An atheist gives religion credit for gunpowder, writing, printing, and agriculture

I’m appalled at a article in Saturday’s Torygraph that gives credit to religion for major advances in technology.

A while ago, we discussed the accommodationist contention that “science derives from Christianity,” with one of its lamest assertions being that some believers, like Isaac Newton, made contributions to science.  That alone is supposed to give a patina of science-friendliness to religion, and it’s sometimes further burnished by claiming that some scientific findings were not just made by men of faith (they’re always men), but were inspired by faith. I suppose that might be true, though I’d be hard pressed to name any.

The proper answer to this claim is fivefold. First, those discoveries were made in times when everybody was religious and you risked a lot by professing nonbelief. If religion gets the credit for science, then it also gets the credit for everything that happened until the seventeenth century, since everything was done by religious people. Second, the discoveries cited were invariably made by men, so why not give the Y chromosome credit for science? The fact that people will credit faith but not male-ness shows that we’re dealing not with causality, but a correlation.

Third, many of the discoveries may have been made by religious people, but were not motivated by religion. Even religious people can be curious and want to find out stuff, and it’s not necessarily because they feel impelled by God. Fourth, even if those discoveries were made by men of faith and even inspired by faith, they were made by purely materialistic means—by ignoring God completely and using the naturalistic methods of science that have proven so productive. Laplace was correct in arguing that science doesn’t need the “God factor.” Even if you give religion credit for the inspiration, you have to add that the perspiration—the results—came only by ignoring God.

Finally, since most scientists are now atheists, and the best scientists are even more atheistic  (93% of the members of the USA’s National Academy of Sciences, for example, don’t believe in God, and figures for the UK’s Royal Society are similar), then according to this tactic we must now give credit to atheism for major scientific discoveries like the structure of DNA, the discovery of gene regulation, the Higgs Boson, the theory of relativity, and many more.

But in Saturday’s Torygraph, writer (and atheist) Matthew Kneale can’t refrain from dragging this old chestnut out again—in a piece called “To make an almighty explosion, just add faith: Scientists who regard religion as an irrelevance are foolish. Like it or not, belief has led to mankind’s greatest scientific innovations.” Here’s his thesis, which is launched after recounting the Gunpower Plot of 1605:

Fawkes used the best weapons technology of the moment: gunpowder. Some 36 barrels of it, to be exact. Religion looked to science to attain its ends. Was it ever the other way around? Science worshippers may view religion as an irrelevance. And yet, surprisingly, religion has been the midwife of a good number of humankind’s greatest technological discoveries. Including gunpowder.

But the weird thing is that Kneale’s examples of religion’s contributions to technology are incredibly weak. Here are some (quotes taken from article):

  • “One of the great religions of 9th-century China was Daoism. Famously incomprehensible, Daoism was greatly concerned with extending the length of its followers’ lives, ideally for ever. Among various means to achieve this, Daoists recommended taking special potions.

    . . . Another favoured ingredient was an ore of mercury, red cinnabar. But this was hard to find. Daoist texts mention an alternative mix, which included saltpetre and sulphur. As it happens, these were also the two key elements of gunpowder, which first appeared on the historical stage, also in China, shortly afterwards, around AD900. It seems that, in their efforts to prolong life, Daoist alchemists accidentally stumbled upon a certain means of shortening it. Yet this was far from the first time that religion inspired a key technological breakthrough.”

Yep, that’s the big contribution of Daoism: not even gunpowder, but two ingredients of gunpowder.  And one can make a good case that Daoism isn’t even religion, since there’s no God in it. It’s more akin to a philosophy.

But then there’s agriculture!:

  • “Yet this was far from the first time that religion inspired a key technological breakthrough. In the West, most of the key cereals we eat today descend from the wild grasses from a surprisingly tiny part of the world: the Karadag Hills of south-east Turkey. Only 12 miles from these hills, at Göbekli Tepe, lies what is believed to be the world’s first temple. Dating back 11,500 years (more than twice the age of Stonehenge), it is an extraordinary site, high on a hilltop, of stone circles built on buried stone circles, and megaliths carved with animals and, in one case, what seems to be a severed human arm.Studies of the site have revealed that its builders were not yet farmers. They ate seeds of wild plants. The archaeologist Jacques Cauvin suggested that Göbekli Tepe kick-started farming. Worshippers carried bags of seeds with them, replanted them, and accidentally selected the rare mutant strains that became the very basis of our agriculture. It used to be thought that organised farming inspired organised religion. Now it seems that exactly the opposite was true.”

So religious people started planting seeds? Even if that were true, and I am skeptical about that, there’s not an iota of evidence here that the tenets of whatever religion those people practiced inspire them to plant seeds.  It’s just a lousy example.  If a student used this kind of logic in an undergraduate paper, she would get a failing grade.

Kneale goes on to credit the invention of writing (in what is now, he says, Iraq) to religion as well, but doesn’t give a shred of evidence beyond the claim that the people in that area were religious. Another fail.

Finally, he ascribes printing to religion as well:

  • “For our fourth and final technology, we must return to China, around the same time as Daoist alchemists stumbled upon gunpowder. China’s other great religion of this age was Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhists believed that to make a copy of a sacred text counted as a good work, and would bring one closer to nirvana, a form of Buddhist paradise. The more copies you made, naturally, the better.This thought set minds to work. A set of Buddhist scrolls found in Bulguksa temple in Korea, dating from the early 7th century, are the earliest known printed texts. It appears that the development of printing — our greatest information technology revolution, which made knowledge available to all — was inspired by Buddhist beliefs.”

Well, this is also a stretch, since I’m not sure whether the printing press in Europe, the forerunner of modern printing, was influenced at all by the movable-type wood-block system of Asia. But let us grant the technology to Buddhists out of comity.  Note, though, that none of these technological advances are ascribed to Christianity, even though that is most commonly cited as the source of modern science.

Kneale concludes:

So, if you are out celebrating Guy Fawkes’ sorry night of failure, and find yourself watching rockets launch into the sky, as you chew on a party sandwich, and perhaps, in a quiet moment, glance at your copy of The Sunday Telegraph, you might pause to reflect that the bread of your sandwich, the words you read, the printing they are formed with, and the gunpowder in the fireworks all came to exist thanks to religion. Whether you believe in gods or not — and personally I do not — there is no denying that religion has had an explosive influence on every aspect of our lives.

What on earth, save a need of money, would inspire an atheist to make an argument as lame as this? And what would inspire the Torygraph to print it—save the desire to coddle faith?

Curiously, only last month Tom Holland reviewed Kneale’s book An Atheist’s History of Belief for the Guardian, and faulted it for being too strident! Here’s the last bit of Holland’s review:

It bewilders me that [Kneale] should have written a book so unreflective, so under-researched and so gratingly complacent. It reads, not like the work of the Booker prize-shortlisted novelist he is, but like an extended essay by a sixth-former who has just discovered Richard Dawkins. God willing and inshallah, Matthew Kneale will not be giving up the day job.

Could it be that Kneale has now seen the light, realizing that writers are much more popular when they coddle religion than when you criticize it?


  1. Cara
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink


    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink


      • Diane G.
        Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:07 pm | Permalink


  2. Posted November 4, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink


    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink


  3. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Rene Descartes, at the end of his life, renounced science and math, saying that reason was evil.

    So, even though he was a Christian, in the end, it was the superstition that he favored.

    Does this mean that Christianity can take credit for his accomplishments?

    I think not. L

      Posted November 4, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      Pure fantasy about Descartes, dear Linda

      • Posted November 4, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        Do not call women “dear”; it’s patronizing. Apologize, please.

  4. Greg Esres
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    “What on earth, save a need of money, would inspire an atheist to make an argument as lame as this? A”

    The desire to give the appearance of fairness.

  5. µ
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    “most of the key cereals we eat today descend from the wild grasses from … the Karadag Hills of south-east Turkey. Only 12 miles from these hills, at Göbekli Tepe, lies what is believed to be the world’s first temple.”

    So if we don’t find temples within 12 miles of all the other centers of plant domestication – such as potato (Andes), maize (Mexican highlands), squash (southeast US), sorghum (Ethopia), sugarcane (New Guinea), etc – that would weaken the hypothesis that organized religion stimulated agriculture?

    • onkelbob
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      As Sauer pointed out, no people on the verge of starvation had the time or energy to undergo the fits and starts that must have accompanied the development of field crops. Agriculture is the result of millennia of horticultural experiments by people who had a great deal of time and abundant resources at their disposal. That points to hunter gatherer clans along littorals that had easy fishing and ample indigenous edible plants. The idea that field crops suddenly appeared among interior river valleys and that religion was an inspiration or source of invention is ludicrous. If anything religion is a parasite to those activities. If you observe hunter gatherer communities, they do far less work than settled agricultural communities. While, they cannot sustain large populations, they had a much easier life. And primitive religion was probably part of the activities that they engaged.

    • Occam
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

      Kneale wrote:

      The archaeologist Jacques Cauvin suggested that Göbekli Tepe kick-started farming. Worshippers carried bags of seeds with them, replanted them, and accidentally selected the rare mutant strains that became the very basis of our agriculture.

      Jacques Cauvin, who died in 2001 (so his hypothesis is far from new) asserted a lot more besides that. The problem with folks like Kneale seems to be that they don’t understand the first thing about science. Whenever they touch upon a subject like archaeology, they seem completely devoid of critical thinking. Even the most basic journalistic skills seem to be lacking: check your sources, check their agenda, check their bias, check your facts. If you can’t tell whether a particularly egregious assertion is fact or fantasy, don’t touch it.

      Cauvin wielded some power in Near Eastern archaeology, at least in French circles. As a proponent of symbolic archaeology, he brought some momentum to that misguided fad.
      Alain Testart, the sharp-minded ethnologist and social anthropologist who pioneered the study of the “religions without gods” of Australian Aboriginals, took it upon himself to challenge Cauvin’s assertions (and by the same token, Cauvin’s authority). Testart trained as a mining engineer before tackling anthropology, and this can be seen in his method.

      An account of the Cauvin-Testart debate, although rather slanted towards Cauvin’s position, can be found here:

      Cauvin’s timeline of the four main development phases of symbolic reasoning, and his key tags, look deceptively like Sokal rehashed. It’s hard to believe that he was serious. But he was:
      -10000 BCE: invention of gods and agriculture
      -600 BCE: invention of numbers, arithmetic, geometry
      -400 BCE: philosophy, science
      1900 CE: transcentality, quantum mechanics, general relativity

      I wonder, would Kneale know? And if he knew, would he still think Cauvin a plausible source?

  6. John Taylor
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Gold and mercury elements of gun powder? That sounds very strange. I read the Wikipedia article on gun powder and no mention of gold or mercury.

    • Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, I snipped the wrong bits. It’s fixed now, thanks..

      • JBlilie
        Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        They accidentally lit off an anti-aging concoction. That is not congruent with religion being responsible for scientific breakthroughs! Wow. Like you said: If a student used this kind of logic, she’d get an F!

    • JBlilie
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      I’ve made plenty of black powder and other pyrotechnics — none ever used gold or mercury.

      The ingredients of standard black powder are:
      Carbon (powdered charcoal – fuel)
      An oxigenator such as sodium/potassium nitrate (“salt pietre”)

      Gold? One of the most inert metals? Mercury? Good luck getting that to mix with powders.

      • JBlilie
        Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        Oops, I missed your comment Jerry.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 5, 2013 at 12:23 am | Permalink

        OTOH, mercury fulminate was for decades (centuries?) the favoured method of igniting gunpowder…

  7. MNb
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    There is an even lamer example: medieval theologians and philosophers expanded Aristoteles’ concept of impetus and thus prepared the Newtonian concept of momentum (in Dutch impuls, which sounds nicely similar) and they only could expand this concept thanks to their christian belief system.
    Never mind that impetus is a teleological concept and momentum a causal one.

  8. Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the thing that most makes Kneale’s examples so weak is that some of them are, as he acknowledges, accidental. Wow. Impressive. Good job, religion!

    I guess we should continue to put up with suicide bombers because you just never know when or which stupid religious behavior is going to accidentally reveal something useful.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      Well, you know god works in mysterious ways. He probably bumped one of those religious seed carriers so we’d accidentally develop agriculture. That trickster god!

      • Posted November 5, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        Amongst the Inuit, Raven is often regarded that way (one who brings about some good things through a horrible accident) – though Raven is more a “archetype” than a deity.

        • Diana
          Posted November 5, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

          I was actually thinking of Raven & a bit of Kokopelli when I wrote that. I read some of the books by Tomson Highway & in some interviews he’s said something to the effect that when things are going bad you have to laugh & Raven will be right there laughing with you.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 5, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      It seems to me that accidental is the only way possible for religion to come up with any usefully accurate information about reality. When you just make stuff up, you are just rolling the dice.

      The practice of religion seems to largely be an exercise in rationalizing why the rate of accuracy of its truth claims is only distinguishable from chance because it is actually lower than chance.

  9. Leigh Jackson
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    It’s a matter of fact that science as we know it came later than religion of every variety under the sun. How could it have been otherwise? Did religion give birth to science or did science struggle to be born in minds predisposed to magical thinking and superstition?

  10. Jules
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I would say, instead, that, were it not for the Black Death, modern science and the industrial revolution would never have occurred. The Plague greatly changed the cost of labour, encouraging changes in the way that agriculture was performed. New agricultural techniques allowed eventually for the invention of industry, and therefore modern science and technology. The Black Death completely changed the structure of society, encouraging new practical and intellectual developments.

    • Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink


    • onkelbob
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      Interesting proposition but it is somewhat refuted by the plague of Justinian. That pandemic probably killed off half the population of Europe resulted in the loss of many technological advances that the Romans introduced.
      The thing is, the industrial revolution did not occur overnight. Water wheels were introduced some time in the 700’s, and by 1000, nearly every river in Italy had mills or other facilities that used this technology.
      My hypothesis is that the meteoric spread was due to the fur trade, which was a sudden increase due to fashion styles (Staying in fashion kills!) As such, the elites were ground zero for the infection, and became the main reservoir of the bacteria. I never pursued that hypothesis, instead opting for tracing development of citrus cultivation.

  11. Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Writing, iirc, was developed for financial record keeping.


    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      LOL, I hadn’t read your comment & said the same at least from what I know of the most ancient writing in the Mediterranean world.

    • Posted November 5, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Possibly not in China. I am no expert, but from what I remember, the oracle bones, etc. are state records, of a sort, but not to do with finances but instead to do with divination and prediction (in a superstitious way, of course).

  12. DV
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    “If a student used this kind of logic in an undergraduate paper, she would get a failing grade.”

    You assume it would be a “she”? 🙂

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      Jerry is a welcome example amongst writers in using gender-specific pronouns more or less equally frequently.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

        If only we had a gender neutral pronoun that didn’t sound rude. “It” just doesn’t cut it. 🙂

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 4, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

          You’ve probably seen Ben’s suggestion, which combines all three…s/h/it…

          • Posted November 4, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

            To be fair, I generally reserve that one for deities. In most cases, I wouldn’t use it for a human.

            Might make exceptions for certain classes of religious people, but typically only small subsets….


            • Diane G.
              Posted November 4, 2013 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

              I thought about adding all that, but didn’t want to spoil the joke…


              • Posted November 4, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

                Sure. Leave it to me to be the joke-spoiling pendant. Watch my participles dangling!


        • Posted November 4, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

          You mean, like “they”?

          (Which, as discussed hereabouts before, has a long literary pedigree as a singular pronoun. I think even my Editors are beginning to accept this.)


          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted November 5, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

            They is cringeworthy & my pedant tourettes always blurts out the correction. My work around when writing is to pluralize everthing so I can use “they” properly. 🙂

            • Posted November 5, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

              It’s not necessary to pluralize everything, though that works. Just a bit of rearranging can generally do the trick.

              “If your child throws a tantrum, make sure s/he knows it’s not acceptable and give him/er a timeout.”

              “Make sure your child knows that tantrums are not acceptable and will result in a timeout.”

              Becomes second nature after a bit. It was actually harder for me to come up with the s/he version than the other….



              • Diana
                Posted November 5, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

                I find the sentence reads better where you can pluralize:

                If your children throw tantrums, make sure they know it’s not acceptable and give them timeouts.

                Sometimes you can’t and you just have to go with the he/she or pick one. I’m a sucker for the patriarchy so I just say he. 🙂

              • Posted November 5, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

                Not sure I’d agree with you on the plural. It doesn’t work for a parent with a single child, but it does still work for a parent with multiple children. Really, it only works for parents with multiple children when two are more are throwing simultaneous tantrums.

                But, yeah. When all else fails, I, too, generally go for the generic “he” — unless, of course, it’s something that only or predominately applies to women.

                That actually points to another out: try to make the example more specific rather than less. Rather than, “If the interview subject fusses over his clothing,” you could go with, “If a man tugs incessantly on his tie or a woman obsessively picks lint from her blouse.” You should, of course, be wary of inappropriate gender stereotypes with that type of construction, but they’re not hard to avoid.


              • Diana
                Posted November 5, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

                Yes re: stereotypes and people take offence at all sorts of things.

              • Diane G.
                Posted November 6, 2013 at 1:30 am | Permalink

                Diana, research shows that sexist language actually has significant effects on people’s perceptions, usually at the expense of women.

                I’m a pedant too, but there are some changes that are more important than pedantry IMO. (And there is actually a very old precedent for using “they” after a singular subject. I’ll have to refind the website about that.)

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 6, 2013 at 5:37 am | Permalink

                Yes this is why I usually pluralize where I can and use they. I just don’t like “they” in the singular. I also think it isn’t bad to use “he” as a choice. There are men out there too. Sometimes I may use she in a place where he is usually used just to mix it up but when I write stuff for work I use both he and she since I happen to work in a company that is 70+% male with no females C in levels or even upper management.

              • Diane G.
                Posted November 6, 2013 at 1:32 am | Permalink

                Nevermind; I see Ben’s found a similar one. 😀

            • Posted November 5, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

              Well, if it’s good enough for Jane Austen &c.…


  13. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    This seems much weaker than anything in Alfred North Whitehead, or even Plantinga, or (Ugh!) William Craig.

    Yes, block printing got developed in China in the 200s because of a Buddhist demand for a good method of copying scrolls, but a basic movable type was developed in China in 1000s for no religious motives at all. It failed to catch on due to the largeness of the Chinese character set.

    Meanwhile Gutenberg’s printing press enabled the widespread dissemination of information which greatly aided the Renaissance and spread of scientific literacy eroding the influence of Catholicism around Europe. (Although he’s best remembered for the very aesthetically pleasing Gutenberg Bible.)

    • Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      The Yale Beinecke Library has a Gutenberg, which I was shown some years ago when visiting it. As a publisher by trade, I think I can safely say it is the only time in my life when I have approached a bible with anything approximating reverence…

  14. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Writing developed on different cultures and if I take the earliest cuniform stiff from the Mediterranean cultures it is mostly lists of items to do with sales, etc. I hardly think this is to do with religion. Good grief, this is such a horrible argument.

  15. Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    In your last post on this matter I felt that you were postulating that religion was antithetical to science, which to me is as spurious and unprovable as the claim that it’s beneficial to it. But on this one, I think you’re going easy on religion. And, specifically, I think that I can see the point that Kneale might be trying to make, though if so he doesn’t make it very well.
    I would say that’s what needs to be done here is to distinguish between science and technology. Technology can advance without science (most obviously through through trial and error, even today we see examples such as spray nozzle design), although clearly science is hugely advantageous to it. And it is a regrettable fact about human history that one of the major motivations of technological advancement has been the desire to kill people more successfully or efficiently. Religion, with its tendency towards inflexible dogmatism and ability to write off huge swathes of humanity as killable because they’re going to Hell anyway, is one of the major motivations for war. As such I think it is reasonable to say that religion has being a driver for technological development, at one remove at least. It’s just not something that it can be particularly proud about.

    • Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      S/being a driver/been a driver/

    • pacopicopiedra
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      How is trial and error not science?

      • Posted November 4, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

        Personally, I would say that unless the trials are non-random, and informed by generalised hypotheses based on the previous events then it’s not what I would class as science. If they are simply random, then it’s… well, actually, it’s evolution. Science certainly involves a lot of trial and error. But I don’t think all trial and error is science.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 7, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      In your last post on this matter I felt that you were postulating that religion was antithetical to science, which to me is as spurious and unprovable as the claim that it’s beneficial to it.

      The usual test, which religion fails, is to ask if it has promoted science or shut it down.

      Even in this post Jerry notes: “discoveries … were made by purely materialistic means — by ignoring God completely”. So no promotion.

      Reversely, pointing to something and say “godsdiddit” shuts discoveries down. Religion fails the test of not being antithetical to science.

      Spurious and unprovable? That is an accommodationist claim. And as all such they fail, precisely because _those_ are spurious and always, always assumed to be untested and remain so in the accommodationist/agnostic gap for gods.

      But testing them is easy and often already published ideas (as here) or results (as in the case of Floods, Adam & Eve, et cetera).

  16. Posted November 4, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Alfred North Whitehead wrote his most important book on Science and the Modern World. I agree he knows nothing about evolution. But he does argue that science grew from religion. I would like our leader to read this book, consider his thesis, and see if you can just dismiss everything he says.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

      As I recall, Whitehead mainly appeals to the fact that some leading scientists in the 17th century (who also helped formulate scientific method)

      a) believed the universe was intelligible because there was Intelligence behind it
      b) believe the existence of laws of physics implied a lawgiver.

      In some form or another, Newton, Locke, and Bacon- who arguably gave birth to modern science- all believed these propositions. I think this is much of the foundation of Whitehead’s thesis.

      But ironically, Newton’s physics removed teleology from explanations of nature, and makes God merely the architect who starts the clock going. And Newton decisively breaks Europe away from Aristotelian physics which the Catholic church had invested all its clout because of Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of Aristotle and theology.

    • Posted November 4, 2013 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

      “our leader“?


  17. cherrybombsim
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    I’m willing to give religion partial credit for moveable type. At the time Gutenberg started printing, Bibles were the killer app that justified the investment in printing equipment. Nothing else approached that demand for identical copies of a large written document. Of course, Gutenberg was not primarily inspired to print Bibles because he was divinely called to do it, that’s just where the money was.

  18. Robin
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Jerry’s remarks. I have often been irritated by claims about how religion can be credited for science and technology.

    Often proponents of these claims are willing to offer a revisionist version of history in order to support the claim, for example misrepresenting ancient Greek thought.

    Here is a link to one of the most egregious examples I have come across from people who should know better:

    The trouble is that people will believe history professors ahead of the evidence even of primary texts.

    • Robin
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

      That said, there are also examples of how religions helped to promote science, such as Roger Bacon’s successful petition to the Pope to fund experimental science, the Baghdad House of Wisdom etc.

  19. Kevin
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Well written post, Jerry. The fivefold answer is worth comitting to memory as it pertains to many aspects to the way that religion and reliious people try to usurp what is secular.

    Making claims about what motivates people, espeically those who are dead, can be very specious, even when religion is not part of the equation. Why don’t religious figure that out? It is just being fair to the always abridged historical record.

  20. dieter_at
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    Where is the evidence that the Daoist writing caused the invention of gunpowder rather than the other way around?

    Even if the structure at Göbekli Tepe was the world’s first temple, how can we know that it wasn’t the edible seeds in the area that attracted people to the location in the first place? The same objection applies to Kneales claim about the invention of cities.

    He did not establish precedence, let alone cause and effect.

    The inspiration for printing sounds legit.

    Large and powerful religious institutions created demand and funding for innovation and science. So did the military, war and absolutist monarchs. Ever since the enlightenment, the industrial revolution and democratization we have seen plenty of evidence that demand and funding for science and innovation can be generated from secular and peaceful sources.

    P.S.: Here is a blogpost, arguing that we should thank the french monarchs for science:

    Louis XIV: The science king

    I have heard similar arguments from monarchists before.

  21. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    “Daoist texts mention an alternative mix, which included saltpeter … “

    Well, there’s your answer.

    Based on a highly scientific survey of random friends and relations who were still willing to answer the phone at this hour, it is estimated that that ingredient frees up approximately 7/8ths of the mental space of persons bearing the Y chromosome, thereby permitting them to think about science (or religion, or any other topic than what that mental space is ordinarily devoted to).

  22. Posted November 5, 2013 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    There is not a Christian math/science or a Muslim Math/science or a Buddhist Math/science. Math/science is universal in that the facts remain the same, regardless of how many different faiths or secular people do the experiments. The truth remains consistent, regardless of where in the world the experiments were conducted. That the experimenter was a Christian/Muslim/Buddhist is irrelevant. The facts remain the same. Whereas each religion disagrees…

    • Nick Evans
      Posted November 5, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      “There is not a Christian math/science”. How about the whole “3=1” concept of the holy trinity?

  23. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted November 5, 2013 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    I’m appalled at a article in Saturday’s Torygraph

    Glad to see that the Torygraph is keeping down to it’s normal level.
    My worldview would be seriously challenged if the Torygraph ever did something useful, like changing to ink that didn’t smear, or using paper that your fingers don’t go through.

  24. Glynn Davies
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    Prof Coyne has put forward some telling criticisms of Matthew Kneale’s article but I believe that there another stronger argument – supporting the claim that the intellectual roots of modern science are to be found in Latin Christianity – which is not deployed by Kneale and is consequently not addressed by Prof Coyne.

    I suggest that Prof Coyne’s discussion of beliefs and motivations does not go deep enough and that Latin Christianity (rather than religion in general) played a crucial role in the development of modern science at the more basic level of possibility.

    This argument – made most famously by AN Whitehead in “Science and the Modern World” – – is that science arose in Christian Europe because of “the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative of medieval theology.”

    The thrust of this argument is that science was the unintended result of certain features of Christian doctrine on general European culture. This gave medieval Europeans in the Latin West (whether they were religious enthusiasts or secret doubters) a framework for looking at the universe that provided the conceptual foundations for the development of science.

    The lack of this framework, so the argument goes, meant that the wealthier and more advanced Chinese of the same period, for example, produced impressive technology by a sort of sophisticated trial and error but no systematic science.

    So Whitehead does agree with Prof Coyne to the extent that he does not consider religion in general as fostering the scientific enterprise – he only sees certain contingent features of Latin Christian doctrine as playing that role.

    This Christian inspired framework is not claimed to be the “cause” of science – there were obviously other factors at work – but Whitehead’s position was that while not being a sufficient condition it was a necessary condition to the emergence of science.

    This is not a claim that Christianity exemplifies some sort of divine wisdom. Whitehead was not a Christian believer. Scholars who argue that the scientific enterprise was made conceivable by some parts of Christian theology also generally agree that the relevant doctrines came about as the unplanned result of a complex interplay of Jewish and pagan Hellenistic influences on Christianity. They are much closer to accidents of history than the revelations of a supreme being.

    Various doctrines have been put forward as forming part of a world view that favoured the emergence of science. However, scholars sympathetic to this position generally hold that the most important were the doctrines that contributed to the vision of a created material world subject to linear time that was objectively real and governed (apart from extremely rare episodes of miraculous intervention) by natural causes rationally ordered by universal divine laws (the direct ancestors of scientific laws).

    The notion of a universe in linear time and regulated by laws laid down by a transcendent creator was inherited from Judaism. While the disposition to favour naturalistic over supernatural explanations of everyday phenomena was the result of the influence of pagan philosophy – Hellenistic philosophy in the early centuries and Aristotelianism from the 13th Century. These schools were strong advocates of a universe of rationally ordered natural causes.

    The Church held of course that natural causes are subject to interruption by miraculous events but it was the policy of the Church to maintain that genuine miracles are extremely rare and that for practical purposes the world is governed by natural causes. This position was dictated by a mixture of Hellenistic inspired rationality and power politics. In a world in which supernatural forces predominated the miracles recognised by the Church – generally because the Church approved of the people who were believed to have carried them out – would not have any special spiritual value and the Church’s control of the religious life of Christendom would be compromised. To put it more essentially the concept of a miracle is meaningless in the absence of a doctrinal distinction between a created world subject to law governed natural causes and the powers of the transcendent creator.

    The Christian inspired general belief in Medieval European culture that the created universe had a consistent unified order under which similar causes produce similar effects provided an assurance that the material world would ultimately turn out to be intelligible to human reason. This assurance in turn gave educated Europeans the confidence to begin the systematic investigations of the natural world that would lead to the emergence of modern science.

    As Whitehead put it the early natural philosophes had an “inexpungable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope.”

    The doctrine that everyday phenomena are governed by law governed natural causes was proscribed in Islam from the 12th Century onwards because Muslim religious leaders anticipated (with great prescience, as it turned out) that it would lead to atheism as the role of God in the world would in time come to be seen as superfluous. Steve Weinberg makes the comment – in a review of the God Delusion appearing in the Times Literary Supplement 17 January 2007 – that after this “there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries.”

    Finally Prof Coyne’s blog leads me to wonder why he (and most of the commentators) are so deeply hostile to the idea that Christian doctrine might have played some role in the emergence of science. The fact that science is derived from Christianity – even if true – is no more than an interesting footnote in the history of science. It cannot constitute any evidence as to the truth of Christianity.

    I recall a review by the atheist philosophy Simon Blackburn of a book with a similar theme to Kneale’s article – After God by Mark C Taylor – that appeared in the Times Higher Educational Supplement of 23 November 2007. Having considered the possibility that some Enlightenment ideals “such as those of human equality and human rights, that are arguably developments of similar ideas in Christianity” Blackburn goes on to comment that:
    “it is one thing to acknowledge the origin of a movement of thought in some earlier historical matrix and another to suppose that it is really only more of the same. Modern chemistry may have emerged from alchemy, but it is not thereby alchemy under another flag, or surreptitiously in thrall to the wish to transmute lead into gold.”

    • Posted November 7, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      First, please do not post such long comments. I have allowed this one, because the topic is germane, but usually ask commenters to shorten them.

      I have now read Whitehead’s entire book, as several readers suggested, and his case for the importance of Christianity in promoting science is lame. He adduced no evidence save his own opinion. I am in fact surprised that people keep adducing Whitehead as an expert on this issue when his book hardly addresses it. It is a matter of a paragraph or so, along with his claim that other areas, like Asia, didn’t have Christianity’s faith in reason and natural laws. That’s it: it’s pure opinion.

      Here is the essence of Whitehead’s argument in Science and the Modern World, and it along with your quote above, constitutes the entirety of his evidence:

      My explanation [for why science developed in Europe and not other areas] is that faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology (Whitehead 1925, p. 19)

      This is “his explanation.” There is no evidence. So why is this regarded as so compelling? There are of course other reasons one can adduce for the rise of science in Europe versus Asia, and, most important, it was not Christians but pagans (Greeks and Romans) who believed that the universe was ordered and there were regularities in it (so-called natural laws). I would also argue that science BEGAN with the Greeks and Romans, was not promoted by Christianity for a millennium, which in fact suppressed the use of reason (read Luther), and then arose in spite of Christianity, because of confluence of factors like printing, more communication, and so on. Christianity may have promoted religion in a small way by founding universities or, in the case of some scientists, impelling them to search out what they saw as God’s plan, but that’s hardly the main reason for the rise of science.

      I would argue that, in fact, the above analysis is far more cogent than Whitehead’s. He makes no case other than proffering his opinion. Other people offer anecdotes.

      We’ll never know for sure, as this is a one-off historical phenomenon, and historians have argued both ways. We can’t repeat the experiment of a medieval Europe without Christianity (though I do think science would have arisen in such a case, perhaps more quickly). But it is simply foolish to keep citing Whitehead’s book as strong evidence that Christianity was a major factor in the rise of science.

      I am not resisting this argument because I’m hostile to Christianity, I’m resisting it because there’s not much evidence for it. You have quoted selectively; other scholars can make the opposite case by citing other stuff, like Greek and Roman “science,” the hostility of the Church to the use of reason, various forms of suppression (the Catholic Church’s list of banned books, for instance, included works by Kepler, Francis Bacon, Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather, who published on zoology), Copernicus, and Galileo—and that list was in force until 1966.

      So forgive me if I’m suspicious when people cobble together theologies and facts to make a “case”, when one could very well do the same thing and make the opposite case. I render the Scottish verdict of “not proven” in this instance.

      • Posted November 7, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

        Dear Jerry,

        You did your homework. I have looked at Science and the Modern World too and now I have your same reaction. Bravo! Why don’t more of us look directly at the evidence.

      • Diana
        Posted November 7, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

        +1 When I learned all about the pre-socratics, I was struck by how dark the dark ages really were and if they had not occurred, what scientific progress we would have made!

        I would make a good subject of an alternate history fiction.

        • ROO BOOKAROO
          Posted November 7, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

          Even better than fiction. Europe without Christianity would be a reasonable speculation. Without the accident of Christianity (and presumably, without the ancillary genesis of Islam) the development of Europe would have been a much more exciting and richer story concerning technology, science, medecine, urban improvements, literature, overall knowledge, sports, and progress of society. Christianity cost us at least 1,000 years, perhaps 1,500 years of retrograde movement and stagnation. The miracle is that Europe finally pulled out of the morass, even if the results are still partial and incomplete.

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