Science and Its Christian Origins

Christian OriginsThe Scientific Method

Opponents of religion often claim that Christianity is scientifically unprovable. In fact, they usually go farther and assert that science disproves it. The irony is that Christianity gave birth to the scientific method. Those who defined it and began to use it did so precisely because of their faith. (See Important Scientists Who Believed in God). It is therefore surprising that many scientists and people who respect science are repudiating its Christian origins.

Precursors of the scientific method go back to some of the Greek philosophers. A few Muslim scholars also contributed. However, the modern version of it began with Francis Bacon in a work called Novum Organum (1620) and Rene Descartes in Discourse on Method (1637). Both were devout Christians whose religious views strongly influenced their scientific vision.

Here are the rather simple ideas that make up the scientific method.

  • We make observations, preferably quantitative ones.
  • We try to formulate a hypothesis to account for them.
  • We make predictions based on our hypothesis.
  • We devise controlled experiments to verify the predictions.
  • If any of the predictions fail, we either modify or discard the hypothesis and start over.
  • If enough predictions in many different situations are verified the hypothesis moves to the realm of being a theory. We begin to use it in many different applications.
  • Over time, even theories can be modified as new data comes to light.
  • Once they seem to be enduring they come to be called laws.
  • But even theories and laws can be modified or even discarded as new evidence comes to light.

This approach to studying the world has resulted in enormous change. Much of it has been for the better (medicine, better agriculture, labor-saving machines, better homes, etc.) Some has been for the worse (conventional and nuclear weapons, poison gases, pesticides that degrade the environment, carbon emissions that are changing our climate, etc.) On balance, however, the world has benefited.

Where did this approach to nature come from? Why has it primarily developed in the West rather than in other advanced cultures? The answer lies in its relationship to Christianity and Judaism.[1] It is not accidental that the scientific method developed largely in Europe at a time when Christianity had the greatest influence on worldview. Christian beliefs paved the way for science.

The Christian Origins of Science

The following ideas are important foundations of science.

Monotheism. Sociologist Rodney Stark[2] has pointed out that we humans have a tendency to choose monotheism over polytheism.[3] A majority of the people on this planet prefer the idea of one God with greater scope and power to a pantheon of lesser gods. Whether our preferences match the truth is another question. But a single Creator God is more apt to have created an orderly world rather than a committee of lesser beings. In many traditions, pagan gods come into conflict with one another as each fights to control his own small bit of the creation. Whether it’s sunny or dark, stormy or calm depends on which god has the upper hand at the moment. In such a universe it’s no use trying to predict or control nature. Science cannot exist in such an environment.

On the other hand, it is not unlikely that a single God who holds all the levers of power would have certain orderly patterns in exercising them. We therefore have some hope of discovering them.

God as Creator. This defines his relationship to the universe. He is not the universe itself or even a part of it as in pantheism. Therefore the universe is not sacred. It is a fit object for investigation and experimentation. You don’t experiment with something sacred. On the other hand, because he is its creator, we undertake a noble task in trying to understand how he made it.

Creation as Contingent. One of the things that hindered the development of science in ancient Greece was their idea that the universe is “necessary.” That means there could only have been one way to create it. Greek philosophers thought they could figure out how it worked by pure reason alone. They decided, for example, that heavier stones fall faster than lighter ones. But they never bothered to check this hypothesis to see whether it was true. A “necessary” universe can be understood by reason alone. In a contingent one (one that could have been created differently from the way it is) you need to experiment to see how it actually works. The idea of contingency comes from the idea that God had a choice in creating the universe. He wasn’t forced to create it in the way he did. We must experiment to discover which choices he made.

Rationality. The Christian God is rational. We would therefore expect him to have created a universe that works in a rational way according to a rational set of laws. Since we have rational minds there is a good chance that the mechanism of this universe would be understandable to us as well.

Immutability (Changelessness). This is the Christian teaching that God is not capricious. He doesn’t change in his basic nature. Therefore he would have created a world that would have unchanging laws that undergirded it. This would not exclude the possibility of miracles. At times higher laws could supersede the normal ones. But this is rare enough to allow us to have confidence that the ordinary laws have predictive value.

We Are Made in God’s Image. Though his intelligence is far greater than ours, he has wired our brains to think along the same lines as he does. That means he made it possible for us to think some of his thoughts after him. It is possible for us to understand a lot about how the universe works.

He Has Given Us Dominion and Stewardship. This means, first of all, that he has made the world for our good use, to make our lives better. He has given us the power of reason and the ability to discover through science how the world works so that we can use the world’s resources for our benefit. He also made us stewards over the world, responsible to use these same tools to preserve it. He holds us to account to care for and sustain our planet for future generations.

How Did This Play Out?

These Judeo-Christian ideas were foundational for the development of the scientific method. The early scientists did their work because they believed that uncovering the intricacies of how the world worked would glorify God, its creator. The Christian origins of science should spur us to look more deeply at the seeming conflict between science and religion. It may not be as severe as some make it out to be.

[1] I don’t want to minimize the influence of Judaism since it shares the same ideas as those mentioned here. But since there were many more Christians in Europe than Jews, they had the greater influence. So I won’t mention Judaism further even though I recognize its formative influence.

[2] Rodney Stark, One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism, Princeton University Press, 2003

[3] The Western world took a long time to move from polytheism to monotheism. Even so, over the millennia the trend is clear.

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