Religion isn't the enemy of science: it's been inspiring scientists for centuries

Religion isn’t the enemy of science: it’s been inspiring scientists for centuries
God’s scientific lesson for Job. Credit: William Blake

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 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.

The history of scientific thought is closely linked to that of religious thought, and with much more continuity than discontinuity. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle effectively set the Western template for studying the natural world in the 4th century BC. Most of his hugely influential scientific works were lost to Europe after the Roman Empire collapsed, but were developed by Muslim Arab thinkers like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) from around 900AD to 1300AD. Early Islamic figures were responsible for very rapid progress in a number of scientific fields, notably maths, medicine and the study of light (optics).

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.

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.

When 16th-century philosopher Francis Bacon argued for a new experimental approach to science, he drew explicitly on such theological motivations. As the historian of science Peter Harrison argues, the scientific pioneers who followed Bacon, such as Newton and chemist Robert Boyle, saw their task as working with God's gifts of senses and minds to recover a lost knowledge of nature.

Taking this history lesson seriously helps us see just how ancient the root system of science is. Insisting that science is a purely modern advance does not help the important process of embedding scientific thinking into our wider culture. Forcing people to separate science from religion at one extreme leads to damaging denials of science if faith communities can't integrate the two.

Biblical science

In fact, science also has roots in ancient Jewish history that are as influential as the ancient Greek precedents. Philosopher Susan Neiman recently argued that the Biblical Book of Job should be understood as a foundation pillar of modern philosophy alongside Plato. 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, 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.

So God asks Job:

"Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea?… Where is the way to the abode of light?… From whose womb comes the ice?… Do you know the laws of the heavens?And can you apply them to the earth?"

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.

Faith communities urgently need to stop seeing science as alien, or a threat, but rather recognise their own part in its story. The influence people of faith have on society through their relationships can then be hugely supportive of science.

To give one current example, the Church of England has recently cosponsored a major national project, Scientists in Congregations. This encourages local churches to stimulate communities' awareness of current scientific issues that affect society, such as the growth of artificial intelligence.

By embracing and supporting science, in turn, religious communities can contribute important perspectives on how we use it in our global future.

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Jan 25, 2018
Religion is politicized mythology; it is also evasive language from having to do the mathematics to do real science. It's about taking the easy way out from everything - learning and living.

The book of Job, like Eccelesiastes, is quite literally a diatribe against thinking - 9:10 Which doeth great things past finding out; yea, and wonders without number.

As the ten commandments start out, don't believe in other gods, and don't pattern your made up gods with nature, stars, and the moon.

Whatever moderate to maybe some atheist genius who could see through religion what it is . . . we don't hear from them. They were shouted down by the supernatural psuedoscience of religion. As the Old testament constantly says, god killed their own Israelites because they kept worshipping nature and gods patterned on nature and the sun and the stars.


Jan 25, 2018
There's a big difference between the mind of a researcher who in search of answers will dedicate years of their life, conduct experiments and draw ideas from any source be it religion or mythology in pursuit of understanding. and the mind of a common person who at most is willing to dedicate a few hours to read a brief text and will most often settle for the easiest answer to understand.
for researchers religion can provide some inspiration sure, but for the common masses it does nothing but misinform and miseducate. religious dogma is the enemy of mass education
and religious leaders are by no means qualified to educate people about science.

Jan 25, 2018
Religion isn't the enemy of science: it's been inspiring scientists for centuries

And directing theory and belief, such as the Belgian priest who proposed the Big Bang to agree with the Creation myth he believed in.

"I was there when Abbe Georges Lemaître first proposed this [Big Bang] theory. ... There is no rational reason to doubt that the universe has existed indefinitely, for an infinite time. .... It is only myth that attempts to say how the universe came to be, either four thousand or twenty billion years ago.
[Expressing his belief that the Big Bang is a myth devised to explain creation. He said he heard Lemaître (who was, at the time both a member of the Catholic hierarchy and an accomplished scientist) say in private that this theory was a way to reconcile science with St. Thomas Aquinas' theological dictum of creatio ex nihilo—creation out of nothing.]"
— Hannes Alfvén

Would the great thinkers Aristotle or Socrates agree with religions being a source for acquiring knowledge and from that wisdom? I can guarantee you, they wouldn't make such a mistake. Religions are a cause for flawed thinking patterns, fear, revenge, intolerance etc. Religious dogmas don't make the effort to be based on and align with reality. The religious establishment is only from time to time fixing the worst counter-scientific embarrassments in their doctrines, because otherwise losing followers. They should not be misleadingly misnamed inspiration. The deeper a person is trapped and thus mentally confused in a religious illness the less he or she will be able to explore and understand the actual reality. Open your eyes and see the wars, conflicts, witch-hunts and misery that religions have produced on our planet.

Jan 29, 2018
Science dogmas don't make the effort to be based on and align with reality. The science establishment is only from time to time fixing the worst counter-scientific embarrassments in their doctrines, because the data forced them to. The deeper a person is trapped and thus mentally confused in a priori the less he or she will be able to explore and understand the actual reality.

Not quite fixing it for you because I agree with your statement above. A little time spent on the history of science also reveals this as truth.

Jan 29, 2018
Religion inspired science because....religion was a cushy job where people had lots of spare time to read and tinker (i.e. it was an attraction to smart but lazy people. Don't be fooled into thinking that just because someone wears a monk's robe he actually believes any of the stuff if it means 3 certain meals a day).

Notice that since people have had to devote less time to actually feeding/clothing themselves religion has all but completely ceased to make any contributions to science?

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