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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:

What was 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.

Also, 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 Bacon’s memorable phrase - to conduct experiments.

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).Soskice, Janet Martin, ‘Bad language in science and religion’ in Explorations in Science and Theology:The Templeton London Lectures at the RSA (London: RSA, 1993)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.’Soskice, 1993, 71But 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 understood

  • the range of ways the relation can be depicted

  • 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.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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