Religion and the Rise of Science
It is often claimed, particularly by those
who want to emphasise the positive relations between science and religion, that
Western science could only have arisen in the context of the three great
monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We list here two important
elements in the rise of science on the Western model:
essential to the rise of Western science was abelief that the world is fundamentally ordered and reliable. It seems
clear that, of different kinds of religious beliefs about creation, the
conviction found in the Hebrew Scriptures that the world is good in itself -
the work of one God, a Creator who does not keep changing the rules - is very
favourable to a belief in an ordered world.
the belief that God brought the world out of nothing as an act of free creation, which is the main line of the Christian doctrine of creation, implies a) that the world is not itself part
of God, and is not therefore itself holy, and b) that God could have created a
different world. Hence in order to discover what harmonious, faithful and
ordered work God did do - a plausible task for natural theology and philosophy
- it is both permissible and necessary to
put the world to the test in Francis Bacons memorable phrase - to
Beyond this, 17th-Century Puritanism may
have provided the perfect climate for science to grow, since, as Janet Martin
Soskice has pointed out, both Puritanism and natural science appealed to living
experience rather than merely accepting received tradition, and both drew on
sources they considered had been neglected (in the one case Scripture, in the
other experiment).She goes on to claim that the relationship between science and religion in
Britain in the 17th and 18th Centuries was almost a rapturous love affair.But see our section the love affair gone wrong. Also see Greek philosophy and
the rise of Western science.
This is a long way from the conflict or
warfare hypothesis! But we would want to stop short of the trite conclusion
that Christianity was both a necessary and a sufficient condition for the rise
of science. After all, the experiment of the rise of Western science has only
run once. Sweeping hypotheses about the history of thought neglect the
complexity and contingency of history. To what extent, for instance, did the
final cohering of the scientific tradition depend on the particular genius of
Galileo, the first man to bring together mathematics, observation and experiment
in a combination such as modern science employs? (see the career of Galileo
Galilei) To what extent was the history of the world changed by the fact that
the precocious and almost entirely self-taught genius of Newton was able to
come to fruition in a country at peace?
Mention of rapturous love affairs should
not blind us, moreover, to the tensions that have existed. The irony is, however, that the two most famous
conflicts between science and religion - between Galileo and the Catholic
Church of the early 17th Century and between the early Darwinists and certain
members of the Anglican Church in the mid-19th - have both occurred when the
relevant branch of the Christian Church was taking a vigorous role in promoting
the type of scientific research in question.
These topics offer ways into the
exploration of the relation between science and religion. They show:
that relation as it is popularly
the range of ways the relation can be
the possibilities for understanding
the relation in a more complex way
some of the historical background to
the way the relation developed.
To explore further see the list of topics
opposite. In particular:
To understand more about how science and
theology function in the popular imagination see the words science and
theology in popular usage.
To explore the range of possible
interactions further see typologies relating science and religion.
See also the following topics which clarify
how the science-religion relationship can be understood:
To explore how the debate has developed in
recent years go to key figures and developments in the science-religion debate.
link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos (T&T Clark, 1999)