What Did Science Owe to Christianity?

February 16, 2013

Some notes while reading James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (2011)….

Indeed early scientists in Europe were all Christians. They were reading as much from Greek and Roman thinkers as they could, during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. (There wasn’t much, since most classical writings had been allowed to rot into oblivion under the Christian monopolization of learning.) These brilliant minds all had to ultimately work within some theological system or another about the Christian god. Early science had no choice but to think about the natural world with influential theological categories in mind, since there was no nonreligious alternative available. A few brave thinkers contemplated Democritus’s world of atoms or a purely naturalistic Aristotle, but those heretical worldviews couldn’t be openly endorsed.

On this matter, all historians must be agreed.

The deeper questions are whether science would have emerged without Christianity, and whether Christianity deserves praise for science’s dependency. Secular philosophy’s answers are, to the first question, that science would have emerged centuries earlier without Christianity’s domination, especially if Greek and Roman science had been more accessible; and to the second question, Christianity deserves very little credit at all.

Early science would have been vastly better off continuing to grow under the gentler worldviews of materialistic atomism, Stoicism, or naturalistic Aristotelianism than the heavy yoke of an anger-prone providential deity. To imagine that science was truly better off with Yahweh during the 14th century is to imagine that if science had to start over again today, the finest place would be some Taliban-controlled region of Afghanistan.

Further reading? Can’t do better than my favorite historian of science, Richard Carrier: