One of the criticisms of Christianity urged by skeptics and atheists, from Voltaire to Richard Dawkins, is that Christianity is opposed to science. The narrative the skeptics promote is that Christian believers discourage investigation into the natural world because they want to lock people in ignorance and superstition so that they can be chained to revealed dogma. This could scarcely be farther from reality.
The undisputable fact is that modern science arose in the Christian West. What we think of as empirical science and the scientific method arose nowhere else—not in China, not in India, not in Japan, not in Africa, not in Arabia, and not even in the ancient Western civilizations of Greece and Rome. Only in Christian Europe did mankind develop the systematic study of nature, of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, meteorology, and all their many sub-disciplines. Only in the Christian West was science not only philosophized and speculated about, but routinely practiced, systematized, and treated as a calling and a profession.
Moreover, the founders of all the major scientific disciplines were Christians. Christians who were pioneers of science include Nicholas Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday, Nils Stensen, Georges Cuvier, Louis Agassiz, Charles Bell, Richard Owen, Louis Pasteur, Gregor Mendel, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Joseph Lister, Walter Reed, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Werner Von Braun—just to name a few of the more notable Christian men of science.
That science was born in the Christian West, and that so many of its founders and brightest stars were Christians, is sufficient to negate the notion that there is a conflict between science and Christianity. But was it just an accident of geography that science was born and nurtured in the West? No, indeed! Science was born and nurtured in the West because the Christian worldview promotes systematic inquiry into the natural world in a way that other religions, philosophies, and cultures do not.
Features of the Christian Worldview that Promote Science
First, Christians believe that the world is real, not an illusion. Some systems of beliefs regard the natural world as an illusion. In Hinduism, the universe is regarded as maya, meaning not as it appears or seems to be. “To say that the universe is an illusion (māyā) is not to say that it is unreal,” writes Wendy Doniger, “it is to say, instead, that it is not what it seems to be, that it is something constantly being made. Māyā not only deceives people about the things they think they know; more basically, it limits their knowledge." Obviously, a belief system in which the universe is not what it appears to be, and thus essentially unknowable, will not give rise to a culture of careful, systematic study of the natural world.
Second, Christians believe that the material world is good, and tells us about God. In the biblical worldview, “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.” Gen. 1:31. The Christian believes that “the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies show His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1) and that by carefully studying what God has created, we can learn more about God Himself (Rom. 1:19-20). For the Christian, studying nature is studying “God’s second book,” His revelation of Himself in what He has created. Some non-Christian belief systems, by contrast, regard matter and the material world as evil. Examples include Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and Zoroastrianism. Obviously, if you believe that the material world is evil you will be less inclined to carefully study it and more incline to dwell on more “elevated” topics, such as abstract philosophy.
Third, Christians do not believe the created things are possessed by countless spirits and little deities. Underlying most pagan spirituality is animism, the notion that each animal, tree, and rock has its own spirit or soul. Sometimes animals and other things that Christians believe are created by God are, in other religions, worshipped as gods, and likenesses of these creatures—idols—are worshipped. Obviously, scientific inquiry can scarcely be conceived of in a culture in which the sun, the moon, the trees, and the grass do not follow fixed physical and chemical laws, but are inhabited by spirits with their own volition. Every rock, river, or glacier could have a mind of its own, foreclosing any attempt at science. Likewise, if the crocodile or the ibis is inhabited by a divine presence and deserving of worship rather than close study, no scientific culture could ever get off the ground. The Christian also believes that there is Creator and created; God is separate from his creation, not part of it, as some Eastern philosophies like pantheism and panentheism teach. This gives the Christian the freedom to experiment on created things knowing that he is not thereby tampering with his own god.
Fourth, Christians believe in a God of order who created the world to operate by intelligible laws. Here, Christian culture has the decisive advantage over primitive animism and other pagan spirituality in encouraging scientific enquiry. Christians read in Job 38:33 that the heavens operate according to laws, which is a tremendous assurance for the astronomer who is trying to discern those laws. Johannes Kepler, who studied and wrote on the laws of planetary motion, was motivated by the strong conviction that God had created the universe according to a plan, to operate pursuant to laws that are intelligible through observation and reason. The mysteries of God’s creation are there to be solved by those with the time, patience and resources to solve them: “The glory of God is to conceal a thing, but the honor of kings is to search it out.” Proverbs 25:2.
Fifth, Christians believe in a loving God whose attributes and laws are fixed and unchanging. “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:8. “I am the Lord; I change not.” Mal. 3:6; see, also, Num. 23:19; Heb. 13:8; James 1:17; Psalm 119:89. If God has created the world and its creatures to operate according to laws, those laws are permanent and unchanging. Hence, scientists having once learned how something works, need not fear that God will change the naturals laws, forcing scientists to start all over again. By contrast, the god of Islam is aloof, impersonal, arbitrary, and capricious, doing as he pleases and uncommitted to his promises. That kind of God does not provide the consistency and certainty necessary to form a foundation for the scientific enterprise, which is probably why Islam seldom took science beyond where it had been taken by the Greek, Latin, Persian and Christian peoples the Muslims conquered. While the Muslims preserved some of the learning of the ancient Greek philosophers, and made advances in mathematics—algebra is an Arabic word—and astronomy, Muslim civilization stagnated in the 11th Century where some say it remains to this day.
Whence the myth of conflict between Christianity and science?
Given the foregoing, whence comes the myth that Christianity and science are at war? The originators of the myth seem to have been two 19th Century writers, J. William Draper and Andrew Dickson White.
Draper, an English-American physician and chemist, seems to have become bitter over the death of his son, and the misbehavior of his Catholic-convert sister in relation thereto. His screed, “History of the Conflict between Religion and Science” (1874) is sympathetic to Protestants and Muslims and directs most of its bile at the Roman Catholic Church. But Draper ends by arguing that Catholics and Protestants were "in accord on one point: to tolerate no science except such as they considered agreeable to the Scriptures." Draper’s book was re-printed 50 times, and translated into ten languages.
White, Cornell University’s founding president, boasted that Cornell would be "an asylum for Science—where truth shall be sought for truth's sake, not stretched or cut exactly to fit Revealed Religion." He was criticized by Christian academics for the arrogance on display in that statement, and for Cornell’s accepting government grants that the denominational universities could not get. White ginned this minor controversy up into a two-volume tome called, “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom” (1896) which ended with Cornell and White being the latest of the martyrs to Christianity’s war against science.
But the myth of the conflict between science and Christianity always boils down to two main topics: 1) the Galileo affair, and 2) Darwinism.
The Galileo Affair
Born in Pisa, Italy, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was a scientific jack-of-all-trades, a “polymath” who worked in astronomy, physics, engineering, philosophy, and mathematics, and played an important role in the scientific revolution of the 17th Century. He was devoted to induction—actually observing the heavens through a telescope—and his observations of the motions of the planets convinced him that Nicholas Copernicus had been correct that the planets, including the earth, orbit around the sun.
Heliocentrism was controversial in the early 17th Century, because it contradicted the ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Ptolemy (AD 100-170), as well as a hyper-literal reading of certain Bible verses such as Eccl. 1:5 (“The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.”) and Psalm 93:1 (“He has established the world, and it shall never be moved”).
Eventually Galileo’s geocentric opponents denounced him to the Inquisition, Rome’s infamous apparatus for suppressing heresy. At that time, the Catholic Church had no official doctrine on heliocentrism vs. geocentrism, and noting that fact would have been the most sensible way to dismiss the charges against Galileo. Instead, to the Roman Catholic Church’s lasting discredit, it declared heliocentrism to be a falsehood, and, in 1616, the inquisition ordered Galileo to stop teaching heliocentrism. Although Pope Paul V and Cardinal Bellermine publicly supported the Inquisition, they quietly protected Galileo from any real consequences of its ruling.
Sixteen years later, in 1632, Galileo returned to the topic of heliocentrism and published a popular tract called “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” The “Dialogue” was written in the form of a series of conversations between a heliocentrist, Salviati, an impartial but clever observer, Sagredo, and an Aristotelian, Simplicio, who defended geocentrism and was, as his named implied, a simpleton. Galileo managed to get the book approved by a board of censors in Florence rather than by the stricter censors in Rome. There was now a new pope, Urban VIII, and unfortunately Galileo made the impolitic mistake of putting one of this new pope’s favorite arguments—that God could have made the universe any way he wanted to and still made it appear as it does—in the mouth of Simplicio, the simpleton who had been ridiculed throughout the piece.
The pope reacted swiftly; he convened a special committee to consider the matter, and that committee denounced Galileo to the inquisition. This time Galileo didn’t have many friends in Rome. He was not tortured, but was shown the implements of torture, the unspoken implication being that they would be used if needed. In 1633, Galileo was convicted and ordered to “abjure, curse, and detest” heliocentrism, was sentenced to imprisonment, and was forbidden to publish anything further. His sentence of imprisonment was commuted to house arrest, and he lived the rest of his life at his villa in the hills above Florence.
Is there any real conflict between Bible Christianity and heliocentrism? Johannes Kepler, a very devout Lutheran, did not think so. Kepler (1571-1630) was a contemporary of Galileo, and even corresponded with him regarding heliocentrism. Kepler defended heliocentrism on both scientific and theological grounds. Living in Protestant Germany, Kepler was beyond the clutches of the Inquisition, but no Lutheran authorities molested him, either, because Bible Christianity does not conflict with the idea that the planets orbit the sun.
The real reason Galileo was persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church is that Catholic theology is a blend of Bible doctrine and the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers. This amalgamation of Greek philosophy with Bible teaching is the pride and joy of Catholic theologians. The Greeks philosophized about the natural world, but seldom got out in it and conducted experiments. Hence, the heavily Greek-influenced Roman Catholic theologians were happy with “natural philosophy”—what science was called up until the late 19th Century—but did not seem to want observational science to upset their Greek-devised philosophical systems. And upsetting their systems is exactly what Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and the other heliocentric scientists were doing. So, the real reason for the persecution of Galileo was not Christianity—at least not Bible Christianity—but the Roman Church’s Greek-influenced theology.
This is also, I would argue, why science did not catch on in the Christian West earlier than it did. It is instructive to note that the great medieval scholar Roger Bacon (1214-1292), based upon his study of all the available writings on optics, argued that experimentation was just as important to science as logical proofs. Yet the idea that science should systematically use experimentation did not catch on in the 13th Century, nor at any time until after the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation took place in the early 16th Century, and by the mid-17th Century, after a century of Protestant culture diffusing throughout the West, we see the beginnings of modern experimental science.
Experimental science is excellent for studying present, ongoing, or repeating natural phenomena. The Christian worldview that God created the world to operate by fixed, rational laws gives the scientist the confidence that, given enough careful study, experimentation, observation, and logical reasoning based upon observed facts, those laws can be understood.
But naturalistic theories of origins are not based upon experimental science. Quite the opposite. Otherwise intelligent people cling to naturalistic theories of origins for philosophical reasons, despite the findings of experimental science. For example, experimental science has shown that life cannot come from non-life.
Francesco Redi (1626-1697), called the father of experimental biology, was the first to use experimental science to refute the commonly held belief in spontaneous generation. (You can probably guess where that belief came from. That’s right, the ancient Greeks. Spontaneous generation is also known as Aristotelian abiogenesis.) Redi is best known for his series of experiments, published in 1668, which are regarded as a milestone in the history of science. Then, the prevailing wisdom was that maggots arose spontaneously from rotting meat.
Redi took six jars and divided them into two groups of three. In the first jar of each group, he put an unknown object; in the second, a dead fish; in the last, a raw chunk of veal. Redi covered the tops of the first group of jars with fine gauze permeable only to air. He left the other group of jars uncovered. In a few days, maggots appeared in the open jars on which flies had been able to land, but not in the gauze-covered jars.
In a second experiment, meat was kept in three jars, one open, one covered with a fine gauze, and one stopped with a cork. Flies entered the uncovered jar, and maggots appeared in it. In the gauze-covered jar, maggots appeared on the gauze but did not survive. No maggots appeared in the cork stoppered jar.
These experiments appear very simple and obvious to us, but in the 17th Century they were revolutionary. Belief in spontaneous generation continued to hang around—in relation to ever smaller beasties—until Louis Pasteur finally put it to rest in 1862 with his own elegant experiment using broth in swan-necked flasks. “Never will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow of this simple experiment,” wrote Pasteur.
Today, much more is known of the complexity of even the smallest, “simplest” forms of life. Even a single-celled organism is many times more complex than any machine mankind has ever devised. Evolutionists are a million miles away from a credible theory as to how a single-celled organism could have come into existence without a parent organism. Abiogenesis—today’s fancy word for spontaneous generation—is the antithesis of the real experimental science that Christian civilization produced. Like geocentrism, abiogenesis is ancient Greek philosophy masquerading as science.
Modern science was born in the Christian West, and is a product of the Christian worldview. Its pioneers were almost all Christians, and frequently very devout believers. The persecution of science by the Roman Catholic Church was not a product of biblical religion but of pagan Greek philosophy being enforced by a Roman Church that had made Greek philosophy an integral part of its theology. Darwinism is not real science but, again, pagan philosophy masquerading as science.
Although science is now lavishly funded and supported throughout the developed world, cracks are starting to appear in its foundations:
- The pressure on academic scientists to “publish or perish” has created a flood of unnecessary and worthless literature that does little or nothing to advance the frontiers of knowledge.
- The availability of government and foundation funding encourages scientists to write grants even when they have nothing meaningful to research, and the money will be wasted. Worse still, the partisan corruption of the U.S. federal government steers grant money toward those who toe the party line on ideologically-driven issues such as anthropogenic global warming, the efficacy of same-sex parenting, females in combat, and a host of other politically sensitive issues.
- Peer review, intended to protect against basic scientific errors, has often had the effect of enforcing ideological conformity and “group-think,” and preventing outsiders from making a startling or original contribution to a discipline. (Recall that a meteorologist, Alfred Wegener, pioneered plate tectonics, a seminal concept in geology.) And, as per below, peer review cannot prevent scientific fraud, plagiarism, manufacturing data, and other scientific misconduct.
- Scientists have started to simply make up their data. Published scientific articles quite frequently must be retracted and de-published because of their authors’ lack of basic honesty and integrity. Per the New York Times, a scientific paper is retracted every day, on average, because of some form of scientific misconduct, usually plagiarism or fudging or inventing the data.
These problems will probably get worse in the post-Christian West, as honest and ethical behavior loses its necessary foundation in religious belief.