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Posted by on Jan 2, 2013 in History, Philosophy, Religion, Science | 23 comments

Christianity and the rise of science – some further thoughts

Many Christian apologists argue that we should somehow feel grateful to Christianity for its contribution to the rise of modern science. We might well feel sceptical about this, since science showed no dramatic leap or consolidation in Western Europe during the many hundreds of years of Christian dominance in the middle ages – nor did any such leap or consolidation happen within the deeply religious Byzantine Empire. Indeed, there were strongly anti-scientific tendencies within Christian thought.

At any rate, even if there were tendencies inherent in Christianity that conduced to the rise of science this would not show that any particular Christian doctrine is actually correct. If (as I think) the development of science tends to undermine religion in general, or at least the kind of religion that is instanced by Christianity, the logical conclusion might be that Christianity contains the seeds of its own destruction. That might be ironic, and from some viewpoints it might even seem sad, but so be it.

Of course any developments in science that took place in medieval Europe were perforce associated with the Church, which held almost a monopoly on intellectual activity. Nothing follows about what would have or would not have happened in a different society with a class of independent (i.e. independent from the Church) intellectuals.

In some earlier posts on this topic (at the old Hellfire Club site), and in a more consolidated post at Talking Philosophy, I discuss a more sophisticated thesis, one that Udo Schuklenk and I will also take up, among numerous others that have come our way, in 50 Great Myths About Atheism. This is the thesis that even if Christianity cannot be given credit for the rise of modern science in, say, the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it should be given credit for the dramatic consolidation of science later in the 17th century and into the 18th.

The idea here is that scientifically-minded theologians and theologically-minded scientists produced theories that made science socially acceptable in Christian Europe. Except for the efforts of these people, who were all deeply religious, science could never have taken off in the way it did.

As an afterthought to my earlier discussions, allow me to say that there’s something strange about this. Yes, science might have been suppressed, or might just have seemed too alienating and unattractive to prosper, if it had been viewed as undermining the widespread moral and metaphysical assumptions in Western Europe. These assumptions were either based on Christianity or at least, by that point of history, thoroughly entangled with it.

Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that we owe some gratitude to these people (Cudworth, Newton, etc.) for ensuring that science was not rejected in Europe during the period concerned. However, note all the following:

1. It doesn’t follow that Christianity nurtured science in the first place, merely that science was able to develop in a particular way in an environment permeated by Christian thought, without at that time being seen as unacceptable.

2. It doesn’t follow that science and religion are compatible in any interesting sense. For all we know, it may nonetheless be inevitable (though not understood at the time) that science will end up, as it develops, subverting religious doctrines such as those of Christianity.

3. It doesn’t follow that Christianity was especially supportive of science. Yes, it was possible to develop science in a way that was broadly acceptable to the Christians of the time, but that would not have been a problem if Christianity had not been so pervasive in the first place.

4. It doesn’t follow that we should be encouraging scientists to engage in accommodationist exercises now. Even if some form of accommodationism was required in a time when science was in its infancy and Christianity exerted enormous power, the times have changed a great deal. In retrospect, it may now seem to many of us that science really does undermine religion, certainly including Christianity, and nothing about what happened three hundred years ago, or more, can take that away.

While it may be true that science in the late 17th and early 18th centuries was required to conform to certain restrictions so as not to be slapped down by religion, that is only a story about the absence, or weakness, of a barrier. It does not teach us what was impelling science in the first place. There’s doubtless a very complicated story to be told here, involving many contingent historical circumstances and events. Those events could include the development of new technologies, economic developments, growing intellectual curiosity of various kinds provoked by exploration of the New World and contact with non-European civilisations, certain powerful synergies creating a perfect storm effect (such as breakthroughs in mathematics happening at about the same time as breakthroughs in instrumentation), and the rediscovery of classical texts expounding philosophical ideas such as atomism. The list goes on, and I would not want to offer an opinion on just how all these and others interrelated, or on which of them were most important.

I don’t, however, see much of a case to be grateful to Christianity (as opposed to some particular Christian intellectuals) for the rise and consolidation of science, and I don’t see why any of this should push us in the direction of science-religion accommodationism or of some kind solicitude toward the Christian churches.

  • Maarten Vergouwe

    You write about it as if science is some living thing that can suppressed or accommodated, that can submerge by itself.
    Science is an act of persons, whether they are religious or not. Stop making it a religion…

  • Thanny

    Saying that religion was good for science by citing all the religious early scientists is like saying that being a man is good for science. After all, look at the list of the most accomplished scientists over the first 400 years of the field. Almost all men!

    Almost all early scientists had religious beliefs. They also had testicles. The vast majority of modern scientists do not have religious beliefs, and a substantial proportion of them now come sans testes as well. The conclusion is obvious to anyone without an agenda. Religion holds no more claim to promoting science than the Y chromosome.

  • Nice post! If you haven’t already done so I recommend Richard Carrier’s chapter on the rise of science in “The Christian Delusion.” It’s a smack-down of the idea that Christianity gave birth to modern science:

  • RussellBlackford

    There is nothing in the post that talks about science as if it were either a religion or some kind of biological organism.
    The post simply talks about science as if it is a social practice or set of social practices. Like other social practices, it can be suppressed (with greater or less success) by political power. It also has implications that can be either accommodated or resisted. And it has been more successful in some societies than others, as scholarship in the history of science shows. There’s nothing fundamentally mysterious about any of this, or anything contrary to what I take to be your claim that the practice of science consists of acts by human beings. Of course it does.
    I’m struggling to see what’s actually bugging you here.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yes, thanks – I’ve actually read that chapter, and it gets a citation in 50 Great Myths (as does The Christian Delusion in a more general way).

  • NoCrossNoCrescent

    Lol. As long as science doesn’t have miracles and saints it is not a religion, neither can anyone turn it into one.

  • I’ll look forward to your book. It sounds really good!

  • David Marshall

    Carrier barely even mentions the rise of science that Blackford is addressing in this article. He’s merely trying to claim that what the Greeks invented (largely for similiar theistic reasons to those some historians of science credit to the Medievals) can also be called true science, and predated Christianity. If anything, his argument UNDERMINES this post.
    As, of course, do many well-informed historical works. Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman contributes a rebuttal of some of the negative points in the background of Blackford’s post here, to our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, and is due out with a full-length book on the subject in May.

  • RussellBlackford

    Well, we can hardly discuss a book – I mean the Marshall and Chapman one – that has yet to be published. By all means send me a review copy – contact me for my address – and I’ll give it a fair review here and/or elsewhere.
    Nor can we discuss vague “many well-informed historical works”. However, I see nothing in Stephen Gaukroger’s extensive work, to take that example, that undermines anything that I said in the OP.

  • NoCrossNoCrescent

    So Marshall, you deny both pagan science AND islamic science? Are you defining science as something having happened on christianity’s watch? You’ve got it backwards.

  • michaelfugate

    I read Allan Chapman’s transcript of a talk on History, Science and Religion.

    It is the usual reworking of history to favor Christianity, a requisite snide aside at Dawkins, and an attempt to demonstrate that events highlighted to show the conflict between religion and science were not what they seem. e.g. If Galileo was not condemned for religious reasons, then religion has never conflicted with science. Hardly compelling.

    He in no way makes it clear that Christianity was necessary for science to flourish – if it were then this would have been front and center – instead we get pablum pawned off as meat.

    So David what was it? What is different about Christianity and that allowed science to arise? Or in other words what were the important factors for the rise of science and how could those only be realized under Christianity?

  • David Marshall

    Russell: Thanks. If I were in the UK, I’d send you a copy of FSU. I imagine you do have access to works like James Hannam, The Genesis of Science, and David Landes, Wealth and Poverty of Nations — though that’s just a short bit. Chapman’s book will be published in the UK, and the larger part of my comments are based on Loftus’ book, which you apparently have.

  • David Marshall

    I didn’t say Christianity was necessary for science (in fact I implied that it wasn’t), and I don’t think Chapman does, either. But he’s about ten levels above Carrier as an historian of science, and while his opinions tend to be freely expressed, they’re also based on very solid knowledge of the subject: only a fool would reject his views carelessly.

    I think you need to read more carefully, though.

  • David Marshall

    I have no idea what you’re talking about. Do you?

  • NoCrossNoCrescent

    Just keep pretending, it is safer that way.

  • RussellBlackford

    A word to the wise: you’re both starting to talk about each other rather than the substantive topic.

  • RussellBlackford

    A word to the wise. You’re both now talking about each other rather than the substantive topic.

  • michaelfugate

    So you want me to read more carefully, but you now claim your comment has nothing to do with Russell’s post? So what was your point then? I thought Russell’s post was about science arising because of Christianity’s influence. Isn’t this what Hannam claims?

    I am sure I can find some historian who is more renowned than Chapman to argue the other side – it is about the argument (which you fail to make) not about whose PhD is bigger.

  • David Marshall

    No, I didn’t say that, either.

    Here’s what I mean by the need to be careful:

    A. “Christianity was necessary for science to flourish.”

    B. “Science arose because of Christianity’s influence.”

    These are your words, the first of which I deny claiming, the second of which you then represent me as deny claiming. You should notice that these are completely different claims. This is like the difference between saying, “I crossed the bay on the Golden Gate Bridge,” and “The Golden Gate Bridge is the only way to cross the bay.”

    Of course I fail to make the argument. How can anyone make that argument in less than a book? So I cited books, including one already cited by Blackford and Loftus — Richard Carrier, of the small PhD.
    But I think Blackford is thinking too late. I think Europe was primed to take off hundreds of years prior to the period he refers to. The rocket had long since lifted off: it just gathered momentum during the 17th Century.

  • David Marshall

    OK, for the record, no, I don’t “deny” pagan, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Maoist, Libertarian, Borg, left-handed insomniacal Jungian Tamali science, or any other species one might identify.

  • michaelfugate

    Can you at least tell us which of Russell’s 4 points are wrong? And is it really so complex that it takes a book? Your pal Dr Chapman gives brief talks on it all the time – he is a speaker for the Faraday Institute – promoting the supposed eternal love affair between science and Christianity. No potential bias on his end – he is sure to mention Richard Dawkins’ atheism, but does he say up front that he works for a overtly Christian organization? I didn’t notice it in his talk, but perhaps it is clear to his audiences. I am sure this all different than his historian day job.

    Influence suggests cause – perhaps part of a set of causes, but a cause nonetheless. It could well be that all of the causes were necessary – working together, but none alone were sufficient. A one-off thing like many in history makes it hard to tease out the causes. What I think Russell is trying to pin down is if there is something specific about Christianity that made the rise of science more likely and, if that is so, then what is it. It can’t just be science developed in a Christian culture and therefore Christianity was influential in producing science.

  • christthetao

    Sure. I think (1) and (3) may be technically correct — that may not follow — but in fact it is true that Christianity DID nourish Medieval science.

    On (2) I find Bacon’s famous aphorism credible, though I think the question is still up in the air, whether science will finally show atheism or theism more credible, or perhaps different sciences will offer ambivalent support for both.

    On (4), of course “accomodation” is language atheists use, and you can use whatever language you like. Science is a way of finding things out, and there are no guarentees that what it finds out will help your or my worldview next week, but we’ll have to cross those bridges when we get to them.
    Chapman is a professor of the history of science who teaches at Wadham College, where the modern scientific enterprise partly began, shortly before he got there. He also does gigs for the BBC. Do you think that discredits him, too, somehow?

  • You seem to forgotten, usefully Im sure, that the Catholic church is by far the single biggest supporter of science. You probably also believe that science and religion are at odds…. (sigh)
    for your reading…