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Posted by on Jun 29, 2014 in Uncategorized | 3 comments

True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism: A Refutation, Part 9

Chapter 11: Are Science and Christianity at Odds?, by Sean McDowell

In this chapter Sean McDowell tackles the issue of the war between religion and science. His position is one in which he believes that there “is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science.” (121) To back up this claim he argues how the “scientific enterprise […] emerged in Christian Europe […] a civilization primarily shaped by the Judeo-Christian worldview.” This is because, says McDowell, Christianity “provided the philosophical foundation as well as the spiritual and practical motivation for doing science.” (122)

While it is true that Christianity emerged in Christian Europe, this was not necessarily due to Christianity. This is a classic example of a fallacy. Just because science happened to take place in Christian Europe does not mean that the Christian religion caused the Scientific Revolution. There is an even larger issue, however. Typically, a “cause that fails to have its predicted effect despite being continually in action for a thousand years is usually considered refuted, not confirmed,” writes Richard Carrier. Despite Christianity being a dominant force in the “Eastern half of the Christian world,” and particularly in the Byzantine Empire, there was no scientific revolution in any of these areas. It took a thousand more years for the scientific revolution to develop. [1]

In the end, it was a moving away from the original values of Christianity that allowed science to begin again after the Greeks developed it. Richard Carrier writes that,

[M]odern science did develop in a Christian milieu, in the hands of scientists who were indeed Christians, and Christianity can be made compatible with science and scientific values. Christianity only had to adapt to embrace those old pagan values that once drove scientific progress. And it was Christians who adapted it, craftily inventing Christian arguments in favor of the change because only arguments in accord with Christian theology and the Bible would have succeeded in persuading their peers. But this was a development in spite of Christianity’s original values and ideals, returning the world back to where pagans, not Christians, had left it a thousand years before at the dawn of the third century. Only then did the Christian world take up that old pagan science and its core values once again. And only then did further progress ensue. [2]

McDowell adds that it was Christianity’s emphasis on the “insistence on the orderliness of the universe” along with “human reason, and its teaching that God is glorified as we seek to understand his creation [which is what] laid the foundation for the modern scientific revolution.” (122)

This is an odd argument since the “orderliness of the universe” can be plainly observed without any need for theology. In addition, this exact observation of the apparent “orderliness” took place long before Christianity with the Greek pagans. If this is the case, and it is, then how can McDowell argue that Christianity was a necessity for the scientific revolution? Apparently, he is simply swallowing this myth that has developed over the last several years. However, Greek atheists and “doubters” such as Strato, Erasistratus, Epicurus and Asclepiades looked for natural reasons for the occurrences in nature that they saw unfolding before them. [3] No theology and no Christianity required. Science had already been flourishing for long periods of time before Christianity even came on the scene.

McDowell discusses next the issue of religious scientists, both past and present. He argues that many scientists “derived their motivation for scientific research from the belief that God created the world [...]” (123) This is true, but I don’t believe this is evidence, as McDowell seems to think, of the compatibility between science and religion. I think Sam Harris summed it up best when he wrote that,

The truth, however, is that the conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma alwayscomes at the expense of science. Our religions do not simply talk about “a purpose for human existence.” Like science, every religion makes specific claims about the way the world is. These claims purport to be about facts – the creator of the universe can hear (and will occasionally answer) your prayers; the soul enters the zygoyte at the moment of conception […] Such claims are intrinsically in conflict with the claims of science, because they are claims made on terrible evidence. [4]

I could not agree more. Religions, like Christianity, make truth-claims about the world all of the time that conflict with known scientific realities. Conflict between science and religion is unavoidable. It doesn’t matter what scientists personally believe because the facts are clear. Their opinions are irrelevant.

In the next section McDowell discusses the infamous trial of Galileo as one of the more popular stories that are told to highlight the hostility of religion to science. He sums up the affair as follows:

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. (124)

While his telling of the Galileo affair is not entirely inaccurate, it does appear that McDowell tries to distance the religious nature of the Galileo affair, arguing that the situation was “far more complex.” First he argues that Galileo upset even the scientific community since the Copernican system was widely believed at this time. Second, he says that there were three main reason why Galileo got in hot water with the Catholic Church: Galileo “broke his promise not to teach that Copernicanism was true,” he “openly mocked the pope” in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, and he “spoke authoritatively on the meaning of Scripture, which was clearly outside his area of expertise.” (124) McDowell closes by saying that the “popular claim that the Church persecuted Galileo for advancing science is a caricature.” (125)

This is an odd statement, given the fact that the majority of problems faced by Galileo was due directly because of the Catholic Church, which sent him to the Inquisition and who put him on trial for “hearsay” because of his statements about his scientific observations regarding the sun “being the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center, and moves,” quoting Galileo’s statement to the Inquisition. [5] In fact, the Inquisition even threatened him with torture in order to force him to recant his heretical views. [6] That this wasn’t about his “advancing” of “science” seems to be quite a bit of a stretch, particularly since McDowell noted most of these facts himself.

Near the end of the chapter McDowell argues that “there is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science. […] naturalism and theism are at odds, not science and Christianity.” (125) This is an odd statement since Christianity is a form of theism. As I noted earlier there is an unavoidable conflict but McDowell does not address these facts in this chapter.

At the end McDowell writes that atheists can only do science “if they abandon their naturalistic worldview [because only] theism provides the necessary foundation for the logical, orderly nature of the universe and the powers of reason.” (128)

I’ve already responded to each of these claims. Above I showed how even Greek “doubters” used observation to learn about the orderliness of the universe and I’ve demonstrated the tremendous lack of reasoning in each of these chapters thus far. However, I am pleased that McDowell did manage to get most of the facts of the Galileo case correct.

It should be clear. Christianity was not responsible for modern science and Christianity, let alone any other from of theism, is not a necessary component of the scientific method.

1. Carrier, Richard. Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. Edited by John W. Loftus. Prometheus Books, 2010. 397

2. Ibid.; 413

3. Ibid.; 406

4. Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006; 63-64

5. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, by Michael Shermer, St. Martin’s Press, 2011; 288

6. Finocchiaro, Maurice A. That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism. Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers. Harvard University Press, 2009. 76

  • Shirley Knott

    If we’re going to give the birth of science to Christianity, we need to give the birth of mathematics to Islam. Or at least advanced maths, like, you know, Algebra.

  • josh

    ‘He argues that many scientists “derived their motivation for scientific
    research from the belief that God created the world [...]” ‘

    I don’t think this is true at all. I haven’t met a scientist or heard of one whose motivation for going into science was religion. Scientists are generally individuals with a great deal of curiosity and the brains or work-ethic to satisfy it. The religious ones will try to put this in religious terms but I see no reason to think they would be any less interested in puzzling out the world if they weren’t religious. Certainly, the available data suggests that atheists and such are more likely to enter science.

    The only examples I can think of are creationists who go through a biology or geography program entirely with the goal of undermining accepted science for there religion.

  • josh

    …he “openly mocked the pope” in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief
    World Systems, and he “spoke authoritatively on the meaning of
    Scripture, which was clearly outside his area of expertise.”

    What a load! Galileo’s position on scripture is the one currently accepted by the Church. After being forced by facts to concede that the Earth isn’t stationary they have retroactively decided that the geocentric Bible is only figurative or reporting appearances, which was Galileo’s argument. So it appears the meaning of Scripture was less outside his area of expertise than it was outside the Pope’s.

    If Christians don’t want to be seen as anti-science they could start by not being anti-history.