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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.