When it comes to talking about the development of science as we know it in the West, the standard pop level narrative usually goes:
‘From the time of the Ancient Greeks, figures such as Aristotle were the fathers of science, and then unfortunately the Roman Catholic Church came into power during the Middle Ages/Medieval period (5th cent to around 15th cent) and during this 1000-year period, science was stagnated, that is, until science finally broke free from its religious roots in the early modern period i.e. the scientific revolution from the 16th century onwards. At this point modern science developed rapidly (finally) due to the fact that scientists were no longer religiously constrained as they once were.’
This is more or less a brief summary of what I would say the average person – who might not yet have done much research -would concede regarding the origins of modern science. Now I am not pointing fingers at anyone who takes this view, I myself assumed this version of history to be true growing up since it permeated Western culture so much.
What I want to do in this brief overview however, is to unpack and describe how this popular level depiction is simply untrue, in fact the evidence that modern historians of science now present to us seems to suggest the complete opposite – that it was when science embraced religion, and more specifically a literal interpretation of the Bible, that science really began to develop rapidly.
The Ancient Greeks, the Middle Ages and Science?
Let’s start with the Greeks. Firstly, I want to dispel the myth that the Ancient Greeks (mainly Aristotle) were the fathers/originators of the current progressive science that we all cherish now. I also want to dispel the myth that the Ancient Greeks were highly scientific and that they didn’t entertain supernatural/religious ideas that were outside the realms of materialistic science.
The first issue here is that the term scientist wasn’t invented until the 1830s by a man named William Whewell1, so whenever someone talks about Aristotle doing “science”, they are already presupposing the wrong foundation (because said person probably has modern science in mind). “Science” back in Aristotle’s time was actually called Natural Philosophy (which tell you something already about its nature), and this term held strong all the way until the 1830s.
Aristotle, contrary to common thought, was highly religious in the sense that he had no problem positing a type of god within his worldview (metaphysics). His god was called the “Unmoved mover”, or the “Prime mover” and in fact this god was an essential part of the makeup of the world because Aristotle realized that there had to be an efficient cause which was the ultimate explanation for motion in the universe and this cause had to be unmoved itself or the primary mover in order that it could initiate motion within the universe, as it was observed by Aristotle, without being affected by it.2
This Aristotelian philosophy was adopted throughout the Middle Ages and leading Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) sought to create a synthesis between Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology. The culmination of this synthesis is most evidently seen in Aquinas’s work Summa Theologica in which he answers some 10,000 questions in the areas of philosophy and theology.3
The Religious Roots of Modern Science
Here is where things get interesting, as we have pointed out, the usual story goes that during the early modern period science broke free of religious roots and that is why there was such a huge advancement in it. However, this as I have suggested is simply not the case, in fact contrary to popular belief Medieval Christian thinkers actually laid down the foundational work for the development and longevity of modern science as modern historians now report:
What made it possible for Western civilization to develop science and the social sciences in a way that no other civilization had ever done before? The answer, I am convinced, lies in a pervasive and deep-seated spirit of inquiry that was a natural consequence of the emphasis on reason that begun in the Middle Ages. With the exception of revealed truths, reason was enthroned in medieval universities as the ultimate arbiter for most intellectual arguments and controversies. It was quite natural for scholars immersed in a university environment to employ reason to probe into subject areas that had not been explored before, as well as to discuss possibilities that had not previously been seriously entertained4
Secondly, it wasn’t a refrain from the Bible that led to the advancement of science, but rather the embracing of the Bible that led to it:
Strange as it may seem, the Bible played a positive role in the development of science. … Had it not been for the rise of the literal interpretation of the Bible and the subsequent appropriation of biblical narratives by early modern scientists, modern science may not have arisen at all. In sum, the Bible and its Literal interpretation have played a vital role in the development of Western Science5
One of the most obvious pointers in favor of this is to note that all areas of modern science we cherish today were started by thinkers who believed in God: Newton, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Einstein, Copernicus, Boyle, Leibnitz and so on are all known as the fathers of modern science, and yet all of them were firm believers in God.
In Isaac Newton’s General Scholium (the appendix to his more famous work The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) he wrote that “This most elegant system of the sun, planets and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. […] He rules all things, not as the world soul but as the lord of all. And because of his dominion he is called Lord God Pantokrator”6
Rene Descartes – who was the first to successfully describe how we could represent space using mathematical equation (using his term extensions) is known as the father of western philosophy and in a letter to the catholic theologian Marin Mersenna in 1630, he notes that “God sets up mathematical laws in nature as a king sets up laws in his kingdom”7
Breaking Aristotelian Roots – Holding Christian Foundations
For modern science to develop, Medieval thinkers did have to break free of some ancient shackles, but those shackles certainly were not Christianity and/or the Bible, in fact these shackles were rather ancient Aristotelian philosophy. Christian theology remained widely in play throughout the Medieval period right into the early modern period and beyond; what was abandoned was the synthesis between Aristotelian physics and theology in favor of a new philosophy that stemmed directly from the Bible. Professor of History Thomas E. woods elaborates on the words of prize winning historian of Science Jaki Stanley, “…in order for science to progress, it was up to the scholastics of the High Middle ages to carry out the depersonalization of nature, so that for instance, the explanation for falling stones was not said to be their innate love for the centre of the earth”8. This idea of objects having an innate love for the earth stemmed directly from Aristotle’s four causes, namely his last one which he called final cause (teleology) in which every object and being had an intrinsic essence and this essence led it to its ultimate purpose/goal. There was no such conception as gravity until Rene Descartes and Newton and came onto the scene, dispelled with this old Aristotelian philosophy and developed the new Biblical philosophy of nature each with their similar three laws of motion based on the fact that a rational and orderly God had created a rational and orderly laws governed universe in which could be studied as God’s second revealed book, the book of nature.9
So, as we have seen here in this brief overview, most modern historians of science now hold to the picture that it was actually the literal interpretation of the Bible that aided in the rise of modern science. Far from Christianity being pushed to the wayside, Christianity was the driving force behind the rise of modern science as we know it today. This is why we find comments like this from leading historians of science littered all over the academic world today:
Christianity set the agenda for natural philosophy,’[according to historian of science Stephen Gaukroger] and played the most crucial role in the subsequent cultural success of science10
- (2017) William Whenwell, Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whewell/
- Aristotle, Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/aristotl/#H4
- Thomas Aquinas () Summa Theologica, Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/aristotl/#H4
- Thomas E. Woods (2012) How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization , United States: Regnery History. p66
- Harrison, P., The Bible and the rise of science, Australasian Science 23 (3):14 – 15, 2002
- Newton, General Scholium
- Thomas Dixon – Science and Religion – A Very Short Introduction (p47)
- Thomas E. Woods (2012) How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, United States: Regnery History. p79
- Peter Harrison (2015) The Territories of Science and Religion, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. p77
- John Henry – Cambridge companion to Science and religion – Religion and the Scientific Revolution. p43