Theologica
, ,

Are science and theology opposed?

science and theology

Are science and theology opposed?

Are science and religion in conflict?

Do empirical methods and theology play nicely together?

Is science about the ‘how?’ and theology about the ‘why?’

Much ink has been spilled on this subject — and many pixels too. But here are more of my thoughts.

In my last post I looked at the Biblical grounds for making using of empirical tools and the scientific method in theology and pastoral ministry.

In this post I want to consider the relation between science and religion, and I want to propose that science is the product of the Judeo-Christian mindset created by the Bible.

This view is now being argued for by public intellectuals such as Tom Holland with his Dominion thesis — and you can hear much more about this trend among thinkers by listening to the excellent documentary podcast series called ‘The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God’ hosted by Justin Brierley. Recommended.

In episode 3 of that podcast series, Brierley interviews Australian academic Sarah Irving-Stonebreaker. She described how she had always assumed that Christianity was in fundamental opposition to science. During her postgraduate studies at Cambridge she was studying the history of science. She describes how she was surprised to find that many of the great ‘natural philosophers’ as they were then known, those who initiated the founding of the modern scientific enterprise, were people of profound Christian faith. She named Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Robert Boyle (1627-1691 — one of the founders of modern chemistry), especially Boyle. This realisation undermined her previous assumption that science and religion were in fundamental ways opposed to one another.

science and theology
Robert Boyle science and theology

In this post I am still making the argument that empirical methods of research are consonant with a Christian worldview.

I will approach the subject by means of a brief literature survey interacting with two authors: Rodney Stark and Lesslie Newbigin.

These musings underpin my own conviction that science and theology are not opposed.

It is axiomatic among many educated people in the West that the Christian church is anti-science, that science and theology are opposed.

That prejudice is usually founded on reports of the way the church reacts to advancements in science — whether to genetic engineering and stem cell research in the present, or to the evidence that the earth is a sphere and that it revolves around the sun in previous generations.

By contrast, others suggest that the endeavour of science has been the product of a Biblical Christian worldview.

Which is it? Is there evidence that Christianity has always opposed and resisted science and its advances? Or can a case be made that empirical science is, in reality, another of the many blessings that the Bible has brought to humanity?

To answer these questions I will interact firstly with Rodney Stark’s book For the Glory of God: how monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts and the end of slavery (2003).

I selected this book because it makes use of empirical research methods in historical study and seeks to provide quantitative evidence for the assertions about history that are made in the book.

Rodney Stark (1934 – 2022) was an American sociologist of religion who was a long-time professor of sociology and of comparative religion at the University of Washington. At the time of his death he was the Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University, co-director of the university’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and founding editor of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. You can read an obituary here.

In this book Stark alleges that his conclusions are merely “the conventional wisdom among historians of science” (2003, p.124), and justifies his lengthy chapter on science by writing that, “to my knowledge, no one has actually pulled all of the essential themes and findings together to formulate a coherent overall picture of the history of the creative relationship between theology and science” (2003, p.124). Stark’s book is itself, therefore, a literature survey of the history of the development of science and whether Christian faith has been inimical, irrelevant, or essential to that development.

Stark proposes a definition of science that I believe would be widely accepted: that science is a process of theorising, developing testable hypotheses from the theories and then devising experiments to prove or disprove the accuracy of the theories.

The development of the scientific method, therefore, is a step beyond the development of technology, or even beyond the development of accurate ways of describing the material world (such as Euclid’s geometry). It is this combination of theory and observation which constitutes true science in Stark’s view.

By this definition science only developed in one place and time — in the Middle Ages in Europe (2003, pp.124-127). And by this definition Stark’s chapter is relevant to this blog series since he argues that it was the worldview created in Europe by the Bible that gave rise to the scientific revolution. If his assertion is justified then this is further support for the ongoing use of empirical methods in theology today.

I will now summarise Stark’s argument.

Did Christianity lead to the downfall of the Roman Empire? No, says Stark.

It is the popular view that the Roman Empire was weakened by Christianity, and then overrun by Barbarians which led to a thousand years of so-called Dark Ages. Stark demonstrates with factual evidence that these assertions are mythical.

The principal reason Rome was defeated was that the military capacity of the Germanic people simply outgrew the military capacity of Rome (2003, p.130). Stark provides ample evidence that in the succeeding centuries, while the Germanic tribes could not write Latin with the finesse of the Romans, they were masters of technical innovations in the field of transport, agriculture, warfare, etc. and the development of higher education in “that most Christian invention, the university” (2003, pp.134-135).

Christianity spread among the Germanic tribes early in this period and the effect was not to Rome’s advantage! Stark summarises the cultural impact this way: “it is far less the case that Christianity ‘Romanised’ the Germans than that the latter ‘Germanised’ Christianity” (2003, p.134).

While the burgeoning of technology in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ does not constitute ‘science’ in Stark’s terms, he identifies the origins of the ‘scientific revolution’ in that thousand-year period.

He illustrates this by showing that most of what Copernicus (1473-1543) published in his famous work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres was based on what had been taught him at university, and was common knowledge in academia (2003, p.136). Copernicus’ principal innovation in the field of astronomy (and it was a great innovation) was to place the sun at the centre of the solar system — a conceptual leap Copernicus managed despite the fact that most details in his book are actually incorrect!

Stark asserts, however, that Copernicus did not produce this scientific revolution on his own.

Copernicus simply carried forward an ongoing process of gradual scientific development. His paper has given the impression to later readers that he had made a quantum leap in the field only because he singularly failed to reference any of his sources (2003, p.140).

Stark further demonstrates that the stories of the church resisting the idea that the earth was round are simply bogus (2003, p.122).

It is true, however, that the church hierarchy did resist the idea that the sun was the centre of the solar system. That resistance should not be attributed to a biblical Christian outlook, however, since it was devoutly Christian scientists, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, who pressed on to prove heliocentricity (2003, p.140). In other words, the Bible had so shaped the culture in Europe that scientific progress happened despite bigotry and vested interest among church leaders.

In further support of his theory Stark examines three civilisations which by all accounts should have developed science but did not do so: China, Greece and Islam.

He analyses these cultures and concludes in each case that there were fundamental philosophical reasons why these civilisations did not give birth to science.

The Chinese civilisation:

In the case of the Chinese civilisation Stark argues that it was because the intellectuals pursued enlightenment, and not explanation, that science did not emerge.

There was no hostility to science, but no appetite for it either.

The Taoist philosophy teaches that ultimate reality is impersonal, unconscious, and merely an essence. Thus ‘god’ does not ‘act’, and the universe is regarded as simply existing without purpose or meaning.

With that worldview there can be no expectation that events are rationally explicable thus there is no impetus for science (2003, pp.150-151).

The Greek civilisation:

In the case of the Greek civilisation Stark argues that while there was much theorising and much observing, theories were never refined in the light of observation.

Secondly, Greek religion posited many gods who were causes of events. Thus events were attributed to the motives of the gods and not to natural causes. As these gods were described in capricious terms this would hardly lead to any expectation that causes could be researched empirically.

Thirdly, the Greek philosophers described a universe which had no beginning, and which was in an endless cycle of renewal and decay. Aristotle thought he was living in one of the golden ages and believed that, in each golden age, humanity simply thought again the ideas that had been thought up in the previous iterations of golden ages. Further enquiry was, thereby, ruled out of court. Thus Greek religion and philosophy stifled the emergence of true science — not only among the Greeks, but also among the Romans whose civilisation was overtaken by Greek philosophy (2003, pp.151-154).

The Islamic civilisation:

Lastly, in the case of the Islamic civilisation Stark argues that science also failed to develop for religious reasons.

The understanding of God in Islam is of a being totally free to act in any way. There was a significant bloc in Islam that repudiated all efforts to classify natural causes because all such attempts could only be founded on the blasphemous assumption that Allah was not free to act uniquely in any and all situations. “If God does as he pleases, and what he pleases is variable, then the universe may not be lawful” (Stark, 2003, p.155).

The obstacles to science in the Islamic world were increased by the assimilation of the ideas of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers into the intellectual life of Islam. Early progress in astronomy and medicine was made but without any practice of theorising, and the refining of theories by means of empirical testing, there could be no generation of fresh ideas and so this progress petered out (2003, pp.154-156).

Across in Europe, however, (in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’) Stark explores how Christianity was shaping the worldview of intellectuals and a whole civilisation.

In that worldview the universe had a beginning and end because it was created by a supreme being who was purposeful, rational, and personal.

The created order had no will or personality of its own, but rather functioned according to the ‘laws’ of the Creator.

Since the creation and the Creator were different and separate, the endeavour to discover natural ‘laws’ was not sacrilegious or blasphemous. On the contrary, it was a form of worship.

These principles had been outlined by the Cappadocian fathers as early as the late fourth century (Newbigin, 1995, pp.7-8).

This worldview freed a civilisation from superstition and gave humanity permission, for example, to dissect and to experiment in order to think the thoughts of God after him (Stark, 2003, pp.156-158, 197).

One might argue that this is a teleological argument for why Christianity gave rise to modern science, because it argues that science could only emerge in a civilisation whose worldview posits a purposeful, and therefore rational, supreme being — a being who has the power to imprint rationality onto everything.

It might be objected that science does not have this sense of purpose.

This is certainly one of the insights that Lesslie Newbigin develops in his seminal work, Foolishness to the Greeks (1986). He asserts that scientific progress has been founded on a philosophical exclusion of the sense of teleology (1986, pp.34-35, 54). Thus, in modern science phenomena are researched empirically in order to determine natural causes but never with any questioning of the purpose of the phenomena (1986, pp.38 and 54).

If Newbigin were alive I believe he would criticise Stark for holding a somewhat deist position, but he would not dispute the fundamental accuracy of Stark’s compelling argument elaborated in the last few paragraphs. Indeed, Newbigin shared the same conclusions. He referenced two books by Jaki, a professor of physics, in this way:

“Studies in the origin and development of modern science have led historians to ask why the brilliant intellectual powers of the ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, and Greeks, in spite of their achievements both in observation and in pure speculation, never brought forth the dynamic, self-developing science of the modern era. It has been very plausibly argued that the decisive factor is to be found in the biblical vision of the world as both rational and contingent. For to put it briefly, if the world is not rational, science is not possible; and if the world is not contingent, science is not necessary.” (Newbigin, 1986, p.70)

In summary, Stark and Newbigin argue that for science to develop at all there needed to be a civilisation that had a worldview that presupposes rationality and purpose in the material world.

Additionally, Newbigin argued that science has become dangerous insofar as it has become separated from any sense of teleology.

I do not think Stark would dispute that. Indeed Stark describes how there were systematic and deliberate campaigns by early Enlightenment atheists to create a myth that science was opposed to Christianity, in order to free science from the teleology of Scripture (2003, pp.121-123).

Newbigin argues, however, that ultimately science without the governing principle of God’s purpose will only lead to social tyranny (1986, p.94).

Unless science can be brought back within this Christian worldview it will be a terrible master rather than a useful servant.

“The twin dogmas of Incarnation and Trinity thus form the starting point for a way of understanding reality as a whole, a way that leads out into a wider and more inclusive rationality than the real but limited rationality of the reductionist views that try to explain the whole of reality in terms of the natural sciences from physics to biology, a wider rationality that in no way negates but acknowledges and includes those other kinds of explanations as proper and necessary at their respective levels.” (Newbigin, 1986, p.90)

In Newbigin’s evaluation, then, empirical science has its place. Science and theology are not opposed.

“God in creating a world with a measure of autonomy and contingency has provided for us a space within which we are given freedom to search, to experiment, and to find out for ourselves how things really are” (Newbigin, 1986, p.89).

In summary, Stark and Newbigin have made a case that empirical tools could emerge only within a civilisation shaped by a Biblical sense of the rationality of the universe.

It is actually among those who have faith in Christ, according to Newbigin, that the scientific endeavour can be carried along safely.

Just as Christians have embraced the insights of conventional medicine (Newbigin, 1995, p.8) so, also, the people of God can make safe and effective use of the psychological constructs and the tools of all the sciences — when they do so within the good purposes of God (as God defines goodness) (Newbigin, 1986, p.91).

Newbigin follows Polanyi in arguing that faith and knowledge belong together (Forster, p.520).

The implication is that believing scientists may make the best use of the empirical method because they avoid ontological reductionism.

“We cannot have a total understanding of things without the cultivation of that particular kind of understanding which is concerned with knowing the nature and purpose of the One whose purpose is being realised in the entire history of the cosmos. Without calling into question the proper competence of all the lower levels of explanation — physical, chemical, biological, mechanical, sociological, and so forth — we must also acknowledge the proper role of theological enquiry as an essential part in the whole enterprise of human knowing.” (Newbigin, 1995, p.59)

In this blog post, as in the previous section, I have been making a case for the use of the empirical or scientific method (theory, hypotheses, empirical observation and adjustment of theory) by all peoples, including believing Christians — and also in the endeavour of theology and pastoral ministry.

I have justified this conviction firstly from Scripture (in the first blog post in the series) and secondly from a philosophical viewpoint based on teleological arguments.

In the next blog post in this series I will make the case for the specific empirical endeavour of psychological typing, an endeavour based on the presupposition of personal difference.

Photo credits: Lab image Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash

Bibliography

Forster, P. (1988), Michael Polanyi, in S. Ferguson and D. Wright (Eds), New Dictionary of Theology, pp.519-520, Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press

Newbigin, L. (1986), Foolishness to the Greeks: the gospel and western culture, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans

Newbigin, L. (1995), Proper Confidence, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans

Stark, R. (2003), For the Glory of God: how monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts and the end of slavery, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press

 

Share this post...

Related articles

Theologica Logo Aqua Green on White

Andrew Ryland's Blog

To love God thoughtfully

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Mark 12:30 NIV-UK

Our favourites
Truth-telling

Maybe do not try to fix people

Maybe do not try to fix people? Love them, observe them, build community, instead. When I am coaching or mentoring or supervising others I rely mainly on imitation to see people learn new skills and grow in experience. Obviously head knowledge can be imparted directly by instruction – but skills are usually caught more than taught. The same is true for bringing up children.

Read more »
Explore
Connect