Thursday, September 02, 2010

Was Christianity Responsible for Modern Science? A Chapter from The Christian Delusion

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.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Ignorance said...

If he quotes from Objectivist literature, that is quite baffling. Why would you even bother to quote from it if you're not Objectivist (he says he isn't one himself after all), it's not gaining one any credence (which is completely justified).

Joshua said...

Ah I shall look forward to these posts. I have read The Christian Delusion myself. Most of it I thought was nonsense and pretty weak but I agree that it's is wrong to say that only Christianity could have been responsible for modern science and more correct to say that it played an important role and helped nourish it somewhat.


TheOFloinn said...

Mr. Carrier also seems to think that anyone saying that the Church was not hostile or indifferent is ipso facto embracing Starkism.

After all, the fact that modern science only did arise in the West is not an argument that it only could have arisen in the West. Right?

Jules said...

I have to comment on this post especially after having spent the past year of my life writing my Master's Thesis on this very topic. From all of the research I have done, what we call "modern science" arose out of the translation movement spearheaded by the Abbasid Caliphs beginning in the late 8th and early 9th centuries and lasting until the middle of the 11th. Now, the Christian world did get wind, if you will, of the scholarship coming out of Baghdad, but they were viewed as blasphemers by the Church very early on. What the Christian world did was make advancements on the scientific foundation laid by the Arab/Muslim world.

I have been writing some thoughts on my blog if you care to read more of what I have been working on. I intend to share my Thesis online at some point later this month or early October.

unkleE said...

I want to join in thanking you for blogging on this topic. I want to have a balanced view on this matter, but don't have the necessary background to do so. I have read a little of Stark and found him both interesting and a little strange, but am interested to read a balanced assessment of him. I look forward to the next couple of posts.

Anonymous said...

James, I'm looking forward to your future posts expanding on this subject.

Andrew Brew said...


I will check out your blog later with interest, but first, a response off the cuff. Tracing the development of medieval "science" to translations (I assume you mean of classical Greek texts in particalar) is entirely fair, and it is true that some of the earliest translations into Arabic were done in Iraq. It is also true that these formed the basis, a couple of centuries later, for the earliest translations into Latin. We should not confuse, though, the "Christian world" with the "Latin World". When Haroun Al Rashid set up the House of Wisdom, the centre of the Arabic translation movement, who was it who staffed the place, and did the translation? In the first instance, it was largely Syriac Christians, who had large and flourishing schools there (one just up the road, in Nisibis, founded in the fourth century) and a thriving tradition of scholarship, centuries before the Arabs turned up in that part of the world. They had both the interest and the linguistic skills that Haroun needed to kickstart "Arabic" scholarship. To be sure, as time went on, there came to be more scholars of native Arab language and/or of Moslem religion, but Christians, I think, started as the dominant element and remained an important element, of intellectual life in the Caliphate. They were pretty much excluded from political life, of course, which is why we tend to regard this as the "Moslem" world, and forget that a large part of the non-ruling population were not moslem at all. This remained the case up until the suppression of Christianity in the near east in the fourteenth century, which by coincidence is about when Arabic science petered out, and Latin science took off like a rocket.

By the way, who in the Latin church (I assume that is the church you mean) regarded translators as "blasphemers"??

Crude said...

As an aside, is it really fair to call Rodney Stark's works "Apologetics"? He apparently wouldn't even identify as a Christian until fairly recently, and then as an "independent Christian", if the interviews are anything to go by.

Granted, he seems to write in (heavy?) defense of Christianity's impact on science and history. But if that's apologetics, wouldn't God's Philosophers qualify?

Tim O'Neill said...

Crude asked:

Granted, he seems to write in (heavy?) defense of Christianity's impact on science and history. But if that's apologetics, wouldn't God's Philosophers qualify?

The difference is that Stark, however he once did or didn't describe himself, had/has a pretty blatant agenda. James, on the other hand, is remarkably objective. For examples of how distorted a view Stark's agenda can result in, see my review of his God's Battalions. The results ain't pretty:

Crude said...

I didn't question whether or not Stark had an agenda - I just question whether the books in question were Christian apologetics, and that seemed to be implied about Stark. It's a minor point, but it still seems worth making.

Magotty Man said...

Jules - simply put, where did the Islamic civilizations get their big kick start in the sciences, their introduction to the Greeks etc etc?

From the Byzantines.(simplistically put, but true).

James said...

Hi Crude,

It is a fair question. I'd call what Stark writes in his recent books apologetics because it is a defence of Christianity. He skirts over things that detract from his thesis and only really presents one side of the argument. This becomes more and more pronounced through his latest books. So One True God is more objective that For the Glory of God which is in turn more objective than Victory of Reason. That Stark by his own admission, is no historian only makes matters worse.

It is a shame because some of his sociology of religion is very good as is his first book on early Christianity.

Best wishes


Crude said...


Thanks for the response. But it really seems that, given your standard, then Carrier himself is engaged in apologetics (Look at the book the chapter in question appears in.) As for skirting over things that detract from his perspective or only presenting one side of the argument, really - what is apologetical (for lack of a better word) about that?

But again, I suppose this is a minor point, so I won't belabor this further. Something just seems odd about it, to me.

James said...


Agreed, although we tend to call atheist apologetics anti-apologetics.

Of course, just because something is an apologetic does not make it wrong. But it does tend to make it hard to rely on.

Best wishes


Edwardtbabinski said...

Hi James,

Richard Carrier's view that "Christianity is not responsible for modern science" was also put forth by Efron in his chapter in the book, Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths About Science and Religion. (Harvard U. Press, 2009)

Have you seen that book and chapter? Efron says that it's a myth that "Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science."

I think that both Carrier and Efron raise good points.

(I also suspect that the invention of such items as the telescope and microscope revolutionized interest in the natural world. After those inventions there was so much more to see.)

Edwardtbabinski said...

Professor of religion and theologian, John Hick, remarked that even if the thesis is true that Christianity gave birth to modern science, it's overall progression was more like that of a cuckoo's egg being laid in the nest of some other bird species, and the cuckoo's egg hatches before the rest, and begins tossing the other eggs out of the nest so the cuckoo can receive all of the food brought back by the parents. Certainly the sciences do receive massive funding today both from government and business.

Anyone of any religion (or none) can conduct scientific experiments and advance the world's knowledge via them.

Therefore the question of what nest "hatched" science might not be as important as the question of its validity today, which certainly seems to outstrip that of religion when it comes to responding to a host of people's daily needs. (Without plumbing, sanitation science, agricultural science, basic health and medical science, where exactly would we be? Let alone communication. That reminds me of Christian emails I've run across about how Christianity was necessary for science, typed on computers designed and built by atheists/agnostics/or Buddhists in Japan and silicone valley U.S.)

TheOFloinn said...

All Efron said was that Christianity alone was not responsible, giving the usual nods to a selection of Greek natural philosophers and muslim faylasuf and mentioning some Chinese technological accomplishments. But I think there is a broader issue: what is this "science" thing? Is it the mere accumulation of facts? Well, then, everyone has done that. Does it include mathematics (and hence, astronomy and optics)? A very different thing, but one often included as "science" somehow. Does it include engineering, invention, tinkering?

Or does it, as Poincare said, mean something more? Ol' Henri made the comparison to bricks and houses: a pile of bricks is not a house; and a pile of facts is not a science.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

With regards to the "conflict" thesis, you may enjoy a series that I'm working on which examines the background to incidents such as Galileo's little mishaps, Wilberforce and Huxley's encounter in 1860, etc.

Translation quotes said...

I have to comment on this post especially after having spent the past year of my life writing my Master's Thesis on this very topic. From all of the research I have done, what we call "modern science" arose out of the translation movement spearheaded by the Abbasid Caliphs beginning in the late 8th and early 9th centuries and lasting until the middle of the 11th. Now, the Christian world did get wind, if you will, of the scholarship coming out of Baghdad, but they were viewed as blasphemers by the Church very early on. What the Christian world did was make advancements on the scientific foundation laid by the Arab/Muslim world.

Anonymous said...

Surely we can say that modern science emerged in Europe. In terms of Asia, Africa and South America while those cultures did have some astounding achievements (e.g. the Chinese with gunpowder, paper, novel ship building) they got to a point and then stagnated. The only place on Earth where science developed in the modern sense was Christian Europe. Now one could argue that correlation does not equal causation but I don't think it's possible to just correct for this confounding factor of Christianity. Besides early universities emerged from Cathedral Schools and it was primarily the monks who maintained the knowledge of writing and it was primarily Christianity which united Europe into nation states or kingdoms. Can we assume that non-united pagan tribes of Europe with no knowledge of writing or Greek sciences would have led the way in the development of science, the way Europe and its derivative America have? Would these pagans have even come in contact with Muslims? Would the Muslims have even bothered to invade Europe? I'm a research scientist and not a historian so please excuse any mistakes. Thanks.

Geremia said...

I thought Fr. Jaki was a Benedictine, not a Dominican?