Which came first, science or religion?

Science is a deeply human activity that people have been doing long before the ‘scientific revolution’ a few hundred years ago[1] – but then so is religion. Is there any evidence to suggest which came first? Did early human beings find themselves thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of the universe, then become motivated to investigate the world around them more intensively, or Continue reading

Earthworms and Orchids: Why the founders of modern science cultivated virtue

© Alfred Borchard, www.freeimages.com
© Alfred Borchard, http://www.freeimages.com

I met a man at a conference this year who said he has spent his whole life studying. I have no idea how he funds his insatiable appetite for new knowledge, but it seems he has spent his days going from one topic to the other, modelling himself as a renaissance man. He told me stories of people in 1970’s Germany who spent ten to fifteen years on a single undergraduate degree, often taking just one class at a time. For him, learning was of such value that it was worth approach it steadily and patiently, as a means in itself. I find this attitude a bit extreme, but it’s an interesting way of looking at life!

I recognised this perspective when I heard Richard Bellon, Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University, speak recently on values in the scientific community. Bellon has been studying Victorian scientists, or – as he says on his website – ‘obsessing about men with muttonchops who obsessed over the sex lives of plants’. Continue reading

What’s in a name?

Mateusz Stachowski, www.freeimages.com
© Mateusz Stachowski, http://www.freeimages.com

I recently discovered that a poet is at least partly responsible for the label ‘scientist’. Before the nineteenth century people who studied the material world called themselves natural philosophers.[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge objected to this title, and although I’m sure he was not the only one who initiated a change, he was certainly involved in the renaming process. Coleridge’s suggestion was opposed by two famous scientists, and the resulting story is a fascinating insight into the real world of science and religion.

Not content with writing innovative poems like Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge was also a philosopher and literary critic. He was great friends with the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davey and a number of other Continue reading

Big Bang, Big God

big bang big God coverThe development of the Big Bang theory is an example of how faith responses can contribute to the scientific discussion in a positive way. Rodney Holder, an Anglican priest and former cosmologist, has contributed to this conversation for a number of years. He has just published a new book, ‘Big Bang Big God: A Universe designed for life?’ that aims to bring the debate to a wider audience.

Until the 1920’s, the scientific consensus was that the universe is a static entity: it has always been there, and it always will. Einstein’s general theory of relativity linked matter, time and space and Einstein came up with a solution which gave a static, eternal universe. In 1927 the Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaitre came up with another solution, in which the universe was expanding.

A couple of years after Lemaitre came up with his new model, Edwin Hubble discovered astronomical evidence for an expanding universe – the famous redshift. Then in 1931 Lemaître came up with a further solution in which the universe expanded from a highly compact initial state which he called the ‘primeval atom’. Some scientists objected to Lemaitre’s proposal. Einstein thought it was ‘abominable’, and the Cambridge Professor of Astronomy Fred Hoyle derisively called it the ‘Big Bang theory’, Continue reading

The Christian Roots of Modern Science

16th century manuscript, Andrew Beierle, www.sxc.hu
16th century manuscript. Photo © Andrew Beierle, http://www.sxc.hu

If I could travel back in time to ask Isaac Newton about the relationship between science and religion, he would probably be completely nonplussed by the question. In the late seventeenth century, when Newton was teaching maths at Trinity College, Cambridge, the word ‘science’ was used more broadly to refer to a body of organised knowledge. Theology, maths, classics, astronomy and all the other sciences were integrated into the body of ‘natural philosophy’, which was taught by ‘natural philosophers’. William Whewell, another Cambridge academic and Master of Trinity College, coined the word ‘scientist’ in 1834 to describe someone who carried out experiments to discover things about the natural world, and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that British natural philosophers actually began to call themselves scientists.

Denis Alexander used this story to illustrate his lecture on the history of the dialogue between science and religion at a recent retreat led by Faraday staff at Launde Abbey. He described the development of science as a relay race where the baton was passed from ancient Greek philosophers to Islamic scholars, and then on to Christians in Europe, including Newton. Obviously the early stages were important, but a number of ideas stemming from Christian theology were absolutely key to the development of what we now know as science. Continue reading

Why would a scientist be a Christian?

Open the laboratory door. © Ruth Bancewicz

Last week I spoke to some students about why a scientist should think about Christianity. Here are my top three reasons – see what you think.

1. Science flourished in the Christian west

Science has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy, which could be described as a ‘proto-science’ involving geometry. Greek texts made their way to the Islamic world, where mathematics, philosophy and experimental science were carried out between the 8th and 16th centuries. (After this, science died out in the Islamic world for a while and scholars have not been able to agree why.) Towards the end of the Middle Ages Arabic texts found their way to Europe, were translated into Latin, and people started to do science, or ‘natural philosophy’, as it was called then. Europe in the Middle Ages was Christian, so almost all of the early scientists in Europe were Christians. And today, a good proportion of current scientists are Christians.

2. Christian theology informed the development of science

A number of historians and philosophers of science, Roger Trigg included, would say that science really only flourished once some of the Greek philosophical ideas about the world were replaced with theological ideas. One example is Continue reading

God’s Works

© Ruth Bancewicz

I have been reading Nancy Frankenberry’s book ‘The Faith of Scientists’. The first four scientists covered – Galileo, Kepler, Francis Bacon and Pascal – were all Christians, and then the definition of faith gets somewhat broader. Einstein, Dyson, Dawkins and others are included, some of whom are vigorously against any kind of faith… I want to focus here on Francis Bacon, well known for his contribution to the development of experimental science, and whose understanding of science and Christianity is fascinating. His faith informed his thinking and writing in a very overt way, though he was largely in favour of keeping science separate from theology. (Bacon would have been shocked by Kepler, ten years his junior, whose science was so obviously driven by his theology.) In his writing Bacon highlighted the importance of some things that are now taken for granted, and contribute to the pursuit and transparency of science.

1.     The need to ‘ask the right questions’ in approaching new fields of study

2.     Appending methods to scientific papers

3.     Publishing errata

Bacon saw science as an act of Christian service, and took truth-telling very seriously. He was keenly aware of our ability to deceive even ourselves.

May God never allow us to publish a dream of our imagination as a model of the world, but rather graciously grant us the power to describe the true appearance and revelation of the prints and traces of the Creator in his creatures.

Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration, 1620

if in anything I have been either too credulous or too little awake and attentive, or if I have fallen off by the way and left the inquiry incomplete, nevertheless I so present these things naked and open, that my errors can be marked and set aside before the mass of knowledge be further infected by them; and it will be easy also for others to continue and carry on my labours.

Francis Bacon, the New Organon, 1620

Finally, I want to share this prayer, taken from Bacon’s ‘New Organon’. This is a great attitude for work of any sort, let alone science, which can feel so fruitless at times.

And therefore, Father, you who have given visible light as the first fruits of creation and, at the summit of your works, have breathed intellectual light into the face of man, protect and govern this work, which began in your goodness and returns to your glory. After you had turned to view the works which your hands had made, you saw that all things were very good, and you rested. But man, turning to the works which his hands have made, saw that all things were vanity and vexation of spirit, and has had no rest. Wherefore if we labour in your works, you will make us to share in your vision and in your Sabbath. We humbly beseech that this mind may remain in us; and that you may be pleased to bless the human family with new mercies, through our hands and the hands of those others to whom you will give the same mind.

Francis Bacon, the New Organon, 1620 (my paragraph divisions)