Chapter 15 of The Christian Delusion (Prometheus Books, 2010) was written by Richard Carrier and is entitled “Christianity was not responsible for modern science.” The chapter is aimed at certain popular apologetic writers in the US such as Dinesh D’Souza who have claimed that only Christianity could have allowed modern science to arise. These writers also strongly imply that science could only have arisen in a Christian society, an idea that I’ll call the Holy Science thesis. Richard describes this as “not only false in every conceivable detail but so egregiously false that anyone with even the slightest academic competence and responsibility should have known it was false.” He concludes that the proponents of this thesis must be deluded.
I’m going to begin by reviewing some of the literature in which the positive influence of Christianity on science is discussed. In my next post, I’ll look at Richard’s arguments in his chapter. And then, in a final post, I’ll be asking some critical questions about Richard’s treatment of ancient science.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘conflict hypothesis’ that Christianity had held back and opposed scientific endeavour, was widely accepted in academia and by the public at large. The first serious assault on this idea was mounted by the French physicist and historian, Pierre Duhem. Duhem suggested that the flowering of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a direct consequence of developments in medieval Europe. He also showed that the Church had not opposed science, but steered and encouraged it. For a long time, Duhem’s work was ignored and derided. Even in the 1970s, historians felt the need to distance themselves from him. No longer. Duhem is now recognised as a titanic figure in the history of science and the founder of the entire subject of medieval science. Of course, he made plenty of mistakes, but as the pioneer this was hardly surprising. Alfred North Whitehead said that western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.
Likewise, my own subject might be said to do little but provide the annotation to Duhem’s monumental Systeme du Monde. For those interested, Duhem wrote the entry on the history of physics in the original Catholic Encyclopaedia available online. Duhem’s work was introduced to the English-speaking world by the Dominican physicist and theologian Stanley Jaki. Richard suggests the thesis that only Christianity could have given rise to science “appears to originate” with Jaki in its “fully delusional form”. I’m on record for criticising Jaki for mixing up history with theology. However, he cannot be blamed for the superficial accounts of his work that have proliferated in recent years (of which more anon). His magnum opus, Science and Creation (Scottish Academic Press, 1974), is a densely annotated and purely historical volume which covers the worldviews of many civilisations in great detail. Jaki states that a belief in an eternal world that suffers endless cycles of collapse and rebirth is an impediment to science. This means, as Aristotle says, that “every art and every philosophy has often reached a stage of development as far as it could and then again has perished.” I don’t find Jaki’s to be a convincing argument, and also prefer Richard’s reading of certain key texts of Aristotle that Jaki cites in support of his thesis. But neither do I think Jaki is being tendentious, as Richard suggests.
The trouble started in recent years with books such as Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God (Princeton, 2003) and various popular apologetics volumes that deal with “objections” to Christianity. These apologists have coupled the defeat of the “conflict hypothesis” (now dead and buried as an academic proposal) with a hollowed-out version of Jaki’s work to produce the Holy Science thesis which Richard attacks in his chapter.
And there is little doubt that it should be attacked. A very good case can be made that Christianity’s net influence on science has been beneficial. One can also make a case that Christianity supplied certain essential ingredients to the rise of western science (although it is hard to know which ingredients are essential and not the case that only Christianity could have supplied them).
Popular apologetics is not really my concern. On the other hand, Rodney Stark has caused considerable embarrassment to some esteemed historians of science as well as provoking some trenchant and well-deserved criticism. And if you think what is being said in print about The Victory of Reason (Random House, 2005) is negative, you should hear what academics are saying in private. I would however note that Richard references a critique of Stark from The Objective Standard. That one of Ayn Rand’s disciples thinks a book is no good is not actually valid evidence of its deficiencies.
I’ll cover the current literature on the relationship between Christianity and science at a later date. But it seems to me that Richard is quite right to focus his attack on the Stark, D’Souza and popular authors who have used the collapse of the conflict hypothesis to produce an equally incredible alternative.
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