childbirth—a world truly in “dark ages.”

As Stark sees it, without Christianity, chimneys and pianos, and all the more so chemistry and physics, would not exist. Despite the implausibility of this passage, Stark makes a valid point. Numerous historians and sociologists have found that some forms of Christianity provided the motivation to study nature systematically. “Although they disagree about nuances,” writes Efron, “today most historians agree that Christianity (Catholicisim as well as Protestantism) moved many early-modern intellectuals to study nature systematically.”

Historians also note that many notions borrowed from Christian belief are found in scientific discourse. The very notion of “laws of nature,” for instance, is borrowed from Christian theology. There are laws because there is a Law Giver. Further, many historians point out that Christian convictions also affected how nature was studied. For example, Peter Harrison has argued that St. Augustine’s notion of original sin was embraced by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century advocates of experimental natural philosophy. Fallen man cannot understand the inner workings of the world through reason alone, and thus required painstaking experiment and observation to arrive at knowledge of how nature truly works. As Efron puts it, “Christian doctrine lent urgency to experiment.”

Historians have also found that changing Christian approaches to interpreting the Bible affected the way nature was studied in very important ways. The Reformers, for instance, rejected the allegorical reading of the biblical text, seeking  a more straightforward interpretation. This same straightforward approach was simultaneously applied to understanding nature. Many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century founders of modern science also found in Christianity legitimation of their pursuits. Seminal figures like Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) believed that their “new philosophy” was in agreement with the truths of faith, and that Christianity in fact bolstered their scientific discoveries—and that these discoveries in turn bolstered Christianity.

A final example Efron provides is that Christian churches, far from neglecting or oppressing approaches to understanding nature, were leading patrons of natural philosophy and science, “in that they supported theorizing, experimentation, observation, exploration, documentation, and publication.”

But despite all of this supporting evidence, it “does not mean that Christianity and Christianity alone produced modern science.” Indeed, Christian ideas about nature were clearly not exclusively Christian ideas. In the early centuries of Christianity, for instance, the views and sensibilities of Christian thinkers were shaped by the “classical tradition,” an intellectual heritage that included art, rhetoric, history, poetry, mathematics, and philosophy, including the philosophy of nature. For this reason Efron argues that “excluding the place of classical philosophers from an account of the history of modern science is an act of intellectual appropriation of breathtaking arrogance, and ones that the forefathers of modern science themselves would have never agree to.”

Christian philosophers of nature were also indebted, directly or indirectly, to Muslim and, to a lesser degree, Jewish philosophers of nature who used Arabic to describe their investigations. Indeed, it was in Muslim lands that natural philosophy received the most careful and creative attention from the seventh to the twelfth century. As Efron notes, “many of these Muslim achievements were, in time, eagerly adopted by Christian philosophers of nature.” (Although, I would contest Efron’s use of the word “Muslim,” for many were simply Arabs, whether pagan, Jew, or Christian, and not necessarily devotees of Islam.)

Borrowing a illustration from anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Efron posits that “modern science rests on early-modern, Renaissance, and medieval philosophers of nature, and these rested on Arabic natural philosophy, which rested on Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts, and these rested, in turn, on the wisdom generated by other, still earlier cultures.”

In his final comments on the subject, Efron narrows his view toward the so-called Scientific Revolution. Religion, he says, was only one part of that revolution. Commerce, voyages of discovery, technological developments, political organizations, new and revised legal systems, all spurred the development of modern science in complicated ways. “Yes, Christian belief, practice, and institutions left indelible marks on the history of modern science, but so too did many other factors, including other intellectual traditions and the magnificent wealth of natural knowledge they produced.”

This leads Efron to conclude with an absolutely crucial point, that all of us, believers, nonbelievers, scientists and non-scientists, ought to mull over: we must see science for what it really is: a marvelous human invention, a human institution. “For better and for worse, science is a human endeavor, and it always has been.”