Rodney Stark's idiotic history

Thony Christie, a regular commenter on this blog, is also a historian of science, and he sent the following guest post that I thought well worth publishing.

Commentator “Adam” asked John’s opinion on a book he is reading, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark, saying that he himself was not knowledgeable enough to judge this work. He then produced three short quotes from the book as representative of Stark’s thesis. John dismissed the quotes in his usual pithy style; From what you quote, it is about 100% wrong.

Actually although right in essence John is guilty of slight exaggeration the Stark quote are only about 90% wrong as they contain elements of truth that are then framed in such a way as to make them fit the author's thesis and at the same time make them incorrect [Ed's note: I agree. This is also the case with the recent work by Steve Fuller]. Normally I would agree with John in his summary dismissal; however the quote from Stark contain claims there are made very often in Christian apologetic writings and internet postings and as they concern those areas of the history of the evolution of science with which I have been plaguing myself for more years than I care to remember I thought I would take the opportunity to deconstruct and dispose of some myths of science.

Adam's first quote reads as follows;

The so-called Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century has been misinterpreted by those wishing to assert an inherent conflict between religion and science. Some wonderful things were achieved in this era, but they were not produced by an eruption of secular thinking. Rather, these achievements were the culmination of many centuries of systematic progress by medieval Scholastics, sustained by that uniquely Christian twelfth-century invention, the university. Not only were science and religion compatible, they were inseparable--the rise of science was achieved by deeply religious Christian scholars. (Random House Trade Paperbacks ed., 2005, p. 12.)

Here Stark is taking sides in a discussion going on amongst historians of science for more than one hundred years. This discussion started when Pierre Duhem (1861–1916), writing in the 19th century, claimed that the scientific revolution had not taken place in the 17th century but in the High Middle Ages. In more recent times the Duhem hypothesis has been defended most strongly in the writings of Alistair Crombie (1915–1996) an Australian historian of science specialising in the High Middle Ages and opposed equally strongly by Alexandre Koyré (1892–1964) a Franco-Russian historian of science specialising in the 17th century. The modern consensus is that both are wrong and as Stark implies there was a gradual development or evolution of science within Europe that finds its roots in the 12th century. However it is important to note that the science produced in the High Middle Ages, roughly 12th to beginning of 15th centuries, is qualitatively different to that produced in the scientific renaissance, beginning of 15th to beginning of 17th centuries, which is again qualitatively different to that produced in the 17th and 18th centuries, modern science as we know it only really appearing in the 19th century. Stark is also wrong in saying that the evolution of science progresses systematically; it actually progresses in fits and starts very often taking one step forward and then two steps back, going round in circles or even lying dormant for long periods.

Stark’s first major mistake however is the following; sustained by that uniquely Christian twelfth-century invention, the university. The European university is indeed unique and did indeed emerge in the 12th century but it was not originally Christian and its becoming so hindered rather than helped the progress of science. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe became to all intents and purposes a village based agricultural subsistence society with very little intellectual culture, as we understand it today. This society grew and evolved and around the turn of the millennium started to develop an urban culture leading to the development of other trades and skills apart from that of land worker. In the developing towns and cities the practitioners of the trades and skills started to band together to ensure standards of product, levels of training, etc., and the trade guilds were born, these were called “universitas” in mediaeval Latin. By the twelfth century the cities had also started to attract numbers of young men eager to discover book learning and the knowledge that it imparted and to find teachers or professors (that is those who profess to have knowledge) to teach them. As the numbers of truth seekers and teachers grew they too sought means to ensure quality etc. and formed their own “universitas”. There were “universitas” both for students and teachers, but at this point they were still unofficial private corporations; enter the Church.

The Catholic Church, as we know it, is also largely a product of the High Middle Ages, it claims continuity and roots that go back to St. Peter but in reality the body that now exist was largely determined in the 11th and 12th centuries as a powerful central political organisation. Much of that which is considered characteristic for the Church was acquired at this time, purgatory, celibacy, the Marian cult etc. Mediaeval Europe became effectively a theocracy in this period. The Church, which was essentially a political organisation realised, like all dictatorships, the importance of controlling the organs of education and took upon itself the right to legitimise and to licence the “universitas” of scholars and professors that had arisen spontaneously, at the same time imposing restrictions on what could be taught. The European universities where not created by the Church but rather hijacked and gagged by it. Following various disputes in the early stages concerning which parts of the “heathen” sciences could or could not be safely taught the Church settled on a diet of modified Aristotle; this meant that other scientific stream from ancient Greece or from Islam were off limits. Just to give one example, Stoic cosmology dominant in the late Romano-Hellenistic period and which would play a highly significant role in the evolution of the new astronomy in the 15th and 16th centuries was not discussed in the Thomist scholastic university. The mediaeval university discussed and furthered science but did so in a highly restrictive manner.

Stark's next major error comes in the form of a generalisation, the rise of science was achieved by deeply religious Christian scholars, one that is often made but does not stand up to examination. Given the fact that within the effective theocracy that was Europe in the High Middle Ages to say that all the scientists were Christians is utterly meaningless. One could just as well claim that all the scientists were men. After all women were not allowed to study. The claim that they were all deeply religious is one that cannot be substantiated as it is impossible to tell with the majority of mediaeval scholars what they actually believed. Much more productive than the Christianity generalisation, is to ask if a particular scholar was Averroist, Thomist, Ockhamist or whatever; these streams of philosophical thought being more relevant to their scientific work than the mere formality that they were Christians. The situation becomes even more complex after the Reformation.

Just to give one example, if we take three major scientific figures from the 17th century – Kepler, Pascal and Newton – it is a triviality to say that they were all Christians, but what does it mean in each individual case? All three of them were by our standards religious fanatics but each in a totally different way. Kepler studied to become a Lutheran pastor until Maestlin decided that he would make a better maths teacher and packed him off to Graz. All of his life he remained deeply religious and all of his scientific work was characterised by a very strong Christian metaphysics. Privately he was strongly ecumenical and was even denied the sacrament in his own church because he thought that Calvinists were just normal people and not terrible sinners. Pascal was a Jansenist, which meant that he gave up the practice of science as sinful. As Descartes met with him to discuss their mutual love of mathematics, Pascal refused to converse because Descartes was educated by the Jesuits, the greatest enemies of the Jansenists. Newton was an Arian, which means he denied the divinity of Christ and the existence of the Trinity which would have brought him into conflict with Kepler, who believed that the solar system was a closed system because the sun was God, the sphere of the stars was Jesus, and the space in between the Holy Ghost, thereby mirroring the Holy Trinity. Newton of course loathed Catholics as he believed that they had falsified the Bible to support their own trinitarianism. The three were all Christians but their very Christianity meant that they were incapably of communicating with each other because they each regarded the others as heretics. Doesn’t exactly further the development of science does it?

The second quote brought by Adam reads as follows:

The Christian image of God is that of a rational being who believes in human progress, more fully revealing himself as humans gain the capacity to better understand. Moreover, because God is a rational being and the universe is his personal creation, it necessarily has a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting increased human comprehension. This was the key to many intellectual undertakings, among them the rise of science. (Stark, p. 12.)

There is more than a bit of truth in the claim that Stark makes here, however it suffers from a bad case of framing. Christians, particularly in the scientific renaissance did in fact believe that their God was a rational being who had created a rational universe and that he wished them to uncover that rationality, however they were not alone or in any way original in this belief; in fact they had themselves taken it not from the Bible or any of the Patristic writings but from a Greek heathen, Plato. Moreover the same view was held by their greatest religious enemies the Muslims, who were also rather good at science. In fact anybody who wishes to be a successful scientist has to believe in a rational system and in his own ability to uncover the underlying rationality.

[Ed's interpolation: I think that the notion of a rational universe is a bit of Greek inheritance. It basically was invented by the Milesian philosophers.]

Unlike the first two quotes, the third quote that Adam brings has no basis in truth whatsoever and shows Stark to be either very foolish or a liar:

The ancient Greeks achieved, in the end, only "nonempirical, even antiempirical, speculative philosophies; atheoretical collections of facts; and isolated crafts and technologies--never breaking through to real science. (P. 18.)

This statement is historical twaddle of the highest order. Usually people make the mistake of over emphasising the achievements of Greek science and attributing them with more than they deserve but Stark goes to the other extreme with a vengeance. I will just list a small number of Greek empirical, theoretical real scientists; Aristotle, Eudoxos, Galen, Euclid, Ptolemaeus, Hero, Archimedes… I am sure that regular readers of this blog can continue the list for themselves.

Disclaimer: In the above I constantly refer to “science” and “scientists” this is of course totally anachronistic when discussing any scholar or his work before 1833, which is when Whewell first coined these words with their modern meanings. Normally when writing about the Middle Ages or the Early Modern Period I usually try to avoid using these terms but for simplicity in this posting I decided to use them as usually understood.


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great post, i agree.* have read most of stark's work. a lot of the more recent stuff is riddled with this sort of material. he converted to christianity sometime in the early 2000s and the apologetic tone has started to get REALLY strong. he's recently just started lying, flat out.

* i disagree that the medieval christian period was a theocracy, but perhaps the issue is semantic.

Fascinating post- thank you!

By Texas Reader (not verified) on 06 Sep 2008 #permalink

Nietzsche wrote somewhere that only words without a history have a single meaning. The same can be said of religions. I guess some slender threads run through the long history of Christianity's various forms (or most of 'em), but the unity of the religion is a largely matter of family resemblances. I bring that up to point out the vast difference between the outlook of educated men between the beginning and the end of the Scholastic era, the couple hundred year period centered on 1250 or so. In the early years of the Universities, people not only had faith in the tenets of Christianity, they also thought they were true in a straightforwardly practical sense. As a result, they really were rationalists because they really didn't expect to find anything in philosophy and science that would cause problems for their theology. In later periods, after St. Thomas, the mood gets distinctly darker and the relation of faith and reason becomes much more problematic. The irrationalism of somebody like Martin Luther, who famously wrote about that whore reason, reflects a broader tendency in the intellectual world of his time, a tendency that wasn't very conducive to furthering the sciences. In some respects, what happened foreshadowed what happened in the 19th Century, when the rationalism of the enlightenment and the openness to science of liberal theology gave way to expressionism in art, existentialism in philosophy, and neo-orthodoxy in theology.

The Western European (and so Catholic from near its beginnings) is a great thing, and did much to foster the beginnings of (proto-) science, but is it unique? I just don't know the relevant history! WERE there analogous institutions in ... Constantinople (where they would have been Christian but of a different stripe)? One or another Islamic center (Baghdad? Cairo? Isfahan? somewhere in Spain before the reconquista?)? India? China?

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 06 Sep 2008 #permalink

A good source for that is the second edition (which covers the Islamic high period) of David C. Lindberg's The Beginnings of Western Science. Much of the interesting work done during that time was done in Mesopotamian cities like Baghdad, al-Raqqa, Maragha, and so on, as well as in Egypt, Spain, Damascus, and Cordoba before the Caliphate collapsed into intolerance. The collapse of the university of Toledo was the final Islamic library of note in the west, and it was sold to many of the newer Catholic universities.

It appears that the sole innovation by Byzantine scholarship is that of Cosmas Indicopleustas, who invented and was the sole major proponent of flat earthism. However, Byzantine scholars preserved and commented upon many of the classical texts we now have today, either directly after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, or indirectly via the Muslim intermediaries.

Not enough work has been done by non-partisan scholars on the Islamic sciences, particularly on the natural historians.

As far as China is concerned, there is a Wikipedia article "Imperial examination" which gives some details. Briefly, in order to enter and advance in the bureaucracy, one had to pass a series of examinations. It was open, at least in theory, to any males; and in practice, it wasn't impossible for someone of peasant background to pass. I'm not at all clear how one was supposed to learn the necessary skills to pass the exams - whether there were anything like universities, for example, or whether one had to depend on private tutors.

And then there is India. I have no idea at all, but I presume that education was the preserve of the Brahmans.

That is a fascinating post for someone, like myself, who knows virtually nothing about the subject. As with other authors I admire, such as Paul Davies and Richard Dawkins, Thony opens his subject to lay readers through a style of writing that is simple, graceful, lucid and a pleasure to read. I look forward to reading more.

By Ian H Spedding FCD (not verified) on 07 Sep 2008 #permalink

John: Any comments on Toby Huff's work, ie The Rise of Early Modern Science?

Disclaimer -not a scholar here, just a regular working Joe.

One thing that strikes me in this discussion is that the "evolution of the sciences" (if you want to call it that) really suffers periods of major setbacks immediately following periods of great achievement.

Every time I read of the great accomplishments of the Arabic scholars of the 12th and 13th centuries, the contrast with how absolutely repressive they are now is impossible not to see.

I am saying this because I am afraid of that happening in the United states today. It would be awful if in 100 years there was no more furthering of science in the USA because it was repressed by religion.

Scholars in other places will be using phrases such as "during the rise in science of the late twentieth century" to describe the discoveries we have contributed. The prospect of that is scary indeed, but if we keep electing presidents whose goal is to neuter the scientific community, that's exactly where we are headed.

What also strikes me is the blindness of modern Protestant Fundamentalists that Christianity in the past, as shown in the post, had many different faces and extremely contrasting beliefs and practices. Instead American Protestant Fundamentalists assume that all Christians throughout history must have been free-market deregulation fanatics and Biblical literalists, when such is not nearly the case. In fact, American Protestant Fundamentalism is a very new development in Christianity, and many of the parameters that they define themselves by (Free-market extremism, absolute anti-abortionism, literalness of the Genesis story, hatred of science, and strong anti-Islam beliefs) were not defining social issues for the preceding eras of Christianity's history.

So, a statement by Adams that the early scientists were Christians is intended to convey that such people would have agreed with modern American Fundamentalists in their political views, which is not at all the case.

So I have to conclude that a writer like Adams is not really concerned with the history of science, but rather with propagandizing for the American Fundamentalist base, that is to say furthering the ideology that he has adopted.

I've seen it claimed - by sources I somewhat distrust - that western European proto-science got a big boost from the Puritans, due to their rejection of traditional authority and emphasis on direct and individual seeking of unmediated Truth.

Seems like their may be a grain of (lower-case) truth in that, but all in all it (like the impression given here of R. Stark) reminds me of the blind man at the tail of the elephant who declares that, "The elephant is a fly-whisk!" - when he happens to be in the fly-whisk business.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 07 Sep 2008 #permalink

Whose this Ed guy who wrote the italic comments in the middle of my posting? I thought the owner of this blog is called John!

Seriously, a big thank you to John for letting me lower the tone of his excellent blog. Also big thanks for all the very kind comments from the various commentators. I actually blushed when I read the comment from Ian H. Right now I shall just deal with some trivia and leave the serious points made by some of you till tomorrow as I have very little time because I have to finish a translation by tomorrow morning. No peace for the wicked!

Jason; I comment on all things Crimson at DGM Live and not here. Having in the "good old days of the Jest Book" somewhat ruined my reputation, these days I mostly restrict myself to posting translations of German reviews of all things Crimson and that under another name; if you can just think contrariwise you'll recognise my contributions.

Don; Toby Huff is really excellent on the differences between the forms of higher education in Chinese, Islamic and mediaeval European culture and I would recommend his book to anyone interested in the subject. I also find his theory about the influence played by the differing legal forms of the different cultures very interesting although I know too little about the history of law to be able to evaluate it properly.

razib; I shall answer your very valid point on theocracy or not theocracy tomorrow.

Pierce; the same goes for your Puritans although I suggest you just look up Robert K. Merton and the Merton Thesis at Wikipedia.

What Ian H S FCD said at #9.

I agree with everyone else. A very interesting post.

I think there is an important distinction to be drawn, especially in the context of the relationship between Christianity and science, between science and natural theology. It seems to me that right up to the nineteenth century the church was really promoting the latter, not the former.

The conflict between Christianity and science is not that there is something inherent in the religion that predisposes them against investigating the natural world in some systematic way. It is that when conflicts between science and chruch teaching arise, the church has always tried to arrogate to itself the right to be the final arbiter. Even to this day the Catholic Church is perfectly happy to hold forth on the validity of materialistic explanations of consciousness, among other things, simply on the basis of its own teachings. It has become increasingly difficult for them to assert their authority in modern times, but the inclination to do so is still there.

The church has always been happy to have people go out into the field, collect whatever data they wanted to collect, and have them report back that the church had it right all along. It is when scientists started discovering things in conflict with church teaching that things got distinctly chilly.

Not mentioned in the original or the critique is that two Muslim universities, at Cairo and Fez, were created in the 10th Century.

Just to add my agreement ... very good post, Thony ... and a needed antidote to those who'd hijack the history of science as a weapon against it.

stark IS good for one thing: anyone who cites his recent work goes from an indeterminate amount of credibility to 0.

Some more comments by the author:

Jim Harrison; I really liked your comment and I think you hit the target slap bang in the middle. We actually fool ourselves into thinking that Christianity describes something that is permanent whereas in reality concepts such as Christianity must be handled with great care because their meaning and even their denotation changes depending on the particular historical context.

JakeR wrote:

Not mentioned in the original or the critique is that two Muslim universities, at Cairo and Fez, were created in the 10th Century.

This is the kind of statement that is made by people who think that history is an intercultural, intellectual pissing contest for wannbe purveyors of political correctness and which ruin many a Wikipedia history article!

The straightforward answer to your comment Jake is no they weren't! There were no universities founded in any Islamic cities in the Middle Ages. The university is a unique mediaeval European invention the first of which was established in Bologna in 1088.

There were institutes of higher education founded in Cairo and Fez in the 10th century but these were not universities. I am not playing with words or concepts here, the differentiation is historically very important, there are fundamental and significant differences between the European mediaeval university and the Islamic institutions of higher education. As I said before Toby Huff's book is very good on these differences.

Pierce: I have decided not to write more on the Merton Thesis at the moment as I want to write a full blog posting on the subject some time in the not too distant future.

Theocracy or not theocracy follows shortly as the dog is demanding a walk!

Theocracy or not theocracy?

razib wrote:

i disagree that the medieval christian period was a theocracy, but perhaps the issue is semantic.

Just to clarify I said that the European High Middle Ages was effectively a theocracy and the qualification is very important. In the strict meaning of the word it was not a theocracy but a collection of more or less self-governing states with a single central church ruled by the Papacy. However this Church was a very powerful, all pervasive dominant political organisation; a statement that I would like to explain and clarify. Now a full description and analysis of the socio-political role of the Church in the High Middle Ages, say from 1100 to 1400 CE, would probably occupy two large format, small print 800 page volumes with a third volume of 1000 pages for the end notes and bibliography so all I will offer here is a sketch with some specific examples to illustrate my points all of which are ones which can be found in good school history books.
The Church was a powerful political force and all of the secular rulers embraced and interacted with it, in using religion as a means to control, suppress and manipulate the people. Usually the rulers had members of their own families in key church position two examples of this can be found in the early history of England. William the Conqueror's half-brother Odo was Bishop of Normandy who after the conquest became the second most powerful man in England. He like his half-brother was actually a warrior and as prelates were not supposed to carry arms he is said to have ridden into battle swinging a church incense shaker filled with lead! The last of the Norman Kings was Stephan of Bois whose brother Henry was Bishop of Winchester. This was the period known as the Anarchy in which various claimants to the throne fought a bloody civil war with each other, during this period Henry was the most powerful man in England. Because the Archbishop of Canterbury was higher than him in the Church hierarchy he had himself appointed papal legate, which made him then higher in rank.
Richelieu and Woolsey are two later examples for the combination of church and secular power that everybody has heard of in fact you wont find a European court in the High Middle Ages that doesn't have a high ranking church official in a position of political power.

Just how powerful the Church was in this period is illustrated by two well-known incidents one from England and the other from Germany. John Lackland the brother of Richard Coeur de Lion, who contrary to popular opinion was a fairly good king, became involved in a power struggle with the Pope which he lost but as compensation received the title of Defender of the Faith, which later served Henry VIII as justification to call himself head of the Anglican Church. Henry IV of Germany also became involved in a power struggle with the Pope and ended up standing bear headed in the snow at Canossa for three days. The "Way to Canossa" is a standard expression in German meaning to eat humble pie.

Another symbol of the Churches dominance can still be seen all over Europe and forms one of the major tourist attractions in almost all European countries, the mediaeval cathedrals. Just think how much in the way of money, man-power and resources went into the building of these edifices at a time when the average European peasant lived on a subsistence economy and had an average life expectancy of about thirty years. There could hardly be a more potent remainder of the power of the mediaeval church.

I think that is enough to make clear why I said that there was effectively a theocracy in existence in this period.

I will close this over long comment with a theory of mine that bears on the power of the Church and the Scientific Revolution. In recent years there has been a lively and at times heated debate as to whether the Scientific Revolution ever existed or if it is just a construct of the Whig historians. Richard Westfall, a highly eminent historian of science and author of probably the best biography of a scientist that has ever been written, his biography of Newton; Never at Rest, said that he still thought the Scientific Revolution had taken place in the 17th century and represented the removal of the religious dominance in science. I disagree with him for two reasons; firstly science did not really become secular until the 19th century. My second reason is more complex and has to do with the main theme of this comment. I regard the Renaissance, the Reformation and the birth of modern science as being different aspects of the same historical development. I think that this development became possible because for a multitude of reasons; social, economic, political etc. the Church slowly lost the control on society that I have tried to sketch above enabling a relatively new middle class to break free of its confines and take the development of Europe in a new direction.

I'm always frustrated when historical issues come up in Internet discussions, especially on science sites where it often turns out that even rather sophisticated people have extremely sketchy ideas about history. They just don't know much about what happened--and lots of things have happened!--so the tendency is to reduce thousands of years of thinking and struggling into a cartoon designed to make a point about some contemporary controversy.

What happened in the past really is relevant to our concerns, but if you're going to learn from what went on in a useful way, the first step is to try to understand what the people of the time were up from their own point of view, not ours. That's not as easy as falling back on some master narrative such as the village atheist version of human development as a struggle of faith and reason; but the respect for the density and specificity of the course of human affairs--what is sometimes referred to as historicism--can prevent a lot of foolishness. Small example: when the creationist/ID people accuse Darwin of racism, they not only ignore what were the default assumptions of educated people in the first half of the 19th Century, they ignore, or, more likely, are pig ignorant of the way in which Darwin and his family fit in with what was a raging debate about race and slavery. Darwin was not only not rather liberal on racial topics in some general way. His family had been actively and significantly involved in the anti-slavery fight for three generations, and Darwin himself almost had to leave the Beagle because of an argument with its proslavery and very Tory captain. Meanwhile, there were savants in Darwin's era who actually were racist in the terms of the contemporary debate. Among them, interestingly, was Darwin's great anti-evolutionary adversary, Louis Agassiz, who denied that Negroes were in the same species as Caucasians.

Thony: I'm very pleased to hear that you're still writing on frippery. I'll try to find you on DGM Live.

John: Sure I'll do a guest post but, sadly, not soon. Maybe an expansion of short my post on asymptotics at (Fill in obvious bad joke about expanding asymptotics for yourself.) In the meantime, that page has reminded me that my favourite web site is

John and Thony: I really would like more guest posts from Thony.

Allan: Only yesterday I happened to come across an old page at It's lain untouched for years. Could you or anyone else please fill it in? Email me for a password.

re scientific contribution, it is regrettable that Indian contributions to astronomy(ayabhatta), mathematics(Madhava who invented madhava series and not Taylor) are completed neglected; not to speak of the concept of zero and infinity; there are reports that calculus was known to Kerala(India) mathemeaticians before Newton see the scottish site andrews univ, or wikepedia;incidentally will be happy to read John's comments on Indian contribution since he is a voracious reader- how does he find time??? on this thks

Jumping in late here to commend Thony for an outstanding post. I have read Huff's book, and found it excellent.

By John Farrell (not verified) on 11 Sep 2008 #permalink

Thanks for the post, dudes. I like this scienceblogs business. It's like having a university in your pocket.

Just to say thanks to Thorny, and to John for inviting him to post - I learned a lot form that brief post!

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 26 Dec 2008 #permalink

If anyone is still interested, check out Edward Grant's "The Foundation of Modern Science in the Middle Ages," John Hedley Brooke's "Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives," G.E.R. Lloyd's "Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristole," and John Henry's "The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science" for a more balanced view. I've noticed something quite troubling in these posts (at least the ones I bothered to read). Though some posters are right to criticize Stark, as I have elsewhere, they fall prey to the opposite extremes, and polemics, of A.D. White's "A History of Warfare of Science with Theology of Christendom," and his disciples.

There is indeed something distinct in Christian theology/philosophy, as opposed to any other religious traditions, during the early patristic and medieval periods that made it possible for "modern" to "develop." I'm not saying that Christian theology created modern science, but that some of its doctrines, and interactions with the political arena, prepared to the for modern science to develop.

One final note, Huff relies upon Harold Berman's "Law and Revolution" a great deal for his argument on how the formation of legal codes paid the way for modern science. It is a heavy book, running over 600 pages, but it is well worth the pain in intellectual stimulation.

I wrote my Honor's Thesis against Stark for my BA in religious studies at UC Davis. I found him to be an engaging writer, with simple prose and concrete examples; but because of this I think he was overly simplistic in his argument.

"There is indeed something distinct in Christian theology/philosophy, as opposed to any other religious traditions, during the early patristic and medieval periods that made it possible for "modern" to "develop.""

Maybe, but all of the evidence is against it. As Charles Freeman notes in his response to critics at Amazon, the only way that Christians were able to create any semblance of intellectual innovation was through the massive importation of Greek pagan thought and the Christian works were invariably of a lower quality than the Greek sources:

"On the relationship between Christianity and philosophy I argue that there were two major strands of Greek philosophy , those of Plato and Aristotle. The early church did not reject Greek philosophy but drew heavily on Platonism to the exclusion of Aristotle. In the thirteenth century Christianity was reinvigorated by the adoption of Aristotelianism , notably by Thomas Aquinas. It seems clear that Christianity needed injections of pagan philosophy to maintain its vitality and a new era in Christian intellectual life was now possible. I don't explore it in this book. Even so, when one compares the rich and broad intellectual achievements of the `pagan' Greek centuries with those of the Middle Ages, it is hard to make a comparison in favour of the latter. Where are the great names? (The critic who mentioned the ninth century philosopher Erigena should also have mentioned that he was condemned as a heretic.)
When one reads the great works of second and third century AD thinkers such as Plutarch, Galen, Ptolemy and Plotinus, which are remarkable for their range and depth, one cannot but feel that much has been lost in the west by the fifth century."

I'm sorry, but I couldn't get through the whole thing. The use of the word "reason" by someone who believes God made a woman pregnant, the first woman was made from a man's rib bone, and countless other absurditiese was too hilarious to continue.

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 22 Jan 2009 #permalink…
A.C Grayling writes ...

"I challenge her to name one - even one small - contribution to science made by Christianity in its two thousand years; just one"

May I take up the challenge on Madeleine's behalf?

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who first proposed the heliocentric universe, was a Polish Catholic priest.

Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was an Austrian Catholic monk.

The Jesuit astronomer Christopher Scheiner (1575-1650) discovered sunspots before Galileo.

Jesuit Pietro Angelo Secchi (1818-1878) discovered 4,000 new stars. His system for star classification is the basis of the Harvard system.

In fact there are no fewer than 35 craters on the moon named after Jesuit scientists alone.

The Big Bang Theory was proposed in 1927 by Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), a Belgian Catholic priest.

The Jesuit Giambattista Riccioli was the first person to determine the rate of acceleration of a free-falling body, and the first to make a pendulum that was so accurate he was able to calculate the gravitational constant.

Another Jesuit priest, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, discovered the diffraction of light. Grimaldi's discovery led to hypotheses on the wavelike character of light and to Isaac Newton's interest in optics.

The lightning rod was invented by a Norbertine priest named Procopius Divisch (1698-1765).

French Catholic priest Rene-Just Haey (1743-1822) was the father of modern crystallography.

But why just list priests? Some scientists who were laymen and convinced and practicing Catholics ...

The founder of bacteriology, Louis Pasteur. Andre Ampere. Alessandra Volta. Charles Coulomb.

How about mathematician Blaise Pascal, who when he wasn't inventing calculators was writing the Pensees, a defence of Catholicism?

I am amazed that A.C Grayling has landed himself a job as Professor of Philosophy if he is able to ask such a dumb question.

JamesHannam:Comment No. 401878:
January 29 16:19

Heliocentricism was finally accepted not due to Galileo`s advocacy, but thanks to the stunning success that Kepler`s Rudolphine tables saved the planetary movements. Kepler, of course, was driven to his elliptical orbits precisely by his belief in a God who didn`t get the orbit of Mars wrong by a few minutes. All his science was informed and inspired by his religious belief. So, Professor Grayling asks for one contribution to science made by Christianity. I offer Kepler`s laws.

There are many other possibilities. Taxonomy is directly descended from the scientific studies of Noah`s Arc in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The need to determine the number of animals led to the concept of a member of one species as something that couldn`t reproduce with a member of another. Likewise, very many early taxonomies were attempts to count how many animals were on the arc and how big it had to be.

An even more surprising connection is the way that concerns about grace spread into the mathematics of change. Fourteenth century scholars wanted to understand how the Holy Spirit imparted grace to individuals. Quite quickly, the techniques they had adopted were turned to thinking about other kinds of change. They also moved on to motion and cracked the problem of uniformly accelerated motion over two centuries before Galileo.

In fact, as I have found, Christianity had an important impact on every step of the road to modern science. Let me now summarise exactly what they were:

The preservation of literacy in the Dark Ages

Because it is a literary religion based on sacred texts and informed by the writings of the early church fathers, Christianity was exclusively responsible for the preservation of literacy and learning after the fall of the Western Empire. This meant not only that the Latin classics were preserved but also that their were sufficient men of learning to take Greek thought forward when it was rediscovered.

The doctrine of the lawfulness of nature

As they believed in a law abiding creator God, even before the rediscovery of Greek thought, twelfth century Christians felt they could investigate the natural world for secondary causes rather than put everything down to fate (like the ancients) or the will of Allah (like Moslems). Although we see a respect for the powers of reason by Arab scholars they did not seem to make the step of looking for universal laws of nature.

The need to examine the real world rather than rely on pure reason

Christians insisted that God could have created the world any way he like and so Aristotle's insistence that the world was the way it was because it had to be was successfully challenged. This meant that his ideas started to be tested and abandoned if they did not measure up.

The belief that science was a sacred duty

This is not so much covered in this essay, but features again and again in scientific writing. The early modern scientists were inspired by their faith to make their discoveries and saw studying the creation of God as a form of worship. This led to a respect for nature and the attempt to find simple, economical solutions to problems. Hence Copernicus felt he could propose a heliocentric model for no better reason that it seemed more elegant.

Not all these factors were unique to Christianity but they all came together in Western Europe to give the world its only case of scientific take off which has since seen its ideas spread to the rest of the world. "

In not one of those cases was the influence of their religion a crucial element, although Copernicus was influenced by his neo-Platonism. Taxonomy arose rather directly from experience and attempts to set bestiaries and herbals into a general form. Cesalpino and Bauhin, among others, had no interest in the question of Noah's Ark, and while Bp John Wilkins employed John Ray to draw up the species tables, and he did have an interest in the Ark question, Ray did not. And so far as one can tell, all Linnaeus' piety had no influence on his taxonomy, to the point where he asserted that apes and humans shared a genus despite the views of the Lutheran bishops.

Grayling is correct. While it is clear that science arose in a Christian context, and therefore rather by definition the originators of science were typically Christians, their religion either had no direct impact on their science or it even impeded it. You would do well to read this book:

Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Rodney Starks Book "Victory of Reason" is one of the best books I ever read. It really illuminates where the progress in the West came from. I have used it frequently as a source in my doctoral dissertation. If his thesis is correct, Europe and the West should gradually start declining and vanish in importance over the next decades as their cultural/religious foundation is falling apart under the new dogma of relativism/scientism.

The first command God gives in the Hebrew bible is to "subdue the earth." Genesis 1.28 (And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.) This means understand how it is created and learn to control it for good purposes. Stark shows how this and a number of other commands led to a focus on reason which is the basis of scientific research. (Science changes when our understanding changes).

The last two comments should indicate the dangers foisted upon us by Christian revisionists and their crypto-postmodernist agenda. These idiots have every intention of rolling back the Enlightenment as people like Wiker unwittingly reveal:

James (comment #28 above) is onto something.

Alfred North Whitehead, who co-authored Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell of all people, also conceded that science owes a debt to Christian Europe. In the 1925 Lowell Lectures at Harvard, Whitehead insisted that "faith in the possibility of science [is] derivative from medieval theology" (Whitehead 1925, p. 13).

Furthermore, "the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement... is the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labors of scientists would be without hope... When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilisations when left to themselves, there seems but one source of its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher... What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries" (Ibid., p. 12).


What utter and complete nonsense.

By your own logic, you would have to concede that Arabia, India, China and Japan could all credit their scientific progress to believing that their deities were rational. How else could they come up with the things they did, otherwise.

And I don't care what the opinions are of anyone. Facts are all that matters. Just because someone who wrote a book with Bertrand Russell thought X doesn't mean that X is true.


I stopped reading your post shortly after getting to this: "Stark's next major error comes in the form of a generalisation, the rise of science was achieved by deeply religious Christian scholars, one that is often made but does not stand up to examination. Given the fact that within the effective theocracy that was Europe in the High Middle Ages to say that all the scientists were Christians is utterly meaningless. One could just as well claim that all the scientists were men....."

Anyone who has actually read his book knows full well he is not doing as you claim. Modern science grew in one place, the West - why? Stark addresses that question very well and it has nothing to do with the idea that some scientist happened to be Christian, but instead upon the the way in which commonly held belief systems alter the society we live in. He sociology on this matter is quite impressive indeed - and there is no small number of people who clearly understand it. To take it down your going to have to first actually address it for what it is, not for what it is not.

Troy wrote:

Anyone who has actually read his book knows full well he is not doing as you claim. Modern science grew in one place, the West - why? Stark addresses that question very well and it has nothing to do with the idea that some scientist happened to be Christian,...

Given the fact that the sentence that I analyse and criticise at this point in my post;

the rise of science was achieved by deeply religious Christian scholars...

is a direct quote from Stark, your claim that this does not represent his views is, to put it mildly, rather strange!

It also suggests that you are not necessarily the most reliable witness as to Stark's true position having, as you claim, read his book!