Physicist Acknowledges Positive Role of Religion in Science
How can science reject religion, when many of the founding fathers of science were men of strong Biblical faith?
In a headline unusual for The Conversation, which often acts as a podium for atheists, Tom McLeish says, “Religion isn’t the enemy of science: it’s been inspiring scientists for centuries.” His opening sentences summarizes the angle he takes:
Take notice of any debate in the media and you’ll see that science and religion are, and always were, at loggerheads. Science is about evidence-based fact, religion is about faith-based belief.
But repeating statements endlessly in the media doesn’t make them true. The actual entanglements of religious tradition and the development of science are far more interesting than the superficial conflict common today – and far more important. And rethinking how we view the relationship between science and religion could help give scientific thinking the wider public support it needs.
McLeish, a Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York, specializes in soft matter, rheology and biological physics, his author profile says. He works as a theoretician, but keeps in close touch with experimentalists. And he knows something about the history of science, an expertise often lacking in today’s Big Science communities. Many assume, for instance, medieval scientists blindly followed Aristotle, but McLeish knows the history is more nuanced than the picture of 17th century scientific giants finally casting off old myths of darkness and seeing the light for the first time.
When Aristotle was reintroduced to Europe in the 12th century, his scientific work had a great influence on medieval scholars, who were invariably thinkers within a church, synagogue or mosque. A key example is the 13th-century Oxford theologian and later Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, who was also a pioneering early scientist. He presented a vision for how we might obtain new knowledge of the universe, the dawning of the first notions of experiment, and even a “big bang” theory of the cosmos and a concept of multiple universes.
The views of Grosseteste are not exactly like those of modern secular cosmologists, to be sure. Most importantly, he saw the investigation of nature as an act of worship that glorifies God. Like Roger Bacon, his pupil, Grosseteste denounced magic, superstition and irrationality. To these scholars, nature reflected the rationality, orderliness and beauty of their Creator. Their views influenced many subsequent natural philosophers.
Yet underneath Grosseteste’s work lies a much deeper and developing philosophy of nature. In a commentary on Aristotle’s Posteria Analytics, he describes a uniquely human propensity he calls (in Latin) “sollertia”. By this he means a sort of intense and perceptive ability to look beyond the surface of the material world into its inner structure.
This is remarkably similar to our approach to science today. Isaac Newton described his science as “seeing further than others”. For Grosseteste, our sollertia comes in turn from being created in the image of God. It is a theologically motivated task that contributes to the fulfilment of being human.
McLeish continues with other Bible-believing scientists which we describe in our biographies at this site.
These and others “saw their task as working with God’s gifts of senses and minds to recover a lost knowledge of nature.” McLeish takes this spirit all the way back to the Biblical Book of Job, especially chapters 38-41, in which God quizzes Job on a list of scientific questions he knows Job cannot answer. Calling the book of Job a “foundation pillar for modern philosophy” on par with Plato. McLeish sees parallels with the kinds of questions scientists address today:
This is because Job deals head-on with the problem of an apparently chaotic and fitful world, alien to the human predicament and unmoved in the face of suffering. And this, [Susan] Neiman claims, is the starting point for philosophy.
It might also be the starting point for science, for Job also contains at its pivotal point the most profound nature poem of all ancient writings. Its verse form of questions is also striking to scientists from all ages, who know that asking the right creative questions – rather than always having the correct answer – is what unlocks progress.
In all, the book contains as many as 160 questions from the fields we now know as meteorology, astronomy, geology and zoology. The content of this timeless text has clearly steered the story of science for centuries.
McLeish hopes that “faith communities” will embrace this history. He thinks this will help them be “hugely in support of science,” but he fails to expect a reciprocal action on the part of scientists. “By embracing and supporting science, in turn, religious communities can contribute important perspectives on how we use it in our global future.”
This is a welcome change from the usual creation-bashing by atheists on The Conversation, but I wish McLeish would have stated the need for scientists to repent and recognize their debt to the Bible. Instead, these kinds of articles always view the motion in one direction: “faith communities” need to embrace science—or, more cynically, the People of Faith (whatever that is supposed to mean) need to knuckle under to the People of Froth. Lawrence Principe at Johns Hopkins commits this lopsided error in his otherwise interesting Teaching Company course on science and religion. A large part of the divide today comes from arrogant scientists pridefully looking down their snooty little Yoda noses at anyone who doubts their idol, King Charles (see 26-Jan-2018). From my experience that is a far bigger problem than “people of faith” refusing to embrace science.
I would also add Solomon to Job as a science promoter. Solomon undertook massive projects to study birds, plants, and other phenomena (I Kings 4:29-34). Although as an old man he lumped research, pleasure and writing books as “chasing after wind,” his zeal at investigation of nature, applying his God-given wisdom, clearly brought him pleasure and satisfaction for many years. His conclusion, “Fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12), does not negate the value of science, because he also said, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” Other Bible writers advocated study of God’s works as a way of fearing God and keeping His commandments. Psalm 111, for instance, includes research as an element of worship:
- Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart, in the company of the upright and in the assembly.
- Great are the works of the Lord; they are studied by all who delight in them.
- Splendid and majestic is His work, and His righteousness endures forever.
- He has made His wonders to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and compassionate.
- He has given food to those who fear Him; He will remember His covenant forever.
- He has made known to His people the power of His works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.