Did Science Ever Need Christianity?

Science and Christianity appear worlds apart in many respects. Science has shown us that Adam and Eve never existed, that the world is vastly older than six thousand or so years, that there never was a global flood and that praying for sick people to get better has little to no effect on their health (as a matter of fact, the effect of prayer on sick patients has been shown, in some studies, to be slightly negative, if the patients also know that they are being prayed for).

It would seem odd, then, to argue that science required Christianity to flourish. Yet this argument is often heard within Christian apologetics, and from some notable scholars of late, such as Peter Harrison (author of the recent book The Territories of Science and Religion) and William Lane Craig (a well known Christian philosopher and apologist).

Harrison argues that the rise of science from the 17th century onwards is directly related to a developing theological understanding. He argues that scientific knowledge has importantly religious foundations. In particular, he has argued in several places that early scientists were motivated by the idea of the “fall of man” to perfect their human capacity for knowledge. Human understanding had been severely impeded by Adam’s sin and our aim must be to correct that shortcoming. The idea was that, with experimental science, we may find a way to ameliorate the damage that came upon our cognitive faculties after the fall.

Similarly, on his website, Reasonable Faith, Craig writes the following about the relationship between science and religion.

Although glimmerings of science appeared among the ancient Greeks and Chinese, modern science is the child of European civilization. Why is this so? It is due to the unique contribution of the Christian faith to Western culture.

The contribution that Craig has in mind is a theological one. Christianity, he argues, provides science with the idea that the universe is a causally connected unit, created as an object distinct from its creator, and to be understood on separate terms. The created realm is not disorderly, not full of magical, unpredictable agents like ghosts or having animistic spirits at the helm. Instead, the universe has a coherent and predictable structure imposed on it from the outside by a wise and beneficent god.

Moreover, Craig argues (in agreement with the philosopher Alvin Plantinga) that the reliability of our cognitive faculties cannot be demonstrated within science. Yet this reliability can be explained within the Christian tradition, since God (an omnibenevolent being) has so created us to have the ability to comprehend the universe in which he has so lovingly placed us. Note that this argument differs somewhat from Harrison’s, who emphasised the effects of sin.

The problem with the arguments of Harrison and Craig is that they have an exceedingly narrow view of the history of science. Both men take science to have only really begun in the 17th century or so, and to have begun with the great heroes such as Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Boyle. This view is incredibly blinkered. Indeed, it is true that these men were partly motivated by their religion. And it is also true that these men were heroes. But these men were merely the inheritors of a tradition stretching back to antiquity. Modern science is no progeny of Christianity; it is the birth-child of the ancient Greeks. The heroes who brought in the dawn of science were such men as Hippocrates, Anaximander, Thales, and later, Aristotle, Galen, and Aristarchus. The tradition to which these men belonged depended not upon Christian presuppositions, but upon quite avowedly anti-supernatural principles. These men were devout empiricists.

It was this empiricism, this anti-supernaturalism (alongside the pagan assumption that natural kinds behave in a uniform and predictable fashion) that signaled the birth of science. Later European scientists inherited these anti-supernatural principles much to the chagrin of the Church (witness the condemnation of 1277, or the trial of Galileo). The presuppositions of the Greeks were not based on scripture, but based on an optimism about our natural cognitive faculties and their ability to generate certain knowledge.

Indeed, it is telling evidence against the claims of Harrison and Craig that these anti-supernatural presuppositions of science were lost at precisely the same time as Christianity ascended: a time which we now, quite correctly, term the dark ages. Indeed, the rebirth of Greek science in Europe took five hundred years beginning in about 1150 with the translation of the Aristotelian corpus, and only finally being cemented around 1650 after Galileo had so embarrassed Church authorities with his apparent disproof of geocentrism that the latter decided to keep its neck out of future squabbles with scientists.

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