Richard Carrier Cause

Was Christianity the Cause of Modern Science? Sources of the Claim (as of 2000)

Richard Carrier



Was Christianity the Cause of Modern Science?

This is a list of all known places where the claim is made that Christianity was in some sense the cause of modern science. I am eagerly seeking others that I’ve missed. Please e-mail me if you know of any. Needless to say, there are problems with every one of these claims, and I am presently researching them. In short, although the “war between science and Christianity” has been overexaggerated at times, there is a tendency now to actually go too far in the opposite direction, downplaying Christian opposition, or even claiming Christianity as a necessary cause.

I will within the year compose an essay on this subject, and am now at the research phase. But just to whet the appetite: the idea of a rational universe or creation; the idea of scientific progress and the need to understand and master nature; the willingness to get dirty in experimenting and building machinery; all these preceded Christianity. The role of Protestantism in science was not a cause, but a consequence of the Scientific Revolution. Aristotelianism was never the dominant scientific schema in antiquity, nor was it ever meant to be a static, unchanging authority–these were the result of Christians giving Aristotle far more weight than he had ever had before. The role of pagan magic and alchemy in inspiring scientific thinking is ignored by Christian historians. The causes of the Revolution trace back to the 13th century Renaissance and the rediscovery of pagan art, philosophy, and science. Optimistic humanism is an outgrowth of ancient Greek and Roman humanism. Fate had nothing to do with scientific thinking in antiquity–indeed, all scientists then were either physical-causal determinists (as many are today) or they outright denied the existence of Fate (as the Epicureans, Skeptics and Medical Empiricists did). Archimedes developed mechanical laws through experimentation. Ptolemy and Galen were engaging in organized experiments and (in the former case) law-like mathematization (in optics, harmonics, and astronomy), just before the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Amazing advances in mathematics were secured by Diophantus at roughly the same time–indeed, Fermat’s famous last theorem derived from an observation made by Diophantus.

These and other points will be defended in my upcoming essay. But anyone who wants to challenge me in advance, or defend the Christianity-as-cause thesis in any form, is welcome to write to me. You might bring up something I haven’t heard of before. I cannot promise to give detailed replies to every such letter–you may still have to wait for my essay.

Nevertheless, the claim that Christianity was responsible for modern science has been made so far in:

1. Wall Street Journal, Oct 15, 1999: "Designed for Living" by George Sim Johnston

"As for the defects of religion, the other side of Mr. Weinberg’s brief, it can be argued that the mindset of medieval Christianity made modern science possible. The physicist Stanley Jaki has pointed out that science was "still-born" in every culture–Greek, Hindu, Chinese–except the Christian West. It was the insistence of thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas on the rationality of God and his creation that paved the way for Newton and Einstein."

2. Belief and Make-Believe by GA Wells, 1991; Part One (Thinking and Belief) Chapter 1 "Ideas, Words, and the Thinking Process," pp. 37-8.

"…it is ridiculous to claim that theism, let alone Christianity, is responsible for the belief in order in nature on which science rests. Yet such a claim has often been made. A. E. Taylor writes: ‘The conception of God as perfect and flawless intelligence is manifestly the source of our rooted belief in the presence of intelligible order and system throughout nature; it has created the intellectual temper from which modern science itself has arisen.’ (1945, p.2) Similarly, Richardson, although he admits that scientific knowledge ‘is basically ordinary ‘common sense,’…in germ as old as the first attempts of primitive man to devise an instrument — an axe head or flint,’ nevertheless holds that ‘the Christian view of the world was a necessary precondition of science’s emergence,’ as it rests on ‘the principle of the uniformity of nature’ — an assumption that ‘has been made in Europe for hardly more than three or four hundred years’ (1957, pp. 5-7, 12). Raven too believes that ‘the Christian schema, though plainly defective in its details as to the origin and end of creation, yet has established a belief in an order and movement in the course of events which, if expressed in too crude a teleology, yet gave scientists their impulse towards the discovery of evolutionary developments’ (1943, p.25) He thinks it significant that very few of ‘the thousands who were done to death by the Inquisition or the lawcourts’ were scientists, and that ‘the early scientists … were Christians’ (p.24)."

3. A.E. Taylor, Does God Exist? 1945, p. 2

4. A. Richardson, Science and Existence 1957, pp. 5-7, 12

5. Charles Raven, Science, Religion, and the Future 1943, pp. 24-5

6. Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, in "A Day in the Life of Brother Astronomer," Ad Astra, Nov/Dec 1998, p. 28.

"Everybody knows about the witch hunts and inquisitions, Galileo and Bruno and Darwin. But I wonder how many people have actually taken the time to look into those histories in detail? Would an atheist’s ‘faith’ in the Evils of Religion survive the shock if she should ever learn what really went on back then? Science and Christianity – Judaism and Islam too – have an intimate tie. Without faith in a Creator God, one who looks at His universe and declares it Good, how can you justify the belief that this universe is worth studying? Indeed, that the universe even makes enough sense to be able to be studied? Paganism didn’t have that. Pagans could make calendars; they couldn’t ask the deeper questions, like why calendars should work in the first place."

7. Ravi Zacharias A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism 1990.

"Science or philosophical pursuits, and a belief in God, ought not to be seen as contradictory approaches to reality. That assumption misunderstands their nature. It is not accidental that it has generally been in the milieu of Christian belief that investigation in science and thought have flourished. A love for God prompts a love for knowing the world that He has created. The quest for knowledge and truth, therefore, is not hindered, but guided by the very purposes of God. G.K. Chesterton said, ‘God is like the sun; you cannot look at it, but without it you cannot look at anything else.’"

8. The Student Bible (NIV) 1986, p. 1065 (preface to Philemon).

"Slavery existed for 1,800 years after this letter was written, and it took the full moral force of Christianity to ban it from the globe. But the tiny book of Philemon shows that the faith had a profound impact on slavery long before abolition. Christ can revolutionize any social relationship. Onesimus, a runaway, decided to turn himself in. In Philemon, Paul asks for a second miracle. He pleads with the owner to "welcome him as you would welcome me" (verse 17). Such an attitude, in that culture, was social dynamite."

9. Jonathan Sarfati, Refuting Evolution 1999, pp. 24-26.

"THE BASIS OF MODERN SCIENCE: Many historians, of many different religious persuasions including atheistic, have shown that modem science started to flourish only in largely Christian Europe. For example, Dr. Stanley Jaki has documented how the scientific method was stillborn in all cultures apart from the Judeo-Christian culture of Europe. These historians point out that the basis of modem science depends on the assumption that the universe was made by a rational creator. An orderly universe makes perfect sense only if it were made by an orderly Creator. But if there is no creator, or if Zeus and his gang were in charge, why should there be any order at all? So, not only is a strong Christian belief not an obstacle to science, such a belief was its very foundation. It is, therefore, fallacious to claim, as many evolutionists do, that believing in miracles means that laboratory science would be impossible … It should thus not be surprising, although it is for many people, that most branches of modern science were founded by believers in creation. The list of creationist scientists is impressive. A sample: Physics: Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Kelvin; Chemistry: Boyle, Dalton, Ramsay; Biology: Ray, Linnaeus, Mendel, Pasteur, Virchow, Agassiz; Geology: Steno, Woodward, Brewster, Buckland, Cuvier; Astronomy: Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Herschel, Maunder; Mathematics: Pascal, Leibnitz, Euler."

10. Mark A. Kalthoff, "God and Creation: An Historical Look at Encounters Between Christianity and Science" in Michael Bauman, ed., Man and Creation: Perspectives on Science and Theology 1993. Synopsis: the Church was the patron of science and played a positive role in its development; supporters of Copernicus were Christians; Galileo was opposed by university scientists committed to Aristotelianism.

11. David Darling, Equations of Eternity, Speculations on Consciousness, meaning, and the mathematical rules that orchestrate the Cosmos 1993, p. 89.

"The dictates of the Greeks (Aristotle et. al.) became like an inviolate religion. Indeed, much of the ancient natural philosophy became, if not absorbed, then at least condoned and approved, by orthodox religions in the West. In the end, however, it was the Judaic, Christian, and Moslem traditions, which (despite being so dogmatic) actually helped nurture the open-minded scientific approach. The belief in a rational deity, who consciously designed the cosmos, encouraged the idea that there must be a coherency and a natural order to things–from which it followed that by observing the world it ought to be possible to elucidate this order. That prospect was the driving force behind the Renaissance intellect and its personification in men like Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. But though these scientific pioneers took their cue from theology (as well as from the Greeks), there were soon to find themselves increasingly out of step, and out of sympathy, with the Church’s doctrinaire teachings."

12. V. Bede, "How Christianity helped us think straight" (with reply by atheist Eric Harrington)

"It is something that many secularists really don’t want to admit but modern science grew out of Christianity….The question concerns why the ancient Greeks failed to build on the fantastic legacy of Athens and so reach technological take off. And why did the Christian civilization of Western Europe manage it? … To understand we have to look at the way the Greeks thought. At root they saw the universe as big and alien. The most powerful force was Fortune. Even the gods were subject to Her whims. She was fickle and dangerous and to upset Her was foolish indeed. The greatest sin was ‘hubris’ or false pride. We would call it tempting fate. If this is the way you think, the experimental method is simply not going to appeal. The idea that the universe ran according to strict mathematical rules was just laughable. To even suggest it would attract the beady eye of Fortune. … Mathematics itself was something mystical and beyond comprehension. Hence the Greeks failed to describe the world. Oriental cultures were also dominated by this idea of inescapable fate. Science once again seemed a pointless and dangerous activity. … Enter the Christians, who after a thousand years of barbarian invasions finally managed to achieve some sort of stable (if rather dynamic) civilization in Europe. They didn’t see the world in thrall to fickle fortune but governed by a just God. He had given his Law and he kept to it. He was constant and reliable. He could be trusted not to change his mind. It followed that His universe would be the same. It was now worthwhile to find out what the laws it ran by were. … St. Thomas Aquinas, in his mammoth Summae, explained how the world around us reflected the perfection of God. Roger Bacon gave us the experimental method. The scene was set. Whether the individual scientist was actually a Christian (and they all were) was irrelevant. The whole Christian worldview was what counted. If you were brought up in it, it defined the way you thought."

13. Bertrand Russell, "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?" in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, 1957, p. 24

"I cannot, however, deny that [religion] has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others."

14. Stanley Jaki, Science and Creation 1974; The Road of Science and the Ways to God 1978; Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe 1974.

15. Nancy R. Pearcey, Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Turning Point Christian Worldview), 1994.

16. Lesslie Newbigin, A Faith for This One World? 1966, pp. 9-29.

17. David F. Noble, National Public Radio Science Friday (January 29, 1999), cf. RADIO ARCHIVE.

18. David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention 1997.

19. David A. Noebel, Understanding the Times: The Religious Worldviews of Our Day and the Search for Truth, 1991, Introd.

20. R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, 1972

21. S. F. Mason, "The Scientific Revolution and the Protestant Reformation," Annals of Science, 1953, pp. 64-9 (reproduced in Hugh Kearney, ed., Origins of the Scientific Revolution 1964).

22. Paul Marston and Roger Forster, Reason, Science and Faith (Chapter 9).

Possible References–anyone who can get me exact refs or quotes, please do!

1. William F. Buckley, either in Possible sighting: Nearer, My God: an Autobiography of Faith 1998, pp. ??, or Let Us Talk of Many Things: the Collected Speeches 2000 or William F. Buckley, Jr. & Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith and Religious Institutions, 1981. If anyone can find an exact reference, please let me know.

2. Richard K. Merton, Science, Technology & Society in Seventeenth Century England, 1970.

3. David C. Lindberg & Robert S. Westman, eds., Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution 1990.

4. J.L Heilbron, The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals As Solar Observatories 1999. Or in other books by same author?

5. Richard Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England 1958.