Could an atheistic society have started the scientific revolution?

Let’s be clear about one thing: absolutely anyone, anywhere, can do science.

I mean, that’s obvious, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what views you have about religion or philosophy – all human beings are capable of rational thought and can make the same observations about the world.

If a Muslim, an Agnostic and a Christian all do the same experiment, they’re going to get the same results, because the cold hard facts of the universe don’t care what your personal beliefs are. 

Gravity is gravity, helium is helium, and blood cells are blood cells – whether you pray to Jesus, Thor, or nobody at all. Right?

Well, while this is certainly clear and true on the individual level, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all worldviews are equally good jumping off points for doing science. And to understand this, we need to think about underlying assumptions.

The Scientific Revolution, which began in the 1500s, was a unique period of unfathomable growth and advancement for the human race. It was during this time that many of the most remarkable advancements were made in the fields of mathematics, biology, physics, medicine, astronomy, anatomy, chemistry, and much more. Even the scientific method as we understand it today was fully fleshed out and developed during this time period.

And this revolution was built upon at least three major assumptions. 

Firstly, those involved assumed that the universe is rational and predictable – that there are observable constants that can be understood.

Secondly, they assumed that human beings can understand it. 

And thirdly, they assumed that it’s good to understand it – that the universe is worth studying.

You might say “Well sure, isn’t all that obvious? Of course those things are true.” But, in fact, those things are not obvious at all.

As Albert Einstein once famously said: 

“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility…The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”

And when you think about it, this is true. 

Why should the universe be reliable and constant? Why shouldn’t the force of gravity simply “turn off” tomorrow? Why do we assume that the fundamental forces and principles of nature will be courteous to us, or that they will stand still and let us observe them?

Well, luckily for us, we can ask the people who made these assumptions in the first place. They told us clearly what they were basing these ideas on. 

It was during this period that we were introduced to some of the most brilliant and legendary scientists in human history. Figures like Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Newton, and so on. Absolute titans on whose shoulders all of modern science rests.

And these men spoke quite openly about the underlying beliefs they had made as the foundation of their scientific endeavours.

Take Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) – the Swedish botanist and zoologist who invented our system of naming animals and plants. He is considered the father of modern taxonomy, and is one of the fathers of the field of ecology.

Linnaeus spoke of his motivation for studying nature:

“Theologically, man is to be understood as the final purpose of the creation; placed on the globe as the masterpiece of the works of Omnipotence, contemplating the world by virtue of sapient reason, forming conclusions by means of his senses. It is in His works that man recognizes the almighty Creator, the all-knowing, immeasurable and eternal God.”

 

So, in simple language, what he’s saying here is that because the universe was created by a divine intelligence, it is fundamentally rational, as are human beings. It was given to us by God, and that same God wants us to study it so we can better understand his nature.

Whether you agree with that or not isn’t relevant: that’s what Linnaeus believed, and that’s why he set out into the world with his scientific dials and instruments to see what this zoology business is all about.

Let’s take Michael Faraday, the father of electromagnetism, who said:

The Book of Nature we have to read is written by the finger of God.”

Take James Joule – pioneer of thermodynamics, after whom the “joule” unit of energy is named. Joule said:

 

“It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed.”

 

Take Louis Pasteur, who gives “pasteurisation” its name and who pioneered bacteriology. Pasteur said:

“Posterity will one day laugh at the foolishness of modern materialistic philosophers. The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator. I pray while I am engaged at my work in the laboratory.”

Isaac Newton, father of calculus who devised the theory of gravity, said harshly:

“Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors…this [the universe] did not happen by chance.”

On and on these kinds of statements go – I won’t bore you with example exhaustion. For those who are interested, a more indepth look at similar quotes can be found below.

 

The point is, religion to these men was not merely an incidental thing, like they happened to have brown hair, or like beer. It was not an irrelevant fact that they left behind when they entered the lab. 

Many of them were not only religious, but clergymen – William of Okham, who gives us “Ockham’s Razor,” was a Franciscan monk. Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics, was an Augustinian friar and abbot. Georges Lemaitre, who first postulated the Big Bang theory, was a Belgian priest. The examples are endless. They were not lads who happened to be baptised but didn’t really take it that seriously – they wore collars and habits, and prayed throughout the workday.

These were men who believed that, because God had made them and the universe, that the highest form of worship was to study and understand that universe. And they knew they could understand it, because they were convinced that the world was not an accident – it had been put here for a reason by a superintellect. And basically all of modern science rests on these notions.

Now that we’ve relegated God to optional extra, we’ve kept those assumptions, because they seem to hold true. But one has to wonder – could we have gotten to where we are without those underlying beliefs?

Despite throwing out our faith, we still take science and its foundations for granted as a post-Christian culture. But it’s worth wondering if a society which rejected these ideas from the start could ever have achieved the scientific wonders that we have today.

 

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