I have heard a number of people assert that Christianity gave birth to the scientific method. Perhaps, the first time I heard that claim was from John Lennox, the famous Oxford University professor of mathematics. I was intrigued, but I didn’t take the time to research his claim at the time.
I have heard the claim repeated multiple times, most recently by Dr. Michael Guillen the astrophysicist, former Harvard professor and TV personality. In fact, he devoted a podcast to the subject, so I took my opportunity to learn more.
I did some of my own research as well. Wikipedia, for instance, has a page on scientific method. It begins with Aristotle and focuses on rationalism as the basis for scientific method.
Properly speaking, rationalism is not a method. It is a philosophy, a way to approach the world. Rationalism and Aristotelian though seem to have helped led the way to the development of the scientific method.
Aristotle’s inductive-deductive method that depended on axiomatic truths and the “self-evident concepts” developed by Epicurus would would be jettisoned for something more like the modern scientific method beginning around the 16th Century. Perhaps, this is why Guillen doesn’t mention them.
After those early pioneers, Wikipedia mentions some great Muslim thinkers who were influenced by Aristotle, but placed “greater emphasis on combining theory with practice” and “the use of experiment as a source of knowledge”. Guillen starts with these early “flashes” of scientific method in the Muslim world, including and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) Averroes (Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd)
These men of the Islamic Golden Age pioneered a form of scientific method, but the inertia did not continue. Likewise, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), the great Jewish theologian, physician, and astronomer displayed a flash of scientific light. He urged “that man should believe only what can be supported either by rational proof, by the evidence of the senses, or by trustworthy authority”, foreshadowing a future scientific posture, but is prescience did not yet take hold.
Dr. Guillen credits Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon with the formation of principles of scientific method that “caught fire” in Christian Europe beginning in the 1200’s. “Concluding from particular observations into a universal law, and then back again, from universal laws to prediction of particulars”, Grosseteste emphasized confirmation “through experimentation to verify the principles” in both directions.
Roger Bacon, Grosseteste’s pupil, “described a repeating cycle of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and the need for independent verification”, including the recording of the way experiments were conducted in precise detail so that outcomes could be replicated independently by others. This became the foundation for the importance of peer-review in science, says Guillen.
Wikipedia mentions Francis Bacon and Descartes, who Guillen skips to get to Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. Bacon and Descartes emphasized the importance of skepticism and rigid experimentation, eliminating the Aristotelean dependence on first (axiomatic) principles.
Galileo Galilei introduced mathematical proof into the process and continued to distance science from reliance on Aristotelean first principles. Galileo and Newton formulated the terms of scientific method that would inform modern scientists ever afterward.
That the two latter men were men of faith, along with Grosseteste (Catholic Bishop) and Roger Bacon, his student, is significant. So were Maimonides and the Islamic thinkers before him men of faith.
Guillen emphasizes the fact that these men who pioneered the way to modern science were devout religious believers at the same time. Guillen also observes that science did not really take off until the 17th Century. The trailblazers of the modern scientific method were religious men, and the scientific method caught fire in Christian Europe during that time, lead, chiefly, by men of faith.
Why did science catch fire in Christian Europe and not in other parts of the world? Why not in the Islamic or Jewish world? Or the world of the eastern religions? This is question Guillen poses, and he provides a possible answer.
Dr. Michael Guillen says that the scientific method took off in Christian Europe because science and Christianity are “soulmates”, and “they agree on all the fundamental truths of reality”. This is a bold claim, especially in an age in which popular opinion seems to be that science and religion, and Christianity in particular, are fundamentally opposed to each other.
Guillen points to the fundamental truth about time as an example. He says the Bible and science agree on the character of time. He says time is one of the reasons that Christianity and science match together so well.
Dr. Guillen is no novice when it comes to science, and the subject of time is a particular focus of his. He taught a course on time at Cornell University.
Guillen observes that Eastern religions, for example, view time as eternal supported by concepts like karma and reincarnation. Ancient Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, also believed that time is eternal and cyclic. Aristotle believed that history repeats itself, and even that human opinions repeat themselves in infinite cycles.
People of any religion can be scientific, but the idea that time is eternal and cyclic is completely incompatible with science. Science demonstrates that time is linear and not eternal. Christianity agrees with that concept of time.
The first verse in the first chapter in the first “book” of the Bible states, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen. 1:1) Hugh Ross, another astrophysicist who is a believer, recently wrote on the distinction between Christianity and eastern religions, quoting:
“Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment. Other relevant Bible passages are 2 Samuel 12:23, Ecclesiastes 12:5, Daniel 12:2, 2 Corinthians 5:10. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 offers a much fuller explanation of death and resurrection.”
The Christian concept of death and resurrection is linear, not cyclic.
Judaism and Islam also agree on the point that time is linear, which is why we see science advancing from within those faith traditions also. Unlike those religions, though, Christianity believes in a uniquely personal God.
Guillen says the concept of God as uniquely personal is what makes all the difference in the world. He says, “For Christians science is not just a discipline; it is something deeply personal.”
Guillen was an atheist before he became a Christian around the age of 30. He loved science before he became a Christian, and the pursuit of science consumed his life. He described himself as a “scientific monk”. Science was all he thought about.
Guillen recognizes that people can obtain joy and satisfaction from science without believing in God and without being a Christian. He speaks from experience on that score.
He also speaks from experience when he says that doing science as a Christian is different. It is more “deeply personal”. The deep, personal connection with science grows out of relationship with God and a desire to know the mind of the creator of the universe with whom personal relationship is not only possible; it is desired by God.
If you want to hear Dr. Guillen wax on about these things, all of his podcast episodes are brimming with that sense of deep, personal connection between science and God. He proposes that the reason science “caught fire” is because it was embraced by men of faith in Europe that was steeped in Christianity.
Ironically, a neo-rationalist movement away from faith began around the same time. Men like Descartes and Francis Bacon, coming out of the Christian tradition, began to pull in a different direction. We call it the Enlightenment.
Over time, this movement resulted in a kind of divorce between science and faith. This is narrative recited by influencers who, more or less, attempted to wrestle science away from the Church. Thus, people popularly believe today that science and faith are opposed to each other.
The Enlightenment spawned a competing worldview, a competing philosophy, and many people who did science adopted that philosophy. The Enlightenment mantra, that the Church held back science and the advancement of man, however, is a myth. I have written about it many times in the context of Tom Holland’s book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.
A large segment of the Church backed away from science and, in some sense, gave it over to non-theists. But not completely. In fact, in the second half of the 20th Century, a tension began to grow within the Church, pulling in opposite directions, and the 21st Century has seen a resurgence of interest in science by men of faith.
Science, itself, has greatly influenced this resurgence. For men like Dr. Guillen, science was the path that led them to the Christian faith. Other scientists, like Hugh Ross, Sy Garte, and Fuzale Rana, tell similar stories about the way that science led them to question their materialistic, naturalistic assumptions and set them on a journey that ended in faith in God.
Some of the greatest scientists in our day, like James Tour and Francis Collins, just to name a couple, are men of devout faith. “Scientific method is not the enemy of Christianity”, says Dr. Guillen.
Indeed, it is not. Christianity was the fertile soil in which scientific method and modern science began to grow strong on a foundation set in place by men of faith into what it is today.
A person need not believe in God to do science any more than a person needs to know the painter to study a painting. Knowing the creator/Creator, however, makes the study a deeper and more personal undertaking.