The Christian origins of Western Science

One of the joys of Christmas has been receiving as presents books that have lurked enticingly on my Wishlist for the last year.

Kevin Moss | 16:25, 19th January 2020

The Royal Society (The Landmark Library)One such is Adrian Tinniswood's excellent history of The Royal Society, subtitled '& The Invention of Modern Science', published by Apollo Books in 2019. This is a beautifully-produced volume, full of helpful illustrations, and I've not been able to put it down since opening it on Christmas Day.

The Royal Society received its charter from Charles II in 1660, but had grown quite naturally out of an association of academics and laymen which shared a common interest in experimental science. It was the first British organisation to be created for that purpose, and it represents the formalisation of science as a specific endeavour, rather than as a loose and disparate collection of individual activities any of which might qualify, somehow, as 'scientific'. In his book, Tinniswood traces the process which brought the twelve founding fathers of the Royal Society to this point, and in an appendix, he helpfully lists them for us:

  • William Balle (1631-90), astronomer;
  • Robert Boyle (1627-91), natural philosopher;
  • William Brouncker (1620-84), mathematician;
  • Alexander Bruce (1629-81), landowner;
  • Jonathan Goddard (1617-75), physician;
  • Abraham Hill (1633-1722), merchant;
  • Sir Robert Moray (1608-73), soldier & courtier;
  • Sir Paul Neil (1613-86), courtier;
  • Sir William Petty (1623-87), political economist & physician;
  • Lawrence Rook (1622-62), astronomer;
  • John Wilkins (1614-72), natural philosopher;
  • Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), astronomer & architect.

There would be many others to follow, and some exceptionally grande fromages, such as Sir Isaac Newton, but it is helpful to remember that these were the men who founded and framed the objectives and methodologies of the new Society. Tinniswood emphasised that these men were in full agreement that 'religion and politics' were off the table for their discussions – this was, after all, the Restoration period, when Britain was seeking to recover its sense of identity and balance, following the Republic under Cromwell (who had been active in promoting the natural sciences). But to present this as somehow a secular initiative would be to miss the point entirely. The author emphasises that many of these men were in fact Puritans – they were as at home writing and reading theology as they were pursuing their scientific endeavours.

John Wilkins had a reputation for unusual tolerance in such an age, attracting the most brilliant students around him, and becoming perhaps the most noted exponent of experimental philosophy. He wrote extensively on theology, was later consecrated Bishop of Chester and was arguably the driving force behind the whole initiative. Robert Boyle was an evangelical Christian, and Tinniswood tells us that he was actually the most distinguished scientist amongst the founders. Sir Paul Neil was a devout Anglican, Lawrence Rook an eminent divine. In their writings, they demonstrate that it is a theistic worldview which drives the impetus and expectations for scientific method – they proceeded on the basis that the universe is governed by rational, predictable, discernible laws, and that the different branches of the sciences would and should relate to each other, due to the overarching design of the Creator. It is, in fact, difficult to see how science, as we know it, could have arisen out of any other soil than this. Indeed, it did not.

This history is important, as it provides a valid counterbalance to the childish polemic put out by the current proponents of the atheistic fiction that somehow 'science' and 'religion' have always been at each others' throats. I have listened to Richard Dawkins explaining, with every semblance of gravity, that these scientists were, in reality, sceptics, who kept their atheism hidden away under the camouflage of piety, lest their exposure (in a culture of religious bigotry) deprive them of the opportunity to 'do science'. No doubt there were sceptics at that time, men and women who merely paid lip-service to the outward forms of religion, and clearly there were founding fathers of the Royal Society where it is not possible to detect the explicitly-affirmed Christian beliefs which were undoubtedly held by many, as I have identified. Indeed, there are evidences of associations with the philosophy of Hobbes, Descartes and others, which could quite well have influenced a person's worldview in entirely the opposite direction. Men such as Sir William Petty were not distinguished by their religious views, but rather by their political choices at the time of the Cromwellian settlement.

Certainly, the Dawkinsian Illusion of the persecution of the honest scientific sceptic seems to have little basis in fact – as is the case with the old and hackneyed argument that Christians were, somehow, reluctant and late adopters of scientific method. The evidence is, instead, that devout Christians were at the forefront of the whole enterprise, men who saw no conflict whatsoever between the two avenues of enquiry (theological or scientific). That our children are clearly being systematically taught this fatuous pap does bring to mind the memorable, though clearly misdirected, Dawkinsian use of the term 'child abuse', which he applies to indoctrination (Chapter 9 of The God Delusion). Pots, kettles, and all of that...

All of which provides an interesting contrast with the 2016 annual conference of the Royal Society, entitled 'New Trends in Evolutionary Biology' where there was general acknowledgement that the neo-Darwinian consensus is bust, underscored by the opening address from the Austrian evolutionary biologist, Gerd Müller. Whilst it may have been gratifying to have these fatal flaws in the model confirmed, the reality is that they have been there, in plain view for many decades. The founding fathers, operating from a broad theistic consensus would barely have raised an eyebrow over such matters, but their devoutly atheistic successors found themselves overcome with angst, eye-rolling and partisanship, according to eyewitnesses. Richard Lewontin's mantra about never allowing the divine foot to prevent the closure of the ideological door on the very idea of God, is the rule where materialism has already closed the mind.

[Originally appeared as blog post on 29th December 2019 on the theobloggie website]

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