HISTORY: The rise of science

Christianity and the Rise of Modern Science

Those who subscribe to one strand or other of a Christian faith tradition may find themselves on the horns of a dilemma when reflecting on the historical relations between their religious beliefs and the rise of modern science.  Anxious to repudiate the common but ill-informed allegation that Christianity was never other than obstructive to scientific innovation, they may be tempted to overplay the respects in which the modern scientific movement was inspired by Christian ideals.  In so doing they then play into the hands of those who, swayed by an uncritical acceptance of Lynn White’s thesis, accuse Christianity of another failing – its alleged encouragement of an exploitative mentality, sanctioned by the Genesis injunction to exercise dominion over nature.

 The problem is not simply one of how best to find a balanced view, though that is difficult enough. It is also that the question, as habitually framed, is simply too blunt.

There were many versions of Christianity competing for attention in 17th-century Europe and many variants of an emerging scientific culture. The suggestion that science (singular) was somehow an offspring of Christianity (singular), with the intimate organic connection that implies, has not stood the test of serious critical scholarship. That does not mean that the old warfare thesis was correct after all.  Far from it.  There were resources within the Christian tradition that, when appropriated and reinterpreted, could be used to justify scientific activity.  This is not, however, the same as asserting a simple causal relation between Christianity and scientific endeavour.

The Dialogue

The case for asserting an intimate and beneficial association of science with Christian teaching was made by well-known contributors to what has become known as the dialogue between science and religion.  If science ultimately depended for its rationality on the existence of an orderly and intelligible world, this was a presupposition that could be supplied by a doctrine of creation, in which the unity of nature also reflected a monotheistic faith.

Thinking along these lines, A.N. Whitehead famously proposed that science could be regarded as an unconscious derivative of medieval theology.  It is also undeniable that some of the most prominent scientific thinkers of seventeenth-century Europe presented their scientific insights in language redolent of religious conviction.  The astronomer Kepler clearly believed that the order of nature was best captured by exhibiting the geometrical harmonies pervading the cosmos.  Mathematics was the language that mediated between the divine and the human mind.  Galileo, for whom mathematics was the language of nature, saw human reason as a divine gift, to be used in reading the book of nature.  There is little doubt that Newton’s belief in the universality of nature’s laws was a reflection of his robust monotheism.

Christian beliefs could be brought to bear on questions of methodology.  It was a common refrain among advocates of what became known as the ‘experimental philosophy’ that the armchair philosophising of the scholastics was arrogant in its presumption that reason alone would give access to the truth.  If God had been free to make whatever world God wished, only an empirical investigation could reveal the nature of the world that had actually been made.

For the Dutch Calvinist historian of science, Reijer Hooykaas, Protestant Christianity in particular made modern science possible in yet another respect.  This was not merely that it encouraged freedom of thought, though that would be of no small import.  Through its emphasis on biblical teaching and a celebration of the sovereignty of God, it cleared the air for a science of nature by eliminating all mediating agents between an omnipotent God and the workings of nature.  Hooykaas, in books such as Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, would speak of the -“de-deification of nature”, a process leading to a worldview in which “nature” and God were so related that to investigate the laws of nature was to investigate the way in which God normally chose to act in the world.  The “law” metaphor, as many have observed, made sense if the Christian God could be identified with a divine legislator.  For the sinologist Joseph Needham, one of the reasons for the absence in China of a highly articulated abstract science of nature, comparable to that of Galileo, was the absence of a legislating Creator.

Such connections may point to the relevance of Christian doctrine to the rise of science.  Yet proper caution must be exercised before drawing too strong a conclusion.

Avoiding oversimplification

The pre-eminence that Hooykaas gave to Protestant theologies, and Calvinism in particular, could easily obscure the many scientific contributions made by Catholic scholars, among whom were some of the leading exponents of a mechanical philosophy of nature: Galileo, Mersenne, Gassendi and Descartes.  In an important essay that appeared in God and Nature (ed. David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers), William Ashworth examined the philosophies of nature constructed by leading Catholic natural philosophers and concluded that not only was there no unanimity but that their several positions could equally have been found among Protestant thinkers.

One of the most sophisticated accounts of Protestant initiatives in creating the space for scientific enquiry is now Peter Harrison’s The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge UP, 1998).  His argument is multi-faceted, but the key point is that new ways of reading the Bible had a spin-off in new ways of reading the book of nature.  No longer was the latter seen as a deposit of natural objects, each in some way emblematic of spiritual truths.  The more literal interpretations of Scripture, favoured within Protestant communities, arguably led to understandings of nature in which what was important was not a set of spiritual symbols but the physical connections between things that the sciences could explore.  In particular, the Protestant rejection of multiple meanings of specific biblical texts had a parallel in the scientist’s quest (visible in Newton) for a single and precise explanation of each natural phenomenon.

Was such a movement specifically Christian? This becomes an important question in the light of the fact, stressed by Harrison, that the expansion of an experimentally grounded natural philosophy in seventeenth-century England was accompanied as much by a reformulation of natural theology as by a revision of doctrine.  According to exponents of the ‘new philosophy’, nature was still a book to be read, but it increasingly became a resource to be used for human benefit – for the relief of man’s estate, as Francis Bacon put it.  As lowly a creature as the silk worm had a raised profile, once one focussed on its value to humankind.  One of the paradoxes of the scientific revolution was that, even as new cosmologies had a decentring effect on our place in the universe, the utilitarian thrust of the new science became more resoundingly anthropocentric.  Though Harrison has protested, against Lynn White’s thesis, that there was nothing intrinsic to the Judaeo-Christian tradition that fostered environmental exploitation, and nothing in medieval exegesis of Genesis to support such a notion, he has observed that, with the re-orientation of seventeenth-century science, new interpretations of Genesis found favour that would sanction the appeal to utility.

Natural theologies with their appeals to design and beauty in creation could, of course, be supportive of a Christian commitment, as they undoubtedly were for Robert Boyle.  But, as I have argued elsewhere, their attraction often consisted in their transcending of religious divisions and, to those vilified as deists, in their dispensing with revelation altogether.  Images of a clockwork universe could be used to celebrate divine designs; the problem, for Christian orthodoxies, was that they could also be used to underwrite the autonomy of nature.  There was never a simple entailment to metaphysical or theological conclusions, either from Christian doctrines and values to a reverence for science or from new forms of mechanistic science. This is one of the most important lessons from historical enquiry.  It constitutes a critique of those popular writers today who like to argue that the conclusions of science entail whatever views about Christianity or about religion in general that they happen to favour.

Too strong a claim for the dependence of early modern science on a Christian culture is open to several objections, at least two of which were voiced by Rolf Gruner in an important essay first published in the Journal of Theological Studies in 1975 (vol. 26, pp. 55-81).

Gruner observed that, if Christianity were so germane to the rise of science, why did so many centuries elapse before any scientific fruits became visible?  Also, if the reply appealed to a constellation of other social and economic pre-conditions of the possibility of science, the effect would be to dilute, even to trivialise, the claim for the Christian input.

A more subtle objection was that some formulations of Christian doctrine, concerning the ‘fall’ for example, were positively obstructive to scientific enquiry because they gave prominence to concepts of forbidden knowledge.  The key issue here is how such doctrines were formulated and, as Gruner recognised, they often had to be reformulated in order to accommodate visions of a scientific utopia.  When Francis Bacon promoted the applied sciences with the argument that they would help to restore the dominion over nature that humankind had sacrificed at the fall, this was a reinterpretation of Christian theology, not a natural outgrowth.  This is why I prefer, in general, to use the language of appropriation and reinterpretation when referring to the resources within Christendom that could be utilised in diplomacy for the sciences.

Different religions and cultures

This is not the place to embark on a discussion that requires a detailed knowledge of other religious cultures.  Yet it must be obvious that the scientific achievements of the Muslim philosophers and scientists of an earlier period preclude any crude claim for a Christian ownership of science, as must the achievements of the Greek philosophers, so respected by the European giants of the seventeenth century: Galileo was full of praise for Archimedes, Newton for Pythagoras.

It must also be remembered that discourse about the harmony between scientific and Christian beliefs was often constructed as an apologia and sometimes in self-defence, as when Galileo urged the compatibility of Copernican astronomy with Scripture in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.  A recent study by Moredechai Feingold, “Science as a Calling? The Early Modern Dilemma” (Science in Context, 15 (2002), pp. 79-119) draws attention to the discomfort felt by the English clergy in the 17th century when they devoted time to natural history or natural philosophy that they sensed should rather be given to their pastoral duties.  There was no smooth motion from Christian conviction to the practice of the sciences.  Indeed the first major and enduring scientific academies, the Royal Society of London and the Academy of Sciences in Paris, formally forbade the incursion of religious discourse in their proceedings.

Such considerations complicate any historical account of a supposed debt of the modern scientific movement to Christian doctrines and values.

We also need to be sensitive to the importance of location when examining how the relations between Christianity and the sciences were constructed.  In the German states, Lutherans played a key role in disseminating Copernican astronomy; in Sweden Lutheran theology was more deeply suspicious of the new science. Calvin may have created the space for a new astronomy though his doctrine of biblical accommodation – exactly as Hooykaas argued – but Calvinism in some locations, Scotland for example, could be distinctly unwelcoming to a heliocentric cosmology.

The need to take a cultural geography seriously has been powerfully urged by David Livingstone in his book Putting Science in its Place (Chicago UP, 2003) and in his telling accounts of the different responses by Presbyterians to Darwin’s theory of evolution, in Belfast, Edinburgh and Princeton.  To the question, “what was the historical relationship between Christianity and science?”, it becomes necessary to reply in the first instance that it depends on where one is looking.

This surely remains true for the present day.  There are no simple answers to such questions and we deceive ourselves if we think there are. This was one of the lessons I felt it important to underline when writing my Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge UP 1991).  Another, of course, is that the Christianity practised by some of the great scientists of the past (Newton would be a telling example) was often far from orthodox – a tension that makes historical study particularly enthralling, as Ian Maclean and I have argued in our pending study of Heterodoxy in Early Modern Science and Religion (Oxford UP, 2005).

Conflict between scientists and churches

It is unfortunate that in the public mind, and among detractors of Christianity, the stance taken by the Catholic Church against Galileo and the repeated assault on Darwinian evolution from vociferous Protestant constituencies are seen as epitomising an essential relationship of opposition between the Christian faith and science.  Nothing in this brief account is intended to lend credibility to that partial view.  Christianity may not have been the primary cause of an emerging scientific culture in the 17th century but it did provide a peculiar set of resources by which scientific activity could be rationalised and legitimated.  Galileo, after all, found a precedent in Augustine for the view he wished to propound on the scope of biblical authority.  Many were the connections that could be made between Christian ideals and visions of an improved science of nature.

The complexity of the case is perfectly illustrated by Francis Bacon, often portrayed as a hero of secularity, and yet able to present his empiricism as an embodiment of the Christian virtues of humility and compassion.  His tirade against scholasticism was directed against its arrogance and sterility.

For those seeking a fuller account of this absorbing issue, I recommend David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (eds.), When Science & Christianity Meet (Chicago UP, 2003), which also provides an excellent bibliographic guide.  For the many different ways in which historical analysis can illuminate contemporary concerns, one could turn to John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor, Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science & Religion (T & T Clark and Oxford UP, 2000).