Science and Christianity

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:

  1. 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).

  2. Significant ancient science had developed in China, India, and Greece without any Christian influence.

  3. In the early phases, the Catholic Church was an impediment rather than an encouragement for the advancement of MS.

  4. "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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 scholars.]

  8. 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 CHOICE Magazine:

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.

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