Christianity: A Cause of Modern Science?

The Duhem-Jaki and Merton Theses Explained

Did Christianity hinder the development of science? Most intellectuals these days believe it did, citing as evidence the showdown between Galileo and the Inquisition in the seventeenth century over geocentrism, and Thomas Huxley embarrassing Bishop Wilberforce in a climactic debate about evolution in 1860. But is this stereotype historically accurate? Scholars affirm that modern science arose among the theologians, monks, and professors of Medieval and Renaissance Catholic universities and monasteries. But if Christianity and science are supposedly so incompatible, how did science gradually arise during the Medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe? After all, neither Galileo nor Copernicus (who maintained the sun was at the center of the solar system), were unbelievers. Remarkably, as shown by the historical research of Pierre Duhem, Stanley Jaki, and (partially) Robert Merton, the worldview of Christianity was necessary for the rise of modern science.

Technological Advance Does Not Equal Science

In order to deny Christianity's role in the rise of science, skeptics make it seem that all cultures developed "science" by using a weak definition of it. But the inventions affecting daily life in the pre-modern world were "empirical" discoveries by craftsmen, not scientists meditating on the laws of nature. Although the Greeks, Chinese, Indians, and Arabs all had what could be called "science," their science soon fizzled out, clearly lacking the rigor and vigor that characterized Christendom's science from Galileo onwards.

The Duhem-Jaki thesis denies that sociological, materialist, externalist causes are sufficient conditions to create modern science. As Jaki (1988, p.35) says:

This historiography of science has still to face up honestly to the problem of why three great ancient cultures (China, India, and Egypt) display, independently of one another, a similar pattern vis-a-vis science. The pattern is the stillbirth of science in each of them in spite of the availability of talents, social organization, and peace—the standard explanatory devices furnished by all-knowing sociologies of science on which that historiography relies ever more heavily.

Although all of these conditions may be necessary to allow a civilization to develop science, they are not sufficient. To explain why only one particular civilization generated a self-sustaining, modern science and not another, we must also look at their intellectual and philosophical climates.

The Philosophical Ideas a Culture Needs to Develop Science

According to Duhem and Jaki, a civilization must have certain ideas to keep science self-sustaining, instead of dying out after a few centuries of progress. First, time should be conceived as linear and potentially quantifiable. This understanding of time allows the cause-effect relationships of nature to be much more readily noticed since it clearly distinguishes past, present, and future. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this idea stems from the act of God in creating the material universe from nothing at some specific moment in the past. Time is seen as then marching forward through the present on into the future to the day of judgment. The alternative pagan view sees time as repeating itself. The concept of the "Great Year" maintained that centuries-long time cycles exist. Making permanent progress of any kind theoretically impossible, the ancient world's conception of time believed the future repeated the past. This bred a sense of complacency, hindering the development of science. Both reincarnation and the transmigration of souls reflect this view of time.

Second, if science is to exist, explanations of natural phenomena must avoid a priori, pseudo-scientific "explanations" that really do not describe the actual causes of events. Third, the organismic view of nature hinders the development of science. Believing the whole universe is alive, it perceives the world as one huge organism that undergoes the above mentioned cyclical process of birth, maturity, death, and rebirth. Its tie to pantheism—believing everything is God, a view common in Hinduism (and "New Age" environmentalism!)—is obvious. Today, most Westerners consider rocks, stars, oceans, etc. to be inanimate objects; the organismic view regards them as having intelligences of their own. Fourth, denying the reality and basic orderliness of the universe hampers the development of science. Humans seldom will investigate carefully what they don't think really exists, or what the gods or nature herself will change unpredictably at whim.

Fifth, as a subset of the organismic view of nature issue, a scientific astronomy can only develop if the heavens are not believed to be alive or divine. Sixth, a balance between reason and faith is necessary. The religious people must not totally reject natural laws while the scientists must not deny the possibility of religious truth. And seventh, man needs to be seen as fundamentally different from the rest of nature, having a mind that makes him qualitatively different from the animals. In the Judeo-Christian worldview, Genesis implicitly makes this point, since man and woman were made in God's image and were given dominion over the animals (Genesis 1:26-29). Reincarnation denies this by claiming the souls of animals enter humans and vice versa as they die and are reborn.

Christian Ideas Drive Out Pagan Ideas

So long as a great majority of a given culture's intellectuals believe all or most of these false ideas, a self-sustaining science can't arise, especially a true science of physical objects in the external real world. Christianity's worldview contained ideas about the nature of the universe which drove out pagan concepts that had prevented the development of science. For these reasons, in his majestic ten-volume work, Le Systeme du Monde, Pierre Duhem declared that the birth of science came in 1277 with the Bishop of Paris' condemnation of 219 assorted (Aristotelian) philosophical conceptions.

Some civilizations had all or most of these false ideas (such as Hindu India), some had fewer (China), and one or two still fewer (Islam). Correspondingly, the last progressed further in science compared to the first two since it accepted these ideas less, and the second more than the first. For instance, the Chinese lacked the delusion that the heavens were divine and/or living. But this idea appears in On the Heavens, a very influential work by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. This idea inhibited indigenous Islamic science permanently. But almost all these faulty intellectual ideas ultimately combined to crush Hindu science: It denied the external real world and its orderliness, it espoused eternal cycles and the organismic view of nature, and it proclaimed the divinity of the heavens. To the extent Hindu ideas influenced Chinese thought through Buddhism, Chinese science was strangled in its cradle. Islamic science might have become self-sustaining, if its holy book, the Quran, had not emphasized God's will and power above His reason, and if Muslim scientists had not been so uncritical of Aristotle's physics while their top theologians remained so mystical. It is vitally important to realize that new ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo didn't just pop out of thin air. Instead, they built upon the writings of such medieval predecessors as Buridan and Oresme. Duhem and Jaki strongly emphasize that these two men took the first steps in forming the conceptual foundations of modern physics by starting to break with Aristotle's physics.

The Merton Thesis Stated

The Mertons thesis sees certain seventeenth-century Puritan moral values as encouraging scientific work. Merton lists various values that promoted science among Puritan Englishmen. First, a Christian was to glorify God and serve Him through doing activities of utility to the community as a whole, not the contemplative, monastic ideal of withdrawal from the community that characterized much of Medieval Catholicism. By emphasizing a vocation, again something collectively useful to the community, Puritanism encouraged diligence, industry, and hard work. Consequently, the individual chooses the vocation that best suits his abilities. Reason and education were both praised in this context. Education, however, was to be practical and not highly literary in content. The scientific method needs both an empiricist ("practical") and rationalist ("theoretical") approach to gaining knowledge to work properly, which is an issue Jaki repeatedly returns to. Puritanism provided both while promoting empiricism by encouraging the search for the knowledge needed to serve one's calling (i.e., "career") and to be useful to the community as a whole.

English Puritan Scientists

It's easy to document the religious values and beliefs of many English scientists of this period. John Ray (1627-1705), the great biologist, told a friend that time spent investigating nature was well used: "What time you have to spare you will do well to spend, as you are doing, in the inquisition and contemplation of the works of God and nature." Forty-two of the 68 founding members of the Royal Society (England's premier scientific organization) for which their religious background is known were Puritans. Since the English population was mostly mainstream Anglican in belief, the high proportion of Puritans in it implies their values encouraged scientific endeavors. Sir Robert Moray, Sir William Petty, Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, John Wallis, and Jonathan Goddard were all prominent leaders of the Royal Society—and all Puritans.

Science and Christianity are Compatible

The hard facts of history, as found in the writings of Duhem, Jaki, and Merton, destroy the common claim of evolutionists that Christianity and science are necessarily incompatible. Much like how German sociologist Max Weber attributed the rise of capitalism to Protestantism's values, Merton's thesis maintains that the values of English Puritanism promoted scientific work. More significantly, Duhem and Jaki's research insists that the philosophical beliefs of Christianity had to drive out the anti-scientific conceptions of paganism in order for science to be born. Far from man's mind, the beliefs of the Bible ultimately freed him from the pagan dogmas that prevented the expression of his reason through a self-sustaining science.

Selected References

Stanley Jaki, The Origin of Science and the Science of Its Origin (South Bend, IN: Regnery/Gateway, 1978).
Stanley Jaki, The Savior of Science (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1988).
Robert K. Merton, "Science in Seventeenth Century England," Osiris, 1938, pp. 360-632.

More specifics and further references are in my essay, "Christianity: A Cause of Modern Science? The Duhem-Jaki and Merton Theses Explained."

1 Empiricism maintains knowledge is mostly gained by the senses, while rationalism maintains knowledge is mostly gained by thinking, reasoning, and logic.
* Eric V. Snow has a master's degree in history.

Cite this article: Eric V. Snow. 1998. Christianity: A Cause of Modern Science?. Acts & Facts. 27 (4).

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