The Christian Origin of Modern Science

While the myth that there is an inherent conflict between religious belief and scientific discovery and progress is deeply rooted in the popular imagination and promulgated in books, video, and the blogosphere, historians of science have problematized, if not completely demolished this Enlightenment myth. Moreover, as Baylor’s own Rodney Stark notes, in his For the Glory of God, the scientific method arose only once in history and that was in the Christian West.

Now, some have argued that Stark has overstated the case by linking the rise of modern science with Christianity, in particular, noting the unquestionable influence of Islam in the Middle Ages. Yet, even when one grants the influence of Islamic scholars, it remains the case that what we now think of as science arose in the predominantly Christian west.  (See “Myths 4 & 9” in Ronald L. Numbers ed. Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion)

As one who from my earliest memories wanted to be a zoologist, I continue to learn about the animal kingdom through documentaries and books because I love life especially insects, the strange “alien” creatures on the oceans floor, and the bizarre creatures on the Australian continent (and I don’t mean the Aussie’s themselves).  My conversion to Christianity in my freshman year of university led me down a different academic path than I had plan from 3rd grade on. Nevertheless, my love of scientific discovery has never waned. If anything, my love of “nature” was transfigured into a love of the Creator and creation.

When I teach Christian Heritage, here at Baylor, I recognize that many of my students will be pursuing degrees which are scientific in nature. And many of thos students who are not are still shaped by our ‘scientific age’ and have an interest in this question. So, as part of my course, we explore the relationship between Christianity and Science.

I have my students read the chapter “God’s Handiwork” from Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God. Now, this reading is quite a commitment for freshman as the chapter is 80 pages in length. Nevertheless, on student evaluations, this reading is frequently cited as a favorite by my students. I should also note that some students have been angered by the reading as they feel they have been lied to for years, i.e. upon reading Christopher Columbus did not discover the world was round.

If 80 pages sounds still frightens you either as a teacher of record or as a student, I recently found a short 99¢ essay on Amazon by Peter Hodgson entitled “The Christian Origin of Modern Science“. Hodgson states that the main object of his essay is to answer the question: “Why did science as we know it develop in Europe in the seventeenth century and not in any of the great civilization of antiquity?” (My reading speed on Kindle predicts 10 minutes.)

Among other things, Hodgson argues that Christian theology which maintains a fine balance between order and freedom was necessary element. The Christian God is both rational and free. “Tip the balance one way or the other and science is destroyed.” He states. “Deny the freedom of God and you have a necessary world and no incentive to make experiments. Deny the rationality of God and you have a chaotic world.”

With regard to freedom, if the world is fated or entirely predestined, then there is no incentive to overcome disease, or to truly alter one’s perceived destiny. With regard to order, if one believes the world is inconstant or that God (or the gods) are inconstant, then one has no incentive to develop rules or to trust in scientific laws.

See my page: Christianity and Science for more reading recommendations.

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