Saturday, May 12, 2012

Correcting assumptions about religion and science

From the Browser, which is always a great source for reading up on the latest in modern thought, I found an article called "Christianity and the rise of western science" by Peter Harrison. Excerpt:
In spite of this widespread view on the historical relations between science and religion, historians of science have long known that religious factors played a significantly positive role in the emergence and persistence of modern science in the West. Not only were many of the key figures in the rise of science individuals with sincere religious commitments, but the new approaches to nature that they pioneered were underpinned in various ways by religious assumptions.

Could modern science have arisen outside the theological matrix of Western Christendom? It is difficult to say. What can be said for certain is that it did arise in that environment, and that theological ideas underpinned some of its central assumptions. Those who argue for the incompatibility of science and religion will draw little comfort from history.

Those who have magnified more recent controversies about the relations of science and religion, and who have projected them back into historical time, simply perpetuate a historical myth. The myth of a perennial conflict between science and religion is one to which no historian of science would subscribe.
This part was really on the money:
What historical record also suggests is that insofar as modern science posits natural laws and presupposes the constancy of nature, it invokes an implicit theology. Most important of all, perhaps, religious considerations provided vital sanctions for the pursuit of scientific knowledge and, arguably, it is these that account for the positive attitudes to science which have led to the high status of science in the modern West.
And this part actually surprised me a bit:
The adoption of more literal approaches to the interpretation of the bible, usually assumed to have been an impediment to science, also had an important, in indirect, role in these deveolopments, promoting a non-symbolic and utilitarian understanding of the natural world which was conducive to the scientific approach.
The whole thing is a good read. Very little of it was stuff I didn't already know, but I realize that sometimes it's not so much how new your ideas are, it's how often they get repeated. One could take the article as a healthy antidote to misleading "New Atheist" rhetoric. On the other hand, you could also take it as an exhortation to Christians in the west to earn once more the healthy relationship with science that we once had.

Folks on all sides need to remember that religion is extremely diverse, and as a result it's hard to pin down ideas and label them correctly. Christian ideas played a role in bringing about the rise of modern science, but not all Christian ideas played the same role. All I would ask of atheists is that they admit that science comes with a certain theology--not necessarily a Christian or otherwise traditional theology, but a theology nonetheless. Likewise, I would ask Christians not to label something as outside the realm of Christian thought simply because it doesn't align with their own traditional beliefs.

What the article addresses most thoroughly is the Christian conception of nature and the relation between that conception and western science. Where I think it gets interesting is in more recent years, when, starting with Darwinian biology and continuing on with psychology and neuroscience, science begins to penetrate into questions about ourselves. No longer is science about this vast sphere of reality known as nature, with human beings attempting to be objective observers. Now human beings are studying themselves, trying to determine where we came from and by what laws we behave.

Small wonder that this creates such a great deal of tension with religion. Christianity, like many religions, is largely a story about who we are and where we came from. As modern science begins to challenge that story, it creates conflict where there was none before. It's one thing to say that time started with the big bang; that doesn't necessarily change the story about ourselves. It's quite another to say human beings have a common ancestor with other species of living things. That definitely changes the story.

Then again, it's all in how you tell it, isn't it? The Genesis account has human beings made both in the image of God and from the dust of the earth. One suggests great power and dignity, the other suggests fragility and corruptibility. Does the story modern science tells really change so much?

I don't know the answer to that, I'm just offering some space for better theological discussion. At the very least, we all need to realize that at the heart of everything we do is some sort of theology, good or bad. The false assumption that we can get by without thinking theologically at all is helped along by these great historical myths about the inherent conflict between science and religion. We'd be much better off having real theological discussions, instead of arguments in which we either assume our theology is basically correct or else pretend we don't need any.


  1. Thanks for these blogs, Jameson. It was good to meet you at the GCF dinner.

  2. Science, technology and religion can use their influences to disseminate a good news to their followers.


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