Neither Paganism nor Christianity Was Responsible for Science

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 Religious DiscoveriesJudeo-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.

-Matthew Ferguson

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3 Responses to Neither Paganism nor Christianity Was Responsible for Science

  1. More falsehoods and polemics from Christian apologist David Marshall:

    Several months back I wrote a blog post that both compiled and refuted a number of false statements that Christian apologist David Marshall was making about me and my blog, one of which was the notion that I am a Christ mythicist, even though I have overtly stated on the blog that I am not a mythicist. Marshall likewise stated that I had “not yet really read the gospels in a serious way,” when I have taken multiple graduate seminars studying the New Testament and Christian origins.

    For a discussion of Marshall’s academic background, and the fact that Marshall has little academic training pertaining to Biblical Studies, I recommend a blog post by Biblical Studies scholar Hector Avalos, titled “Why David Marshall Is Not a Biblical Scholar.”

    After his polemical attack on my blog several months ago, Marshall received a large amount of negative criticism, including one commenter who remarked:

    “You had to back pedal furiously to give Ferguson credit for his language skills. After first arrogantly claiming you had read all extant novels in ancient Greek then, after realizing how badly you’d stepped in it, admitting you only read “some Koine Greek”. And then, even more hilariously, you down played the skills needed to determine genre and said that “any good translation” would be sufficient. Consider for a moment, the possibility that it’s not Ferguson who is blind but the more likely probability that the “scholar” who has already decided what the truth is, is exhibiting confirmation and selection bias. Really. Consider it … If you don’t understand that you sneered at Matthew Ferguson, who is patently head and shoulders above you morally as well as intellectually, from your very first encounter you are truly one of the most delusional people I have ever met.”

    From this reaction, I am glad to see that, despite Marshall’s attempts to spread false statements about me, people are still seeing through his tricks, and catching him on his overt dishonesty.

    In an attempt to slander me, yet again, however, David Marshall wrote a post yesterday, titled “History of Science trips up Matthew Ferguson.” In the post, Marshall responds to an old blog post that I wrote 2 ½ years ago, a post so old that it actually belonged to my old blog server, before I moved to WordPress.

    In his response, Marshall attempts to catch me in some “sloppy” quotations of the article “Christianity Wasn’t Responsible For Modern Science” by ancient historian Richard Carrier in The Christian Delusion. Carrier’s research in ancient history focuses on ancient science, in particular, making Carrier, unlike David Marshall, an expert on the subject.

    Let’s take a look at Marshall’s accusations, since all of them can be addressed by simply reading Carrier’s article and my (short and old) blog post summarizing it:

    1. Marshall accuses me of misquoting a statement by Carrier, in response to Alvin Schmidt, by claiming that Carrier was not responding to Schmidt directly:

    “What is Carrier talking about? What does his first word, “this,” refer to? Is he rebutting Schmidt? Is he even rebutting the argument Ferguson cites from Schmidt? No, the antecedent from Carrier is more general … It is remarkably sloppy “scholarship” to begin such a harsh critique with a pronoun that seems to be directed at one set of arguments from one writer, but is actually referring to a general criticism with which it is not at all identical!”

    Let’s take a look at what Carrier says, in context. Here is what is written at the beginning of the article by Carrier that I quoted. The article begins (pp. 393-394) with two quotations, the second of which I quoted a selection from (highlighted in bold):

    “As a new generation of historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science has proven, biblical religion was not the enemy of science but rather the intellectual matrix that made it possible in the first place. Without the key insights that Christianity found celebrated in the Bible and spread throughout Europe, science would never have happened … The evidence is incontrovertible: It was the rational theology of both the Catholic Middle Ages and the Protestant Reformation — inspired by the explicit and implicit truths revealed in the Jewish Bible — that led to the discoveries of modern science” (Robert Hutchinson, “The Biblical Origins of Modern Science,” pg. 139).

    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 by discoverable laws. This assumption is vitally important to scientific 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 of such a world would seem futile. Only in Christian thought, which posits ‘the existence of a single God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, [one that] functions in an orderly and normally predictable manner’ is it possible for science to exist and operate” (Alvin Schmidt, “Science: Its Christian Connections,” pg. 221).

    Now, let’s take a look at what I quoted from Carrier, in context:

    “These two quotes succinctly describe a new delusion creeping around the halls of conservative academia: the belief that Christianity not only caused modern science, but was necessary for modern science even to exist. As the story now goes, not only has Christianity never been at odds with science, but it was actually the savior of science, the only worldview that could ever make science possible. And that’s why the Scientific Revolution only ever sparked in one place: a thoroughly Christian society.

    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…”

    What was the antecedent of Carrier’s “this”? Marshall only quotes:

    “As the story now goes, not only has Christianity never been at odds with science and never impeded it in any way, but it was actu­ally the savior of science, the only worldview that could ever make science possible. And that’s why the Scientific Revolution only ever sparked in one place: a thoroughly Christian society.”

    And yet Marshall leaves out the crucial introduction to the same paragraph that links it to the earlier two quotes, one of which I quoted from Schmidt:

    “These two quotes succinctly describe a new delusion creeping around the halls of conservative academia: the belief that Christianity not only caused modern science, but was necessary for modern science even to exist.”

    So the antecedent of Carrier’s “this” clearly referred to the two quotes that Carrier had quoted at the beginning of the article. To call this a “sloppy” misquotation, I think, is quite a stretch, and Marshall is merely straining to find some trivial error to attack me on, even though Carrier is clearly responding to Schmidt in the selection that I quoted.

    2. Marshall also states:

    “Furthermore, Carrier’s generalized argument, the one Ferguson agrees was wrong, was specific about praising Christianity as a necessary cause of science. But Schmidt merely says “belief in God,” which would include Islam, Judaism, many forms of Hinduism or Confucianism or Taoism, at least potentially. Whether Schmidt is right or wrong, anyone who fails to differentiate the two arguments, is a wretched scholar, at best. (If we grant that dishonesty is worse than stupidity and carelessness.)”

    And yet Schmidt clearly states in the quote:

    “Only in Christian thought, which posits ‘the existence of a single God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, [one that] functions in an orderly and normally predictable manner’ is it possible for science to exist and operate.”

    And the title of Schmidt’s chapter is “Science: Its Christian Connections” in Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization. Marshall leaves out all of this context.

    3. Marshall also claims that I actually contradict the conclusion of Carrier’s article. This is also false. Here is what Marshall quotes from my blog post. I have bolded the selection that Marshall quotes, but also included the crucial details that Marshall leaves out:

    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 a religious text?). Let’s grant Schmidt’s unwarranted premise that Pagan religion was nonrational; that would never impede science from flourishing in Pagan antiquity.”

    Marshall leaves out the fact that I pointed out how Schmidt is defining Pagan religion in terms of its *mythology*. However, actual Pagan *theology* was far more complex. I not only discuss these nuances in my review of Zaidman and Pantel’s “Religion in the Ancient Greek City”, as well as my essay “Missing Religious Ontologies in Ancient Polytheism,” but likewise Carrier explains how Schmidt is mischaracterizing Pagan theology.

    Here is what Marshall quotes from Carrier:

    “Most intellectual polytheists believed in a Creator who had intelligently ordered the cosmos, that this order could be discovered by the human mind, and that such discovery honored God. Scientists like Galen and Ptolemy were thus motivated to pursue scientific inquiry by their religious piety . . . ” (407)

    And, indeed, this contradicts Schmidt’s claim that the Paganism “saw its gods often engaged in jealous, irrational behavior in a world that was nonrational,” when Pagans such as Galen and Ptolemy did not see it that way. This corresponds to what I stated about how the features of Pagan *mythology* should not be confused with Pagan *theology*.

    Marshall also sarcastically states:

    “How silly of those Christian apologists who think religion is so darn important that it might have actually inspired the ancient Greeks in how they explore and understand the world!”

    And yet, a fuller reading of Carrier’s article (pg. 403) reveals the fact that many Pagans did not turn to religion or theology, but rather to inherent nature, to provide a basis for their scientific study:

    “Hence ancient doubters and pantheists, like Strato, Erasistratus, Epicurus, or Asclepiades sought explanations in the inevitable interaction of natural laws and forces. They didn’t use our ‘law’ metaphor but only others instead, like ‘physical necessity’ and the ‘inherent nature’ of things, but these amounted to the same thing: objects floated on water, for example, because of the inevitable interaction of innate forces in a discernible pattern. No God needed. No belief in Creation required.”

    And so, when I stated:

    “[A]pologists 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.”

    Carrier, indeed, listed many other Pagans who did not base their scientific inquiries on their theology — such as Strato, Erasistratus, Epicurus, or Asclepiades. In other words, Pagan theology was not a necessary groundwork for many Pagans to explore science, just as I stated in this blog post, titled “Neither Paganism Nor Christianity Was Responsible for Science.”

    Marshall concludes his polemic with the following condescension:

    “Some days I think defending Christianity against the sort of critics it faces these days is Just. Too. Darn. Easy. All one has to do, 90% of the time, is read their sources more carefully than they do themselves.”

    I encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about Marshall’s dishonest tactics, and his amatuer apologetics, to read John Loftus’ “When Will Apologist David Marshall Learn He’s Out of His League? Never?,” which also includes links to other blog posts that document Marshall’s dishonesty, and his trolling of other blogs over the last several years.

  2. Ah, it also looks like Nick Peters, whom I had a telephone debate with a couple years back, is also making a number of statements on Marshall’s post that do not align with the content of my blog. Nick states in a comment:

    Let’s looks at what I have written about Aquinas’ notion of divine simplicity:

    “[1] The concept of divine simplicity is discussed by medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, part 1, question 3. There are eight articles for this question, in which Aquinas discusses the simplicity of God. Aquinas argues that God is simple because (1) God does not have a body, (2) God is not composed of matter and form, (3) God is the same as his essence or nature, (4) God is his own existence, (5) God does not belong to a genus, (6) there are no accidents in God, (7) God is not a composition of parts, and (8) God does not enter into composition with other things.

    I do not think that any of these attributes, however, apply to the argument that Richard Dawkins is raising with Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit. Dawkins is not arguing, for example, that God is a body composed of matter and form. This is how William Craig misinterprets Dawkins argument when he states:

    “[A]s a mind without a body, God is amazingly simple. Being immaterial, He has no physical parts.”

    Rather, Dawkins is not saying that God is complex because he is composed of material parts, but instead that God is complex because of his intelligence. For complex biological organisms to be explained as the creation of an intelligent designer, we first have to assume a more complex intelligence capable of designing such complexity. In this way, Dawkins is arguing that God is teleologically complex, not that he is physically complex.

    Dawkins argument can be broken down nicely by a distinction between Platonic teleology and Aristotelian teleology, offered by philosopher André Ariew in “Platonic and Aristotelian Roots of Teleological Arguments” (pp. 8-9):

    “[W]e can distinguish two distinct conceptions of teleology in Aristotle’s writings and at least two sub-categories:

    I. Agency-centered teleology:
    Behavioral. Activities undertaken for the sake of something, which may be either a state or further action.
    Artifactual. Activities undertaken for the sake of producing an object of a certain sort (artificial).

    II. Teleology pertaining to natural organisms.
    Formal. Biological developmental processes that occur for the sake of self-preservation or preservation of the species (form).
    Functional. Parts of organisms that are present for the sake of the organism possessing them.

    I and II are distinct notions of teleology … Agent-specific teleology (I) is purposive, rational, and intentional, and represents external evaluation. The goal is the object of an agent’s desire or choice … Teleology pertaining to natural organisms is distinct: non-purposive (though seemingly so), non-rational, non-intentional, and immanent — that is, an inner principle of change. The goal is not an object of any agent’s desire.”

    What Dawkins is arguing is that it is a far simpler explanation that complex biological organisms are formal and functional, rather than the product of some agency-centered teleology, like God. This kind of simplicity, as a theoretical virtue, is discussed by philosopher Graham Oppy (The Best Argument Against God, pp. 13):

    “If everything is equal, we should prefer the more simple theory to the less simple theory. If everything else is equal, we should prefer the theory that postulates fewer (and less complex) primitive entities.”

    What Dawkins is arguing, therefore, is that theism posits a more complex primitive entity, in the form of God’s intelligence, when creationists, for example, appeal to God’s design to explain biological complexity. However, the formal and functional features of evolution (following Aristotelian teleology) are far less complex than the behavioral and artifactual features of intelligent design (following Platonic teleology). In this way, God’s intelligence and agency is more complex than unguided evolution, which does not imply that Dawkins is arguing that God is complex in the sense of being a body made of physical parts.”

    Clearly I am addressing the Thomists on this point, despite whatever Nick likes to claim about “atheists online.” I have also written more about Summa Theologica here.

  3. Marshall says Christianity provided the “intellectual matrix” for science. That is the dependency thesis. And there are light and heavy dependency theses, as well as non-dependency theses. Read up Marshall, read up… Here are some resources and quotations, including some from theistic and even Christian scholars, that Marshall apparently missed.

    http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2015/07/how-and-why-did-scientific-revolution.html

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