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September 01, 2004

Religion and Science

Michael and Vanessa--er, at this point, all the Blowhards:

By a coincidence, just after reading Michael’s posting on The Renaissance, I happened to pick up “For the Glory of God” a book by contemporary sociologist and historian of religion, Rodney Stark. In it, Mr. Stark—a perpetual debunker of received wisdom—debunks a number of notions held about the impact of religion in history.

His second chapter, “God’s Handiwork,” takes aim at the notion that science and religion have been in perpetual opposition. Stark stresses the critical role that religion, and particularly Christianity, played in the development of modern science. He points out that only Christianity of the great world religions believed in a supremely rational Creator who governed nature via divine law. He argues that unless a society assumes the existence of divinely instituted 'laws' of nature—as Christian theology did, and according to Mr. Stark, did uniquely—it won’t go looking for such ‘laws.’ While a society without such a belief in 'laws' of nature may develop technology, it won’t develop that mix of empiricism and theory known as science. Hence, Stark is fairly dismissive of the notion that Renaissance Humanism—the ‘rebirth’ of classical learning—had much to teach Europe about science, as Greek and Roman society lacked this fundamental belief and interest in natural ‘law.’ (He also points out that late Medieval Europe was significantly in advance of the Classical world not only in terms of ‘science,’ narrowly defined, but also in terms of technology and general know-how.)

But I particularly wanted to share one of his sub-arguments, to wit: that the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the Renaissance (c. 1400 – 1550) and perhaps even more, the Scientific Revolution (c. 1550-1700) have been wildly overstated, chiefly by polemical opponents of religion:

In many ways the term “Scientific Revolution” is as misleading as “Dark Ages.” Both were coined to discredit the medieval Church. The notion of a “Scientific Revolution” has been used to claim that science suddenly burst forth when a weakened Christianity could no longer prevent it, and as the recovery of classical learning made it possible. Both claims are as false as those concerning Columbus [and his supposed heroic role in fighting against a Church-imposed theory of a flat earth]. First of all, classical learning did not provide an appropriate model for science. Second, the rise of science was already far along by the sixteenth century, having been carefully nurtured by devout Scholastics in that most Christian invention, the university…

Since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution is often dated from the publication of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system, Mr. Stark uses the Copernican example to lay out at length his contention that what has been described as a ‘revolution’ was more like a continuation of trends long in place. The following is largely a paraphrase of his material:

1. Greek speculative philosophy, including that of Aristotle, believed that vacuums were impossible, and that the universe was filled with a transparent substance. Hence, the continuing motion of the stars and planets would also require the application of a continuing force because of the friction caused by the transparent substance.

2. Dionysius Exiguus [c. 500-560], the creator of the first Christian calendar, proposed that the continuing force was provided by angels.

3. Albert Magnus [c1200-1280] was a pivotal figure in the dissemination of Aristotlean science in the Medieval period, writing commentaries on all of Aristotle’s works but—contrary to the stereotype of a Scholastic philosopher—supplemented the Greek philosopher’s writings with his own observations and experiments, which frequently demonstrated Aristotle to be factually wrong. His summed up his approach as follows: “The aim of natural science is not simply to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature.”

4. William of Ockham [c. 1295-1349], a professor at Oxford, proposed that outer space was, contrary to the Greeks, a vacuum, and that once set in motion by God the heavenly bodies required no additional force to keep revolving. His notions were widely discussed throughout European universities.

5. Jean Buridan [1300-1358] of the University of Paris supported Ockham’s notion of a heavenly vacuum, and also wrote a paper on the idea that the earth turns on its axis, thus making the other heavenly bodies appear to rise and set—emphasizing that it would require far less energy to turn the earth than to turn the rest of the universe.

6. Nicole d’Oresme [1325-1382], also of the University of Paris, worked out (mathematical) arguments for a rotating earth, showing that it would not cause a continuing easterly wind or a tendency of arrows shot into the sky to fall “behind” the rotating archer because all terrestrial objects, including the atmosphere, share the same rotational impetus.

7. Albert of Saxony [c1316-1390] of the University of Paris developed impetus theory into an approximation of Newton’s First Law of Motion, noting that this eliminated any need for angelic pushers to maintain heavenly rotation.

8. Bishop Nicholas of Cusa [1401-1464] noted that from the evidence of eclipses that the earth was smaller than the sun and larger than the moon, and pointed out that an observer placed on any heavenly body would feel that they were at the unchanging center of the universe while everything else was in motion; thus the lack of any apparent movement of the Earth was meaningless.

9. Catholic churchman Copernicus [1473-1543] was aware of these previous theories; Albert of Saxony’s book Physics was published at the University of Padua just before Copernicus studied there. He added the notion that the Earth and the other planets all revolved around the sun, although because he assumed they pursued circular orbits he had to add epicycles to these orbits to make this model correspond even roughly to his own astronomical observations. His theory, still in thrall to the Greek notion that the planets must travel in ‘perfect’ circular motions, turned out to be no more accurate in predicting celestial events than Ptolemy’s second century model.

10. Finally, Johannes Kepler [1571-1630], incorporating the detailed observations observations of Tycho Brahe [1546-1601] as well as his own, developed a model in which the planetary orbits are elliptical, and thus developed a far more accurate model of the solar system.

As Mr. Stark remarks:

...[T]he era of scientific discovery that occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was indeed marvelous, the cultural equivalent of the blossoming of a rose. However, just as roses do not spring up overnight but must undero a long period of normal growth before they even bud, so, too, the blossoming of science was the result of centuries of normal intellectual progress…

Just thought you guys might like to hear another point of view. (BTW, there are four lengthy chapters in this book, each one crammed with information I hadn't been aware of previously.)



posted by Friedrich at September 1, 2004


Glad to hear from Friedrich!

As usual, your intelligent post makes me feel like a goat herder. But, even goat herders like to learn! Thanks!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on September 1, 2004 3:40 PM

In an aphoristic book called "China in World History," historian S.A.M. Adshead sums up why Europe overtook China by saying that the West was interested in theology and science while China was interested in magic and technology. The payoffs from the former were slower to arrive, but when they did, they were more valuable.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on September 1, 2004 3:45 PM

One of the hardest concepts for the modern mind to get around (comprehend) is that for medieval Christian scholars philosophy and science were not opposed disciplines. In fact they were different aspects of the search for and demonstration of "the glory of God."

It's also important to keep in mind that The Church was the all encompassing "hegemon" of the age. Given it's size and power there were inevitable turf struggles going on within its ample borders. Many of the philosopher/scientists who we assume were persecuted for their scientific speculations were in fact often mere pawns in internecine wars waged between various "Princes of The Church," or between powerful Churchmen and secular princes. I googled Nicholas of Cusa and found that he had a very rocky career because he got on the wrong side of this or that bishop, not because of his thoughts scientific. By the way, N of C is a perfect example of the melding of theology based philosophy and science. All his scientific thoughts are buried in his philosophical treatises.

Also, contrary to the secular myth of the savagery of church punishments for heresy (and, of course, at times they were savage) for the most part by modern standards they were relatively mild. Galileo was imprisoned. But his imprisonment was actually a quite liberal form of house arrest. The reason? To the church Galileo wasn't a number (as he would have been to the Nazis or Soviets -- or to our bureaucrats?) he was the possessor of a soul, a soul that had strayed from the truth. But the issue at bottom was always truth, NOT power.

Posted by: ricpic on September 1, 2004 9:07 PM

Mr. Sailer:

The issue of the non-development of science in China is a perpetually challenging one, given the great technological advantage it possessed over the rest of the world in the late 1st millenia (very widespread use of cast-iron tools, etc.) Here is Mr. Stark's explanation:

Only three years before his coauthor Alfred North Whitehead [in 1925] proposed that Christianity provided the psychological basis for the pursuit of science, Bertrand Russell found the lack of Chinese science rather baffling. From the perspective of his militant atheism, China should have had science long before Europe. As he explained, "Although Chinese civilization has hitherto been deficient in science, it never contained anything hostile to science, and therefore the spread of scientific knowledge encounters no such obstacles as the Church put in its way in Europe." But...he failed to see that it was precisely religious obstacles that had prevented Chinese conceived by Chinese philosophers, the universe simply is and always was. There is no reason to suppose that it functions according to rational laws, or that it could be comprehended in physical rather than mystical terms...This is precisely the explanation reached by the Marxist historian Joseph Needham, who devoted most of his career and many volumes to the history of Chinese technology. Having exhausted attempts to discover a materialist explanation, Needham concluded that the failure of the Chinese to develop science was dut to their religion, to the inability of Chinese intellectuals to believe in the existence of laws of nature, because "the conception of a divine celestial lawgiver imposing ordinances on non-human Nature never developed."

Mr. Ricpic:

I agree entirely.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 2, 2004 9:56 AM

Ms. Pattie:

Thanks for the welcome. I don't know how much posting I'll be able to manage, but every once in a blue moon...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 2, 2004 10:00 AM

I heartily second the reccomendation of Rodney Stark - his works are definately eye-opening.

To expand on Ricpic's point about church punishments, Stark notes that while the church did use torture in heresy trials, the important thing to understand is that torture was used in every kind of trial in those days - in fact, testimony that had not been "confirmed" under torture was seen as unreliable. He points out that it was the influence of several prominent churchmen who slowly changed this attitude and greatly reduced the incidence of torture in both ecclesiastical and secular trials.

Posted by: jimbo on September 3, 2004 5:42 PM

I'd be skeptical about Rodney Stark's ability to be objective about science and religion, given the recent Darwin-bashing article he wrote for American Enterprise, which is almost as full of uninformed arguments and quote-mining as a typical creationist tract....Stark's article is nicely dissected in an entry on the "Panda's Thumb" blog, here.

Posted by: Jesse M. on September 5, 2004 4:42 PM

Jesse M:

Having read the entry on "Panda's Thumb" above, I the criticism seems to amount to Mr. Stark didn't pharase his arguments in terms a biologist would. While true, I don't see that as definitive proof that there are no problematic aspects to the theory of evolution, or that all of Mr. Stark's criticisms (in their larger sense) have been definitively answered by proponents of Darwinian evolution. (In fact, it seems mostly to be a way of saying that no one but Darwinian-accepting biologists are welcome to this discussion...a rather self-serving argument.)

Whatever his "quote mining" errors, Mr. Stark is also, IMHO, completely correct about the folly of assuming that only "creationists" have religious agendas in discussing Darwinian theory, while claiming that the "other side" (i.e., atheists) are motivated by nothing but pure scientific curiosity.

Stark himself, I believe, is either an atheist or an agnostic, so I think his outrage is motivated more by what he perceives as unfair P.R. tactics by the proponents of Darwinian evolution than by any strongly held theistic beliefs on his part.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 8, 2004 12:18 PM

A great-fun-book-to-be-read-by-all with a revealing take on the 19th century's general historiographical untrustworthiness on the subject of Religion and Science is Jeffrey Burton Russell's Inventing the Flat Earth : Columbus and Modern Historians. I strongly recommend it.

Russell's villain-list includes Andrew Dickson White, founding president of Cornell and an early alumnus of my employer, whose book "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom" is available online at at least one atheist site.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler on September 15, 2004 3:18 PM

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