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"Did Christianity (and Other Religions) Promote the Rise Of Science?"

Michael Egnor

At Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne denies that Christianity promoted the rise of science:

Did Christianity (and other religions) promote the rise of science?

Of course most of you will answer "No way!", and I do, too, but accommodationists and science-friendly believers make this argument often.

Coyne (to his credit) quotes several scholars who affirm Christianity’s central role in the scientific revolution:

". . . the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships." — Paul Davies, "Taking Science on Faith," New York Times

"Moral laws are promulgated by God for free creatures, who have it in their power to obey or disobey. The laws of nature, on the other hand, are promulgated for the inanimate world of matter; physical objects don’t get to decide to obey, say, Newton’s law of gravity. In each case, however, we have the setting forth or promulgation of divine rule for a certain domain of application. It is important to see that our notion of the laws of nature, crucial for contemporary science, has this origin in Christian theism." �– Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, p. 276

"Indeed, a distinctive feature of the Scientific Revolution is that, unlike other scientific programmes and cultures, it is driven, often explicitly, by religious considerations: Christianity set the agenda for natural philosophy in many respects and projected it forward in a way quite different from that of any scientific culture. Moreover, when the standing of religion as a source of knowledge about the world, and cognitive values generally, came to be threatened, it was not science that posed the threat but history." �– S. Graukoger, The Emergence of a Modern Scientific Culture, p. 3 

"[F]aith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology." �– Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 19.

"Recent scholarship, most of it conducted by secular academics, has established that religious belief was entirely compatible with scientific progress, even encouraging it in many cases." — K. Giberson and F. Collins, The Language of Science and Faith

They are right. Christianity is the necessary framework for modern theoretical science, and all modern science arose under the indispensable influence of Christian culture. Coyne doesn’t agree. Here are his responses, with my commentary:

1. Even were it true, it doesn’t in any way support the truth claims of Christianity or any other religion.

It doesn’t prove Christianity true, but the remarkable consilience of Christian theology and philosophy with unique and profound understandings of nature provided by modern science that developed only with the insights provided by Christian culture lend credence to Christian metaphysics. 

Christian metaphysics, applied to the study of nature, works. Why is that so hard for Coyne to grasp? If atheist metaphysics had contributed anything to science (it hasn’t), Coyne would be announcing the final complete validation of atheism with flashing neon type.

2. Christianity was around for a millennium without much science being done; "modern" science really started as a going concern in the 17th century. Why did that take so long if Christianity was so important in fostering science?

First we must define modern science. Many cultures developed mathematics, and many cultures developed engineering. China, India, the Islamic world all excelled in these arts. But by modern science we don’t mean mathematics and engineering. We mean the development of theories, often expressed mathematically, that predict nature and come to be understood as physical laws. Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmology, Galileo’s astronomy, Newton’s theory of gravitation and force, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Harvey’s theory of the circulation of blood, Mendeleev’s periodic table, Pasteur’s elaboration of the germ theory of disease, Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism, Einstein’s relativity, and Bohr’s/Heisenberg’s/Schrodinger’s quantum mechanics are paradigmatic of modern theoretical science, all of which took place in a wholly Christian milieu.

The philosophical and theological roots of the Christian development of modern science are deep and complex, and owed much to Aquinas’ application of Aristotle’s realism to an understanding of the natural world. If one is to set a date for the first modernist science, Roger Bacon (a Franciscan friar) in the 13th century is a good choice. Modern science grew in the great Christian universities founded in the high Middle Ages in Paris and Oxford and Cambridge.

The scientific revolution in the 17th century was the culmination of centuries of Christian scholarship, all of which was conducted under the aegis of the Catholic Church and her Protestant offspring.

No other culture has produced significant modern theoretical science. Modern scientists working in other cultures (e.g. in India and Japan) were educated in Christian universities or educational systems modeled on Christian systems.

What about the science produced by atheist culture — Coyne’s bailiwick — which has been ascendant since 1793? Atheism ruled one nation in the late 18th century (briefly), and ruled many nations for most of the 20th century. It still rules more than a billion people. Atheism has shown some organizational skill, and has produced some engineering marvels, some advances in public housing, some agricultural novelties, and some novel strategies to prevent type II diabetes

3. If you think of science as rational and empirical investigation of the natural world, it originated not with Christianity but with the ancient Greeks, and was also promulgated for a while by Islam.

Neither the Greeks nor Islam produced modern theoretical science. The Greeks produced sublime philosophy and mathematics, but no theoretical science. They excelled in mathematics but never applied mathematical models to the systematic study of nature. 

Islam produced no real theoretical science. It invaded the Christian Middle East, Christian North Africa and Christian Spain, and expropriated the culture and work of Christians and Jews and pagans in the conquered lands. Centralized government and fresh availability of booty fostered a modest bit of science produced by the conquered locals — the vast majority of whom were not Muslim for centuries

It took several centuries before most of the conquered peoples under the Islamic boot converted to Islam — Islamic rulers coveted the dhimmi taxes and were not quick to force conversion — and when Islamic lands became wholly Islamic, science became wholly dead.

3. Carrier makes the point that there was no scientific revolution in the eastern half of the Christian world. Why was that?

Two major reasons. The Byzantines were busy keeping Islam’s scimitar off their necks (being incessantly invaded and slaughtered and conquered is not an enticement to science or to scholarship in general). Also, and quite importantly, the East had a great deal of trouble with Arianism, which it battled for centuries. The Arian heresy, which burst forth in Islam as well, seems to be a scientific dead end, because it puts God out of reach of man and leads to the denial of his rationality and predictability and a denial of the rationality and predictability of his creation. Arianism can be translated as "No Science Done Here."

4. Another Carrier point: geometry was invented by polytheists (ancient Greeks); do we give polytheism credit for geometry, then?

Geometry is not modern theoretical science. Modern theoretical science is the use of geometry to model and investigate the natural world. Only Christian culture has done that. 

5. Religion has of course also repressed the search for knowledge. Not only do we have the cases of Galileo and Bruno, but also the active discouragement of the use of reason by many church fathers, especially Martin Luther, who made statements like this: "Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God." And freethinkers like Spinoza were regularly persecuted by religion (Judaism in his case.) 

Galileo, who was a son of the Church and was entirely supported by it, was suppressed (very mildly) for mocking the pope, and for teaching heliocentrism as already proven rather than as a theory.

Bruno was not burned for his science, but for his heresy, which was protean.

Luther is an example of someone whom the Church condemned as a heretic but did not burn.

6. There was and still is, of course, opposition to science by Christians. The greatest opponent of biology’s greatest theory — evolution — has always been Christianity.

A point of pride to many Christians.

7. If religion promulgated the search for knowledge, it also gave rise to erroneous, revelation-based "scientific" conclusions that surely impeded progress. Those include creation ex nihilo, the Great Flood, a geocentric universe, and so on.

The Genesis account of creation ex nihilo presaged the Big Bang theory by several thousand years, a great flood is recounted in extra-Biblical documents such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and may very well reflect a local historical event, and geocentricity was never a magisterial teaching of the Church. Copernicus was a devout Catholic who probably worked for the Church, and Galileo was suppressed, as noted above, for defiantly teaching (while on the Church payroll) that heliocentrism was already proven in the 17th century, and that Pope Urban VIII was an idiot.

Scientists and Church officials noted the lack of measurable stellar parallax, which seemed to preclude a proof of heliocentrism, whatever its merits otherwise, and they concluded that heliocentrism should properly remain a theory, not a proven fact, as Galileo had insisted it was. 

Heliocentrism was not demonstrated with empirical certainty until 1838 (when stellar parallax was first measured), confirming that the pope was not an idiot after all.

8. Early scientists were Christians, at least in the west, because everyone was a Christian then. You would have been an apostate, or burnt at the stake, had you denied that faith. If you’re going to give Christianity credit for science, you have to give it credit for nearly everything, including art, architecture, music, and so on.

What a mindless thing to say. It is not true that "everyone was a Christian then." No one was a Christian in China, no one was a Christian in most of Asia, Africa, and most the Americas. Christendom was a very small part of the world — perhaps 20 percent of the world’s population in the 17th century — restricted mostly to Europe.

Yet modern theoretical science arose only in that Christian sliver of the world. And of course I do give Christianity credit for European art, architecture, and music. What else besides Christianity would explain the countless paintings of Christ and Mary and biblical scenes, the majestic Catholic cathedrals, Christian music from Gregorian chant to Bach and Mozart "and so on"?

The Renaissance was a wholly Catholic project, funded by the Renaissance popes. It was the financial strain of supporting the Renaissance that was the immediate cause of the Vatican’s indulgence crisis that sparked the Reformation, for goodness sake. Doesn’t Coyne read history?

9. Islam began as a science-supportive regime, but lost its impetus … around the 16th century when religious authorities began repressing a "western" mode of inquiry. This anti-Western attitude may explain the minimal achievements of science in modern Islamic nations.

The Arian perspective — the view that God is far removed from man and is not bound by reason — is the principal science-killing aspect of Islamic culture. It was ascendant in the Middle East in the seventh century and persists in Islam to this day.

10. At present nearly half of science are atheists, and the argument that religion motivates science can no longer stand. The major achievements of science, including relativity, evolution, and modern molecular biology, were achieved by non-theists.

Atheist scientists work in Christian culture (much of our culture preserves Christian inferences even in the secular era) and they use those implicit Christian inferences (nature is not god, nature is rational and consistent and manifests a Creator’s mind, man can and should investigate nature, etc.) continuously in their work.

Atheism’s "the universe happened without a reason, everything still happens without a reason, and survivors survive" hasn’t exactly been an engine of science.

Indeed, Jim Watson told me that his and Crick’s drive to find the structure of DNA was largely motivated by a desire to show that the "secret of life" — the replicating molecule that serves as a recipe for bodies — was pure chemistry, with not a trace of the divine in it.

If there is no God, whose secret is it?

11. All progress in science, whether ancient or modern, came from ignoring or rejecting the idea of divine intervention.

All ancient science was done by theists. Essentially all Enlightenment science was done by devout Christians. All modern science is done by scientists who implicitly accept and use the Christian understanding of nature.

Atheists, working from atheist presumptions in atheist cultures, have contributed nothing to science. Ask Lysenko.

Even if theories were inspired by thoughts of God, they were substantiated or disproven by tacitly assuming a godless universe — that is, by employing methodological naturalism.

Atheism provides no reason whatsoever to believe that nature is rational, no reason to believe that it has secrets at all, and no reason to believe that those secrets can be understood. Atheism posits that nature has no reason at all for its existence. 

The belief that nature is rational and that the method of science can divine the secrets of nature is a Christian (and Jewish) belief. 

Religion has only impeded that kind of investigation and, in fact, has never come up with a theory on its own that had scientific credibility.

"Religion has only impeded… "? Coyne lumps together Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, all varieties of paganism ancient and modern, and Scientology, and declares that they have never come up with scientific theories. True enough, given that they’re religions, not university science departments. 

What religions do come up with is cultures and theologies. They are the air that science breathes. Only one religion has produced modern science (vide supra).

Newton, for instance, couldn’t explain regular planetary motion, and had to invoke divine intervention (so much for God helping science!) until Laplace came along and showed that orbital irregularities could be explained in a purely naturalistic way. (As Laplace supposedly replied to Napoleon, who had read Kepler’s book on celestial mechanics and inquired about the absence of God in that tome, "I have no need of that hypothesis.")

What? Coyne claims that Kepler’s book on celestial mechanics — presumably The Harmony of the World — contains no reference to God? Here’s Kepler in Harmonices Mundi, Chapter 5:

Whether it is to be read by the people of the present or of the future makes no difference: let it await its reader for a hundred years, if God Himself has stood ready for six thousand years for one to study Him.

Kepler again, in Harmonices:

Accordingly we find that God the Creator did not wish to introduce harmonic ratios between the sums of the delays added together to form the periodic times… But since God has established nothing without geometrical beauty, which was not bound by some other prior law of necessity, we easily infer that the periodic times have got their due lengths… so now also, after the discovery of the consonances [harmoniis] which God Himself has embodied in the world, we must consequently see whether those single consonances…God the Creator and to act out, as it were, a certain drama of the ordination of the celestial movements… Nature, which is never not lavish of herself, after a lying-in of two thousand years, has finally brought you forth in these last generations, the first true images of the universe. By means of your concords of various voices, and through your ears, she has whispered to the human mind, the favorite daughter of God the Creator, how she exists in the innermost bosom… (Shall I have committed a crime if I ask the single composers of this generation for some artistic motet instead of this epigraph? The Royal Psalter and the other Holy Books can supply a text suited for this… Hence it is no longer a surprise that man, the ape of his Creator, should finally have discovered the art of singing polyphonically [per concentum], which was unknown to the ancients, namely in order that he might play the everlastingness of all created time in some short part of an hour by means of an artistic concord of many voices and that he might to some extent taste the satisfaction of God the Workman with His own works, in that very sweet sense of delight elicited from this music which imitates God… [emphasis mine]

Far from an "absence of God in that tome," Kepler’s work is saturated with reference to God. Parts of Harmonices read like a freakin’ sermon. What could Coyne possibly mean — "the absence of God in that tome"? Kepler did everything short of crediting God as co-author of the Harmonices. Coyne doesn’t even read the stuff he cites.


I maintain, though I can’t prove this, that had there been no Christianity, if after the fall of Rome atheism had pervaded the Western world, science would have developed earlier and be far more advanced than it is now. All religion has done was inspire a few famous scientists to do their work. Its inimical effects on science were far more serious.


[Egnor slaps forehead]

Coyne must surely be joking. Most of the world had no Christianity after the fall of Rome — nearly all of East Asia, Africa and the Americas and unevangelized Europe were Christianity-free — and remained Christianity-free — for a thousand years. China has always been atheist, at least in the elite and educated classes (Confucianism is functionally atheist). Africa is only in this century gaining significant Christian populations. Large parts of the world are still Christianity-free (only a third of the world population is Christian). Five billion people are Christianity-free as I write this.

And atheism, lately, has had quite a run. For much of the 20th century a third of the world was under its boot, including half of Europe, most of East Asia, and all of Russia. Atheists burned churches, shot priests, and freed the proletariat from the burdens of Christian liturgy. Great swaths of the Far East — China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea — remain atheist paradises, liberated for a half-century to gush cataracts of modern theoretical science.

If Christianity is an impediment to science, and atheism is a lubricant, where is all of the modern theoretical science gushing from these atheist and other non-Christian lands for two thousand years?

The experiment has been run, Jerry. Christianity is a prerequisite for modern theoretical science. Islam and paganism are science non-starters. And atheist utopias are totalitarian hellholes and science wastelands whose only scientific contribution is to mortuary science.

The data is in.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.