Biblical Origins of Science

A review of For The Glory of God: How Monotheism Led toReformations, Science, Witch-hunts and the End of Slavery by RodneyStark

reviewed by Alex Williams

Stark is Professor ofSociology and Comparative Religion at the University of Washington. In For The Gloryof God, Stark begins withDurkheim’s view (the ruling paradigm in sociology) that religion is anevolutionary innovation of man, but ends with the opposite conclusion—that itis inspired by gods. The book is volume II in a series on the sociology ofmonotheism, and in this one, he examines four ‘episodes’ in the development ofWestern culture. In the process, he debunks the modernist view that virtuallyall the ills of Western society can be traced back to religion.

Dimensions of the supernatural

In his introduction, Stark defines terms such asreligion, magic and monotheism. As a social scientist, Stark uses sociologicaltheories to illuminate history. In this case, he is ‘illuminating’ atheisticrevisionist histories of the role of religion in the development of Westernculture, and showing up their weaknesses and falsehoods.

God’s truth: inevitable sects and reformations

Chapter 1 illustrates the rise of reformations(plural) in Christianity from the second century to the present day, majoringon the events of sixteenth century Europe. The difference between this andstandard church history is slight, Stark offering us several extra anecdotesthat are not usually included in college courses. And since he majors on theevents, rather than the theology, it makes rather bland reading to an earnestChristian already familiar with church history. He concludes by claiming thatthe ‘simple mechanisms’ he identified make reformation inevitable in monotheism

His ‘simple mechanisms’ are basically thatpeople are diverse in their religious interests (‘intense’ and ‘lax’ are hiscategories) and in the church there is always tension in governance betweenpower and piety. Events in church history can thus be plotted (and thereby‘explained’) on a two–dimensional surface somewhere between the ‘power’ and‘piety’ poles of church governance, and the ‘lax’ or ‘intense’ poles ofcongregational and individual attitudes. On the other hand, in polytheism thereis always room for the individual to move amongst such forces and find theirplace—and if necessary inventing or importing new gods to meet their needs. Butin monotheism, there is only one God and so religious tensions inevitably leadto sects, schisms and reform movements. This is a simple conclusion, but onethat might ease some of the anxiety experienced by Christians who aredistressed by the lack of unity amongst the churches.

God’s handiwork: the religious origins ofscience

In Chapter 2, Stark hits the ground running andthe change of pace may pinpoint his main agenda in writing the book. His wordsare worth quoting at length:

‘Even children know thatin 1492 Christopher Columbus proved the world is round. They also know that he… [faced] years of opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, which ridiculedall dissent from the biblical teaching that the world is flat. … Andrew DicksonWhite, founder and first president of Cornell University, and author of themost influential book ever written on the conflict between science andtheology, offered this summary: “… Columbus’ voyage greatly strengthened thetheory of the earth’s sphericity [yet] the Church … stumbled and persisted ingoing astray
… But in 1519 science gains a crushing victory. Magellan makes his famous voyage.He proves the earth to be round, for his expedition circumnavigates it
… yet even this does not end the war. Many [religious] men oppose the doctrinefor two hundred years longer.”
‘Like everyone else, I grew up with this story. It was retold in every accountof Columbus’ voyage in my schoolbooks, in many movies, and always on ColumbusDay. As for A.D. White’s immense study,
 A History of the Warfare of Sciencewith Theology in Christendom (in two volumes) when I was young, it was required reading … and Icited it in my second published paper. 
‘Trouble is that almost every word of White’s account of the Columbus story isa lie. Every educated person of the time, including Roman Catholic prelates,knew the earth was round. … So why didn’t we know they knew? Why do onlyspecialists know now? … White himself admitted that he wrote the book to geteven with Christian critics of his plans for Cornell. … many of White’s otheraccounts are as bogus as his report of the flat earth and Columbus. The reasonwe didn’t know the truth is that … for more than three centuries [the claim ofinevitable and bitter warfare between religion and science] has been theprimary polemical device used in the atheist attack on faith. From ThomasHobbes through Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, false claims about religion andscience have been used as weapons in the battle to “free” the human mind fromthe “fetters of faith”.
‘In this chapter, I argue not only that there is no inherent conflict betweenreligion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise ofscience. In demonstration of this thesis [I show that] not only did religionnot cause the “Dark Ages”; nothing else did either—the story that after the“fall” of Rome a long dark night of ignorance and superstition settled overEurope is as fictional as the Columbus story. In fact this was an era ofprofound and rapid technological progress … the Scientific Revolution of thesixteenth century was the … result of [Christian scholarship] starting in theeleventh century… Why did real science develop in Europe … and not anywhereelse? I find answers to those questions in unique features of Christiantheology… The “Enlightenment” [was] conceived initially as a propaganda ploy bymilitant atheists and humanists [e.g. Voltaire, Diderot and Gibbon] whoattempted to claim credit for the rise of science [through promulgating] thefalsehood that science required the defeat of religion’ (pp. 121–123, emphasesin original).

What is science? It is a combination of observationand theory that leads to testable predictions and prohibitions about theresults of further observations. A great deal of knowledge was gathered byobservation and by trial and error in all ancient cultures, but this is notscience. Aristotle, for example, observed widely and theorized extensively, buthe did not test his theories against his observations so he was not ascientist. Alchemy and astrology were highly developed in China, Islamicregions, India and ancient Greece and Rome, but only in medieval Europe didthese become the sciences of chemistry and astronomy. ‘It is the consensusamong contemporary historians, philosophers and sociologists of science thatreal science arose only once: in Europe.’ The leading scientific figures in thesixteenth and seventeenth centuries were overwhelmingly devout Christians whobelieved it their duty to comprehend God’s handiwork (pp. 123, 126–127).

What about the ‘Dark Ages’? The term wasinvented in the 19th century, and is now rejected by historians as being apejorative incorrectly denoting it to be a period of intellectual darkness andbarbarity (p. 129). The reason? Historians do most of their work with writtensources, and few know much about horses. Many of the written sources from the‘Dark Ages’ are written in rather poor Latin, so poor Latin must equalintellectual darkness. Curiously enough, it was not until 1931 that a retiredFrench cavalry officer—who did understand horses—revealed the technologicalprogress that occurred during the period. Roman and Saracen cavalry rodewithout stirrups and often bareback, but the Europeans invented the stirrup andpommelled saddle which, combined with a very long lance and full body armour,proved an irresistible force in battle. Further technical progress in harnessingand iron horseshoes led not only to greater prowess in battle but also to adoubling of plowing effort in the fields.

Long before any so–called ‘Renaissance’,Europe’s technology advanced far beyond anything achieved by the ancients, withexamples like waterwheels, milling technology, camshafts, clocks and thecompass. While gunpowder was invented by the Chinese they never developed thegun (so it is a misnomer to call their invention ‘gunpowder’—they only used itin fireworks); it was Europeans who developed the gun and by the early 14thcentury cannon guns were all over Europe. All this progress occurred before the‘rediscovery’ of classical knowledge. By the late 13th century Europe was theworld leader in technology, philosophy and science and this had come fromcenturies of interaction between Christianity and the ‘barbarians’ who had muchmore sophisticated cultures than generally acknowledged (p. 134).

And the ‘ScientificRevolution’? It, like the term ‘Dark Ages’, was coined to discredit the medievalchurch. The notion has been used to claim that science burst forth only whenweakened Christianity could no longer prevent it, and as the recovery ofclassical learning made it possible. Both claims are as false as thoseconcerning Columbus and the flat earth (p. 134). Classical Greek texts weretranslated into Latin in the 12th century Christian universities and were knownlong before the ‘Renaissance’. But classical learning was not science so it didnot directly produce science. Science began in the Christian universities underthe influence of the devout scholastics. Copernicus was described by theinfamous A.D. White as ‘a simple minded scholar’ who ‘discovered’ that theEarth revolves around the sun. More fudging. Copernicus was an eminent Christianscholar who studied at the Christian universities of Cracow, Bologna, Padua andFerrera. He was taught the fundamentals of celestial mechanics that led to hisheliocentric model. A long series of scholastic developments, including thedemolition of Aristotle’s view of mechanics, made way for the modern version(via ‘impetus theory’), and it was biblical reasoning that guided the process.Copernicus was taught that the Earth rotates on its axis and his sole contribution seemsto be that he put what he had been taught into mathematical terms, calculatingfuture positions for the dates of Easter and solstices, etc. His heliocentricmodel was no more accurate than the existing Ptolemaic system and virtuallyeverything else in his book was wrong. ‘The idea that a Copernican revolutionin science occurred goes counter to the evidence … and is an invention of laterhistorians’ (p. 139).

Scholastics began the empirical tradition longbefore the ‘Renaissance’. Albert Magnus excelled in botany in the 13th century,putting Aristotle to the test with field observations and discarding his wrongideas. Human physiology began at the same time using dissection ofcadavers—something forbidden to classical scholars and Muslims. What allowedChristian dissection was the idea that the soul, not the body, was the essenceof the human person. It began with post–mortem dissection in the 13th centuryand by the early 14th century it was taught in front of students. Yet our lyingfriend A.D. White said dissection began amid church opposition in the sixteenthcentury! It was this same tradition of dedication to careful and accurateobservation that led Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler to formulate the firstlaws of astronomy.

But what was the Christian difference? India, China, Persia,Greece and Rome all had venerable traditions of scholarship but why did onlyChristian Europe develop science? Stark’s answer is simple but profound—theChristian God was rational, responsive, dependable and omnipotent and theuniverse was his personal creation in which his divine nature was put ondisplay for man’s benefit and instruction. Among the passages most commonlycited by medieval scholars was: ‘Thou has ordered all things in measure andnumber and weight.’1Christians believed that science could be done and should be done.

In China, the Confucian and Taoist philosophiesdid not contain the idea that a ‘science of explanations’ would be possible sothey pursued personal enlightenment and social order. The Greeks pursuedlearning with great zeal but there remained always a gap between theirspeculative philosophy and their observation. The persistence of this gap canbe traced to their view of the universe—it was seen as a ‘living organism’ with‘motives’, influenced by a multitude of fallible gods. In the face of sucharbitrary behaviour, they pursued speculative ideals that could not besubjected to empirical testing. The Islamic world embraced classicalscholarship enthusiastically, and made significant progress in mathematics,astronomy and medicine, but they never developed science. Stark attributes thisto their excessive zeal for the ancients—they adopted the Greek view of theuniverse as being inscrutable and it blocked further progress.

To illustrate the role of Christians in the rise of science, Starkresearched ‘scientific stars’ from 1543 to 1680, the era usually designated asthe ‘scientific revolution’, and came up with a list of the top 52. Of these,26 were Protestant and 26 Catholic; 15 of them were English, 9 French, 8Italian, 7 German (the rest were Dutch, Danish, Flemish, Polish and Swedishrespectively). Only one was a sceptic (Edmund Halley) and one (Paracelsus) wasa pantheist. The other 50 were Christians, 30 at least of which could becharacterized as ‘devout’ because of their evident zeal. It is not until thetime of Darwin that atheism appeared to accomplish anything significant inscience2 (Halley’s work in astronomy and mathematics owed no debt toatheism). And the obvious flaw in Darwinism is that it ‘falls notably short ofexplaining the origin of species’ (p. 177). So atheism is left nakedlyideological, with all its attempts to wrap itself in science thwarted.

In an interesting illustration of the influenceof modern creationism, Stark refuses to commit an opinion on the originsdebate:

‘My reluctance to pursue these matters is basedon my experience that nothing causes greater panic among many of my colleaguesthan any criticism of evolution. They seem to fear that someone might mistakethem for Creationists if they even remain in the same room while such talk isgoing on’ (p. 176).

He goes ahead with his critique however, androundly chastises evolutionists for their duplicity:

‘When Julian Huxley claimed that “Darwin’stheory … is no longer a theory but a fact,” he surely knew better. But justlike his grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, he knew that his lie served thegreater good of “enlightenment”’ (p. 185).

Duplicity abounds, apparently. The famous debate between T.H.Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce is widely reported to have ended in a farce whenthe Bishop asked Huxley whether it was through his grandmother or grandfatherthat he traced his ape ancestry. Huxley is reported to have replied saying hehad no shame in ape ancestry but would be ashamed to be associated with a manwho used his great gifts to obscure the truth. This cameo, repeated in all therecent biographies of Darwin and Huxley, is apparently the fabrication of atabloid journalist thirty–eight years after the encounter (p.188). Thehistorian J.R. Lewis also argued that this infamous Huxley riposte is a myth.3 On the contrary, Wilberforce was a first rate scholar withfirst–class honours in mathematics from Oxford, who published a sound critiqueof Darwin and was acknowledged by Darwin as making ‘a very telling case againstme’ (p. 189).

Stark finishes the chapter by saying that notonly did science begin from a religious foundation, it continues to work fromthe same foundation today. A huge survey in 1969 showed 55–60% of academics inthe hard sciences in America embrace religious faith, with 30–50% in the socialsciences (these figures are very dated and greatly overstate the real influenceof biblical faith). Stark does not tell us his faith position, (he denies beinga Roman Catholic) saying it is no one’s business but his own (p. 13), but wemight reasonably conclude that perhaps he is a Protestant theisticevolutionist.

God’s enemies: explaining the European witchhunts

Chapter 3 jumps right into the horrors of awitch’s ‘sabbat’ to explain why they were so vehemently opposed. However, itseems that here too, the ground is littered with falsehood and exaggeration.For example, Stark does show how the Church sometimes hindered and halted witchhunts.

However, witch–hunts did take place and Starkoffers a sociological explanation for them that appears quite rational(including, as it must, sporadic outbursts of irrationality). He paints apicture of widespread folk magic, overlain by Christianizing influences andsocial tensions, which in the face of the external threat of Islam and theinternal threat of heresy caused the authorities to crack down on dissidentsand deviants. The most notorious cases occurred largely in areas where the ruleof law was already weak.

There is evidence that even the Spanish Inquisition was instigatedto mitigate the excesses of mob violence, in particular the Cathar cult, and ithad a civilizing influence.4 Amongst the 535 executions in Aragon between 1540 and 1640, forexample, there were only 12 cases of ‘superstition or witchcraft’—the majoritywere for religious heresy. Magic was widely tolerated; only Satanism attractedthe death penalty. But even in Spain, confession and apology was all that wasrequired—only defiance was punished.

But why did witch hunts never develop in Islam?Stark suggests that Islamic society is held together primarily by politicalpower and witchcraft was not a political threat. They also accepted magic aspart of life and were ‘not nearly so committed to reason and rationality’ (p.287). The irony for Christian Europe was that just as reason and rationality hadbrought science, it also brought witch–hunts.

God’s justice: the sin of slavery

Stark provides in Chapter 4 some balm forEurope’s self–inflicted wounds—Christian reason triumphed in the abolition ofslavery. Slavery was widespread in all the great societies of history, but onlyin Christian Europe (and America) was it perceived to be a sin that must beabolished. Individual Christians publicly opposed slavery from the seventhcentury onwards, and official church moves against it began with St Thomas Aquinasin the 13th century. A series of popes upheld his position, beginning in 1435and culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul IIIin 1537. These edicts were widely flouted, but they remain an historictestimony to Christian social justice. And why did abolition not succeed inIslam (not until recently, and slavery still persists in some places)? Oneobvious answer is that Muhammad bought, sold, captured and owned slaves (p.338).

Gods, rituals and social science

In the form of a postscript, Stark reflects uponwhy modern sociologists have abandoned gods in favour of rituals as thecenterpiece of religion. For example, cultures are said to ‘discover’ rain godsas a result of performing rain dances; the god is thus considered to be theeffect, not the cause, of the behaviour (p. 369). With obvious tongue in cheekhe goes on: ‘One must be a highly trained social scientist to believe suchthings.’ He then puts forward contrary arguments to the traditional positionproposed by Durkheim and concludes that:

‘Gods are thefundamental feature of religions … The ‘wisdom of the east’ did not give riseto science, nor did Zen meditation turn people’s hearts against slavery…science was not the work of Western secularists or even deists; it was entirelythe work of devout believers in an active, conscious, creator God. And it wasfaith in the goodness of this same God and in the mission of Jesus that ledother devout Christians to end slavery … Western civilization really wasGod–given’ (p. 376).