Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Science.
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Richard Dawkins has declared, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”
He may not speak for all, but he captures a mood now common in the West that faith—and especially the Christian faith—is a hindrance to inquiry. Is he right? Are science and Christianity at war?
The scientific worldview we live and breathe seems so normal. From car repairs to dieting, and from weather forecasts to the latest iPhone, we take science and all of its benefits for granted. In doing so, we forget that it’s an entirely unique way of perceiving the world.
“The ancients had astounding insights into nature, but a culture of science didn’t arise in the ancient world.”
India had great surgeons like Sushruta who wrote a textbook on medicine six centuries before Christ, but medicine didn’t develop in India. Another Indian introduced a revolutionary concept to mathematics: the number zero. Yet in India, maths didn’t go on to become the language of science, as it later would in Europe.
Over 2,000 years ago, Eratosthenes measured the earth’s circumference with eyebrow-raising accuracy. Ancients from Greece, Egypt, China and the Muslim world had astounding insights into nature. They observed facts, developed their skills, and accumulated knowledge to pass on to others. Despite all of this, a culture of science didn’t arise in the ancient world.
Science arose once in history: in Christian Europe. We could shrug and move on. Or we could inquire as to why that is.
“In India, maths didn’t go on to become the language of science, as it later would in Europe.”
A growing band of historians are drawn to Whitehead’s thesis, agreeing with John Lennox that, “human beings became scientific because they expected law in nature; and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”
We’ve become so accustomed to thinking of Jesus’ teachings as merely “spiritual” lessons. But Europeans of centuries past saw them as much more, believing Jesus spoke into every pursuit of life.
As such, Europe inherited from Jesus a set of assumptions about the nature of reality that no other culture had. See science only works if the following things are true:
Objective truth exists. Eastern faiths (and postmoderns) say that what’s true for you isn’t true for me. But who would bother experiment if the findings are true for some people and not for others? Jesus however insists that truth does exist and is knowable.
“Europe inherited from Jesus a set of assumptions about the nature of reality that no other culture had.”
The universe actually exists. Eastern philosophies taught that everything is an illusion. What point is there in studying an illusion? By contrast, the first declaration of Scripture is, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It actually exists, so it can actually be studied.
The universe is orderly. Greek, Roman and Hindu beliefs propose multiple gods competing to run the universe. But an enchanted world like this doesn’t lead people to search for “laws of nature”. If the planets are themselves gods, why would they follow established laws? The God Jesus spoke of, however, is a God of order, not chaos. And by inference, so is the world he created.
“Human beings became scientific because they expected law in nature; and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”
People have confidence to investigate the world. Indigenous faiths taught that there were spirits in the trees, rivers and mountains—that creation itself is divine. So poking around trying to study these things could anger the spirits—and this is one of the reasons many cultures never tried.
Christians also believe in angels and demons, but in Genesis 1:28 they read God’s command, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” Because of this, Christians had courage to study the natural world.
“Science rests on uniquely Christian ideas, and it can’t work without them.”
People have free will. Atheism—the idea that the material world is all that exists—leads to the inescapable conclusion that we’re just slaves to our brain chemistry, so we have no free will.
C.S. Lewis asked: “If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents—the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists and astronomers as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts… are mere accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true?”
Jesus’ teachings assume a free will given to us by God, so we can think and reason freely and arrive at trustworthy conclusions.
“It’s no coincidence that almost all of the founders of modern science were Christians.”
People need correction. Many in the East see humans as divine, and believe that enlightenment comes by mystical experience. Islam rejects the idea Jesus taught, that humans are born with a tendency towards error and sin. But it turns out that the Christian doctrine of original sin, despised by so many, was foundational to the scientific method. Because we’re fallen, early Christian scientists insisted, our findings are in constant need of objectivity, facts, peer review, and skeptical testing.
People see themselves as caretakers of creation. Most worldviews see humans as merely part of nature—a cog in the machine. Atheism views us as sophisticated, hairless apes. But the West’s passion for science began when Christians read the Bible and rediscovered God’s call to have caring dominion over the creation.
Francis Bacon, founder of the scientific method said, “For man by the Fall fell from both his state of innocence and his dominion over creation. Both of these, however, can even in this life be made good; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences.”
“Atheism leads to the inescapable conclusion that we’re just slaves to our brain chemistry, so we have no free will.”
Embarrassing as it may be to the intelligentsia, science rests on these uniquely Christian ideas, and it can’t work without them.
Is it any coincidence then that almost all of the founders of modern science were Christians? Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most important scientists of all time, discovered the law of gravity, but also wrote over a million words about the Bible.
Science arose once in history: in the Christian universities of Europe. This isn’t because other cultures lacked ability: many individuals outside of Europe saw nature with a scientific outlook. But their civilisations’ belief systems didn’t allow a culture of science to flourish.
Peter Harrison, Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bond University in Australia wrote, “It is commonly supposed that when in the early modern period individuals began to look at the world in a different way, they could no longer believe what they read in the Bible… [but] the reverse is the case: when in the sixteenth century people began to read the Bible in a different way, they found themselves forced to jettison traditional conceptions of the world. The Bible… played a central role in the emergence of natural science in the seventeenth century.”
Richard Dawkins couldn’t be more wrong. It was in fact the teachings of Jesus that drove Europe’s curiosity to study the world and view it scientifically. Centuries later, every culture—and Dawkins himself—has reaped the benefits.
Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Medicine.
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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY
In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.