Science and Religion, pt. 3: History II- The Scientific Age

February 21, 2018.

This is part three of the Science and Religion series. For part 1 or part 2, click on the respective links. For a PDF version, click here.

Dividing all of history up into two parts, premodern and modern, is probably naïve at best and I am not in any way trying to make the claim that this how we should look at our history. However, I think these two categories are especially helpful for our specific topic and context at hand because it sketches out some broad categories that we can understand without getting lost in the forest. It is hard to overstate the amount of influence that the culture we are a part of has on our thinking. This does not make our culture inherently good or bad. Rather, it is simply important that we understand the time and place we live in and how that affects our thinking. Here we will (very briefly, as again I am not the most qualified person to speak on these matters) discuss some of the relevant factors that lead to the rise of modern philosophy and our modern worldview.

The Greek Philosophers

It has been said that the rise modern thought came through “two staccato bursts”, 150 years of the Greek philosophers and 150 years of enlightenment thinkers.[1] Even if you know nothing about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, they have had an impact on you. These thinkers lived in the age of Classical Greece (in the 4th century BC) and shaped much of Greek and Roman thought. Their works were lost and legacy basically forgotten in the early middle ages, but resurfaced later and were brought to full force during the renaissance and enlightenment. Socrates is best known for his Socratic method, where he would simply ask questions and not give many answers. He was the first of the Western philosophers, followed by Plato, who has had a huge influence on Christian thought, particularly in our view of heaven.[2] Aristotle is known for his teaching on logic, along with a great many other things. Schools of philosophy were founded by these men, and they are considered the fathers of Western philosophy. Needless to say, much of the way we think at least in part owes itself to these men. It was their ideas of using logic and reason (along with other concepts) that are picked up by enlightenment thinkers and developed even further. Today, if you live in the West, logic and reason is probably the standard by which you judge most concepts and ideas. Indeed, many of our debates are guided by the rules that the Greek philosophers established. It is very hard for us to imagine a culture in which these values are not as heavily emphasized, much less think of that culture as on the same intellectual level (which would probably be arrogance on our part).  Again, I must say that I am not the best authority to speak about the specific teachings of these philosophers. I would encourage you to do some study about them to get a feel for how their thought has influenced your own.

Apart from these three philosophers (who were by no means the only Greeks), I think another sect of Greek thought should be highlighted due to their heavy influence on the later enlightenment thinkers and the founding fathers of America (or at least Thomas Jefferson)- the Epicureans. This school was founded by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived a little later than the fathers of Western philosophy mentioned above, and taught that the body and soul ended at the point of death and a materialism that was antagonistic to superstition and divine intervention. He taught that pleasure was the greatest good, though this pleasure was to be gained through a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends (as opposed to excess). His school of thought distanced the gods from any kind of interaction with humans and generally taught that the gods were neutral. It is through Epicureanism that the famous “problem of evil” was put forth. Epicureanism stood in opposition to Platonism and the Stoics and eventually died out only to be revived in the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson famously said that he was an Epicurean.[3] You can probably see how this line of thinking influences even our own time and can lead towards deism[4], or at least be compatible with it.

The Renaissance, Reformation and Scientific Revolution

After the fall of the Roman Empire (though there is disagreement over the exact dates/date ranges for this), Greek Philosophy was replaced with Medieval philosophy and the teaching and schools of thought discussed earlier were all but forgotten, and would remain that way for nearly, if not more than, 1,000 years. In the 14th century, the Renaissance began to pave the way to usher in what we tend to call the modern world/modern thought. The 14th through the 18th centuries (and beyond) was a time period of major revision and change in many areas in life. It has been said that though the word “revolution” had not gained the meaning it has today during this time period (until the time of the American and French revolutions), this did not mean the idea behind these radical revolutions wasn’t present.[5] The word that encompassed the idea at the time was “reformation,” specifically that of the Protestant Reformation, which was in no way short of a volatile revolution in Christianity that sparked years of religious warfare. The Protestant Reformation had a great effect on the mindset and philosophy at the time, in ways that were probably (consciously) undetectable to those living in the time. One lasting effect that the reformation has had was the idea that anyone (though the early reformers probably wouldn’t be totally on board with this idea) could read scripture and interpret it themselves. This would lead to a flurry of denominations that would eventually be formed through the 20th century (and beyond, again). But I would argue that this way of thinking not only affected religious thought, but many other aspects of contemporary (and subsequent) philosophy. It opened up a period of openly questioning the established traditions in search of truth.

From the 16th to the 18th century, what has been now termed as “the scientific revolution” began with Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe, though this took a number of years to be accepted by the consensus.[6] The prevailing cosmological view of the west up until this period was the one espoused by Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher whose ideas had been easily incorporated into church teaching and instruction. Aristotle taught a doctrine of matter and forms, the matter being that which had potential to be animated by the form. This stands in contrast to the atomism (the belief that nature consists of small indivisible particles) that was first put forth by Leucipus and Democtritus before Aristotle, and later would be picked back up (though substantially changed due to modern scientific knowledge) by scientists in the Scientific Revolution. Aristotle also taught that the universe consisted of a set of concentric spheres with the earth at the center. This stands in contrast with the heliocentric model that Copernicus would put forth, later defended by Galileo. These were not the only two ideas that stood in contrast with the “new science,” but they do serve as a good example of why the new science could indeed be seen as a revolution, and not easily accepted by contemporaries. Yet the new science pushed forward, crystalizing in Newtonian physics, adding to the tension and turmoil of the day. The Scientific Revolution would fuel the fire of rationalism and the Enlightenment, both in terms of growing knowledge and challenge to standing traditions.

Enlightenment and Rationalism

In what I see as a slight twist of irony, just as the scientific revolution had discarded the ideas of Aristotle about the natural world, the Enlightenment would pick up and expound upon the ideas presented in Greek philosophy. The Enlightenment spanned a time period from the late 17th century through the early 19th century, and has been said to have had “a far greater and more lasting impact on the formation of the modern world than any of the intellectual convulsions that preceded it”.[7] Whether or not this is truly the case, it certainly is true that the Enlightenment runs deep in modern Western, and specifically American, philosophy. The Enlightenment thinkers focused heavily on rationalism in their search for truth and ethics. There was a general trend away from divine answers in philosophy and nature, though this is not to say that enlightenment thinkers were inherently atheistic (many, if not the majority, were not). However, certain categories such as “natural” and “supernatural” were formed during this time period, and the way we would look at history and science would never be the same. Deism and Epicureanism saw a resurgence during this time.

It was very much in line with Enlightenment philosophy and ideals that America was formed. Many of the founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson mentioned above and Benjamin Franklin, fit squarely in enlightenment thinking. The declaration of Independence was at least in part based on the teachings of John Locke. The idea of separation of church and state comes from a persistent idea amongst some intellectuals during this time that religion should only play a role in people’s private lives, not in the public and political sphere.[8] Obviously, many of these ideas are still prevailing today, and we even take them for granted. However, modern rational through has been challenged by post-modernity, and philosophical ideas continue to evolve[9] as they have throughout history.

What does this mean for us?

This overview of the history of modern thought has been painfully brief, and many details are want to be developed further for a better understanding of our own history and context. However, my point in talking about this issue before we jump into the evolution debate is to make the point that our own thinking is firmly situated in a time an culture that heavily influences our ideas and reactions. In many ways, the perceived conflict between science and religion comes not from actual, fundamental differences, but our perception of both science and religion. I talk about this history not only to show our own context, but also to contend that everyone, every philosopher, every writer, every scientist, is in part a product of their culture and context. That is not to say there is no truth, or that truth is unattainable, but rather a word of caution and self-reflection which is needed if we are to actually seek truth. The Scientific Revolution was influenced by the Renaissance and a reaction to Aristotelian cosmology. The Reformation was in reaction to Roman Catholic dogma and corruption. The Enlightenment was in many ways a reaction to the consequences of the Protestant Reformation. The American Revolution was a product of the Enlightenment. This is not limited to philosophy and art, but is even apparent in science. Albert Einstein is famously quoted as having a mantra of “God does not play dice with the Universe”, which conveyed his antagonism towards the “new” quantum mechanics that showed that there was a fundamental random quality in physics.[10] Einstein had been so influenced by scientific determinism that he could not accept a new theory that introduced randomness in the laws governing the universe. Everything is shaped by what comes before it, and we need to recognize our own biases that come with this.

We have been heavily influenced by the Enlightenment (and other movements in our direct history or contemporary culture) in ways that are unconscious to us. Specifically, in America, American ideals have been ingrained in us from such an early age and so consistently that we often take these ideas as truth itself, rather than a view about reality. These ideas have been incorporated into Christianity as well. The fellowship that I am a part of which grew out of the Restoration Movement during the American Second Great Awakening heavily draws from Enlightenment principles of rationality and human reason. Further, much of the antagonism between science and Christianity in the 20th century was encouraged by both sides of the argument assuming Enlightenment ideals were true (in some way), and then fighting based on these assumptions. We live in a narrative that says that religion and science must stand diametrically opposed, and it is this philosophy (which was heavily present in the Enlightenment) that has led to the tension that we feel when the subject is brought up. What I am proposing (though it is certainly not original to me) is that this inherent opposition is not necessary. However, we are going to have to take a deep, introspective look into our own history and context to find out why we think the way we do if we are going to rise above our cultural biases and seek truth.

The next part in our series will discuss the perceived historical conflict between science and religion.



[1] Gottlieb, A. The dream of enlightenment: the rise of modern philosophy. (2016).

[2] See Wright, NT. Surprised by hope: Rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church. (2008) and Wright, N. T. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. (HarperCollins, 2016) for more on our Platonized eschatology.

[3] See Gottlieb, A. The dream of enlightenment: the rise of modern philosophy. (2016).

[4] Though it is important to note that the school of thought founded by Epicurus isn’t deism, per say, though the two lines of thinking are compatible. The Epicurean gods were not necessarily seen as creators whereas deistic god(s) typically were. But both philosophies held that the god(s) were far off and didn’t meddle in human affairs.

[5] See Wootton, D. Invention of science: a new history of the scientific revolution. (2015).

[6] For information concerning the scientific revolution, see Jacob, M. C. The Scientific Revolution: a brief history with documents. (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010).

[7] Pagden, A. The Enlightenment: and why it still matters. (2013). p. ix. I don’t agree with the totality of Pagden’s emphasis on the Enlighten, nor do I share his apparent overwhelming approval of all its concepts.

[8] Ibid, p. 132-133.

[9] I used the term “evolve” here (perhaps somewhat ironic to the current series) not to indicate a “progression forward”, but specifically to indicate change over time as the word intends.

[10] See Halpern, P. Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat. (Basic Books, 2015). Einstein actually was one of the great thinkers that paved the way to quantum mechanics, though when the theory was more fully developed, Einstein rejected it due to his own insistence on determinism, which would not allow for randomness in the laws that governed the universe. Though Einstein was not an atheist, his view on God were in no way traditional to the Judeao-Christian God. When asked, Einstein said he believed in Spinoza’s God, which was more or less nature itself. Spinoza was an Enlightenment philosopher and a proponent of modern biblical criticism.

2 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply, seasoned with salt.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s