The Roots of Modern Science and Christianity
By V V Raman
Received: 8 January 1998
Recently there have been some interesting discussions on the question:
Why did Modern Science (MS) rise in the Western cultural framework and not
elsewhere? A number of commentators have argued that this was because of
Christianity. In this context, I would like to state the following:
Christianity had been there for at least 1500 years (and the
Judeo-tradition for much longer) before there was any sign of modern science in
the Christian world, in Europe or in the Middle East (where it began).
Significant ancient science had developed in China, India, and
Greece without any Christian influence.
In the early phases, the Catholic Church was an impediment rather
than an encouragement for the advancement of MS.
"The affirmation of this world" and the "non-emphasis of the
after-life" which are often cited in these discussions were not at all
characteristics of medieval Christianity, and there are many schools of
classical Hinduism and Taoism which affirmed the reality of this world, and
were even crassly materialistic.
The key to the understanding of the fundamental question raised
above is to be found in one simple fact: Creative thinkers in the West were
the first to realize that while the ancients may deserve our respect, they were
not infallible; and if scientific progress is to be made, we need to reject
some of the pronouncements found in sacred books. They were lured into taking
this far-reaching step largely because of the Copernican insight and the
blatant Biblical contradiction to it.
Cultures which refuse (or are unable) to do this (i.e. boldly move
away from ancient world views and aphorisms) simply cannot make meaningful
advances in science, though they may adopt and apply technologies imported from
the outside, and may even argue that the roots of MS are to be fund in their
own particular scriptures. That is why the emotional going back to the past of
some peoples in the name of cultural self-identity may not be in their long
range "scientific" interest.
Recent attempts to vindicate ancient explanations of the physical
world and phenomena such as are found in holy books may be soothing to the
converted, but they have not contributed one iota to the advancement of any of
the sciences; i.e. not produced any result worthy of publication in a reputable
scientific journal,. [This enterprise is not unique to Judeo-Christian
All this is not to say that religion, spirituality, and God are
irrelevant to a fuller and saner experience of human life, or that Christianity
has not added richly to our spiritual experience and humanity. Indeed, they are
far more meaningful and important to culture and civilization than quantum
mechanics, neo-Darwinism, or the standard model. But to resort to science as
a crutch for faith and religious beliefs reflects a shaky faith rather than
that it reveals any higher truths. And to argue that MS developed in Western
Europe because of Christianity is as valid a contention as that the concept of
zero developed in India because of Hinduism, or that paper was invented in
China because of Taoism.
From a reply by Paul Jones
Religions are gaining new strength today, and the attempts to reconcile
science with Catholicism are of the same trend as the Moslem expansion,
or the world-wide consolidation of Krishnaites. I think that we must take
everything valuable from all the religions, never forgetting about the
negative sides of them. As for Christianity, it gave much for the development
of some aspects of people's mentality, but, certainly, it could not be called
the "locomotive of progress" in European science. I am inclined to think
that MS has developed from the poorly studied "alternative" culture of
Medieval Europe similar to various branches of Lokayata in India and
China, rather than from the official scholastic culture based on Christianity.
Of course, many ideas had to be expressed in the religious form,
simply because there was no other way of expression - but this formal
resemblance should not be mixed with religion itself, just like we don't
perceive Bach's chorales or "Jesus Christ Superstar" as religious music,
or Rafael's madonnas as religious painting.
From a reply by V V Raman
I am glad you agree with my view on this matter, and I feel exactly the way you
do about the encroachment (often well-intentioned) of theologians an
theologically inclined scientists into science.
In this context I would like to refer you to my review of Tippler's
The Physics of Immortality which appeared in SCIENCE (17 Feb. 1995).
And you may like to see my review of Schroeder's book which will appear in
The science of God: the convergence of scientific and biblical wisdom.
Free Press, 1997. 226 p indexes ISBN 0-684-83736-6, $25.00
Ever since the rise of modern science, a number of scientific results have been
in blatant contradiction with scriptural explanations of the universe and of
natural phenomena; also, the methodology of modern science is very different
from, not to say contradictory to, the religious approach to higher truths
which includes such elements as reverence for higher authority, infallibility
of scriptures, etc. This in no way undervalues the profound insights,
traditional relevance, and experiential validation of religion and
spirituality. So, it has not been difficult for many scientists to find harmony
between deep personal faith in matters transcending reason and endeavors
constrained by reason and empiricism.
But there have also been a number serious and well-meaning scientists who have
tried to reconcile the texts of their particular religious denomination with
the scientific results of their particular age. This book is the fruit of that
urge. The author, a respectable physicist, tries to convince the reader, for
example, that the six-day creation of the Book of Genesis can, by his
ingenious transformation, be expanded to the 16 billion years of current
cosmogony, that the Cambrian explosion is implicit in the Bible, that the
doctrine of Free-Will is substantiated by the wave-particle duality, that
E = mc2 implies the Sabbath, etc.
He is not the first author to attempt building bridges between Relativity,
Cosmology, and Quantum Mechanics on the one hand, and Scriptural tenets and
religious doctrines on the other. Nor will this be the last book of its kind.
But the book does contain many interesting reflections and meaningful insights.
And for those who need scientific backing for their desire to accept the
pronouncements of ancient seers, this book may be highly recommended.