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Cosmos Scrubs Religion’s Positive Influence from the History of the Scientific Revolution


We live in interesting times. On the one hand, we’re constantly assured that science and religion don’t conflict. At the same time, we’re told — sometimes by the same people — that religion hinders science. Perhaps this is to be expected. Materialists want to project a religion-friendly image because popular culture expects it, while at the same time they make arguments that they hope will ultimately erode religious belief. This requires a tricky balancing act, on vivid display in Sunday night’s third episode of the new Cosmos reboot, “When Knowledge Conquered Fear.”

Our host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, doesn’t dare directly attack religion. Instead, he artfully portrays humanity in early history as “an abandoned baby on a doorstep,” with no idea how we got here, and no idea “how to end our cosmic isolation.” As a result, he says that we looked for signs, hoping to find some “special meaning” in our world, but he says whenever we think we’ve found something “sacred,” then we “deceive ourselves and others.” Tyson claims that the “pre-scientific world” (e.g., the medieval era when religion dominated Western society) was “filled with fear,” but scientists like Newton and Halley ushered in a “permanent revolution” in human thought, which “set us free.”

As Jay Richards observes, Tyson calls Newton a “God-loving man” and “a genius.” At the same time, Tyson tells viewers that Newton’s religious studies “never led anywhere.” Similarly, Tyson acknowledges that Newton’s work suggested the universe was “the work of a master clockmaker,” but he says that Newton’s appealing to God is “the closing of a door. It doesn’t lead to other questions.” In other words, it was only when Newton wasn’t doing religion, and was doing science, that he contributed anything positive. If anything, Newton’s religion hindered scientific advance. Tyson’s message is simple: the best way to do good science is to throw off the shackles of religion.

History, in contrast, tells a different story. Early scientists including Newton were inspired to their scientific research precisely because of their religious beliefs. Newton was a monotheist who believed in a loving, truthful, personal God who would create an orderly, intelligible universe that God wanted us to discover and enjoy. It was these theological beliefs that propelled Newton to study the laws of nature.

Of course Tyson tells viewers none of this. To promote his revisionist history, he had to ignore numerous prominent historians of religion and science. Don’t take it from me — take it from them.

The eminent John Hedley Brooke writes scornfully:

The implications of scientific advance for Christian theology are often reduced to a plausible but simplistic formula: as natural phenomena, formerly explained by the will of a deity, were increasingly understood in mechanistic terms, increasingly brought within the domain of natural laws, so the belief in an active, caring Providence was eroded until the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob became nothing more than a remote clockmaker. (Brooke, 1996, p. 7)

In fact, Brooke tells us, while religion and science have had disagreements over the years, Newton and his contemporaries were inspired by belief in God to do science in the first place:

Any suggestion that what was revolutionary in seventeenth-century thought was the complete separation of science from theology would be disqualified by Newton himself, who once wrote that the study of natural philosophy included a consideration of divine attributes and of God’s relationship with the world. … Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton saw the study of nature as a religious duty. A knowledge of God’s power and wisdom could be inferred from the intelligence seemingly displayed in the designs of nature. Newton affirmed that the natural sciences had prospered only in monotheistic cultures… He believed the universality of his laws was grounded in the omnipresence of a single divine Will … if he is made to symbolize the new canons of scientific rationality, then it cannot be said that the scientific revolution saw a separation of science from theology. (Brooke, 1996, p. 8)

Brooke continues: “For Newton, as for Boyle and Descartes, there were laws of nature only because there had been a Legislator.” (p. 9) These early scientists wanted to discover the laws that God had built into the natural world. They searched for those laws because they believed in a “Legislator.” Cosmos again ignores, contradicts, and revises this history.

Lest you dismiss John Hedley Brooke, he is no religious apologist. He formerly taught at Oxford (among many other schools), and has served as president of the British Society for the History of Science and the International Society for Science and Religion.

Another eminent scholar of science and religion worth considering is Ian G. Barbour, whom PBS says “has been credited with literally creating the contemporary field of science and religion.” Barbour writes: “Newton himself believed that the world-machine was designed by an intelligent Creator and expressed God’s purposes.” (Barbour, 1997, p. 18) He explains just how profound an influence religion had in inspiring science in England during the crucial early stages of the scientific revolution:

The English authors whom we would call scientists called themselves “natural philosophers” or “virtuosi.” They were mainly from Anglican (Church of England) and Puritan (Calvinist) backgrounds. The charter of the Royal Society instructed its fellows to direct their studies “to the glory of God and the benefits of the human race.” Robert Boyle (1627-1691) said that science is a religious task, “the disclosure of the admirable workmanship which God displayed in the universe.” Newton believed the universe bespeaks an all-powerful Creator. Sprat, the historian of the Royal Society, considered science a valuable aid to religion. This view is celebrated in Addison’s hymn:

The spacious firmament on high
With all blue ethereal sky
And spangled heavens a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day,
Does his Creator’s power display,
And publishes to every land,
The work of an Almighty hand.

The virtuosi identified themselves with the Christian tradition in which they were nourished, and many of them seem to have experienced a personal response of reverence and awe toward the marvels they beheld. The psalmist had written, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth God’s handiwork,” and the virtuosi felt they could appreciate this handiwork in ways not possible to any previous generation. Expressions of awed surprise and admiration of the skill of the Creator dot the pages of their writings. The sense of the grandeur and wisdom of God was evidently a very positive experience for many of them and not just an abstract intellectual formula or a concession to cultural respectability. (Barbour, 1997, pp. 19-20, emphasis in original)

It’s not hard to understand how the founders of the world’s most prestigious and long-lasting scientific society — who believed in a wise and powerful Creator — would then be inspired to investigate the “workmanship” of that Creator. In its Episode 3, Cosmos admits that early intellectual giants of science like Hooke, Newton, and Halley were a part of this same society, but Cosmos omits any mention of the important religious influences within that group. Religion and the founding of modern science went hand-in-hand, but Cosmos doesn’t tell viewers any of that.

Another great figure in the early history of modern science, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), wrote:

The heavenly motions are nothing but a continuous song for several voices (perceived by the intellect, not the ear); a music which, through discordant tensions, through sincopes and cadenzas, as it were (as men employed them in imitation of natural discords) progresses towards certain predesigned, quasi six-voiced clausuras, and thereby sets landmarks in the immeasurable flow of time. It is, therefore, no longer surprising that man, in imitation of his creator, has at last discovered the art of figured song, which was unknown to the ancients. Man wanted to reproduce the continuity of cosmic time within a short hour, by an artful symphony for several voices, to obtain a sample test of the design of the Divine Creator in His works, and to partake of his joy by making music in imitation of God.” (Johannes Kepler, Harmony of the World, 1618, quoted in Olenick and Apostol (1985), p. 553)

Ian Barbour asks, “Why was it in Western civilization alone, among all the cultures of the world, that science in its modern form developed?” (Barbour, 1997, p. 27, emphasis in original) Because only the West had what Barbour says are the needed “intellectual presuppositions underlying the rise of science.” Those presuppositions came directly from the Judeo-Christian worldview, which had uniquely permeated the West. Barbour explains:

[T]he medieval legacy also included presuppositions about nature that were congenial to the scientific enterprise. First, the conviction of the intelligibility of nature contributed to the rational or theoretical component of science. The medieval scholastics, like the Greek philosophers, did have great confidence in human rationality. Moreover, they combined the Greek view of the orderliness and regularity of the universe with the biblical view of God as Lawgiver. Monotheism implies the universality of order and coherence…

Second, the doctrine of creation implies that the details of nature can be known only by observing them. For if the world is the product of God’s free act, it did not have to be made as it was made, and we can understand it only by actual observation. The universe, in other words, is contingent on God’s will, not a necessary consequence of first principles. This world is both orderly and contingent, for God is both rational and free. …

Third, an affirmative attitude towards nature is dominant in the Bible. The goodness of the world is a corollary of the doctrine of creation. God’s purposes involve the created order and the sphere of time and history … biblical religion had never deified natural forces or vitalities of organic life; the world was not an object of worship, and thus it became an object of study. (Barbour, 1997, p. 28, emphasis in original)

Barbour concludes: “many historians of science have acknowledged the importance of the Western religious tradition in molding assumptions about nature that were congenial to the scientific enterprise.” (p. 29)

Holmes Rolston III, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University and winner of the Templeton Prize, likewise explains:

Indeed, to turn the tables, it was monotheism that launched the coming of physical science, for it premised an intelligible world, sacred but disenchanted, a world with blueprint, which was therefore open to the searches of the scientists. The great pioneers in physics — Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, — devoutly believed themselves called to find evidences of God in the physical world. Even Einstein, much later and in a different era, when puzzling over how space and time were made, used to ask himself how God would have arranged the matter. A universe of such beauty, an Earth given over to life and to culture — such phenomena imply a transcending power adequate to account for these productive workings in the world. (Rolston, 1987, p. 39)

Yet another scholar, David C. Lindberg of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, former president of the U.S. History of Science Society, writes:

There was no warfare between science and the church. The story of science and Christianity in the Middle Ages is not a story of suppression nor one of its polar opposite, support and encouragement. What we find is an interaction exhibiting all of the variety and complexity that we are familiar with in other realms of human endeavor: conflict, compromise, understanding, misunderstanding, accommodation, dialogue, alienation, the making of common cause, and the going of separate ways. Out of this complex interaction (rather than by repudiation of it) emerged the science of the Renaissance and the early-modern period. (Lindberg, 2000, p. 266.)

Or consider another authority, Discovery Institute fellow Michael Keas, who explained in Salvo Magazine:

Are Christianity and science at war with one another? Not according to leading historians. “The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict,” wrote historian of science Ronald Numbers in 2009. Even though he and other historians of science have documented this conclusion thoroughly, many myths about the alleged warfare between science and religion continue to be promulgated in the popular literature and textbooks.

The truth is that science and biblical religion have been friends for a long time. Judeo-Christian theology has contributed in a friendly manner to such science-promoting ideas as discoverable natural history, experimental inquiry, universal natural laws, mathematical physics, and investigative confidence that is balanced with humility. Christian institutions especially since the medieval university, have often provided a supportive environment for scientific inquiry and instruction.

Why have we forgotten most of the positive contributions of Christianity to the rise of modern science? This cultural amnesia is largely due to the influence of a number of anti-Christian myths about science and religion. These myths teach that science came of age in the victory of naturalism over Christianity. (Keas, 2013)

Dr. Keas goes on to debunk these myths, He explains in detail how Judeo-Christian theology provided the fertile ground that was necessary and natural for that development. Read Dr. Keas’s essay for the full argument — it’s free online.

Cosmos Episode 3 tells us that Isaac Newton’s religion was like the “the closing of a door,” and “never led anywhere” because belief in God “doesn’t lead to other questions.” This is historically wrong. A chorus of modern historians of science and religion observe that Judeo-Christian conceptions of God played an important, positive role in the rise of modern science. Not only that, but Judeo-Christian religion is crucial in answering a question that has long puzzled historians: Why did modern science only arise in the West? Cosmos whitewashes all of this, presenting instead a shallow revisionist formula: science good, religion bad. If the founders of modern science themselves thought in such simplistic terms, we never would have had science.

References Cited:
John Hedley Brooke, “Science and Theology in the Enlightenment,” in Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue, W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman eds. (Routledge, 1996).

Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).

Michael Keas, In the Beginning Episodes in the Origin & Development of Science, Salvo (Special Science & Faith Issue, Salvo 26, Summer 2013).

David C. Lindberg, “Medieval Science and Religion,” in The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia, Gary B. Ferngren ed. (Garland Publishing, 2000).

Richard P. Olenick and Tom M. Apostol, The Mechanical Universe, Introduction to Mechanics and Heat (Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Holmes Rolston, III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (Harcourt Brace, 1987).

Photo credit: Fox TV.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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