This paper is the first of a three-part-series on the topic of creation-and/or-evolution. The goal of this first paper, highlighting the relationship between Christianity and modern science, is to provide a broader context for the creation-and/or-evolution-discussion. I will argue that the Christian world view acted as a midwife to modern science, while, surprisingly, the atheist world view is at odds with modern science on a fundamental level.
1. Introduction – The Antikythera Mechanism
In April 1900, a group of Greek sponge divers found an ancient shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera. One of the artifacts recovered from the Antikythera wreck was a lump of corroded bronze and wood. A Greek archaeologist examined the lump and noticed that it had a gear wheel embedded in it. He suggested that it was the remains of an astronomical clock, but most scholars considered the device to be too complex to have been constructed in Ancient Greece. Most scholars believed that this mechanism, now known as the Antikythera Mechanism, was not ancient at all, but came from a later period in time. The mechanism was all but forgotten, safely tucked away in the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens. Recently, new research has shown that the Antikythera Mechanism is ancient after all. It was probably constructed around 205 BC (because the mechanism’s calendar starts in 205 BC) and it was probably designed by Ancient Greek scientists (because the mechanism’s instructions are written in Koine Greek). The scientists who constructed the Antikythera Mechanism were probably influenced by the famous scientist Archimedes. This recent research has led to the extraordinary conclusion that the Antikythera Mechanism is an ancient analog computer designed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses. One of the leading researchers, professor Michael Edmunds, said that its astronomy was “exactly right.” Technological artifacts approaching its workmanship, the complexity of its parts and the level of miniaturisation did not appear again until the 14th century, when astronomical clocks began to be built in Western Europe. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism.)
2. What caused the decline of Ancient Greek Science?
The Antikythera Mechanism is a remarkable example of the scientific and technological sophistication of Ancient Greece. So the obvious question is: What happened? What happened that caused the decline of ancient Greek science? What caused the decline in technological development? A technological development not seen again for 1500 years until the first astronomical clocks were being built in Western Europe in the 14th century.
A common answer among the general public is: Religion happened or, more specifically, Christianity happened. It was Christianity that brought ancient Greek science to an end. To quote a text book: “The common assumption has been that Christianity was anti-intellectual, preferring faith instead of knowledge, and this was responsible for the decline of science from which it did not recover for a millennium.” (Pete E. Lestrel, Morphometrics for the Life Sciences (2000), p. 66)
But that is not what really happened. How do we know? Because ancient Greek science went into decline before the Christian era.1 Estimates vary, but most historians of science agree that ancient Greek science went into decline between 200 BC and 200 AD. To quote a UNESCO publication of 1996: “At the end of the second century, when the great Hellenistic kingdoms declined, falling directly or indirectly under the sway of Rome, science seems to have fallen into a state of stagnation. True, the Greek part of the Roman Empire would witness the rise to fame of such great scientists as the physician Galen and the geographer and astronomer Ptolemy, but the golden age of Greek science and, for that matter, of Greek philosophy, had passed.” (UNESCO, History of Humanity: From the Seventh Century BC to the Seventh Century AD (1996), p. 199)
So what then caused the decline of ancient Greek science? Historians of science suggest a range of causes which have nothing to do with Christianity. Among them are:
- The uncritical reception of the results of previous scientific research – accepted without challenge and therefore obstructing innovation.
- The Roman conquest – the dominant philosophical movements among the Romans, the Epicureans and the Stoics,2 had little interest in scientific enquiry.
- The pagan world view – the worship of the heavens and mythological explanations for natural phenomena grew in importance thereby causing the decline of Ancient Greek Science.
The third explanation is very interesting. A few quotes to illustrate the waxing of the pagan world view between 200 BC and 200 AD: “By AD 200, astrology had recovered all the ground it ever lost, and had effectively displaced rational astrophysics.” and “Compare Ptolemy’s position, as stated here, with the attitudes of the earlier Greek natural philosophers. We are half-way back to the Babylonians.” (Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Fabric of the Heavens: the Development of Astronomy and Dynamics (1999), p. 130 and 143).
I would like to show you that the pagan world view is a formidable obstacle to the development of science and that, conversely, the Christian world view is an immense advantage when developing science. Christianity acted, in fact, as the midwife to the birth of modern science.
3. The pagan world view as a formidable obstacle to the development of science
One thing that all pagan world views seem to have in common is a belief in an enchanted universe, a belief in a universe populated by spirits or gods. In the Greco-Roman mythology Zeus (or Jupiter) is the god of the sky and thunder, Poseidon (or Neptune) the god of the sea and earthquakes, and Ares (or Mars) the god of war. In the Norse mythology Odin (or Wotan) is the god of war and death, Thor the god of thunder and lightning, and Freyja the goddess of beauty and love. I don’t know much about the religious beliefs of native Americans, Africans, or the Aborigines of Australia, but what I do know about them is that they all believe in an enchanted universe populated by spirits and gods. When on holiday in Australia a few years ago, it was interesting to read the Aboriginal explanations of natural phenomena in places like Kakadu National Park. What all Aboriginal explanations had in common was the decisive intervention of a spirit or a god in order to explain the natural phenomenon.
3.1. A sacred universe must not be investigated, but worshiped
Why is this important? Why is a belief in an enchanted universe, a belief in a universe populated by spirits or gods a formidable obstacle to the development of science? Because an enchanted universe is sacred and a sacred universe must not be investigated, but worshiped. Scientific investigation, but also activities such as mining operations, can upset the gods and make them angry. Because this fear functions as a protection of the natural environment this concept of a sacred universe receives growing support in the western world (usually with Mother Earth at the center of this sacred universe).
3.2. The spirits or gods are capricious—you never know what they are going to do
The spirits or gods that populate the enchanted universe have a mind of their own: they can do whatever they want. Because you never know what the gods are going to do next, it’s futile to look for predicable patterns, for a logical sequence of cause and effect or to trust a priori insights such as mathematics. The spirits or gods that populate the enchanted universe are not bound by the restrictions of cause and effect. The gods can always decide to do something entirely different and thus pull away from the restrictions of a predictable universe. Because the gods are mysterious and unpredictable, scientific investigation becomes a futile enterprise.
3.3. An enchanted universe populated by spirits or gods is uncontrollable
Because the spirits or gods cannot be controlled by human effort, it’s futile to engage in large-scale enterprises designed to control the environment such as mining operations, waterworks, but also the development of medicine and harnassing energy. The gods may spoil the whole enterprise at any given time, so why engage in such activities? This obstructs the development of technology and frustrates the chances of scientific breakthroughs.
4. The Christian world view as a breeding ground for the development of science
Christianity has a radically different view of the universe. This radically different view of the universe served as a breeding ground for the development of science.
4.1. A non-sacred and good universe must not be worshiped, but encourages investigation
The universe was created by God, but it was not to be worshiped. Only the Creator must be worshiped, not his creation. Therefore, the universe is not sacred and may be investigated. The universe is not something to be afraid of. This is highlighted by the Biblical claim that the created universe is good (Gen. 1). A non-sacred and good universe encourages scientific investigation.
4.2. The Imago Dei concept encourages us to trust our abilities to obtain a realistic understanding of the universe
Because God created us in his own image (Gen. 1:26-27—Imago Dei), it’s reasonable to assume that we have the ability to investigate the universe. God created both the universe and us and he says specifically that we were created in his image (Imago Dei), so it’s reasonable to assume that we can understand the universe with our senses, our intelligence, our reliable memory and our a priori understanding of logic and mathematics. Of course, we are limited, but the Imago Dei concept encourages us to trust in our abilities to obtain a realistic understanding of the universe.
4.3. The ‘Rule the Earth’ commission encourages us to control the earth and develop technology
The Bible verses that tell us that God created us in his own image also tell us that we were created to rule the earth. Unfortunately, this ‘Rule the Earth’ commission (Gen. 1:26,28) has been fundamentally misunderstood and is, therefore, criticized unfairly. In the Biblical context, the commission to rule or to lead does not refer to authoritarian leadership with no regard for the plight of the subjects. On the contrary, Judeo-Christian leadership refers to servant leadership aimed at making the subjects flourish. This is clearly intended in the first task handed out to the first human. Adam was put in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it (Gen. 2). The ‘Rule the Earth’ commission was never meant to destroy the garden, but to take care of it and make it flourish. Therefore, the ‘Rule the Earth’ commission encourages us to engage in large-scale enterprises designed to control nature such as high-tech agriculture, the development of medicine and harnassing energy. In turn, these enterprises cause scientific breakthroughs and the development of technology.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen. 1:26-28, NIV translation)
5. Christianity as the midwife to the birth of modern science
Historians of science generally accept that the rediscovery of the Greek texts of Ancient Greek Science played a crucial role in the development of modern science. These Greek texts were lost in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, but preserved by the Arabs. Contacts with the Arab world brought these texts back into Christian Europe from the 11th or 12th century onwards. The rediscovery of the Greek texts accelerated the scientific and technological development in Europe and by the 14th century Western Europe had reached a level of technological sophistication not seen since the earlier mentioned Antikythera Mechanism. As said earlier, historians of science come up with a range of causes to explain why Ancient Greek Science went into decline. But a related question is: What happened in Europe causing science and technology to develop beyond the Antikythera stage into full-blown modern science? The answer to this question is complex and many books have been written presenting a wide range of possible explanations. My focus right now is restricted to the importance of Christianity in the process.
In essence, it was the Christian Two Books concept that played a crucial role in the development of science beyond the Antikythera stage and thus acted as the midwife to the birth of modern science. This Two Books concept flows naturally from the Imago Dei concept plus the ‘Rule the Earth’ commission (Gen. 1:26-28) discussed earlier. The Two Books concept boils down to viewing nature as a reliable witness to God in conjuction with the written Word of God (the Bible). This concept encourages an active interest in trying to understand how the universe works. Most of the first modern scientists were Christians who believed that the truths of the Bible would be in complete harmony with the truths of the universe and saw it as their responsibility to discover the laws of creation, as this would bring glory to God. The church actively encouraged scientific investigation and most of the scientific achievements of early modern science were made by dedicated Christians who saw no conflict between the Bible and science. This is beautifully illustrated by the words of the great astronomer Johannes Kepler in a letter to Herwart von Hohenburg in 1599: “Those laws lie within the power of understanding of the human mind; God wanted us to perceive them when He created us in His image in order that we may take part in His own thoughts …”
It was reason instead of blind faith that guided the search for truth, both in the Scriptures and in the universe. Romans 1:19-20 is the classic Bible text to illustrate this Two Books concept, but the idea permeates all of the Bible (i.e. Ps. 8, Ps. 19, Acts 14:14-18).
…since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse (Rom. 1:19-20, NIV translation).
The early Church Fathers already refer to the Two Books concept, but it was especially at the beginning of modern science that many references of the Two Books concept can be found among the first modern scientists. To illustrate this, a few quotes:
- “It is the divine page that you must listen to; it is the book of the universe that you must observe. The pages of Scripture can only be read by those who know how to read and write, while everyone, even the illiterate, can read the book of the universe.” (Augustine (354-430), the most important Church Father, in Expositions on the Psalms)
- “Our Saviour says, ‘You err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God’ [Matthew 22:29], thus laying before us two books to study, if we will be secured from error; namely the Scriptures, which reveal the will of God, and the creation, which expresses his power; whereof the latter is a key to the former.” (Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in Advancement of Learning (1605))
- “Since we astronomers are priests of the most high God with respect to the book of nature, it befits us not to think of the praise of our abilities, but above all of the glory of God.” (Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) in a letter to Herwart von Hohenburg (1598))
- “The glory and greatness of the Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all his works and divinely read in the open book of heaven.” (Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615))
Unfortunately, the name Galileo immediately triggers the image of the Christian church persecuting the first modern scientists. Galileo’s case is the well-known story of the fearless scientist who challenged the common wisdom of his day (the sun revolving around the earth instead of the other way around) and was persecuted by the church for this heresy.
This settles it, doesn’t it? Whatever arguments I come up with to illustrate the fruitful relationship between Christianity and science, Galileo’s case obliterates them all. No, it doesn’t. It’s true that Galileo’s view had a deep impact on Christian theology causing reluctance with the clergy to accept Galileo’s insights right away. But Galileo himself added insult to injury by suggesting that the Pope was a simpleton (Simplicio) whose brain was cobwebbed with Aristotelian cosmology. That doesn’t help to come to a civilized solution. But although Galileo was forced to renounce his views publicly, he was never tortured or imprisoned.
However, it’s far more important that Galileo’s case is the only example people can think of.3 If Christianity was truly at war with science for hundreds or even thousands of years, shouldn’t there be hundreds or even thousands of cases of persecuted scientists? The fact that Galileo’s case is the only case people can think of strongly suggests the opposite: there has never been a war between Christianity and science. On the contrary, the relationship between Christianity and science has been fruitful, even up to the point where Christianity acted as the midwife to the birth of modern science.
Let’s not forget that before the globalisation of the past 200 years most of the great advances in scientific knowledge and technological achievement took place in Europe during the Christian era. Modern science was born only once and its cradle stood in Christian Europe. No other place on earth, and no other era in human history, has achieved anything comparable. If Christianity had been a real enemy of science, then it’s incomprehensible that (1) there is hardly any evidence of persecuted scientists in Christian Europe and (2) that such a unique endeavour did happen only once in a supposedly hostile environment. On the contrary, it’s far more likely that Christianity provided a breeding ground for the development of science and acted as the midwife to the birth of modern science.
6. While there is a deep harmony between Christianity and science, there is a deep conflict between Atheism and science
I would like to conclude this paper with a comment on the relationship between Atheism and science. Because Christianity is usually depicted as being at odds with science and Atheism as a natural ally of science, it’s completely overlooked that on a deep level there is real conflict between Atheism and science.
As said earlier, the Imago Dei concept encourages Christians to trust in our abilities to obtain a realistic understanding of the universe. Because God created both the universe and us and says specifically that we were created in his image (Imago Dei), it’s reasonable to assume that we can understand the universe with our senses, our intelligence, our reliable memory and our a priori understanding of logic and mathematics.
But on what grounds do atheists build their faith to trust their abilities to obtain a realistic understanding of the universe? In the atheist world view it’s not about truth—it’s about survival. All that counts is survival, regardless if it’s true or not. If in reality the universe is chaotic and unintelligible, but an illusion of an ordered universe has won the struggle for survival by defeating all competing views of the universe, how can we be sure that we aren’t stuck with the illusion of a ordered universe in our brains, while the real universe out there is chaotic and without rhyme or reason? How do we know that the ordered universe is nothing else but a monstrous illusion in our heads? Atheists have nowhere to run to. The only thing left to atheists is a blind leap of faith. A blind leap to believe in an ordered universe. For a pre-modern atheist it would not have been reasonable to make such a blind leap of faith. Before modern science the universe looked overwhelming and unintelligible. Pagans who didn’t have access to divine revelation (Scripture) concluded understandably (but also regrettably—see Rom. 1:18-32) “enchanted (sacred) universe,” but on what grounds would a pre-modern atheist conclude “ordered universe?”
In the context of an atheist world view, where it’s all about survival instead of truth, the conclusion “chaotic universe without rhyme of reason” makes far more sense. That’s a serious obstacle in order to take part in an enterprise such as science. Therefore, I would like to suggest that Atheism doesn’t have much of an advantage over the pagan world views when it comes to science. Both the pagan belief in an enchanted (sacred) universe and the necessary blind leap of faith of atheists are a formidable obstacle to go beyond the Antikythera stage and develop Ancient Greek Science into full-blown modern science. If Atheism would have been the norm before the development of science, I seriously doubt if modern science would ever have been born. On a deep level, atheists have to rely on blind faith when investigating the universe. Atheists have no grounds whatsoever to trust in their abilities to obtain a realistic understanding of the universe. If you don’t believe in the God from the Bible, there’s nothing but blind faith to run to. But Christians don’t have to leap in blind faith. Christians trust God, or, to put it more precisely, Christians trust that God created us in his image (Imago Dei), so it’s reasonable to trust in our abilities to obtain a realistic understanding of the universe.
An interesting confirmation of this claim is suggested by a recent BBC broadcast. The documentary What is Reality?4 (produced by Aidan Laverty and Helen Shariatmadari of the BBC science department Horizon and broadcasted on BBC television in early 2011) interviewed scientists about their views on physical reality. The answers were mind-boggling and included concepts such as multiverses and parallel worlds. I can only marvel at these concepts, which seem outrageous to me, but I cannot interpret them, because I lack the necessary skills in mathematics. But what I can do is comment on the documentary’s conclusion: “If there is one thing that stands out about all the theories used to probe and explore reality today, it is this: their best and most perfect expression is not in words, but in maths. It’s actually unreasonable how well mathematics work. Why should the world behave according to maths? If Max [Tegmark] is right, maths isn’t a language we have invented, but a deep structure we are gradually uncovering, like archaeologists. If reality is a mathematical object, understanding it might be within our reach.”
What does this conclusion actually claim? It claims that on the deepest level physical reality merges with the language of mathematics. If you pause for a moment this conclusion is amazing. Where do atheists get the audacity from to come to such an incredible view on reality? This is especially poignant, because the atheist scepticism is also mentioned: “It’s actually unreasonable how well mathematics work. Why should the world behave according to maths?” Indeed, why should the world behave according to maths?5 Why isn’t the universe random and chaotic? This would make far more sense from the atheist perspective. The atheist blind leap of faith doesn’t provide any basis for such an incredible view of reality.6
Conversely, the conclusion of the BBC documentary (physical reality is a mathematical object and mathematics isn’t a language we have invented, but a deep structure we are gradually uncovering) is uncannily close to the Biblical view of physical reality. Galileo Galilei famously said “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe” echoing Psalm 33:
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses. Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere him. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. (Psalm 33:6-9, NIV translation)
- The Christian world view served as a breeding ground for the development of science
- A non-sacred and good universe must not be worshiped, but encourages investigation
- The Imago Dei concept (Genesis 1:26-27) encourages us to trust our abilities to obtain a realistic understanding of the universe
- The ‘Rule the Earth’ commission (Genesis 1:26,28) encourages us to control the earth and develop technology leading to scientific breakthroughs
- The Christian Two Books concept acted as the midwife to the birth of modern science
- This Two Books concept flows naturally from the Imago Dei concept plus the ‘Rule the Earth’ commission
- Most of the first modern scientists were Christians who saw it as their responsibility to discover the laws of creation, as this would bring glory to God
- It was reason instead of blind faith that guided the search for truth, both in the Scriptures and in the universe
- On a deep level there is real harmony between Christianity and science, but real conflict between Atheism and science
- The Imago Dei concept encourages us to trust our abilities to obtain a realistic understanding of the universe
- If you don’t trust God, the only thing left is a blind leap of faith in an ordered universe – that does not encourage us to trust our abilities to obtain a realistic understanding of the universe
- The Atheist conclusion (from the BBC documentary What is Reality?) that physical reality might be a mathematical object does not flow at all from the Atheist world view, but fits remarkably well with the Christian world view
- Christianity did not really influence the public discourse until the beginning of the fourth century. Before Constantine Christianity was a persecuted movement in the Roman Empire, but in the beginning of the fourth century the Roman Emperor Constantine reversed the plight of Christianity and started to endorse it.
- Interestingly, the apostle Paul engages with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34).
- To be honest, there are a few other cases in which the Christian church did persecute scientists, but in most of these cases it’s highly debatable if they were persecuted for their scientific views. Hypathia’s case can serve as a relatively well-known example. Hypathia was a neo-Platonist scholar in 4th century Alexandria (Egypt), who was brutally murdered by a Christian mob. However, she was murdered for political reasons, not for her neo-Platonist views. Her first biographer was a Christian, who praised Hypathia and condemned her murderers.
- Since Isaac Newton (a Christian scientist who wrote far more about his theological views than about his scientific views!) the universe looked ordered and intelligible, but since Albert Einstein and quantum physics the universe looks truly bizarre again. Watch the recent BBC documentary What is Reality? and marvel at amazing concepts such as multiverses and parallel worlds to realize that the universe is still ordered, but hardly intelligible anymore. In our current understanding the universe is definitely ordered, but of a mind-boggling complexity.
- Even more amazing is the fact that the universe behaves according to elegant mathematics. When probing and exploring reality, scientists follow the paths of elegant mathematics, because it turns out that those paths lead to new discoveries and scientific breakthroughs. The paths of ugly mathematics turn out to be dead-ends. It makes perfect sense for a Christian scientist to follow the paths of elegant mathematics, because the Creator of the universe is also a God of beauty. But if you don’t believe in God and if you don’t believe in real meaning and beauty, why should you follow the paths of elegant mathematics? If it’s all about survival instead of truth, ugly mathematics is equally likely as elegant mathematics. For an Atheist scientist it makes no sense to believe in a universe that is written in the language of elegant mathematics. An Atheist scientist would expect randomness with equal opportunities in the struggle for survival without a bias to either elegant or ugly mathematics.
- The final part of the BBC documentary’s conclusion (“If reality is a mathematical object, understanding it might be within our reach”) doesn’t make sense in the context of the Atheist world view either. If you don’t believe in the Christian Imago Dei concept there are no grounds to trust our abilities to obtain a realistic understanding of the universe. It’s remarkable that this Atheist conclusion echoes Johannes Kepler’s more-than-400-year-old view (“Those laws lie within the power of understanding of the human mind; God wanted us to perceive them when He created us in His image in order that we may take part in His own thoughts”), but it’s also remarkable that Kepler’s view makes perfect sense in the context of his Christian world view, while the modern Atheist’s view doesn’t make any sense at all in the context of the Atheist world view and is nothing more than a blind leap of faith.