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«Chapter 2 God’s Handiwork: The Religious Origins of Science The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth His handiwork. —Psalm ...»

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Stark, Rodney (2003) For the Glory of God. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Chapter 2

God’s Handiwork: The Religious Origins of Science

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth His handiwork.

—Psalm 19

Even children know that in 1492 Christopher Columbus proved that the world is round. They also

know that he doggedly pursued backing for his voyage despite years of opposition from the Roman

Catholic Church, which ridiculed all dissent from the biblical teaching that the earth is flat. Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), founder and first president of Cornell University, and author of the single

most influential book ever written on the conflict between science and theology, offered this summary:

The warfare of Columbus [with religion] the world knows well: how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted him in Portugal;

how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotations from Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St.

Augustine; how, even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity... the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray.

the theological barriers to this geographical truth yielded but slowly. Plain as it had become to scholars, they hesitated to declare it to the world at large.. But in 1519 science gains a crushing victory. Magellan makes his famous voyage.

He proves the earth to be round, for his expedition circumnavigates it... Yet even this does not end the war. Many conscientious [religious] men oppose the doctrine for two hundred years longer.1 Like everyone else, I grew up with this story. It was retold in every account of Columbus’s voyage in my schoolbooks, in many movies, and always on Columbus Day.2 As for A. D. White’s immense study, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (in two volumes), when I was young, it was required reading for all budding intellectuals, and I cited it in my second published paper.

Trouble is that almost every word of White’s account of the Columbus story is a lie. Every educated person of the time, including Roman Catholic prelates, knew the

–  –  –

who challenged Columbus and advised against funding him, they not only knew the earth was round;

they also knew it was far larger than Columbus thought it was. They opposed his plan only on the grounds that he had badly underestimated the circumference of the earth and was counting on much too short a voyage. Expressed in modern measures, Columbus claimed that it was about 2,800 miles from the Canary Islands to Japan, when it is actually about 14,000 miles.5 Had the Western Hemisphere not existed, and Columbus had no knowledge that it did, he and his crew would have died at sea. In any event, Jeffrey Burton Russell found that it was not true that Christian scholars were benighted fanatics clinging to scriptural claims that the earth was flat; rather, during the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era “nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical, and by the fifteenth century all doubt had disappeared.”6 Edward Grant, in his monumental study of medieval cosmology, noted that in none of the Scholastic writings was there any mention of a flat earth except for a few asides to refute perceptions of flatness.7 No contemporary document concerning Columbus, including his own Journal and his son’s History of the Admiral, nor any account of other early voyages including Magellan’s, makes any mention of the shape of the earth. Everyone knew.

So why didn’t we know they knew? Why do only specialists know now? For the same reason that White’s book remains influential despite the fact that modern historians of science dismiss it as nothing but a polemic—White himself admitted that he wrote the book to get even with Christian critics of his plans for Cornell.8 As will be seen, many of White’s other accounts are as bogus as his report of the flat earth and Columbus. The reason we didn’t know the truth concerning these matters is that the claim of an inevitable and bitter warfare between religion and science has, for more than three centuries, been the primary polemical device used in the atheist attack on faith. From Thomas Hobbes through Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, false claims about religion and science have been used as weapons in the battle to “free” the human mind from the “fetters of faith.” In this chapter, I argue not only that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science. In demonstration of this thesis I first summarize much recent historical work to the effect that not only did religion not cause the “Dark Ages”; nothing else did either—the story that after the “fall” of Rome a long dark night of ignorance and superstition settled over Europe is as fictional as the Columbus story. In fact, this was an era of profound and rapid technological progress by the end of which Europe had surpassed the rest of the world.

Moreover, the so-called Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century was the normal result of developments begun by Scholastic scholars starting in the eleventh century. Thus my attention shifts to why the Scholastics were interested in science at all. Why did real science develop in Europe at this time? Why did it not develop anywhere else? I find answers to those questions in unique features of Christian theology.

This leads to examination of the outburst of scientific discovery during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wherein I explore its connections with Protestantism and conclude that it was Christianity, not Protestantism, that sustained the rise of science. As part of this discussion, I show that the leading scientific figures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries overwhelmingly were devout Christians who believed it their duty to comprehend God’s handiwork. Turning to an assessment of the “Enlightenment,” I show it to have been conceived initially as a propaganda ploy by militant atheists and humanists who attempted to claim credit for the rise of science. The falsehood that science required the defeat of religion was proclaimed by such self-appointed cheerleaders as Voltaire, Diderot, and Gibbon, who themselves played no part in the scientific enterprise—a pattern that continues.

Next, I show how the close collaboration between religion and science that characterized much of the nineteenth century was not a “strange interlude.” That particular designation goes to the Darwinian Crusade that dominated most popular twentieth-century discussions of religion and science. I argue that, rather than having been a battle between religion and science, the fracas over evolution was and remains largely a conflict between true believers of both varieties—the strident evolutionists being as unscientific as any fundamentalists.

Chapter 2: For the Glory of God 3 I conclude by showing that through it all, professional scientists have remained about as religious as most everyone else, and far more religious than their academic colleagues in the arts and social sciences.

A confession is appropriate here. Having begun this chapter, I immersed myself in recent historical studies, only to find that some of my central arguments have already become the conventional wisdom among historians of science.9 So I have the comfort of learned opinion on my side but no claim to priority. I might have skipped the chapter entirely, but I am painfully aware that most of what it contains is unknown outside narrow scholarly circles. In fact, if asked, most well-informed people would express their absolute certainty that most of this could not possibly be true— early in my career I shared this view. That seemed sufficient reason to write on. But the ultimate justification of this chapter is 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.

What is Science?

Science is not merely technology. A society does not have science simply because it can build sailing ships, smelt iron, or eat off porcelain dishes. Science is a method utilized in organized efforts to formulate explanations of nature, always subject to modifications and corrections through systematic observations.

Put another way, science consists of two components: theory and research. Theorizing is the explanatory part of science. Scientific theories are


statements about why and how some portion of nature (including human social life) fits together and works. However, not all abstract statements, not even all of those offering explanations, qualify as scientific theories; otherwise, theology would be a science. Rather, abstract statements are scientific only if it is possible to deduce from them some definite predictions and prohibitions about what will be observed. And that’s where research comes in. It consists of making those observations that are relevant to the empirical predictions and prohibitions.

Clearly, then, science is limited to statements about natural and material reality—about things that are at least in principle observable. Hence there are entire realms of discourse that science is unable to address, including such matters as the existence of God.

By “organized,” I mean to note that science is not random discovery, nor is it achieved in solitude.

Granted that some scientists have worked alone, but not in isolation. From earliest days, scientists have constituted networks and have been very communicative.

Consistent with the views of most contemporary historians as well as philosophers of science, this definition of science excludes all efforts through most of human history to explain and control the material world, even those not involving supernatural means. Most of these efforts can be excluded from the category of science because until recent times “technical progress—sometimes considerable—was mere empiricism,” as Marc Bloch put it.10 That is, progress was the product of observation and of trial and error, but was lacking in explanations—in theorizing. This objection even applies to Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), since his heliocentric conception of the solar system was merely a descriptive claim (almost all of it wrong). He had nothing useful to say about why planets remain in their orbits around the sun, or moons about the planets. Until Newton there was no scientific theory of the solar system. I shall count Copernicus among the founders of modern science only because of his influence on and participation in a network of astronomers whose work soon qualified as truly scientific. But the earlier technical innovations of Greco-Roman times, of Islam, of imperial China, let alone those achieved in prehistoric times, do not constitute science and are better described as lore, skills, wisdom, techniques, crafts, technologies, engineering, learning, or simply knowledge. Thus, for example, even without telescopes the ancients excelled in astronomical observations. But until they were linked to testable theories, these observations remained merely “facts.” Charles Darwin expressed this point


About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought to observe and theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at that rate a man might as well go into a gravel pit and count the pebbles and describe the Stark (2003) For the Glory of God 4 colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observations must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!11 As for the intellectual achievements of Greek or Eastern philosophers, their empiricism was quite atheoretical, and their theorizing was nonempirical. Consider Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.). Although praised for his empiricism, he didn’t let it interfere with his theorizing. For example, he taught that the speed at which objects fall to earth is proportionate to their weight—that a stone twice as heavy as another will fall twice as fast.12 A trip to any of the nearby cliffs would have allowed him to falsify this proposition. He also explained in his Physics that the motion of a projectile is due to the push given it by the air closing behind it, paying no heed to the need to open the air in front of it. The superb, and sadly neglected, Scholastic scientist-theologian Jean Buridan (1300-1358) dispatched this Aristotelian proposition by observing that, among other things, when a man runs, he “does not feel the air moving him, but rather feels the air in front strongly resisting him.”13 The same can be said of the rest of the famous Greeks—either their work is entirely empirical, or it does not qualify as science for lack of empiricism, being sets of abstract assertions that disregard or do not imply observable consequences. Thus when Democritus (ca. 460 B.C.E.-ca. 370 B.C.E.) proposed the thesis that all matter is composed of atoms, he did not anticipate scientific atomic theory. His “theory” was mere speculation, having no basis in observation or any empirical implications. That it turned out to be “correct” (and most of it did not) does not make his guess any more significant than that of his contemporary Empedocles (ca. 490 B.C.E.-ca. 430 B.C.E.), who asserted that all matter is composed of fire, air, water, and earth, or Aristotle’s (384 B.C.E.-322 B.C.E.) version a century later, that matter consists of heat, cold, dryness, moistness, and quintessence. Indeed, for all his brilliance and analytical power, Euclid (ca. 300 B.C.E.) was not a scientist, because, in and of itself, geometry lacks substance, having the capacity only to describe reality, not to explain any portion of it.

Of course, these millennia of technological and intellectual progress were vital to the eventual development of science, but it is the consensus among contemporary historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science that real science arose only once: in Europe. In this regard it is instructive that China, Islam, India, and ancient Greece and Rome had a highly developed alchemy. But only in Europe did alchemy develop into chemistry. By the same token, many societies developed elaborate systems of astrology, but only in Europe did astrology lead to astronomy.

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