The Story of the West: II – Christian Theology and the Scientific Revolution

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Nov 2006

How did Europe come to dominate the world by 1900?

The reason is simple: the ocean-going ships that first explored and mapped the whole world began their voyages in Europe in the 1400s AD. They were followed by European soldiers who built global empires for countries such as Spain, Portugal, England, Holland and France.

And these imperialistic adventurers were usually accompanied by Christian missionaries who spread the Christian faith globally also.

And this is why, throughout the world, people speak of this as ‘the twenty-first century’. The first truly global calendar was European and Christian also, and so were the first accurate world maps.

This is what people mean when they speak about ‘the dominance of the West’. Western European countries began this period of western dominance, and the USA has continued it, right up until our own time. But how had this happened? Why did ‘the West’ become the first globally dominant civilisation.

The simplest answer is that it was western Europe that first fully exploited technical advances such as the compass, the fore-and-aft sail and gunpowder. These allowed European ships of the 1400s to navigate when out of site of land, to sail at an angle into the prevailing wind, and to overcome most opposition they met with. And it was the wealth of European trade that developed these ships and financed these voyages.

But why was Europe the most technologically and economically developed part of the world by the 1400s AD?

Most historians still tend to credit the culture of ancient Greece. The Greeks believed in the power of reason and began the systematic collection of knowledge that laid the foundations of modern science.

However, as we saw last month, the ancient Greeks did not believe in progress. Nor did they invent true science.

Science is not simply the haphazard collection of knowledge. It involves the systematic testing of every theory – either by experiment or observation. Only if repeated experiments or observations do not disprove a theory can it be accepted as scientifically proven.

The most scientific of the ancient Greeks, Aristotle, was an avid collector of information and ideas – but he never set out to test these ideas systematically. For example, he believed that heavier objects will fall faster than lighter. He could easily have devised an experiment to test this – for example by dropping stones of different weights from a high cliff at the same time, and having someone down below observe if the heavier did indeed reach the sand below before the lighter. He never did. Nor did any other ancient Greek.

The reason was simple. The ancient Greeks tended to believe that the spirit world was constantly interacting with the material world, changing the appearance of things – and making it impossible for humans to trust their own senses. Unseen spirits could easily interfere with two falling stones, to deceive any observer – so what could be the point of devising such an experiment?

For true science to happen, people had to believe that the natural world was ordered by a rational being according to unchanging natural principles lying waiting to be discovered. This attitude could never have developed in ancient Greece – or in any other ancient civilisation.

The reason that true science did not develop in the ancient world had therefore everything to do with the pagan belief systems of that world. Pagan Gods were believed to share the weaknesses of gifted humans, especially vanity, and the natural world was believed to be populated by a variety of invisible spirits with human failings also. Furthermore, pagan Gods were believed to be incapable of truly loving their worshippers – they were far too great to have any real interest in us humans.

If Gods could behave unreasonably, then the natural world could not be subject to reason either. And if Gods were uninterested in the fate of humans they could have no interest in our questions either.

The modern belief that all of nature is subject to unchanging laws – laws that lie waiting to be discovered by the human mind – required fist of all the belief that God is a rational, and consistent being. It required, in other words, the coming of Christianity and the rise of Christian theology.

No other religious tradition ever developed anything like Christian theology – a systematic attempt to explain reality in terms of a rational, creator God. And that is why true science developed first in Christian Europe

Nowadays it is often alleged that Christianity is all about ‘blind faith’, and that the coming of Christianity delayed the emergence of science and reason. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christian theology was founded on the premise that everything had been created by a loving and reasonable God. The greatest Christian theologians had far more faith in reason than many of today’s greatest intellectuals.

“Heaven forbid,” declared St Augustine (354-430 AD), “that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals. Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” 

Furthermore Augustine believed that such a search would be fruitful, declaring that although ‘certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation’ could not yet be understood, ‘one day we shall be able to do so’.

This confidence in the power of reason to produce new knowledge was the cause of the development of Christian theology in the Middle Ages, after the fall of Rome. It was also the reason for the foundation of the Christian universities after about 800 AD.

By the beginning of the modern period c 1450 AD, the Church was the most important source of support for Europe’s universities. Centuries of planetary observation in these provided the knowledge needed by the Polish Catholic priest, Copernicus, to frame his revolutionary theory that Earth and all of the other planets rotated around the sun. He hit upon this theory in the early 1500s AD.

Later, in the 1600s, Galileo’s support for Copernicus led to a papal ban – for which Pope John Paul II eventually apologised. This famous and unforgivable episode is often used by anti-Catholic intellectuals to prove that Christian faith and reason are incompatible – but these same intellectuals have never even tried to explain why the Scientific Revolution begun by Copernicus and Galileo began in Christian Europe and nowhere else.

This paradox puzzled none other than the famous atheist English philosopher Bertrand Russell. If religion was the source of all ignorance, why then had ancient China not been the cradle of the scientific revolution – as the intellectuals of ancient China had been sceptical of all religion?

Russell’s collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead, provided the answer. The intellectuals of ancient China had no confidence that progress in knowledge was possible, because they believed that everything that could be known was already known.

Christian intellectuals of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, were convinced that, in Whitehead’s words “there is a secret … which can be unveiled”. He went on to explain that this conviction originated in “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God”. Faith in a rational God led to the conviction that nature too must be rationally ordered – and it was this conviction that led to the scientifically-based world we know.

Unfortunately, the historical education of most of the West’s secular intellectuals has not kept pace with their scientific and technical expertise. This is why Pope John Paul II could not persuade the leaders of the European Union to include mention of Europe’s Christian heritage in their now-delayed constitution for the enlarged EU. They are mostly simply unaware that there would not be a European Union had it not been for centuries of rational Christian theology.

Recent events in our church have also had the effect of giving many of us Catholics an inferiority complex about the history of our church. It is time we knew better – and began the task of making our church once more a beacon of enlightenment in the darkness of our own time.

Far from delaying the emergence of our modern science-based society, Christian and Catholic faith was in fact the original cradle of the modern world. We will see later how it will also provide solutions to the most critical problems of our own time – such as the threat to the environment.

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