I've heard at least a few times now from apologists that Christianity is responsible for science. For some examples:

  • From a commercial for the site, Catholics Come Home (video LINK that opens right to the quote):

We [The Catholic Church] developed the scientific method and laws of evidence.

The downloadable PDF they have at their site for this video (LINK) provides sources for the video's claims. Extracted are these for the above quote:

We developed the scientific method....

Source: From How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Dr. Thomas Woods, page 94 and following:

"Roger Bacon, a Franciscan who taught at Oxford, was admired for his work in mathematics and optics, and is considered to be a forerunner of modern scientific method."

"Like Roger Bacon, Saint Albert [the Great] was careful to note the importance of direct observation in the acquisition of knowledge about the physical world. In De Mineralibus, he explained that the aim of natural science was 'not simply to accept the statements of others, that is, what is narrated by people, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature for themselves.'"

...and laws of evidence.

Source: From How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Dr. Thomas Woods, page 187 and following:

“...Cases like this have led legal scholar Harold Berman to observe that modern Western legal systems „are a secular residue of religious attitudes and assumptions which historically found expression first in the liturgy and rituals and doctrines of the church and thereafter in the institutions and concepts and values of the law...‟" (Berman‟s work: Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition)

  • I've also read Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity, which makes the following statements:

"Why did science arise here and nowhere else? In his September 12, 2006, speech in Rosenberg, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI argued that it was due to Christianity's emphasis on the importance of reason...modern science is an invention of medieval Christianity, and that the greatest breakthroughs in scientific reason have largely been the work of Christians." (pgs. 83-84)


Questions: Is this the case? Is it Christianity (and no other source) that brought about the scientific method? In other words, if we looked at all the variables of those credited for early forms of modern science, would their Christian beliefs be the single most prominent causal factor that led such contributions?

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    I'd think that both Galileo, Darwin, and a host of others would be inclined to disagree with the idea that Christianity had anything to do with science. If anything, I'd say science happened despite, and not because of, Christianity, but instead built upon rules of logic laid down by the Greek philosophers. If Christianity could take any credit, it'd be by promotoing the parts of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato that they liked while burning the rest. But I have no sources :) – mmr Jul 14 '11 at 20:09
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    Didn't "algebra" (and the foundations of modern math) come from the Arabic and other middle eastern civilizations through the "dark ages", and before that, from the ancient Greeks? Not to mention contributions from Asian civilizations? – Mike Dunlavey Jul 14 '11 at 21:07
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    just because 'the greatest breakthroughs in scientific reason have largely been the work of Christians' doesn't mean the breakthroughs occurred BECAUSE they were Christians. – fred Jul 14 '11 at 21:10
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    The catholic church did for years promote scientific exploration. Some would argue that it was in order to be able to squash any findings it would label heretic. But it considered science a work of god and thus exploration of science was an exploration of god so long as it was not in search of heretical thought. I have no idea about the origin of scientific method but I always thought it went back to Galileo who was doing work for the church. – Chad Jul 14 '11 at 21:14
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    Adolf Hitler was a baptized Catholic. Should we therefore take his ideas and actions as examples of what the Catholic religion can bring up in people? Besides we should of course not forget the many people burned on stake and tortured by (especially) Catholics, not only during Inquisition in Spain but also elsewhere in Europe. Some of these such as Giordano Bruno were what we would call a scientist. – neo Nov 23 '17 at 18:37
up vote 100 down vote accepted
+50

The answer is an emphatic NO.

If anything, an early Persian could be credited with the most modern version of the scientific method. Ibn al-Haytham (Wikipedia which is reliable enough for this sort of discussion) specifically championed the following method:

Explicit statement of a problem, tied to observation and to proof by experiment

Testing and/or criticism of a hypothesis using experimentation

Interpretation of data and formulation of a conclusion using mathematics

The publication of the findings

If that isn't the scientific method, I don't know what is! Even before that, Aristotle championed an empirical method of scientific thinking. Which absolutely predates even the concept of Christianity. Not to mention that science and technology was also flourishing in China and India with no influence from the West or any Christian influences. And it has been argued by some that it was actually the influences of the far east that were transported over by the ancient Muslim scholars that kicked off the Renaissance (as opposed to the Muslim scholars preserving the ancient Greek ideas only).

That should have been a very easy bit of propaganda to debunk with minimal effort. If you don't think Wikipedia is impartial enough, this page also offers a history, essentially agreeing with the Wikipedia entry.

This page actually credits the Muslim age of science much more than the christian religion (as well as aligning with the Wikipedia entry and the previous link).

The early Islamic ages were a golden age for knowledge, and the history of the scientific method must pay a great deal of respect to some of the brilliant Muslim philosophers of Baghdad and Al-Andalus.

Keep in mind, a lot of the enlightenment though was actually more a preservation of knowledge from other cultures (such as commonly credited, the Greeks). Although, there may be a bit of western bias in that history, since a great deal of science also came from India and China in those times. Generally people just aren't made aware of that (for instance, the origin of "Damascus Steel" is actually from India).

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    As an aside, hence why I am making it a comment, it could be more reasonably argued that christianity impeded the scientific method much more than aided it given the treatment of many prominent scientists who were severely punished and criticized by religious leaders. – Larian LeQuella Jul 15 '11 at 2:35
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    @Peter Turner, and Aristotle also greatly influenced Islam, while he was neither christian, jewish, or muslim. So not exactly sure what your point was. Aristotle himself had absolutely nothing to do with those faiths. It was what others after him did. – Larian LeQuella Jul 18 '11 at 22:17
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    @Peter Turner: CHINA en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… The christian centrism is pathetic in the west... – Larian LeQuella Jul 20 '11 at 0:55
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    The trouble with this question is that it is too easy for skeptics to just accept the popular answer and ignore the inconvenient facts that don't completely agree. The biggie is that only europe developed practical science in a way that made european countries dominant across the world (for good or bad) for a time. Many other regions had some science and technology but it somehow stopped developing: why was that? As for the greeks, what stopped them observing that the Aristole view of gravity was wrong? There is at least a case for asking what made europe different. – matt_black Jan 23 '12 at 22:55
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    @matt_black could it not be argued that one reason China didn't end up dominating the world like Europe was because of their isolationist stance? They sent out a fleet, and didn't thing anything was worthy of their efforts, and stayed in their area, and in the end perhaps stifling the flow of ideas and progress? As Larian complains, a lot of people tend to be to Eurocentric in their view of history. – JasonR Jan 24 '12 at 13:54

While Christianity didn't invent most of the methods of science, there is a plausible case that it nurtured the emergence of modern science (rather than opposing it), and helped it achieve a sustainable impact on the world

The idea that religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular, has always been in opposition to science is very easy to believe, especially in a world full of fundamentalists. But it is not a true reflection of the history of either religion or science; it clouds our ability to understand why modern science arose and became strong in a particular place and time. We will not get a good answer to the question if we allow current prejudices to cloud the analysis of what actually happened.

That the story is more complex than that should be obvious even from the much repeated story of how the Church tried to suppress Galileo's ideas. For a start, the ideas the church was supposed to be defending (Aristotle's philosophy and Ptolemy's astronomy) were not Christian ideas at all). And it is a little rich to credit Aristotle as a pioneer of science in this context, when his failure to give primacy to observing what actually happens was one of the key problems holding back the development of Greek science.

Spreading the credit for many new scientific ideas to other cultures is a fair reaction to Eurocentric thinking in the past. But it triggers a very important question: why did science and technology stall in those other places? We should give credit where credit is due, but in every other culture where new scientific ideas were developed, the progress of science stopped and failed to achieve constant improvement and a major impact on the world. There is something unusual about what happened in Europe where science eventually emerged in a form where progress has not yet stopped and where its impact on the world has transformed the world. This is where it is worth looking at actual history to see if there might be some useful insights about why this only happened there.

And, it is very important to note that this is a question about what happened historically. It isn't going to get a good answer if we apply current prejudices. Treating the church of 16th century Europe like a bunch of modern fundamentalists opposing evolution isn't a good way to do history.


Here are some observations leading to an alternative answer:

First, the idea that Christianity has consistently opposed science is historically false.

As far as I can tell the idea of religion and science in perpetual conflict goes back to Huxley and his defence of Darwinism. The traditional skeptics story is that god was dethroned by Darwin and opposed by the leadership of the church. But it is worth looking at the real history. For example, in his book Darwin's Forgotten Defenders, David Livingstone argued that many religious leaders – even the evangelical protestants – embraced Darwin. As he argues in the introduction:

...we ought also to revise the notion that science and religion are inevitably at odds...The findings I present challenge that assumption.

The historic evidence is not consistent with the idea that something inherent in Christianity opposes scientific progress even around evolution.

Secondly, there is something in the Christian tradition that actually fostered modern science.

This case was argued in the short but dense book by R Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, where a very detailed analysis of history shows that many of the philosophical ideas the led to modern science, especially the primacy of observation and practical uses of science originated in Christian thinking. In the very elements that, when added to Greek thinking, make a combination somewhat like modern science with "getting your hands dirty" experiments (which the Greeks would have rejected).

To quote in part from a much more recent summary:

Second, religious considerations might provide some of the presuppositions for scientific investigation. Here I have in mind theologically-grounded ideas about the intelligibility of nature, manifested in the early modern period as the notion that there were divinely authored laws of nature. Third, and related to this, is the way in which theological positions may, and indeed have underpinned specific methods of investigation. Fourth, religious convictions may provide the motivations for some individuals to pursue the formal study of nature.

While Hooykaas is hard to summarise, part of his argument is that the environment and philosophy of many of great church leaders around the time of the Reformation was entirely sympathetic to observational, experimental and practical science. They believed that you could understand God via understanding Nature so making science respectable and approved of in a culture where that was by no means a foregone conclusion. Even Calvin didn't reject observations of the world even if they appeared to contradict the bible (in contrast to many modern fundamentalists). Many skeptics and opponents of religion have bought the idea that modern fundamentalism is typical of all religious belief in history. In actuality the philosophy of fundamentalism (and its creationist children) is a very modern idea (see James Barr's Fundamentalism for a summary).

And there is something about the nature of the Christian (and Jewish) bible that leads to diversity. Unlike the Koran, for example, the bible is a work of many authors and does not have monolithic style. The reformation is arguably the result of people looking back at their core sources and seeing things that contradict the authority of the church leadership. Hence the core source for the religion is actually a little subversive and fosters a questioning attitude and not absolute authority for an organisation. That fragmentation of the religious power base was probably important for the development of science and certainly for preventing any single authority stamping out ideas it didn't like (which is arguably why Arab and Chinese science faltered).

Thirdly, history shows that religion nurtured and protected the development of modern science before it became robust and sustainable on its own

This argument has been well summarised recently by Peter Harrison in his lecture Religion, The Royal Society, and the Rise of Science. He expresses his conclusions from the study of the actual interaction of science and religion in England thus:

we can conclude that while there may have been scientific ideas and practices without religion, there would not have been a longstanding and evolving scientific culture of the kind that emerged in the West without the support of religion.

He bases this on the way religion protected emerging ideas in science from outside attacks that might well have had the effect of stifling the emergence of "modern science". In particular, there were many groups in society opposed to the activity and practice of science but religious leaders and organisations often protected and nurtured the activities of scientists until they were strong.

It is worth reading the paper for the detail as it is not just a fascinating source of interesting history but is also a good read.

In summary

It is a big topic that I don't think I have yet done a good service to. But the key issue is that there is something peculiar about the runaway success of science and its emergence in western Europe and that this is not a consequence of a eurocentric perspective. The Chinese, the Indians, the Arabs and the Greeks all had important ideas that contributed to science, but progress stalled in all those cultures. Christianity is at least one factor that made a difference.

It does not require a willingness to defend religion to make this case: it just needs a little skepticism about what happened in history. Skeptics shouldn't buy myths about what actually happened just because they sound good: thats what the religious are supposed to do.


Update

A recently published book offers a better summary of the above arguments culled from several historians and philosophers of science but especially Fr Stanley Jaki, a Jesuit scientist, theologian and philosopher.

In summary the argument outlined there is (my emphasis):

Modern science was born in a particular culture, a Christian culture, and we can trace its antecedents backward all the way into the early Middle Ages. No other culture—Greek, Roman, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Babylonian, Islamic, African, Mayan—ever gave us anything like modern science. Therefore, the cause of modern science’s success must lie, ultimately, in Christianity, and the more we dig into the Christian origins of modern science, the farther back we find positive evidence for the sustained, sophisticated developments that underlay modern science.

The basic argument, backed by extensive and detailed historical evidence, is that a certain particular philosophical mindset is required for science to develop and grow. For example the very idea that the universe is comprehensible and there are things in it that are worth discovering by experiment. The core of the argument is outline in the quote below (my emphasis again):

I do not think, however, that I have even yet brought out the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement. I mean the inexpugnable 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. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research: that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted on the European mind? When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilisations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality. Remember that I am not talking of the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries. By this I mean the instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words. In Asia, the conceptions of God were of a being who was either too arbitrary or too impersonal for such ideas to have much effect on instinctive habits of mind. Any definite occurrence might be due to the fiat of an irrational despot, or might issue from some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things. There was not the same confidence as in the intelligible rationality of a personal being. I am not arguing that the European trust in the scrutability of nature was logically justified even by its own theology. My only point is to understand how it arose. My explanation is that the faith in the possibility to science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.

These overall arguments are based on detailed comparisons of how scientific ideas developed in many other societies, cultures and religions. The dominant fact is the failure of science to develop and expand to its modern form in any of those societies despite many of them having an apparently large lead on medieval Europe in some key technologies and scientific discoveries. Those who argue that Chinese, Arab or Greek ideas were the real origin of modern science need to find convincing explanations for why the development of science stopped in those cultures and failed to produce what we know as modern science.

The historic details are significant. One key development was made by the 14th century French Priest Buridan who was instrumental in breaking the Aristololean orthodoxy about the motion of objects and of being the first person to express the modern concept of inertia. Buridan opposed the theological implications of Aristotle's philosophy. But overthrowing that orthodoxy (for example the belief that heavy objects fell faster than light objects) was essential for allowing modern empirical physics to develop.

I won't include more details in this already long answer, but the significant point to emphasise is simple: the modern belief that christianity is implacably opposed to knowledge and progress in science is simply untrue given what we know about history. And a reasonable case can be made that science as we know it is dependent on the philosophical underpinnings that came, almost uniquely, with christianity.

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    This is pretty interesting, but I can't vote it up because you're not actually answering the question: "Is Christianity responsible for the scientific method?" Instead you seem to be answering an entirely differently question, "Are Christianity and science compatible?" – Brendan Long Jan 25 '12 at 4:37
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    @BrendanLong I think I need to overcome the popular default answer that the church is implacably anti-science before getting to the final point which is that historically western christianity added something unique to the culture of science enabling it to grow strong. – matt_black Jan 25 '12 at 8:56
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    "For a start, the ideas the church was supposed to be defending (Aristotle's philosophy and Ptolemy's astronomy) were not Christian ideas at all)." This looks like a non-sequitur to me. Whether you suppress a scientist for arguing against a Greek idea or a Christian idea, you are still suppressing a scientist. Have I missed something? (Disclaimer: I've never read a reliable history of the Galileo story. I only know pop versions.) – Oddthinking Jan 30 '12 at 0:41
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    "the idea that Christianity has consistently opposed science is historically false" This section seems to be arguing that either Christians are not always opposed to science, or maybe that some Christians are in favour of science. I'm wondering if that is a strawman. Being able to find >0 Christians embracing any particular scientific idea doesn't prove there is or isn't a strong history of science-rejection. – Oddthinking Jan 30 '12 at 0:47
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    @Oddthinking Thanks for the critique: I'm sure I will have to edit my argument a lot more. But a key point is that we have to look at what actually happened in history, and not use an extrapolation (interpolation?) of our current view of the science-religion debate. Many of the points you raise are just that: looking back from today's situation and not looking at the way history actually played out. – matt_black Jan 30 '12 at 10:12

Yes, Christianity is in part responsible for the development of modern science and its concomitant methodology. It has stimulated the progress of science by:

1. distinguishing natural science from theology

One argument, by 1987 Templeton Prize winner Stanley L. Jaki in his

and, more recently, Dr. Stacy Trasancos in her

is that Christianity helped free thinkers from Greek monism/pantheism. Many Greek philosophers thought that the world was an extension of God; thus, for them there was no difference between the study of the natural world ("physics" or natural science) and the study of the divine/God ("theology"). However, pantheism is a heresy for Christianity. The Christian philosopher Boethius (c. 475-526 AD) promoted Aristotle's division of the sciences:

Boethius, following Aristotle, wrote that the "Speculative sciences may be divided into three kinds: physics, mathematics, and metaphysics" (§II of Boethius's De Trinitate):

  1. Physics [i.e., natural philosophy] deals with that which is in motion and material.
    [ens mobile or "mobile/changeable being"]
  2. Mathematics deals with that which is material and not in motion.
    [∵ mathematical objects, "mathematicals," do not move or change]
  3. Metaphysics* [or "theology"] deals with that which is not in motion nor material.
    *in the Aristotelian sense: the study of "being qua being;" more properly called "metascience," it is what today is called the "philosophy of science" because metascience/metaphysics studies being in general, whereas the particular sciences study specific beings (e.g., biology studies living beings, etc.).

(source: my answer to the Philosophy StackExchange question "Are philosophy and science mergeable today?")

2. freeing science from dogmatism and presumption

Here are some examples:

  1. Bishop Etienne Tempier's 1277 condemnations censured theses that intransigent Aristotelians held regarding the impossibility of motion in the void, the plurality of worlds, and limits on God's omnipotence. The physicist and historian and philosopher of physics Pierre Duhem claimed that 1277 marked the independence day of modern science from dogmatic Aristotelianism.

  2. St. Robert Bellarmine wrote to Galileo that he would believe Galileo's claims of the mobility of the earth if Galileo would present him empirical evidence; however, Galileo did not have such empirical evidence at the time.

    • Duhem suggests that in one respect, at least, Bellarmine had shown himself a better scientist than Galileo by disallowing the possibility of a “strict proof” of the earth’ motion, on the grounds that an astronomical theory merely “saves the appearances” without necessarily revealing what “really happens.”
      (source)
    • Galileo realized that physical theories are only provisional. As he wrote to Francesco Rinuccini, Arcetri, 29 March 1641:
      The falsity of the Copernican system needs not be called into doubt, and especially by us Catholics, having the irrefragable authority of Sacred Scripture, interpreted by the supreme masters in Theology, whose concordant consensus renders us certain of the stability of the Earth placed in the center, and of the mobility of the Sun around it. The conjectures then for which Copernicus and his other followers have professed the contrary, are all lifted with that most solid argument of the Omnipotence of God, Who can do in diverse—rather, in infinite ways—that to our opinion and observation seem done in one particular way; we should not want to shorten the hand of God and tenaciously sustain that in which we can be deceived.
      (source: my answer to the History StackExchange question "Why was Copernicus not persecuted by the church, but Galileo was?")
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    You give two anecdotes about Christians separating science from dogmatism and presumption. There is a big leap from that to a general rule that Christians (tend to) separate science from dogmatism and presumption, and then another leap to suggest the institution of Christianity does it, rather than individual Christians. – Oddthinking Nov 7 '17 at 16:54
  • @Oddthinking How do you define dogma? – Geremia Nov 7 '17 at 16:58
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    You used the phrase "freeing science from dogmatism and presumption". I just echoed it. I assume you are using the typical dictionary usage. Whatever definition you are using, this is a red herring argument that doesn't address my point. You extrapolate a broad generalisation from two historical anecdotes. – Oddthinking Nov 7 '17 at 17:20

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