Of course most of you will answer “No way!”, and I do, too, but accommodationists and science-friendly believers make this argument often. Here are a few specimens:
“. . . the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.”—Paul Davies, “Taking Science on Faith“, New York Times.
“Moral laws are promulgated by God for free creatures, who have it in their power to obey or disobey. The laws of nature, on the other hand, are promulgated for the inanimate world of matter; physical objects don’t get to decide to obey, say, Newton’s law of gravity. In each case, however, we have the setting forth or promulgation of divine rule for a certain domain of application. It is important to see that our notion of the laws of nature, crucial for contemporary science, has this origin in Christian theism.” —Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, p. 276
“Indeed, a distinctive feature of the Scientific Revolution is that, unlike other scientific programmes and cultures, it is driven, often explicitly, by religious considerations: Christianity set the agenda for natural philosophy in many respects and projected it forward in a way quite different from that of any scientific culture. Moreover, when the standing of religion as a source of knowledge about the world, and cognitive values generally, came to be threatened, it was not science that posed the threat but history.” —S. Graukoger, The Emergence of a Modern Scientific Culture, p. 3
“faith in the possibility of science, generated antecdently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.” —Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 19.
“Recent scholarship, most of it conducted by secular academics, has established that religious belief was entirely compatible with scientific progress, even encouraging it in many cases.”—K. Giberson and F. Collins, The Language of Science and Faith
Inevitably accompanying these claims is the assertion that because many early scientists (e.g., Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, and Maxwell) were Christians, Christianity must claim some credit for science. Other faiths too take credit; it’s common for accommodationist Muslims to point out that the real scientific achievements of Islam, coupled with bogus exegesis of the Qur’an, show that Islam was important in encouraging science.
The claims are diverse, but all give religion—especially Christianity—credit for science. Religion is said to either encourage thinking (read Aquinas), impel people to do science as a way of unravelling God’s plan, lead to the idea of scientific laws (viz. Davies and Plantinga, above), or “encourage” science in some nebulous ways (this “encouragement” often seems to mean only “did not impede science.”)
Now these claims are bogus, but if you read various histories of science, you’ll see conflict on this issue. I’ll put my own objections below, but you should also read Richard Carrier’s 2010 article, “Christianity was not responsible for modern science.” Pp. 396-419 in J. W. Loftus, ed. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. Prometheus Books (that’s a book well worth reading, by the way.)
Here are some of my responses to the “science came from Christianity” canard
1. Even were it true, it doesn’t in any way support the truth claims of Christianity or any other religion.
2. Christianity was around for a millennium without much science being done; “modern” science really started as a going concern in the 17th century. Why did that take so long if Christianity was so important in fostering science?
3. If you think of science as rational and empirical investigation of the natural world, it originated not with Christianity but with the ancient Greeks, and was also promulgated for a while by Islam.
3. Carrier makes the point that there was no scientific revolution in the eastern half of the Christian world. Why was that?
4. Another Carrier point: geometry was invented by polytheists (ancient Greeks); do we give polytheism credit for geometry, then?
5. Religion has of course also repressed the search for knowledge. Not only do we have the cases of Galileo and Bruno, but also the active discouragement of the use of reason by many church fathers, especially Martin Luther, who made statements like this: “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.” And freethinkers like Spinoza were regularly persecuted by religion (Judaism in his case.)
6. There was and still is, of course, opposition to science by Christians. The greatest opponent of biology’s greatest theory—evolution—has always been Christianity.
7. If religion promulgated the search for knowledge, it also gave rise to erroneous, revelation-based “scientific” conclusions that surely impeded progress. Those include creation ex nihilo, the Great Flood, a geocentric universe, and so on.
8. Early scientists were Christians, at least in the west, because everyone was a Christian then. You would have been an apostate, or burnt at the stake, had you denied that faith. If you’re going to give Christianity credit for science, you have to give it credit for nearly everything, including art, architecture, music, and so on.
9. Islam began as a science-supportive regime, but lost its impetus when the faith around the 16th century when religious authorities began repressing a “western” mode of inquiry. This anti-Western attitude may explain the minimal achievements of science in modern Islamic nations.
10. At present nearly half of science are atheists, and the argument that religion motivates science can no longer stand. The major achievements of science, including relativity, evolution, and modern molecular biology, were achieved by non-theists. Indeed, Jim Watson told me that his and Crick’s drive to find the structure of DNA was largely motivated by a desire to show that the “secret of life”—the replicating molecule that serves as a recipe for bodies—was pure chemistry, with not a trace of the divine in it.
11. All progress in science, whether ancient or modern, came from ignoring or rejecting the idea of divine intervention. Even if theories were inspired by thoughts of God, they were substantiated or disproven by tacitly assuming a godless universe—that is, by employing methodological naturalism. Religion has only impeded that kind of investigation and, in fact, has never come up with a theory on its own that had scientific credibility. Newton, for instance, couldn’t explain regular planetary motion, and had to invoke divine intervention (so much for God helping science!) until Laplace came along and showed that orbital irregularities could be explained in a purely naturalistic way. (As Laplace supposedly replied to Napoleon, who had read Kepler’s book on celestial mechanics and inquired about the absence of God in that tome, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”)
And of course there’s a contradiction, too: if religion and science are separate magisteria, as Gould maintained, then the are completely separate and can only harm each other by overstepping their bounds. But if you claim that religion inspired scientific theories and scientific progress, that’s a NOMA boundary violation.
In the end, it’s a useless argument, for there is no rapprochement between the religious and nonreligious historians of science. I’m willing to grant that some scientists were prompted by their faith to study nature. But what we do know is that all the achievements of both ancient and modern science have been made by explicitly rejecting the theistic view that God has a hand in the universe, and that religion, if it ever did inspire scientific research, doesn’t do so any longer. I maintain, though I can’t prove this, that had there been no Christianity, if after the fall of Rome atheism had pervaded the Western world, science would have developed earlier and be far more advanced than it is now. All religion has done was inspire a few famous scientists to do their work. Its inimical effects on science were far more serious.
I know many of my readers know far more than I about the history of science and its interaction with religion. Do weigh in below with your opinions.