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How and Where Science Originated

August 19, 2011

According to Rodney Stark, The rise of science did not take occur in the ancient world, but only as the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine. The Christian God created nature; nature exists because God created it. To love and honor God, His people must study the wonders of his handiwork. Men in the monasteries of 6th century Europe began to think about the verse in Psalm 148, “He hath established the earth by an everlasting decree.”

Earth

Europeans' faith in God led them to explore His works on the Earth, thus creating science.

Thinking about this and the whole theme of God’s righteousness gave them faith that God had ordered all of nature. So, a great search for order began, and the scientific method of experimenting and measuring began. The result, for the first time in the history of the world, was astronomy instead of astrology and chemistry instead of alchemy.

But why were the medieval monks and the later Renaissance Europeans interested in science at all? It’s interesting to hear Rodney Stark’s answer:

“At first glance, that would seem a foolish question. Isn’t the rise of science a normal aspect of cultural progress, or the rise of civilization? Not at all. Many quite sophisticated societies did not create communities of scientists or produce a body of systematic theory and empirical observations that qualify as science.

“Although China was quite civilized during many centuries when Europeans were still rude savages, the Chinese failed to develop science. Similarly, although in full possession of the whole corpus of Greco-Roman scholarship, and having made some impressive advances in mathematics, Islamic scholars were content with the role of exegetes and added little or nothing of their own. Nor did science arise in ancient India or Egypt. And while classical Greece had considerable learning, it did not have science.[1]

“It is indisputable,” historian Edward Grant explained, “that modern science emerged in the seventeenth century in Western Europe and nowhere else.”[2] Stark goes on to say:

In contrast with the dominant religious and philosophical doctrines in the non-Christian world, Christians developed science because they believed it could be done, and should be done. As Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) put it during one of his Lowell Lectures at Harvard in 1925, science arose in Europe because of the widespread “faith in the possibility of science . . . derivative from medieval theology.” Whitehead’s pronouncement shocked his distinguished audience. How could he make such an outlandish claim? Did he not know that religion is the mortal enemy of scientific inquiry?[3]

Whitehead knew better. He had grasped that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science in the West, just as surely as non-Christian theologies had stifled the scientific quest everywhere else. He said:

For the Glory of God

Rodney Stark's book, For the Glory of God, illuminates how Christianity led to major discoveries in science.

“Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research—that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted in the European mind? It comes from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality.

“Remember that I am not talking about the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impression the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries. By this I mean the instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words.[4]

Whitehead observed that the images of Gods found in other religions, especially in Asia, are too impersonal or too irrational to have sustained science. Any particular occurrence in nature “might be due to the fiat of an irrational despot” God, or might be produced by “some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things. There is not the same confidence as in the intelligible rationality of a personal being.”[5]

We’ll hear more on the fascinating subject of why science arose just once in the history of the world, and why it happened in Western Europe, from Medieval History Professor Lynn White of UCLA. Until then, take care.


[1] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003). p. 146

[2] Ibid. 146

[3] Ibid. 147

[4] Ibid. 148

[5] Ibid. 148

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2011 7:25 pm

    Thanks for this information, plus the mini-digest of Mr. Stark’s book…I am finding I don’t have time to read every interesting book that comes along.

    And I would add: I think an analysis of “where we’re at” (Gr) and how we got here will be beneficial in getting some Wisdom, and impetus, towards getting out of our current chaos. By many leaders letting Science have greater priority than is deserved, we’ve dethroned our true Way-Leader.

    I’m looking forward to part 2. PM

  2. August 19, 2011 8:29 pm

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for this. Having lived in the Muslim world for a number of years now I would like to know how you respond to the Muslim claim that science originated among Muslims, during the Islamic renaissance in Baghdad under the Abbasids, and that from there it spread to Europe through North Africa, and only then into Spain and Italy, and from there to England and what we know today as the Scientific Revolution. In other words, science is born of Islam, and not from Medieval Western Christian theology-cosmology.

    Please do respond.

    • August 19, 2011 8:47 pm

      Dear Abu Daoud, I know the claim to which you refer. I hope to write more about the numbing effect that Islam has had on science in the future. For now, let me quote from the introduction to Rodney Stark’s book, The Victory of Science:

      “During the past century, Western intellectuals have been more than willing to trace European imperialism to Christian origins, but they have been entirely unwilling to recognize that Christianity made any contribution (other than intolerance) to the Western capacity to dominate. Rather, the West is said to have surged ahead precisely as it overcame religious barriers to progress, especially those impeding science. Nonsense. The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.”

  3. August 23, 2011 2:12 pm

    In reading the quotes from Stark’s book, I can’t help but be left with the impression that the author is espousing the idea that science could only be born out of Christian thinking (implying the “superiority” of Christianity).

    While I agree that Science could not flourish without the idea that God is rational and had created an ordered universe, I don’t see this as exclusively a Christian idea. To make this claim is to distort and disregard the complexity and diversity of Islamic philosophy in the centuries preceding the discovery of the scientific method in Western Europe. The historical evidence (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_scientific_method#Ibn_al-Haytham) does not support this. The more interesting question to me is what changed in Islamic thinking to cause the decline of scientific pursuits (was it tied to the decline of independent thinking at the beginning of the 10th century?).

    I think a more fruitful approach is to identify the common threads in Islamic science and Christian science, such as the pursuit of truth, to help bridge the gap between cultures. In this way, instead of battling over our philosophical superiority, we can let what makes Christianity unique, special, and worthy shine.

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