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Would There Be Science Without Christianity?

March 27, AD 2013 4 Comments

Science Without ChristianityAs promised for the atheist, agnostic, and fellow Christian readers…

I hope more people will read and participate in the discussion too.

First, let me briefly (promise) chronicle my introduction to this concept. I loved science as a child. Nature fascinated me and as I grew and studied, I wanted to know how things worked. I loved science in high school, I majored in biology in college, and I taught high school chemistry for two years. Since teachers learn as much as students, especially when they are as young as I was, I developed a love for chemistry. So I went on to graduate school for a Ph.D., and published in enough reputable international journals, Science magazine included, to go on and work for DuPont.

I don’t list all of that to brag, but to emphasize an important point: I had no clue what philosophy was even though the title Doctor of Philosophy was appended to my name.

Then I became Catholic and entered a Masters degree program in theology where I was required to take the introductory philosophy course for people who have never studied philosophy. In that course the first book I read was The Savior of Science by the late (and great) Father Stanley L. Jaki, a Benedictine priest and leading thinker in the philosophy and history of science. He authored more than two dozen books on the relation between science and Christianity, and was a frequent lecturer at Yale and Oxford. He was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1987 for furthering the understanding of science and religion.

It blew me away as if I were a child again. Here in an introductory course in theology I suddenly understood science like never before, not as just some discipline to master so I could publish and get a job, but I finally understood why people ever wanted to know about the natural world in the first place and where we are supposed to be going in our knowledge of it. I understood why we all pine for truth and why science was born — and it was because of Christ. Now, of course, I understand that everything is because of Christ, who is God, but at the time it was a radical, mind-boggling, and awesome concept.

Would science ever have developed without the Christian mindset, the Christian psychology about the world and man’s ability to know truth?

My lifestyle now (read that “My kids, puppies, editorial obligations, and glued eyes to Facebook celebrating with internet friends our new Pope Francis, who also studied and taught chemistry) prevent me from covering all of the material in one long discourse (which I doubt I could do without all the other priorities anyway), but here I want to at least introduce the framework of Fr. Jaki’s thesis. Not all theologians or historians of science agree with him, but I think I do. This plunge into the topic is as much for my own learning as it is for anyone else, so argue away.

Defining Terms

Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows I am a stickler for defining terms, not because I’m some superhero of logic, but because it must be done if a discussion is to stay focused. It’s only fair. If people cannot agree on definitions, then communication, much less debate, is impossible, and useless combox swaggering will ensue.

Science: In modern use, this word is treated as synonymous with Natural and Physical Science, and thus restricted to those branches of study that relate to the phenomena of the material universe and their laws. This is the dominant sense in ordinary use that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives. It is a systematic body of knowledge about nature gathered by sense experience and organized by reason. This is Modern Science.

What we do not mean: As I have explained before, science in the general sense of the word (also given primarily in the OED) from its Latin root means a “body of knowledge.” In the early universities begun by the Catholic Church, science comprised the entire curriculum of studies (the consortium magistorum) except for theology, law, medicine, and arts (philosophy). For the question of whether Modern Science (as most people know it today) grew out of Christianity, we need to define the more limited term, which is done above.

What science is not: Science, Modern Science that is, cannot comment on immaterial or spiritual things. It cannot prove or disprove the existence of angels, demons, or God (though reason can assume the first two and know with certainty the latter). Science cannot comment on anything that is not:

  1. material,
  2. therefore, in motion, and
  3. thus, observable and quantifiable.

Modern Science can apply the Scientific Method to the natural world and answer questions about, for instance, the rate of falling objects, the reaction of materials with each other, or the effect of controlling conditions on a process. It includes, most fundamentally, physics, and also chemistry and biology, and their sub-disciplines.

It should also be noted that to even do science, a scientist also must rely on intellectual abstractions to organize what he has observed and make predictions for the next round of the Scientific Method. A scientist must also rely on abstract reasoning to apply his knowledge to life, and a scientist must rely on abstract reasoning to even define science and define that he (okay, or she, darn pronouns) is a scientist.

Since I’m nearing a self-imposed 1,000 word limit, I’ll explain what’s next: Fr. Jaki’s thesis begins with a review of the “Stillbirths of Science.” He explains how in other cultures under different religious mindsets scientific progress may have been made in off-sprouts of the “evolutionary tree of science” but together they ended in “a vista of dead branches (to say nothing of the innumerable dead twigs).” If you’re up for the adventure, we’ll move through these cultures one at a time, and consider the title question.

So first, tell me, do we agree on terms?

(1,000 words reached – now.)

[This post was originally published on my former blog, Accepting Abundance. The discussion can be found there.]

Hello, and thank you for reading. My name is Stacy Trasancos. I am a wife, mother of seven, and joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my tiny office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge that overlooks a small spring-fed lake. Read more about me here. Find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or contact me by email. God bless you!
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  • Cliff P.

    Bonheoffer, the German Lutheran theologian was bold to say in his thesis that
    the developed world came about because of Christianity and true progress was
    more evident in these Christian societies/cultures. Bonheoffer was not alone
    this viewpoint as many other scholars have stated the same thing.

    Even though a case can be made for the advancement of science because of
    Christianity, the skeptics abound. But one can objectivity conclude that
    we, meaning Christians, are certainly not anti-science.

  • Kalaparthy Prasad

    It would be more interesting and engaging as well if the proposed title was reversed, “Would there be Christianity without the science?” This puts us on the offense mode [not on the defense mode], and both sides of the story could be engaged with, and your perspective on Science is driven home.
    Have you read the books of Pierre Teilhard de Chardine? [He is the Jesuit priest].
    Anyway, I shall come back to this discussion. But thanks to have initiated this. God’s blessings on your beautiful ‘transmission’ of faith.