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And God said, 'Let there be science'

“Christians are anti-science” has long been a derisive trope hurled by atheists at the community of believers.  Lately the accusation has morphed from a metaphysical attack into a political one aimed at anyone who doesn’t buy into modern progressive ideology. Most notably, orthodox Christians.

stars, universe, science
Photo: Unsplash/Alexander Andrews

Out walking recently, I passed by a house displaying a smattering of political yard signs. One was in support of the current Democratic presidential ticket, a couple were for local Democratic candidates, and one was a more general declaration of ideological beliefs.  It read, “in our home, we believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love, Kindness is Everything” (emphasis mine).  Setting aside for a moment the blaring internal inconsistencies in that litany of woke affirmations, to lump a belief in science in with them speaks to a staggering level of historical ignorance.  I will leave my critique of the sign’s broader political commentary for another day.  In this writing I want to set straight the historical record. To wit: Christianity is not the enemy of science, it is its progenitor.

Pre-Christian View of the Natural World

The ancient Greeks are generally thought of as the fathers of science.  That is true, up to a point.  Certainly, modern man owes a debt to the great thinkers of old, many of whose legacies are with us today: Hippocrates (medicine and healing), Aristotle (taxonomy, zoology and philosophy), Euclid (mathematics) and Archimedes (physics) to name a few.  But mighty thinkers as they were, they didn’t give birth to science as we think of it today.  Not because they weren’t mentally equipped to do so, but because they weren’t spiritually equipped.

Although we see in these men Western Civilization’s first attempt to identify and harness a logical order underlying the natural world, they were able to manage only a glimpse. Though their intuition was correct, their culture rejected the idea and it wasn’t brought to fruition.  There was no general sense among the ancients that the universe was rational.  Theirs was a world of pagan gods whose whimsical actions served their own enigmatic ends while humans were left to bear the brunt: war, plagues, natural disasters, etc. And so, their nascent scientific revolution was over before it began.

Worse yet, much of the knowledge gained during that time was lost following the sacking and collapse of the Roman Empire.  European barbarian tribes like the Vandals, Visigoths, Saxons and others ravaged the continent and plunged the world into a thousand years of darkness.  What ancient knowledge survived is a product solely of the efforts of the early Christian church whose monks worked to preserve it in monasteries throughout Christendom.

Christians to the Rescue

As the church’s influence expanded so too did the movement towards education.  Eventually the barbarian-ravaged European continent began to gentrify, and tribal villages expanded into towns and cities with primary and secondary schools.  By the 12th century we see the establishment of formal universities, many of which are still operating today, most famously Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom.  Notably, nearly every university founded during this period was established, or at least sanctioned, by the church.

The modern scientific method as we know it today was born in these early Christian universities.  It was through men like Oxford’s Robert Grosseteste and, later, Cambridge’s Francis Bacon that the now well-honed process of hypothesis, experimentation, observation and scholarly review was cemented as the dominant form of probing and understanding the natural world.  But why is that so?  Why did a formal method for studying the universe arise at all?  The answer again, is Christianity.

Unlike their ancient Grecian predecessors, Middle Age and renaissance scholars held the distinctly Christian view that the universe is rational.  Because of their Christian faith, these men believed that the universe reflected the mind of God.  The creation, as it were, bore the indelible mark of the creator.  To understand the universe and the natural world was to draw ever closer to God, and so they studied it.  Every time they encountered something that didn’t make sense, they studied it harder, convinced that God’s underlying logic would eventually reveal itself.  That conviction gave rise to the bedrock scientific principles that undergird all scientific inquiry and exploration: The law of universality – what’s true on Earth is true everywhere in the universe; the law of causality – effects have causes; the principle of uniformity – natural laws that were true in the past will be true in the present and in the future; and so on.  This underlying conviction in a divinely created, rational and ordered universe is alone responsible for the modern proliferation of scientific endeavor and discovery, from the Early Middle Ages to today.

Rise of the “Warfare” Model

Christianity’s role in the rise and propagation of scientific exploration is virtually unknown in contemporary cultural discourse.  Today’s dominate narrative is one of conflict between faith and science.  The reasons for this shift are numerous and a full treatment of the subject could fill volumes.  For purposes of this writing I’ll focus on two, one deliberate, the other organic. 

Deliberate – In the late nineteenth century, during the height of modernity, there was an intentional movement in academia to pull away from the church’s influence over institutions of higher education. Perhaps the best example of this effort is Cornell University co-founder and President Andrew Dickson White’s two-volume treatise, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, published in 1896.  In this work White took the church to task for it’s nearly 2,000 year run of exerting undue influence over science in every imaginable field.  To White’s mind, the war for knowledge came down to, “a struggle between science and dogmatic theology.”  White’s book grew in popularity over the years and formed what was, for the better part of a century, the dominate narrative of the relationship between Christianity and science. 

Fortunately, in recent decades, several dedicated scholars and historians have deconstructed White’s work and exposed it for what it is, naked anti-Christian propaganda.  The bulk of White’s sources have been discredited, his dubious arguments debunked, and his questionable methodological practices exposed.  No serious historical scholar today lends any academic weight to White’s work or his warfare thesis.  Unfortunately, the same is not true of popular entertainment and news media personalities, or the never-ending parade of pseudo-intellectual charlatans who make their livelihood exploiting the faux divide between science and religion, including many teachers and professors.  It’s a shame, and the popular record deserves to be corrected.

As much as I would like to pin the devastation wreaked by the warfare model squarely on the shoulders of White and his progeny, they aren’t the only problem.  The truth is we Christians bear a share of the blame as well.  There are a hand-full of core beliefs that bind us together as Christians: belief in one all-powerful god, belief in the divinity of his son Jesus Christ, and faith in Christ’s bodily resurrection and ascension.  That’s about it.  On just about every other issue of Christian theology one can find divisions, sometimes deadly serious ones, within the body of professing believers.  This fragmentation makes it difficult, impossible really, to present a unified message on faith and science to a secular world. 

Another issue for Christians is the staggering lack of knowledge about church history among professing believers.  The fact is many, maybe even most, Christians are ignorant of the edifying role our faith has played in advancing scientific discovery over the years.  That’s inexcusable.  How can we blame others for not knowing our true history when we don’t know it ourselves?  We need to learn it and pass it on.  We can’t expect secular institutions to give an honest accounting of our contributions to scientific exploration, it is we ourselves who should do that. And we neglect doing so at our own peril.

Forward from Here

Christianity is not the enemy of science, and faith is not the enemy of reason.  Science and reason are the natural offspring of our Christian faith. In God’s glorious creation the book of nature and the book of scripture are never at odds.  If you find that they are, be assured, you are reading one of them incorrectly.  The Lord’s glorious and rational creation will always speak truth to us if we take the time to listen. To the good people whose house I saw with all the signs, I’m glad you believe in science.  I do too.  Perhaps we have more in common than I thought.

By day Jay Atkins works as a Government Affairs attorney for a California-based technology company. By night he is a lay author and Christian apologist. He thinks and writes about proofs for faith and how they intersect, or should intersect, with public policy.

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