(Part 11 of a multi-part series on The Moral Triumph of Western Civilization.)
Why did science (along with capitalism) originate in Europe and not somewhere else? Certainly there were brilliant people in other cultures. The answer has everything to do with the people’s image of God.
For over a century, secular intellectuals have quickly and enthusiastically “credited” Christianity for Western colonialism. They maintain that fundamentalist Christian imperialistic societies embarked on a worldwide mission to destroy peaceful, indigenous cultures wherever they traveled. However, these same intellectuals are not so quick to credit Christianity with the wealth generated for these explorations by capitalism; or that it also led to many other human advancements like scientific discoveries and achievements in the arts.
Even today it would be out of character for these “enlightened” intellectuals to acknowledge that not only has there never been a separation between science and (Christian) religion, it was actually the Christian scholastics who were the authors of true science. Secularists contend that science developed in spite of the superstitious medieval beliefs they associate with Christianity — not because of it.
Christian scholars founded the early universities where the autonomy of faculty members was carefully guarded. Instructors (and degrees) were recognized across territorial boundaries since all instruction was in Latin. Indeed, long before the deceptively named “Renaissance” period, it was these scholars who translated the ancient Greek classics into Latin.1
Science is defined as the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena. It is not just technological advancement. One can invent or stumble across a solution to something without it being done in a scientific manner. Many things are discovered randomly, but theory needs to accompany such discoveries for it to be considered true science.2 As such, most ancient inventions and discoveries cannot be considered “scientific.”
This would include the technical advances made during the Greco-Roman and Chinese periods. Progress was generally achieved through trial and error that eventually provided good outcomes (observations). But there was virtually no theorizing, no rational explanations describing the reason for the positive outcome. It simply worked and people moved on to the next problem.
Real science began during the middle ages only in Europe. Greece, Rome, China, India, the Islamic world all had alchemy, some had astrology, but only in the West did these become chemistry and astronomy.3
Astronomical observations were significant in ancient times. Knowledge was considerable but that is all it was, there was no scientific explanation to describe their observations. The Greeks thought that the universe was all that ever was. It had no beginning; it was eternal, not created. They (somewhat surprisingly given their depth of thought) anointed godly status to the constellations. They gave these celestial objects human emotions, desires, etc. By doing so they removed any purpose for examining or theorizing about physical laws.
Celestial objects moved in circles because the gods liked to move that way, not because of any physical laws to be discovered. They thought there was nothing to find out so little was pursued.
Philosophers like Aristotle did consider something like a ‘Mother Nature’ but not any rational being behind this order. Plato considered the universe not in light of certain laws or principles but with ideals; the sphere being the perfect shape. (He did, however, believe it had been created though most of his contemporaries dismissed the thought including Aristotle who said, “‘… that the universe came into being at some point in time … (i)s unthinkable.’”4)
Aristotle also thought that his time period was the peak “Golden Age” where all (technology) that could be invented — had been invented. Humans had advanced as far as they could possibly go. To aspire for something better or learn something new was nothing more than a silly illusion.
Even among all other religions or world-views, only Christianity fully embraced reason to interpret and support revealed truth. Other religions emphasized mostly nature and mystery. The Chinese thought the universe always existed, that no explanation was necessary to pursue; no reason to seek out its rational laws.
In Islam, Allah is not portrayed as a lawful creator but an (impulsive) intervener who is all-powerful but not predictable. In fact, the existence of natural laws is heretical to many in Islam. Such laws would only serve to limit Allah’s power or restrict his ability to act when he sees fit. (Since Allah is not bound by any such trivial natural laws, they cannot really be laws in the first place.)
Christian teachers taught that human reason (and required consciousness) was indeed a gift from God which separated humans from all other animals. Scripture is loaded with contemplative passages which demand thoughtful analysis. Jesus even taught in parables to elicit a reasoned interpretation. Thus Christians believe, in order to honor God, humans have an obligation to use both the intelligence we’ve been given to explore, discover and better appreciate the majesty of His creation.
In other words, because there was much to discover and that we could discover — we should discover. So armed with the Word of a rational Creator who authored stable, unalterable natural laws, Christians embarked on a journey to work for His glory and their advancement.
This philosophy became the basis for exploration and progress — science. This new discipline flourished due to inquisitive Christians who created the university system to study and unlock “nature’s” secrets — with each generation building upon the knowledge of all previous generations — knowing He would take great joy in His children’s discoveries.
China, India, Greece, Rome and the Islamic world all had developed alchemy but only in Christian Europe did it turn into chemistry. Only in Europe did astrology develop into astronomy.
Scholastics also made great advances in the field of physiology due to routine their human dissections. This practice was forbidden in the Greco-Roman and Islamic worlds.5
These early scientists had no ethical problem with dissections as Christianity taught that the soul had already left the earthly body at death so there were no theological implications to an internal examination of the deceased’s body to learn how it functioned. This philosophy made way for extraordinary advances in the study of human anatomy.
As science moved into its heyday of discovery during the “Scientific Revolution,” its early stalwarts were strong in their Christian faith. These include pioneers like “Descartes, Galileo, Newton and Kepler. Robert Boyle, considered to be the first modern chemist, was very active in his faith. He spent a sizable percentage of his wealth supporting missionary work along with the translation of the Bible into various native languages.
Later on, atheistic thinkers like Hume and Voltaire would try to falsely portray Isaac Newton as far less religious. But as historian Peter Gay said, “…they wanted Newton’s physics without Newton’s God.”
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The Middle Ages in Europe also produced great leaps forward in music, architecture and the arts.
Both the Romans and Greeks played “monophonic music,” or one musical line used by all voices or instruments but it was medieval European musicians who invented polyphony. During these “dark ages,” many instruments were also developed or perfected to play these harmonies including the pipe organ, clavichord, harpsichord and violin among others.
Additionally, a system of music notation was developed by Catholic monks to standardize liturgy in all their churches so musicians could play music never before heard.
A new era in art emerged during the 11th century. It has wrongly been named “Romanesque” since it had nothing to do with the Romans. The term was given by 19th century secular professors who wanted to portray that the only way Europe escaped from the “dark ages” was to go back to classic Roman culture and art.6
The Romanesque era was followed by the Gothic period. Gothic paintings and especially its architectural style were heavily criticized during the “Enlightenment” because classic Greek and Roman styles were abandoned in favor of this new one. Those same 19th century critics absurdly named it “Gothic” after the barbarous Goths who never conceived of this elaborate architecture.
What allowed for the numerous and magnificent Gothic cathedrals to be solidly built were new advances in construction methods like flying buttress supports. These made possible tall buildings with relatively thin walls and large windows. This prompted artistic advances in the beauty of stained glass.
In northern Europe in the 13th century, artists were the first to paint use oil paints and on canvas for the first time rather than wood or plaster.7
As we have seen in the previous parts of this series on Western Civilization, the Christianization of the European continent initiated an explosion in human discovery and creativity never even conceived by previous generations. This faith was unique from the start as it separated belief from the ethnicity of its followers. It was an incredibly unifying force, distinctly anti-tribal and pro-diversity. Nothing in human history has brought more diverse races, ethnicities and tribes into community than the commonality of belief in Jesus Christ.
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1- Stark, Rodney. A Civil Religion: How Christianity Created Free and Prosperous Societies. The American Enterprise. May 1, 2006. P. 16.
2- Stark, Rodney. The Victory of Reason (How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success). Random House Press. New York. 2005.
3- Stark, Rodney. False Conflict: Christianity is Not Only Compatible with Science – It Created It. The American Enterprise. October 1, 2003, p.27.
4- Stark. Victory of Reason.
5- Stark. False Conflict.
6- Stark. Victory of Reason.