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The Christian Roots of Modern Science

Posted by Tony Listi on March 11, 2008

Science has theological roots. This is so because Christianity (or at least Catholicism) has never been hostile to the use of reason. In fact, reason is a gift from God, a spark of the divine, and a reflection of the image and likeness of God in ourselves.

Have you ever wondered why modern science (and the university) arose in Europe rather than in some other part of the world? It is a fact of history that Western philosophical and scientific advancement began well before the secularism of the so-called Enlightenment. The answer is that Europe had Christianity and Christianity embraced reason. Should we be surprised that some of the greatest scientists and philosophers in history have been Christians? No. Pagan religions thought that the natural world was full of spirits or that many gods governed and interfered with the natural world. Thus under both systems, the world was mysterious, unpredictable, capricious, and uncontrollable. This was not good philosophical and paradigmatic soil for science. The Chinese came close with the conception of the Tao, a vast undefinable and impersonal force that ordered the universe. But a belief in order alone is not suffucient for science; one must also believe that human beings can discover and grasp that order. This latter belief was not present among the Chinese, probably because there was no idea of a personal God.

Then came Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which show greater openness to reason. Judaism planted the seeds of reason for the other two religions and for what would become science. The Old Testament reveals that the natural world is a creation of God. Recall that God chastises people for worshipping idols, which were merely nature, His creation. (See also the Book of Wisdom 13:1-4). Nature is governed according to God’s laws (See Job 38:4-5). It is not filled with spirits and God inteferes with this creation only in certain circumstances and for his particular purposes. The notion of the world as the creation of God would be adopted by Christianity and would lay the foundation for the concept of nature as an object of study distinct and separate from the divine. Indeed, the Judeo-Christian concept of a “miracle” would have had no special significance (e.g. as proof of the divine) without the Judeo-Christian paradigm of a naturally ordered material world.

Islam did not develop modern science because the very religion oppressed philosophers whose ideas seemed to challenge the very principles of the religion itself (al-Ghazali vs. Averroes). The Qur’an was the perfect book with perfect knowledge; what need was there of scientific literature? Moreover, the Qur’an portrays Allah as having absolute freedom and sovereignty. Ideas such as goodness, rationality, truth, and anything else do not constrain Allah (Qur’an 5:64).

But Judaism and Islam are primarily religions of law and thus concerned with jurisprudence. Thus reasoned debate and and exploration tend to focus narrowly on legal codes. Christianity, however, is a religion of creed and doctrine. Christians seek to know what are the correct set of beliefs and what is the relationship between God and man. Christian theologians thus have always exercised reason in order to understand the ways of God in a way that most religions do not. Theological argumentation was the pre-cursor of science.

This may have begun most prominently with St. Augustine who attempted to tackle some of the deepest and most difficult theological and philosophical problems in history: free will, the existence of evil, God’s existence and the nature of that existence, God’s relationship to time itself, etc.

St. Thomas Aquinas also wrote reasonably with arguments: “We shall first try to manifest the truth that faith professes and reason investigates, setting forth demonstrative and probable arguments, so that the truth may be confirmed and the adversary convinced.” Faith alone is not enough; reason should demonstrate and confirm the truth.

St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God is also quite a piece of rational discourse. It was assailed by Kant, only to be defended later by Hegel, both whom are giants in the field of philosophy.

Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm do NOT appeal to faith, revelation, or the Bible in formulating their arguments. Such things may form the backdrop or even the raw material for rational discourse and examination, but it cannot be claimed that Christianity has rejected reason in favor of blind faith alone.

Scientists today take for granted that their whole enterprise is based on a very Christian and faith based idea: the universe operates according to intelligible laws. The universe has an order to it and we can perceive and understand that order. Nature is mathematical. There is no logical or rational necessity that this should be so. It was Christianity (building upon the tradition of the pre-Socratic Greeks) that advanced the idea of a rational cosmos because it holds that God is rational (Jesus is the Word, the logos, which also means “reason” in Greek).

(The material for this post was drawn from D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity and The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible and Islam.)

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