Friday, April 15, 2011

"A religious imperative to study nature..."

I continue to enjoy and profit from reading James Hannam's The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution [See here]. At Patheos that author refers to the Templeton prize awarded to Lord Rees and then argues that "Science and Christianity Can Get On Better Than You Think":
.... Rees is an atheist with a fond cultural attachment to the Church of England. But although he isn't religious himself, he sees no conflict between Christianity and science. His best-known book, Just Six Numbers, is a frank admission that the universe appears to be finely tuned for life, something theists see as evidence that it is God's creation. New Atheists like PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne are furious that Rees accepted Templeton's lucre. Richard Dawkins has called Rees a "quisling," which is a reference to Nazi collaboration. ....

The old story of an eternal conflict between science and religion is now universally rejected by historians. The conflict myth was a product of particular political disputes at particular historical moments. The claim that the Catholic Church had impeded scientific progress, for instance, was a way for Voltaire and his fellow philosophes in ancien régime France to attack the absolutist monarchy. The myth reached its final form with Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). It was, for White, a handy weapon in his struggle to curtail clerical influence at his new foundation of Cornell University.

Much of the evidence that White assembled to demonstrate that Christianity had held back science has turned out to be bogus. Contrary to popular belief, the Church has never taught that the Earth is flat. Indeed, everyone in the Middle Ages was well aware it is a sphere. Many other examples are alleged of religion holding back science. Popes, we are told, tried to ban human dissection, lightning rods, and even the number zero. We even still hear that Pope Callixtus III tried to excommunicate Halley's Comet. It is hard to believe that anyone who considers themselves a rational skeptic could have believed that tale. And while there can be no justification for burning heretics, the deaths of Giordano Bruno and Michael Servetus had nothing to do with science. No one has ever been burnt at the stake for scientific views. In fact, the only important scientist ever to be executed was Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry. He was guillotined during the French revolutionary terror by the avowedly anti-Christian Jacobins. ....

Christianity may even have had a positive role in the rise of science. Christians believe that God created the world and ordained the laws of nature. He is the guarantor of constant and rational laws, such that investigating the world can consequently be a religious duty. It's easy to forget that, until the 19th century, science had almost no practical applications. A religious imperative to study nature provided almost the only reason to bother doing it. It's no surprise that so many scientific pioneers were devout men: Johannes Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley, Michael Faraday, Georg Mendel, and James Clerk Maxwell, to name just a few. .... [more]
Science and Christianity Can Get On Better Than You Think