The origins of modern science and Christianity

James Fodor / 17 August 2014

During August 2014, Oxford Professor of mathematics John Lennox delivered a series of lectures in Australia on "Science and Faith in God." Considered a leading figure of the evangelical intelligentsia, Lennox made claims that James Fodor, President of the Secular Society of the University of Melbourne, disputes in a series of five articles.

In this Part 1, Fodor critiques Lennox's claim that modern science owes its development to Christianity.

Part 2 refutes Lennox's claim that language and semantic meaning cannot be explained naturalistically.

Part 3 deals with Lennox's claim that naturalistic science is unable to provide an explanation for the intelligibility of the universe.

Part 4 critiques the role Christians played in many important reformist social movements.

Part 5 deals with Lennox's references to the so-called "evils of atheism".


 Introduction

In August 2014, mathematician and Christian apologist John Lennox visited Melbourne. He gave a number of presentations, including a public lecture entitled "Cosmic Chemistry: Do Science and God Mix?", and the keynote lecture at an apologetics conference entitled "Faith has its Reasons". I attended both of these events, making notes about the arguments Lennox made. In this piece, which I hope will be the first in a series, I will address one of Lennox's assertions, specifically his claim that Christianity was in some sense 'responsible for' the birth of modern science in Europe. I will argue that his argument is drastically oversimplified, and fails to account for timing and geographical distribution of scientific discoveries throughout history.

What did Lennox say Exactly?

"Christian belief in God, far from hindering science, was actually the engine that drove it."
"Historically we owe modern science to Christianity"

The Basic Argument

The argument that Christian beliefs facilitated the scientific revolution in early modern Europe is not a new one. The usual argument proceeds roughly as follows: Christian belief in the presence of a lawgiver who created a universe governed by regular laws that we humans, imbued by God with the powers of reason, are capable of comprehending, was instrumental in facilitating the rise of the empirical scientific method in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. As such, without Christianity, we wouldn't have modern science as we know it.

Problems of Time and Location

Christianity was already the dominant religion in much of Europe by the fall of the Roman Empire, say around AD 500. The scientific revolution did not begin until around 1600, over a thousand years later. This is a major problem for Lennox's thesis, as it seems exceptionally implausible to argue that cause can proceed effect by over a millennium in this way. Lennox seems to recognise this, as he qualified his remarks at one point when he said "the particular way the reformers read the bible" was behind the genesis of science.

But even this adjusted argument has major problems. For one thing, it is unable to explain why so much pioneering science was done in Catholic countries: Copernicus was Polish, Galileo was Italian, and Descartes was French. Additionally, it's not at all clear what reading the bible has to do with science, or what specific beliefs were so new to the Reformers that could have been relevant to the scientific enterprise. The idea of natural law certainly wasn't new (thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively about this), and some of the reformers were actively hostile to human reason (Luther famously said that reason was "the Devil's greatest whore", and early anatomist Michael Servetus was among those executed by Calvin because of his heretical religious views).

If any single idea was behind the scientific revolution, it would probably be the empiricism championed by thinkers like Francis Bacon. It is not at all clear, however, that this idea had anything to do with theological developments of the Reformation.

Science in Other Civilizations

Lennox's explanation of the origins of science is also inconsistent with the history of scientific progress in other civilizations. Much early pioneering mathematics and science was done in ancient Babylon, and more by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Chinese in the first and early second millennium were advanced in many areas, notable inventions including paper, movable type, gunpowder, the compass, banknotes, and negative numbers. The Arab World for centuries was far in advance of Christian Europe in terms of its contributions to mathematics, astronomy, optics, medicine, cartography, and chemistry.

If we are to take the religion argument seriously, we would have to say that Paganism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam all at different times and in different places contributed to the rise of science, but later stopped doing so as these regions ceased to be world scientific leaders. Are we to believe that in the thirteenth century Islam was promoting science in the Arab World and Christianity hindering it in Europe, but three centuries later it was now Islam doing the hindering and Christianity 'driving the engine'? Such a notion is ad hoc, and lacks any real explanatory power.

Conclusion

A far more plausible explanation, I think, is that scientific progress is the product of an immensely complex interplay of economic, political, social, environmental, and ideological factors, with religion at best playing a contributory role.

Lennox's simplistic thesis totally fails to account for the facts, and is absurdly naive in its oversimplification of historical reality. As such I see no reason to take it seriously as an argument for anything. I agree with Lennox that scientific progress is consistent with Christian belief, but that's a much weaker and also, I think, far less interesting claim.

It is just not the case that 'we owe modern science to Christianity'. History isn't that simple.


James Fodor is President of the University of Melbourne Secular Society. He is studying for a Bachelor of Science and has a particular interest in science communication, skeptical activism, interfaith dialogue, and effective altruism.

For more, see James's blog here.
John Lennox is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford.

He is also a philosopher of science and Christian apologist, considered to be a leading figure of the evangelical intelligentsia.

 

All the more reason.

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