The Christian Origins of Science

Posted: Apr 15, 2017 12:01 AM
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It’s Easter, a time when Christians the world over commemorate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of their Lord and Savior.

However, it isn’t just Christians, but anyone and everyone who regularly reaps the incalculable benefits of Western civilization that should be grateful for the fact that Jesus of Nazareth walked among us.  In virtually every conceivable way, Jesus, courtesy of the legions of disciples that He spawned throughout the centuries, has made the world that we take for granted.

Though it will doubtless come as an enormous shock to such Christophobic atheists as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and their ilk, it is nonetheless true that one especially significant contribution that Christianity made to the world is that of science.    

No one has better established this than Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion who makes his home at Baylor University, the school from which I received a master’s degree in philosophy. Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, though published 12 years ago, is worth revisiting, particularly at this time when, not unlike at Christmas, journalists and others in the media presume to address the topic of Jesus.

In his introduction, Stark cuts to the quick in identifying why all too few Westerners are unaware of the richness of their religious inheritance.  “During the past century, Western intellectuals have been more than willing to trace European imperialism to Christian origins, but they have been entirely unwilling to recognize that Christianity made any contribution (other than intolerance) to the Western capacity to dominate.”  Instead, “the West is said to have surged ahead precisely as it overcame religious barriers to progress, especially those impeding science.”

Stark’s reply to this conventional wisdom is to the point: “Nonsense.”

He is unequivocal: “The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians” (emphasis added).

Christians, in stark contrast to virtually every other ancient tradition, endorsed a linear conception of time and a resolutely non-cyclical vision of the universe.  The universe had a beginning because it was created by one, supreme, rational God.  These metaphysical ideas in turn gave rise to the belief that the material world was at once good and rational.  Hence, it warranted exploration. 

From this metaphysic sprang as well the belief in progress.

The emergence of modern science was the culmination of centuries’ worth of the achievements of medieval Christian thinkers.  Specifically, science was made possible by the twelfth-century creation of the university—another of Christianity’s gifts to humanity.  The belief in the rationality of the material world is nothing more or less than a belief that the universe is governed by natural laws.  In the absence of this idea, science never could have come about.

Stark draws our attention to the common error of confusing technology and observation with science.  “Science,” he writes, “is a method utilized in organized efforts to formulate explanations of nature, always subject to modifications and corrections through systematic observations” (emphases original).

What this means is that science consists of two parts: theory and research.  “Hence, the earlier technical innovations of Greco-Roman times, of Islam, of China, let alone those achieved in pre-historical times, do not constitute science and are better described as lore, skills, wisdom, techniques, crafts, technologies, engineering, learning, or simply knowledge.”

Stark is blunt: “Real science arose only once: in Europe”—in Christian Europe.  “China, Islam, India, and ancient Greece and Rome each had a highly developed alchemy. But only in Europe did alchemy develop into chemistry.  By the same token, many societies developed elaborate systems of astrology, but only in Europe did astrology develop into astronomy.”

The reason for this has everything to do with Christian Europe’s vision of God. 

To further substantiate his point, Stark quotes Alfred North Whitehead, a 20th century philosopher and mathematician who co-authored, with the famed atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell, their Principia Mathematica.  While delivering a Lowell Lecture at Harvard in the 1920’s, Whitehead shocked his fellow academics when he remarked that “faith in the possibility of science” derived from “medieval theology.”

Whitehead elaborated: “The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement,” he remarked, was “the inexpugnable belief” in “a secret that can be unveiled.” That this “conviction” has seized “the European mind” can only be explained in terms of “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher.”

This conception of God led to the notion that every “detail” in nature “was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality.”

And there is no question that all of the great scientists of the early modern era, men like Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Kepler, “confess[ed]…their absolute faith in a creator God, whose work incorporated rational rules awaiting discovery.”

In summation, Stark writes: “The rise of science was not an extension of classical learning.  It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: nature exists because it was created by God.  In order to love and honor God, it is necessary to fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork. Because God is perfect, his handiwork functions in accord with immutable principles. By the full use of our God-given powers of reason and observation, it ought to be possible to discover these principles.”

He concludes: “These were the crucial ideas that explain why science arose in Christian Europe and nowhere else.”

Science, with all of the ways in which it has enriched human existence, would never had come about if not for Christianity.

Remember this the next time some historical illiterate, like one of the so-called “new” atheists, tries to reinforce the fiction that Christianity and science are at odds.