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Friday, June 8, 2012

Christianity and the Birth of Modern Science

It's a pretty common view these days that science and religion are at odds, or that they work against each other. This is tragic. What is even more tragic is that this view is often accurate. Theists make claims which are demonstrably false and consider it a badge of honor to obstinately refuse to listen to reason, or to promote a conception of God which even they admit makes no sense.

Another view is that science and religion are independent of each other. Science is about the physical, whereas religion is about the metaphysical. Science is empirical, religion is more philosophic. Rejecting religion because of science is like rejecting politics because of science, or rejecting economics because of science. The two have nothing to do with each other.

Recently, I came across another idea which I had never heard, but the more I look, the more sources I see that hold this position. Some scholars apparently think that religion has not been a hindrance to science. In fact, they believe that modern science owes a lot to medieval Christianity.

One example is James Hannam, who holds a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge. He wrote an article called Christianity and the Rise of Science. In this article, he argues that Christianity is largely responsible for the rise of science as we have it today for a number of reasons, including:
  • The preservation of literacy in the Dark Ages.
  • The doctrine of the lawfulness of nature.
  • The need to examine the real world rather than rely on pure reason.
  • The belief that science was a sacred duty.
I highly suggest you read the full article, linked above, for a complete explanation. Another article by Hannam is Science owes much to both Christianity and the Middle Ages.

A misconception about apparent conflict comes from a few high-profile cases, such as Galileo, but these are not characteristic of the entire Middle Ages. The idea that science and religion were in conflict did not become popular until long after in the writings of Voltaire. 

We think that science and religion were in conflict for the same reason that people are afraid to fly in airplanes. We never hear reports of planes successfully landing with no trouble. We only hear about the horrific crashes, so we have a distorted view of how common they are. Likewise, we never hear about all the support religion gave to science and education in an era when it was hard to come by. We only hear about Galileo's trial so our view is distorted.

Another mistake is equating "religion" with "Christianity". Even in the Middle Ages, religious communities in other parts of the world, such as in Muslim regions, saw many fundamental advances in science and mathematics, including a theory of evolution by natural selection which was common knowledge among Muslims almost a thousand years before Darwin.

Much of history is simply a matter of perception and interpretation. If Hitler had won WWII, our textbooks would be very different, regardless of what actually happened or who was actually "right", but it seems there is a certain number of scholars who interpret history such that not only has religion not been a stumbling block for science, but that we may not have had science without it.

What do you think?


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