How Christianity fostered science

Christian theology helped to cultivate the modern scientific attitude in multiple ways. In The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton examine how Christianity shaped and motivated science in early modern Europe. They identify numerous Christian doctrines that provided fertile soil for the growth of science. For example:

  1. Since the world is subject to the sovereign will of a faithful, unchanging God, we can expect to find consistent and predictable laws that govern its workings—even in the details that seem random or chaotic at first. In contrast, many other cultures held that the natural world was subject to the whims of various spirits and capricious deities; still others thought that nature was random, subject to no authority or laws at all.
    The very concept of a “physical law” first arose in the writings of 17th century Christians like Johannes Kepler, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton, who believed that God had instituted mathematical laws for nature to follow.Zilsel (1942), “The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law,” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 51, 245-279
  2. Since God has absolute control over his creation, we can expect physical laws to hold with mathematical precision. In contrast, some Greek philosophers—notably Plato—held that the natural world conforms only approximately to forms and ideals. Thus, when a theory didn’t exactly match up with observations, this wasn’t seen as a serious problem for the theory. Minor discrepancies were to be expected, given that the observed world is just a rough approximation to the ideals.
  3. God created the world freely, and therefore physical laws are contingent (i.e., they could have been different) rather than logically or metaphysically necessary. So, we cannot discover the laws of nature by mere abstract reasoning; we must use careful observation and experimentation to learn about the world. In contrast, some Greek philosophers—notably Aristotle—thought that scientific theories could be proved correct or incorrect by logical deduction from commonsense principles, and for that reason observational tests were not considered important.
  4. This fourth point is reinforced by the scriptural claim that God reveals aspects of his character to us through his created works. See for instance Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20.
    Since human beings are created in the image of God and endowed with senses, reason, and intellect, we can expect the world to be intelligible to us when we study it carefully. We can also trust our senses and our rational faculties to provide reliable evidence about the world, and we can similarly trust the senses and rational faculties of other members of the scientific community. In contrast, many other cultures were not so optimistic about our prospects for understanding nature.

In addition to the above points, Pearcey and Thaxton also mention several beliefs that most people now take for granted as principles of common sense; but these seemingly trivial beliefs were not always accepted in other cultures and religions:

  1. The physical world is real and hence is a possible object of study. (Some religions, e.g. Hinduism, teach that the world is illusory.)
  2. The natural world is of great value and hence is worth studying. (Some cultures, e.g. ancient Greece, denigrated the natural world.)
  3. The natural world is not divine and hence can be studied, manipulated, and tested fearlessly. (Animistic and pantheistic religions generally discourage messing around with nature.)

Further evidence of the role of Christianity in the scientific revolution will be presented in the next section, with a brief look at the history of faithful science, as I call it—science that has been motivated, informed, and guided by faith in God.