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Christianity and Science

Science: “Thanks, Christianity”

I remember recently I was talking to someone and they asserted that Christianity and science simply don’t mix. Often I run into the idea that somehow Christianity hinders science (and a great many people seem to believe science can hinder Christianity as well!).This is not only wrong, it is historically and demonstrably wrong. Science as it stands today would not exist if it were not for Christianity.

Christian presuppositions allowed science to develop. Science was built on the presupposition that God was rational. Because the universe was created by this rational God, “Christian Philosophers linked rationality with the empirical, inductive method” (Schmidt, 218). These philosophers included such giants as William of Ockham (1285-1347) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

Lynn White states that “From the thirteenth century onward to the eighteenth, every major scientist, in effect, explained his motivations in religious terms” (Quoted in Schmidt, 222). But it wasn’t just the motivations that were explained in religious terms. Too often it is the case that people argue, fallaciously, that they were only Christian because of the time these scientists were born into. They were too afraid, it is alleged, to state their true beliefs. Not only is this utterly without evidence, but it could not be farther from the truth. Many of these scientists spent as much time on theology as they did on science. They credited God with their discoveries. They believed that God had set the universe up in such a way as to be explored by His people. These convictions permeated the writings of scientists.

Alvin Schmidt, in his monumental work, How Chistianity Changed the World, outlines how Christianity changed science on every level. Gregor Mendel, Leonardo Da Vinci, Andreas Vesalius, Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Liebniz, Pascal, Ohm, Andre Ampere, Kelvin, Boyle, and Pasteur are just a few of the almost limitless examples. All of these were Christians. It is wholly fallacious to assert that science and Christianity do not mix.

Some might immediately attack Christianity when names like Galileo are brought up. The problem with this is twofold:

1) In the case of Galileo or Copernicus, Christians were actually supporting these astronomers, just Christians of a different variety (Lutherans backed Copernicus financially and offered encouragement and support, while Roman Catholics, still basing their assumptions on Aristotelian astronomy, persecuted him [Schmidt, 231])

2) These men were, themselves, Christian. It’s easy to argue that Christians were putting down science when one can point to cases of persecution, but these men were Christians!

Perhaps it is now, however, that Christianity is opposed to science. Perhaps in the modern day, Christians are not scientists. This is not true. Take the case of Francis Collins, for example. He is the scientist who was the head of the human genome project. He is also a devout Christian and the author of The Language of God, in which he argues that science has lead him even more into his belief in God.

It is simply not the case that Christianity and science do not mix. Christian presuppositions allowed for the development of the empirical method. Christian philosophers and scientists were the “giants” on whom people like Newton (and modern scientists) built their theories (Newton himself asserts this). Science is just another of the many areas Christianity has helped transform for the better. Science can rightly say, “Thanks, Christianity.”

Sources:

Collins, Francis. The Language of God. 2007.

Schmidt, Alvin. How Christianity Changed the World. Zondervan. 2004.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

27 thoughts on “Science: “Thanks, Christianity”

  1. Not to mention the fact that the Catholic Church remains on the cutting edge of science and owns and operates many labs and observatories that are among the most advanced in the world.

    Posted by Sneagan | April 6, 2010, 8:15 PM
  2. Hi,

    As a Christian who works in science, I’m also very interested in the interface of these fields. I recently wrote an article on the “non-overlapping magisteria” proposal that you might find interesting:

    http://spiritualmeanderings.wordpress.com/2010/04/08/overlap-in-the-magisterium/

    Enjoy!

    Posted by Sentinel | April 19, 2010, 9:51 PM
  3. Thanks, J.W.

    I’d like to add your site to my blogroll, if you have no objections?

    Posted by Sentinel | April 21, 2010, 2:38 AM
  4. Well, it looks like you’re using WordPress, in which case it’s one of the standard Widgets. Look for “Links” on your dashboard, and add the sites you want. Then add the “Links” widget to your page and it should pop up on the right hand column.

    http://en.support.wordpress.com/widgets/links-widget/

    For mine, I just display the Link Name to keep it neat.

    Have fun playing. 🙂

    Posted by Sentinel | April 21, 2010, 6:39 PM
  5. “The fact that some scientists do not detect any problem with religious faith merely proves that a juxtaposition of good ideas/methods and bad ones is possible. Is there a conflict between marriage and infidelity? The two regularly coincide.”

    http://www.project-reason.org/archive/item/the_strange_case_of_francis_collins2/

    Posted by Don Severs | May 17, 2010, 3:31 PM
  6. I heard Dr. Kenneth Miller speak today and I have intense, mixed feelings about the experience. He spent time with several of us afterward discussing his topic and was generous with his time. He’s pro-evolution, a real scientist and a nice guy.

    Miller is a religious scientist. I prefer the religious people I know who make no pretense of being scientific. They are faith-based and when faith and science conflict, they go with faith. I think these people are wrong, but they are consistent. Miller’s message is that you can be religious and scientific at the same time, so don’t worry about it. Who would want to question a happy marriage like that?

    Most of his presentation was about why evolution is true. All good there. The rest was about how nothing in evolution means there couldn’t be a God. Like Mike Huckabee, he says God could use evolution to create life. He stuck to the relatively limited claim that, if you already have a religious belief, you can believe in evolution without any problems. I’ll almost allow him that.

    The problems arose (in our discussion after the lecture) when he was pressed about why to believe in a god in the first place. How do we choose which god? If evolution works with or without a god, why is god necessary? Like so many problems in philosophy, his answers were based on intuitions. At one point, he said, “I don’t think the universe is self-explanatory”. He also thinks that, without a god, there’s no reason to be moral.

    Miller’s point in this area was that, without a god, if dishonesty was advantageous, then we would have no reason to choose honesty over dishonesty. Brute natural selection is amoral. He has a point and, indeed, we see all around us politicians, businessmen and people in general to whom lying is a normal part of doing business. I personally think that “honesty is the best policy” is not really generally accepted. There are many instances where it is moral to lie. Do you tell the truth to a killer who asks you where someone is? Of course not. Do you tell the public the truth about national security efforts? No. You can find your own examples.

    So, Miller’s worry is reasonable, but it is not a reason to invoke supernatural agencies. This concerns the foundations of science: methodological naturalism. I think it is an abdication of his role as a scientist to endorse supernaturalism for anything.

    We love what science does for us, but resist what it tells us about ourselves. If science is a reliable way to learn about nature, then it is a reliable source of information about ourselves. Another questioner tried to get Miller to see this. He noted that baboons are very close to humans and wondered if most of the facts about humans would obtain for baboons as well. Secular Darwinism would certainly suggest as much. Miller didn’t answer directly, but later commented that, if the asteroid event that wiped out the dinosaurs hadn’t occurred, the earth might be populated by intelligent reptiles. There is nothing stopping a god from using that species just as he is using humans now.

    He told another questioner that he believes that all of us will survive the death of our bodies and “be held to account” in an unspecified, presumably supernatural, system of justice. In science, we would refrain from making assertions about areas in which we have no scientific data. Miller had no such compunction, claiming that there are other ways of knowing beside science.

    I’m an intellectual conservative. What I mean is that I impose a scientific standard of evidence on myself in order to believe something. Comfort, utility, tradition, authority and intuition aren’t good enough reasons. If we allow those, then anything goes and we end up with, well, the world we live in. Miller is a brilliant scientist, but he is more intellectually liberal than that. When he wants to satisfy his intuitions or other needs, he simply steps outside of science, drops its requirements, and believes whatever he wants. He cites great minds through history who have done the same thing.

    I find this maneuver to be completely ad hoc, self-serving and inconsistent. How does he decide when to abandon scientific rigor? Apparently, whenever he wants to make a claim he can’t support scientifically. He said, “Science isn’t the only way of knowing”. Maybe, maybe not, but science is the only way of knowing things in science. If you use another way of knowing, you’re not doing science.

    After his talk, I said to him, “You can be religious and you can be scientific, but not at the same time.” He shook his head, but didn’t otherwise answer. It’s possible that the two modes of thought are so intertwined in his mind that he no longer sees them as separate. I hope he will think about that point further.

    Miller presents a dilemma because his religiosity is utterly benign, except for this one thing: he wants to have things both ways. Like most people, he sees nothing wrong with being scientific in the lab and religious whenever he needs comfort or meaning, or to make claims that are not scientifically supported.

    The most charitable way I can put it is this. He’s an intellectual liberal and I’m an intellectual conservative. I value consistency within and between belief systems. He seems comfortable switching between modes in his own thinking and letting incompatible belief systems flourish in the world. The fact that they can’t all be true doesn’t seem to bother him.

    At one point, he presented two slides, one a quote from Richard Dawkins (his great friend) and the next his own paraphrase of it:

    “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

    He related an anecdote about asking Richard how he, one of the most purposeful men he knew, could believe such a grim philosophy. Dawkins replied, “The universe has no purpose, but I do.” To make his point, Miller gave another version of the quote (I am writing this from memory, but I think I have captured his meaning):

    “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, grand design, a great purpose, providential care for humans, and great meaning.”

    Miller felt this interpretation was at least as plausible as Dawkins’ nihilistic one. But Miller didn’t include the whole quote. Here is what Dawkins said:

    “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

    The part that Miller omitted was Dawkins’ evidence. The fact of suffering rules out a loving god. When I raised this point after the lecture, Miller countered with his evidence for a loving god: the presence of wonderful, uplifting things. He’s partly right. These things require an explanation, but invoking a supernatural being isn’t the most economical one. The presence of beauty, love, art and music has excellent evolutionary, psychological and cultural explanations that don’t require supernaturalism.

    My basic problem with religious scientists is that they give credibility to supernaturalism. In Miller’s case, this appears harmless since he is a loving, positive guy. But the mechanism by which he gets there, abandoning science and claiming there are other ways of knowing, is the same mechanism people use to justify odious beliefs. Jihad, honor killing and faith healing stand on the same footing as Miller’s happy marriage of science and religion.

    I suggested to him that his paraphrase of Dawkins’s quote showed little sensitivity in light of the recent Haiti earthquake, smallpox, birth defects, etc. He didn’t yield. He said that the majesty of plate tectonics, the Grand Canyon, art, music, literature and the like made it all worthwhile. I replied that I don’t think the crushed kids in Haiti would agree with him.

    I don’t like inconsistency between beliefs and I don’t like claims like the one about the Grand Canyon. Where we come down on such issues determines what intellectual party we belong to.

    Posted by Don Severs | May 17, 2010, 3:39 PM
    • “My basic problem with religious scientists is that they give credibility to supernaturalism. In Miller’s case, this appears harmless since he is a loving, positive guy. But the mechanism by which he gets there, abandoning science and claiming there are other ways of knowing, is the same mechanism people use to justify odious beliefs.”

      There are other ways of knowing. You absolutely must acknowledge this lest you be an intellectually dishonest, self-contradictory individual.

      “Jihad, honor killing and faith healing stand on the same footing as Miller’s happy marriage of science and religion.”

      So we throw the baby out with the bath water? By this kind of reasoning, we should hardly belief anything, lest we be tied to others with similar beliefs. I may as well say: “I am a fan of sports. Many fans of sports enjoy being drunk and disorderly, therefore I should not be a fan of sports.”

      I am detecting more fallacies in your reasoning as you continue to explicate your pseudo-verificationist view of the world.

      I’m not sure how relevant your comments are but I’m letting them stand, I suppose. Might I suggest–and this is not sarcasm, but honesty–if you want to write at such length, get a site to do so? I thank you for your comments, but there is almost no way I could give a fair treatment to such a long comment. It’s almost as long (longer?) than the original post.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 17, 2010, 11:10 PM
  7. >Science as it stands today would not exist if it were not for Christianity.

    You could say the same thing about athletics, manufacturing, stamp collecting and rodeo.

    The reason that Western science came out of the Christian tradition is that everything Western came out of the Christian tradition. When more than 80% of the population is Christian, Christianity will be all over everything.

    Posted by Don Severs | May 17, 2010, 3:45 PM
  8. >There are other ways of knowing. You absolutely must acknowledge this lest you be an intellectually dishonest, self-contradictory individual.

    I do acknowledge this. My article about Miller isn’t a philosophical piece. Sometimes I like to talk like normal people talk. I agree with David W that logic, math and introspection are “ways of knowing”, but they don’t necessarily inform us about nature. We can create consistent worlds in our minds that will vanish when we do. What I haven’t seen is any evidence that any of these other ways of knowing can lead us to any knowledge about external reality.

    I am an Instrumentalist regarding science. We can do science without making ontological claims about what we discover.

    >By this kind of reasoning, we should hardly belief anything

    I agree with this. I am very conservative intellectually.

    >“I am a fan of sports. Many fans of sports enjoy being drunk and disorderly, therefore I should not be a fan of sports.”

    Hm, I don’t think this is a good parallel. There are certainly innocuous religious beliefs, but they are still unjustified from the perspective of E. Jainism and non-theistic Buddhism aren’t going to cause any social problems, so I’m not as opposed to them as I am to the doctrine of Hell, for example. But if they claim that reincarnation is real, I’m going to object to them.

    Posted by Don Severs | May 18, 2010, 7:54 AM
    • “Jainism and non-theistic Buddhism aren’t going to cause any social problems, so I’m not as opposed to them as I am to the doctrine of Hell, for example. But if they claim that reincarnation is real, I’m going to object to them.

      So, essentially, it seems like you’re saying, “If I don’t like something about religion x, it’s bad/false/etc.” Cf “What Kind of Evidence” again…. that’s exactly the attitude I propose will never experience God–rebellion.

      “There are certainly innocuous religious beliefs, but they are still unjustified from the perspective of E”

      You “acknowledge” there are other ways of knowing, yet continue to make it seem as though E is the only way to justify beliefs. Again, intellectual dishonesty abounds. You may claim to be “intellectually conservative”, but you are really being “intellectually dishonest.”

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 19, 2010, 9:19 AM
  9. Is this what you mean by ‘verificationist’?

    “Verificationism is the idea that a statement or question only has meaning if there is some way to determine if the statement is true, or what the answer to the question is.”

    I understand the objection to this. Popper proposed that falsification was a better criterion. Supernatural ideas fail here, too. It is a hallmark of sophisticated theologies that they find a way to hide from scientific verification or falsification. This is how they actively avoid analysis, but they then are dismissed as meaningless by guys like Popper, since there is no way they could be falsified.

    Posted by Don Severs | May 18, 2010, 8:22 AM
  10. We should thank Islam for its scientific contributions, too. And Confucianism.

    Posted by Don Severs | May 21, 2010, 9:20 AM
  11. Sam Harris: There is a reason that we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though the Christians invented physics as we know it, and the Muslims invented algebra. Today, anyone who emphasizes the Christian roots of physics or the Muslim roots of algebra would stand convicted of not understanding these disciplines at all.

    http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=2903&Itemid=244&limit=1&limitstart=1

    Posted by Don Severs | May 25, 2010, 1:33 PM
  12. Although we do not talk of “Christian physics”, we do make a far greater error in the opposite direction. We have become so accustomed to the unprovable (by science) assumptions within which science operates that we forget that they are, in fact, assumptions. These are broadly grouped under methodological naturalism, and could be summarised as:
    * The world we observe actually exists and is consistent.
    * We can use our reason and senses to explore it.
    * The material world is all that there is.

    So it’s ridiculous to claim that science in any way supports a materialist worldview. This is mere question-begging: scientific theory, by its very assumptions, operates within a materialist worldview. If the supernatural exists, it is beyond the tools of science.

    If you’re interested in more detail, have a look at http://spiritualmeanderings.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/on-spherical-cows-and-the-search-for-truth-part-i/

    (The section on science and its relationship to “truth” is in Part II, but I recommend reading Part I first so that you can see the context).

    Posted by Sentinel | May 26, 2010, 10:48 PM
  13. Sure, they are compatible, to an extent. Let’s start by looking into the fact that religion and faith are simply a by-product of evolution. It’s easy to see why early Homo sapiens would invoke a super natural entity when they see and experience things such as natural disasters. There is a tribe (I believe in Africa) of people that routinely see planes fly overhead, they worship these planes as their own god and have even built monuments in order to praise and worship them, for lack of better knowledge.

    The more science discovers, the less likely it is going to be compatible. There are many many examples of this. Most of the universe is uninhabitable, even a major portion of our own planet is uninhabitable. This is incompatible with the universe being created for us and with us in mind since only such a minute fraction of the universe can sustain life, let alone us. All of the miracles said of have happened go beyond science, and even go as far to say that what we know to be true, simply isn’t, and defies all science and evidence to date.

    When you invoke the supernatural to explain something, it explains nothing at all. This is not acceptable in science, if something can’t be explained we attempt to find more and different ways to try and find the answer. When you have religion and faith you have all the answers, even when you don’t have any. If science ever had all the answers, it wouldn’t be science any more, that’s the beauty of it.

    Instead of thanking Christianity or any religion, we need to give credit where credit is due and thank evolution. Although evolution created both science and religion in a sense, much of the problematic and vestigial organs (religion in this case), should be thanked for it’s purpose, and then shrugged off when it’s no longer compatible.

    Posted by T. V. | March 21, 2011, 10:22 PM
    • Thanks for your comment. I think that it, unfortunately, falls victim to being a logical fallacy known as the “genetic fallacy.” Even were I to grant that many of our religious beliefs evolved, that does nothing to undermine the truth claims therein. Further, treating religion as a kind of hypothesis with which we explain the unexplained begs the question (another fallacy) in favor of scientism.

      Not only that, but there are many good reasons to believe God exists, which would do a lot of the “grunt work” for Christianity. For example, the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument demonstrates that a necessary being must exist as the terminus of an infinite string of contingent beings, while the ontological argument shows that there exists a maximally great being with many of the qualities of the Christian God. See my discussions here.

      Again, thank you for your comment, but you may consider revising it in light of its fallacious nature. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 21, 2011, 10:30 PM
    • That’s a remarkable faith you have in evolution there, T.V.

      Aren’t you worried that your total belief in evolution as the answer to all of life mysteries is itself just an evolved trait, rather than being grounded in truth?

      Posted by Sentinel | March 22, 2011, 11:16 PM
  14. Ah! I think this post should have been titled The Compatibility of Science and Christianity OR The Input of Christians(not Christianity) in Science, or sth in dat direction. There is no doubt that devout Christians contributed and still contribute to science. But that is just it.

    Posted by Sage | July 6, 2013, 5:28 PM

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: The Life Debate: Christian Presuppositions and Science « - April 11, 2010

  2. Pingback: Shoulders of Giants? -Philosophy and Science in Context, or, “Lawrence Krauss jumps off!” « J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - May 21, 2012

  3. Pingback: “Is Faith in God Reasonable?” Brief Debate Review: Alex Rosenberg vs. William Lane Craig « J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - February 1, 2013

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