Christianity across denominations (though mostly Protestant evangelicals) is responsible for why the majority of the American public does not believe in evolutionary science today. Martin Luther, citing Joshua 10:13, refused to believe in a Heliocentric solar system. Millions of Americans today, thanks to groups like Answers in Genesis, adhere to Young Earth creationism and reject the findings of astronomical science. Even apologists who try to harmonize religion and science and take a, so called, “Old Earth” creationist stance frequently fight hard to keep the gaps of science in the dark: they oppose theories about natural abiogenesis, natural cosmological origin, and anything else that might close the gaps and eliminate the need for a god.
The list above is short and I could go much further. However, the evidence is clear to any informed person who has studied scientific trends since the Renaissance: many Christians, relying on the Bible as their guide for the universe, have been enemies of modern science for centuries. The cause is quite simple: when someone adheres to a set of scriptures as inerrant, they must oppose, deny, or seek to harmonize any evidence that contradicts it. (Note: this does not imply that all Christians are inerrantists, nor that all accept literal interpretations of Genesis, etc.)
Before scripture-based monotheistic religions covered the Western World, the Hellenistic and Roman world had largely enjoyed secular science. This is not to say there was no religion; there were thousands of religions. But polytheistic religions in antiquity were ritual-based, traditional, and did not rely on canonical scriptures. The Greeks who wished to learn about the natural world did not turn to their religion or to any sacred texts. Instead, men like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle cultivated natural philosophy as the means for learning about the world around them. They allowed their conclusions to go wherever the evidence might lead them and religious dogma seldom stood in the way. They did not have a Bible to give them their answers: they had their senses, their reason, and their philosophical discourse as their toolset to find the answers. These men, and the many philosophical schools that followed them, were Pagan polytheists, but Paganism was not responsible for the birth of science in antiquity. Instead, science flourished in the Pagan Greek world because polytheism seldom stood in the way of it.
Nevertheless, a growing slogan has emerged in apologetics, which attempts to describe the discovery of modern science a Christian achievement:
“Belief in the rationality of God not only led to the inductive method but also led to the conclusion that the universe is governed rationally be discoverable laws. This assumption is vitally important to research because in a pagan or polytheistic world, which saw its gods often engaged in jealous, irrational behavior in a world that was nonrational, any systematic investigation would seem futile.”
-Alvin Schmidt, “Science: Its Christian Connections” (pg. 221)
Specialist in ancient science, Richard Carrier, had only this to say at such a patently false statement:
“This is not only false in every conceivable detail but so egregiously false that anyone with even the slightest academic competence and responsibility should have known it was false. Which means it’s advocates, all of whom claim to be scholars, must either be embarrassingly incompetent, perversely dishonest, or wildly deluded.”
-The Christian Delusion (pg. 400-1)
I highly recommend that anyone who has heard this slogan read Carrier’s articles “Christianity Wasn’t Responsible For Modern Science” in The Christian Delusion. Carrier goes into great detail discussing how this supposed cause of modern science was in place for a thousand years, yet no science flourished during the Christian Middle Ages, how the scientists who did allude to the Bible during the Renaissance only did so in order that their findings would not receive church discrimination, and how science flourished during Pagan antiquity to levels that should amaze us. The only reason we have the benefits of modern science today is in spite of Christianity, thanks to the Enlightenment and the rise of Secularism.
I also write this blog because I find one of the premises in this slogan to be so flawed that it needs to be addressed: apologists are often so imbued with a religio-centric worldview that they actually believe that the Pagan Greeks would have based their interest in science on their religion, as if one’s religion is their primary motivation for studying the natural world. Schmidt, for example, when stating that Paganism “saw its gods often engaged in jealous, irrational behavior in a world that was nonrational” confuses polytheistic religion with its myths and literature (does he really think Ovid’s Metamorphoses is religious scripture?). Let’s grant Schmidt’s unwarranted premise that Pagan religion was nonrational; that would never impede science from flourishing in Pagan antiquity.
Religion can only stand in the way of science when there are dogmatic doctrines that make claims about the natural world. In a religion that is traditional or ritual-based, one can approach the natural sciences without having as many a priori dictates on their discoveries. Pagan polytheism was never responsible for ancient science; however, it was more compatible with it.
The science and philosophy that thrived in the Pagan Greek world was so successful that early Christians had to borrow from Plato and Aristotle to construct their theologies. The Judeo-Christian god and its scriptures were never based on “induction,” as Schmidt imagines, but on revelation, (unfulfilled) prophecy, supernatural visions, and religious authority. The Pagans had their oracles, their astrologers, and their augers, but their philosophers and their scientists could operate more freely from them. The Middle Ages saw philosophy be chained to religion, in the form of theology, and since then it has taken centuries to fully break it free.
Despite the lack of demonstrable results, the supposed reasons that Schmidt believed Christianity would encourage science is because it allegedly teaches that the universe is rationally governed by discoverable laws. But if a god existed he could merely teach them to us. In fact, Genesis did seek to provide religious revelation about the formation of the world and the cosmos; it was just demonstrably and wildly wrong.
In a naturalist universe, nature does us no favors. We have to use our senses, conduct experimentation, and find the answers. This is why it took hundreds of thousands of years for humans to even discover rudimentary agriculture. Could you imagine a god who supposedly gives us knowledge allowing the earth to live in barbaric ignorance for that long? But there is no need for a deity for there to be a rational universe and discoverable laws. All there needs to be is patterns in nature, observable to us, and methods for testing the world around us. This whole process requires no religion and is entirely secular.
Ultimately, science only needs one thing to flourish: curiosity. If religion does not stand in the way of curiosity, then it is merely irrelevant. If its dogma opposes the potential for new discoveries, then it is anti-scientific. Pagan polytheism was more compatible with science, while many Christians have been historic and present adversaries to science. Nevertheless, it is Secularism and a healthy curiosity of nature that has been the champion of science in all periods.