Christianity gave birth to science — a myth?

By Ken Perrott 25/03/2011 15


Ibn al-Haytham – a pioneer of the scientific method

This theological myth seems to surface in any debate about the relationship between religion and science. It is the claim that Christianity gave birth to science. That modern science was not possible anywhere but in the European Christian culture.

The myth is actively promoted by some Christian scholars — theologians and philosophers of religion. And sometimes it even appears that less critical non-religious philosophers who are largely ignorant of the history of science accept the myth.

Perhaps we should expect a bit of Christian chauvinism. After all, nationalists claim all sorts of things originated in their own country (People of my generation may remember when the Russians were claiming all sorts of technologies were invented by their countrymen – I fondly remember their claim for lampposts!). And Christian chauvinism is alive and well in areas like human rights and morality.

An offensive myth

But this myth is offensive. It’s insulting to medieval Islam. To the scientists and philosophers of the Roman Empire and classical Greece. To the civilisations of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, China and India and beyond.

There is a useful chapter on this myth in a book recently edited by Ronald Numbers — ’Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.’ It’s ’Myth 9: That Christianity gave birth to modern science’ written by Noah J. Efron. He is President of the Society for Israeli History and Philosophy of Science.

No one denies that many scientists were, and are, Christian – or that Christian philosophers were involved in developing ideas about nature. But there is simply far more to the story of modern science than that. Efron points out that ’the imprint of Greek and Roman ideas on Christian intellectuals remained vivid; they provided the starting point for nearly all inquiries into nature until the start of the modern era. For many centuries, Aristotle’s philosophy was knit most tightly into the woof and warp of Christian theology.’

And ’excluding the place of classical philosophers from an account of the history of modern science is an act of intellectual appropriation of breathtaking arrogance. . . .Christian astronomers (and other students of nature) owe a great debt to their Greek forebears.’

Importance of Islamic science

Christian philosophers also took from Muslim. ’It was in Muslim lands that natural philosophy received the most careful and creative attention from the seventh to the twelfth centuries. . . .By virtue of its geography alone, Islam became ’the meeting point for Greek, Egyptian, Indian and Persian traditions of thought, as well as the technology of China.’ This was an asset of incalculable value.’

Muslim scholars translated ’great numbers of Greek, Indian, and Persian books of philosophy and natural philosophy into Arabic.’ Muslim scholars added to the original texts and wrote original material ’that advanced every major field of inquiry. . .They developed intricate instruments of observation.’ These translations and new work were of immense worth. They were later translated into Latin and became available to Christian scholars.

’Many of these Muslim achievements were, in time, eagerly adopted by Christian philosophers of nature.’ Efron stresses that ’this grand body of new materials forever changed the course of Christian philosophy of nature.’

Dialogue of civilisations

Scientists are used to proper attribution. To acknowledging that we all stand on the shoulders of giants — and it’s a bit like ’turtles all the way down.’  Efron writes: ’Modern science rests (somewhat, anyway) on early modern, renaissance, and medieval philosophies of nature, and these rested (somewhat, anyway) on Arabic natural philosophy, which rested (somewhat, anyway) on Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts, and these rested, in turn, on the wisdom generated by other, still earlier cultures. .  .  . ’This has been called ‘the dialogue of civilisations in the birth of modern science’ [by Arun Bala in his book The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science]’

Other European sources

Even going no further than Europe at the time of the scientific revolution we can see other sources of modern science besides, or as well as, religious scholarship. Commerce and trade: ’the values inherent in the world of commerce were explicitly and self-consciously recognised to be at the root of the new science by contemporaries.’ The early-modern voyages of discovery also contributed. There were invention and importation of important technologies (eg. clocks, printing press) which boosted inquiry. ’Europe’s legal systems influenced the development of both scientific theory and practice.’ And: ’Early modern Europe also saw the emergence of other secular institutions that came to play an important role in the growth of modern science. Scientific societies, for example, were established across the continent beginning in the seventeenth century.’

Science a human endeavour

This history and the current situation where a large percentage of scientists are not Christian, many not even religious, show an important fact about modern science. ’The rich diversity of the cultural and intellectual soil deep into which its roots extend.’ And: ’With the passage of time, the ethos of science came to stand at odds with the particularist claims of any religion or ethnic group.’ Science is a non-sectarian, democratic and inclusive enterprise.

The chauvinistic approach of the myth that Christianity gave birth to science opposes this scientific ethos. It is denigrating to non-Christians and immature. As Efron points out assigning credit is not a zero-sum game. ’It does not diminish Christianity to recognise that non-Christians, too, have a proud place in the history of science.’

Efron concludes his chapter with: ’For better or worse, science is a human endeavour, and it always has been.’

Amen to that.

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15 Responses to “Christianity gave birth to science — a myth?”

  • I think even if it were true, the suggestion that christianity gave birth to science is a silly one.
    Alchemy gave birth to chemistry, yet alchemy involved strange rituals and unscientific thinking. So even if christianity lead to science that doesn’t validate any of christianity’s beliefs. Rather, it is obvious that science now challenges some of the beliefs of the more fundamental christian faiths.
    However, as you rightly point out many cultures have contributed to science. Key areas of mathematics (algebra?) developed out of the Middle East, and mathematics is central to many areas of science.

  • Sagan argues that the Pythagoreans killed off Greek science. I’m no historian but I suspect that the rise of Isalm helped kill off the technological advances of the medievil arabs. Taoism and Confusianism seems also to be associated with the stagnation of chinese technological advances. Certainly, christianity had no time for free thinkers like Galileo, or the scholars boiled alive in oil in the piazzas of Rome.

    I have a fondness for Hawkings version of this story ” …sure, science arose out of Catholicism…in the same sense that plumbing, sanitation systems, and public health policies arose out of sewage.”

  • I think an important requirement of the modern scientific revolution has actually been the escape of science from the arms of religion and religious philosophy.

    Science has evolved together with religion as an attempt to understand the world. Consequently much early science was done under the patronage off, in the institutions of, religions. But the modern return to empirical evidence and validation in science has require an escape from dogma and religious diktat. This was probably the real significance of the Galileo affair.

    Modern science could not have the success it does if it was being run by “Answers in Genesis”, “creation science” or the wedge strategists from the Discovery Institute.

  • In your first paragraph you write “It is the claim that Christianity gave birth to science. That modern science was not possible anywhere but in the European Christian culture.” No doubt you will correct me if I’m wrong, but are you talking about one claim or two here?

    The claim that “Christianity gave birth to science” can and should be answered by an assessment of the historical evidence for and against this claim.
    I see the claim that “modern science was not possible anywhere but in the European Christian culture” as an unprovable historical statement. Are there reputable historians who have made this second claim?

    For a particular religious group to try and “claim” to be the originators of science is, to me, a fruitless and pointless exercise. Of more interest is what were the cultural and philosophical characteristics that gave rise to science (which needs to be defined for such a discussion to make sense)? For example, is the separation of creator and creation evident in a few religions, more likely to give rise to experimentation? This may then throw light on the place of modern science and its likely growth or demise in various modern cultures (eg we could then try and answer the question “does new age philosophy hinder scientific endeavour?”).

  • An important ingredient to the discussion here is that of how mathematics evolved, as mathematical thought provided a framework for the evolution of systematic scientific thought.

    In that regard, the following primer on Indian mathematics (roughly covering the 800 BC through 1400 AD period) is an important read:
    Indian Mathematics: Redressing the balance
    Ian G Pearce
    http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Projects/Pearce/index.html

    The following chapter from it explains how Indian mathematics (including the Indian decimal number system, arithmetic and algebra using those numbers) were adopted by Persian and Arabic scholars in the 8th-12th centuries (AD), and were brought to Europe by them latter through Spain.

    8 III. Brahmagupta, and the influence on Arabia
    http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Projects/Pearce/Chapters/Ch8_3.html

    India’s Panini (c. 500 BC) and Aryabhatta (c. 500 AD) should be given substantial credit for pioneering scientific thought and method from a mathematical angle. In later works, Bhaskara II apparently invented differentiation (500 years before Newton), and Madhava ((c. 1340 – 1425) made pioneering contributions to infinite series and other areas.

    Greek philosophical thought and Indian contributions to linguistics and mathematics can be said to have laid the foundations for the evolution of modern science that emerged during and after the European renaissance, with Islamic contributors providing a bridge between India and Europe during the 800 AD – 1400 AD period. The East Asian civilizations (incl. Chinese) pioneered many technological inventions of import as well.

  • A few more links of interest:

    1. Panini (c. 500 BC) bio:
    http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Panini.html

    2. A history of Zero
    http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/HistTopics/Zero.html

    3. Indian numerals
    http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/HistTopics/Indian_numerals.html

    4. Mathematics in India. Kim Plofker
    http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8835.html

    5. David Mumford’s review of Plofker’s book:
    http://www.ams.org/notices/201003/rtx100300385p.pdf

    Thanks.

  • kiwisiki – “Are there reputable historians who have made this second claim?”

    Well, the Chrsitian apologists have their tame historians, philosophers, etc., who they vouch foir in terms of credibility.
    James Hannam is sometimes quoted (he has a bgook out soon called The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science.

    It’s quite popular for apologists and their scholars to make this assertion these days.

  • Let’s give credit where credit is due. Modern science can be said to have originated from the Greeks (though it could not progress until Aristotelian beliefs had been replaced by experimental method). But the Greek learning would have been largely lost if it had not been preserved by first the Arabs (who added to it significantly), and then by the Christian church. During the medieval period, the church was the only body with the international contacts and the facilities necessary for this task. Perhaps these, rather than any religious of philosophical position, led to the advance of science in Christian countries.

    Similarly, in the middle ages important work was done in mathematics and astronomy by churchmen like Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294) – all right, his main aim was to set the correct date for Easter, but that was the project that the medieval equivalent of FfRST was funding at the time.

    But, as it was necessary throw off Aristotelianism for science to advance, so it was necessary the throw off, or at least question, some of the beliefs of the church regarding, for example the age of the earth. It is no coincidence that scientific advances in the 18th Century were led by liberal and dissenting churchmen such as Joseph Priestly.

  • I have often been subject to the claim the Christianity was the springboard for modern science, and the role of the Islamic world (and the classical Greek) are entirely ignored.

    I don’t think that Christianity was at all tolerant science for much of its early history. It’s not hard to see that the church inherited much the same legacy of Greek scientific culture as the Islamic world, yet appeared to treat this with indifference. The Islamic world made a plethora of advances over a period of centuries, whilst the Christian world remained mired in backwardness.

    I think it is telling that Christian scientific advances occurred largely in the fuzzy boundaries with the Islamic. It was in Spain (where the reconquista opened up the Western world to a flood of translated Islamic texts) and E Europe (again, another transition region) where western science began to emerge. The work of Copernicus for instance, drew heavily on Islamic scholarly work that was critical of the Ptolemaic system.

    It seems more that contact with the Islamic world- and the diffusion of ideas from such scholars- did more to promote the advance of science than Christianity. And the chief reason it did so, was by bypassing the church control of knowledge and learning. In effect, it took until the early renaissance where Islamic science could be circulated- breaking the Church’s monopoly on exploration- before Western science emerged. The Christian west only became ‘scientific’ after the Islamic world had showed it up for the superstitious, backward collection of ignorant dogma it had become.

    I’m reminded of this response by Martin Luther to the work of Copernicus – a theme we constantly return to-

    “People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon… Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but the sacred scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.”)

  • Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best

    That is how one gets a Nobel prize. Martin Luther had it right. Luther also illustrates the dangers of taking literally a poetical way of saying that Joshua won the battle against huge odds so quickly that it was as if time had stood still.

  • I’m catching up on my reading after being away supervising on camp for a week so apologies if this is resurrecting something you’d rather not see given new life to.

    I think the claim, at least as I would form it (as a Christian), is that the foundations of science can be justified from a theistic view. Whether that comes from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, of whatever doesn’t really matter to me.

    The foundations that I am talking about are the assumptions that I believe science is based upon, i.e. there is order in the universe and that we can know that order. I wouldn’t expect order (philosophically speaking) if I didn’t believe in a god of order.

  • Sam – you advance a claim: “I think the claim, at least as I would form it (as a Christian), is that the foundations of science can be justified from a theistic view.” But you do absolutely nothing to justify it. It seems to just be a doctrine, a dogma, for you that you don’t question or can support.

    Probably the majority of scientists in countries like ours do not have theistic beliefs. Yet they still see order in the universe.And don’t find that difficult.

    My own understanding as an atheist certainly accepts that objectively existing matter interacts (its part of its nature) and this produces an order. From experience we know we can at least know and understand some of this. We don’t know for sure that there is nothning beyond our ability to know and understand but we haven’t reached that limit yet.

    So we don’t need a relgion to justify foundations of science. in fact I believe we can argue that science really only took off when we broke away from the diktat of theology and relgious phioloosophy.

  • Ken – you wrote about Sam’s statement “But you do absolutely nothing to justify it. It seems to just be a doctrine, a dogma, for you that you don’t question or can support.”

    He did provide a justification in his next paragraph.

    ” accepts that objectively existing matter interacts (its part of its nature) and this produces an order.” This comes across as a statement of faith.

    “So we don’t need a relgion to justify foundations of science” – Sam said “can be justified” – I don’t think he was implying “need” at that point.

    Sam: I disagree with the “or whatever”. The Greeks had theistic beliefs and for all their advances, they did not get around to empirical science – possibly because they believed the gods could come to earth and act capriciously (ie “anti-order”). Animism and pantheism seem to me to be anti-science in the sense that experimenting on god(s) may be seen as dangerous. I think that the separation of creator and creation was central and not all theistic beliefs are the same on this point. The process of thinking about this separation took some time and as the history of science testifies resulted in some injustice. One of its consequences is the rise of atheistic fundamentalism which rejects the creator in favour of the creation entirely.

  • Kiwisiki – No, I can’t find Sam’s justification anywhere.

    You take my acceptance of the objective existence of reality and acceptance of the property of interaction as a “statement of faith.” I prefer to think of it as a properly basic belief and I can’t understand how it could be otherwise. If matter exists which does not have the property of interaction we have absolutely no way of detecting it, understanding it. It is the most boring thing in the universe. And it just doesn’t affect us. So why bother with it?

    I think Sam’s rejection of any non-theist understanding of morality, beauty and science does imply he believes in a need foir a theistic understanding. That is what I reject and I think most people also reject it.

    Regarding empirical science. While this wasn’t firmly established until the modern scientific revolution and the break with theology and relgious philsophy I don’t think it is just that simple. (Things never are). Some of the “natural philosophy” of the ancients was empirical. Observgation of the skys is just one example. And much else. This was largley lost during the period of mysticism in the dark ages (at least in the Christian west).

    Paert of the discovery of Islamic science and nits translation and adoption in the west reinforced new empirical approaches.

    In essence the Galileo affair was a conflict between the new insistence of empriical evidence,checking against reality and the scriptural authority of revelation. The latter influence in science had to be defeated to make progress.

    Who are these “atheistic fundamentalist” who “reject the creator in favour of the creation”? Surely atheistrs jsut don’t believe in a “creator” because they find no evidence for her. When and if they do surely they would accept that belief if they are sensible.

    That is certainly the attitude of this “atheistic fundamentalist!” And itr is fully in the spirit of modern science.

  • Assalamualaikum ( May ALLAH Bless You All)
    I know this discourse was talks about xthe origin of Science’s method..without mind to deviating this theme, as a Moslem we are ( or my be my own) never claimed from whose the science has birth..moslem, christian, thaoisme or even atheist…we are (or just my own) belive that the Journey of the Science is as old as humanity itself..
    so that’s not really problem, who has start the scientific method…but what will we do in the future…
    “..And do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge. Indeed, the hearing, the sight and the heart – about all those [one] will be questioned..” (Quran : Al Israa’ ver.36)

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