11.3 Religion and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions
11.3.1 Rome to Galileo

The rise of science and of industry must both be considered within the total cultural context that gave them birth. The exact causes of the Industrial Revolution may always elude historians. However, there are certain attitudes, certain cultural values, a particular world view, and specific societal conditions within which science came to the fore and the Industrial Revolution began. The fact that they did not do so in other cultures is telling evidence of the importance of this context. Since the societal context for both cannot--as none can--be entirely separated from its religious aspects, it is worthwhile to consider what specific influence religion has had on these developments.

As noted, Islam played an important role, preserving and developing philosophical and mathematical knowledge for many centuries while Europe declined from the days of Roman glories and also lost much of its knowledge of the past. However, it was the various forms of Christianity that had nearly exclusive direct religious influence upon Northern Europe and Great Britain, where the major historical developments of interest here took place--that is, the rise of science and of industrial technology.

Through the decline of the Roman empire and the long political and legal vacuum that was its aftermath, the Christian church--especially the Irish-led monastic tradition--gradually became the custodian not only of Europe's learning, but of its statecraft as well. Like all religious institutions, it was not the least reluctant to extend the doctrines of its scriptures wider and wider afield. On the one hand, its care over the moral values of its faithful came to reach into all social realms--including the legal and political--so that state and church became inextricably entangled. On the other, learning under its care came to be scrutinized by and subject to reconciliation with or incorporation into church doctrine, so that accepted paradigms for understanding the physical world were themselves eventually moulded into doctrines, and given the weight of ecclesiastical magisterum.

Thus, scientist-philosophers used the notion that God is beyond time and reflects no change in time to explain His works--the world--and also science, the body of learning about those works. That is, the Biblical notion of progressive revelation in the context of both history and society was not applied to the physical world. It was regarded as created perfect, fixed, and unchanging. Thus, the earth did not move. Other bodies moved about it and did so in circles, for circles were the most "perfect" of motions. Even though this model was an import into Christianity from another world view--that of Greece and Rome--the fact that church scholars had adopted it gave it a weight equal to the most sacred of doctrine. In this way a common-folk or broad cultural world view came to be incorporated into church tradition, then to be reimposed upon the surrounding culture by both religious and political means whenever deviation was suspected.

This fixed view of the universe was applied not only to the physical world but also to the biological one (all species must have existed unchanged from creation on) and to the social/political one as well (the place of both state and citizen in society were fixed and immutable). The scriptures themselves were made subordinate to such traditions, even viewed as having been produced by it, so that their display of a dynamic flow of history and society was subservient to the Church teaching of a static one. Finally, the fixed world view came to be applied to knowledge itself. Aristotle's mechanics, Galen's medicine, and Ptolemy's astronomy all found a home in the church and took up permanent residence as doctrine--despite that none of these writers were Christian. What seemed like adequate and plausible explanations in the light of available knowledge were accepted as the last word and absolute truth on such subjects. As a result, medieval scholars came to be concerned with logic, rhetoric, and oratory as means to the end of making intellectual points to support what were viewed as obvious truths fully known. They were not very interested in making new discoveries because of their confidence in the completeness of the understandings they had. Institutional Christianity came to see itself as the guardian of a specific culture, rather than as a critic of all cultures.

Despite these rigidities in the prevailing world view, the stage was already set for the dawn of both modern science and the industrial age. A number of important points in the historical development can be identified.

First, Christians seized Toledo and Sicily from the Muslims--in 1085 and 1091, respectively--and took over the libraries and the scholarship practised there. This opened up not only Arab learning, but the complete set of Greek works, rocking scholars from their complacency and triggering a sweeping Renaissance of learning, scholastic enquiry, and art.

Second, a century later (1214-1258) the Mongols conquered both China and the Eastern portion of the Islamic world, establishing a conduit for the flow of both goods and ideas between China and Europe. During this period Roger Bacon, a Franciscan monk, criticized the basing of learning on the authorities of the past alone and advocated questioning and experimentation. In one of his letters (1249) he also mentions gunpowder, an oriental import that was to shake the secure foundations of many fortified castles dominating feudal societies with the church's help. Though he was reprimanded for his views on learning by his ecclesiastical superiors, his recommendations were later to become the basis for the science of Galileo and his successors.

Third, the centre of economic power was shifting northward, away from Rome's direct influence and watchful eye, a move marked in part by the founding of the powerful Hanseatic trading league of Northern Europe in 1241. This set the stage for political power to pass into northern hands as well.

Various industrial techniques had also become important by this time, among them metal foundries, water wheels, windmills, hay making, and the heavy horse-drawn plough, and during the thirteenth century many crafts organized guilds for the perfection and transmission of techniques among their members. This brought another power influence and knowledge base onto the scene to compete with the church; it also broadened control over economic power. By the sixteenth century, there was to be a marriage of technique and academic studies that the Greeks could never have contemplated, because by that time technique in itself had become worthy of study.

In the fifteenth century, great strides were made in the understanding of human anatomy--many made by painters such as Leonardo da Vinci who dissected cadavers for study in order to be able to accurately render the external human form. That century also saw the introduction of the most revolutionary technique of all, for paper had been made in France by 1189 and now the printing press was perfected by Gutenberg during the period 1436-1450, so that it became impossible to control the dissemination of knowledge. Thus, new ideas and physical models proliferated, and the church's adopted static world view came under increasing pressure. This was no more apparent than in the new models put forth to explain the motion of the sun and planets.

The complexity of Ptolemy's fixed-earth model, with some sixty circles and epicycles of motion about it, first came under attack by Copernicus, himself a priest, in 1543 when he showed that a sun-centered solar system could reduce this model to forty-eight circles. Copernicus attributed to God the skill of a clockmaker who had put the sun in the centre of the universe to govern and rule over it all--a characterization that was also to play a major role in later science. Later Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) attempted a mathematically indistinguishable compromise that had the earth fixed, the sun moving about it, and the planets orbiting the sun. His successor, Johannes Kepler, was able to use Brahe's painstakingly gathered data and derive an even simpler model based on a sun-centred solar system and only seven ellipses. Galileo drove the final nail in the Church- sanctioned Ptolemaic world view when he discovered sun spots, mountains on the moon, and moons orbiting Jupiter, thus removing the perfection of the heavenly bodies and the earth as the centre of all, by observation rather than by argument. He also used and promoted mathematical/scientific methods in his early experiments on mechanics and so laid the foundation for the modern scientific technique of examining the physical world by observation, hypothesis, prediction, and experimentation, rather than accepting a view of it based on arbitrary dogma borrowed from pagan philosophers. Unfortunately, he tended to be dogmatic himself, promoting Copernicanism as absolute truth (rather than a model) and ignoring Kepler's detailed work in favour of his own general and qualitative observations of the solar system. This dogmatism was also to guarantee him an escalating conflict with the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, the Church was under simultaneous attack from within, for Gutenberg's presses were busy printing what turned out to be the most revolutionary book of all--the Bible. It did not take long for people to realize that there were great discrepancies between it and the church's teachings. Not only was the church's view of the physical world not to be found there, many of its other doctrines were also absent from or contradictory to it.

Those who subsequently broke with the Church were reformers at first, preaching against corruption and immorality among its officials, but they soon differed substantially in doctrinal matters as well, and after the 1520s, the teachings of Luther and Calvin became progressively and rapidly more important in Northern Europe. They taught personal responsibility for sin, salvation through grace rather than works, and they eschewed the religious institution per se as the means of (or substitute for) establishing a relationship with God. England joined the reformation in 1534 when Henry VIII had parliament confirm him as head of the church in that nation following his dispute with the Pope over a divorce he wanted. Much later, Calvin's followers in Scotland and England (Puritans) were to stress the importance of good works on the part of the elect of God, and they included in those the pursuit of science and the building of machines when such activities were undertaken to improve the lot of humanity. This Puritan attitude had much to do with the promotion and rapid spread of industrial techniques and was one of the key factors in the scientific and industrial revolutions in England. Science also was promoted there by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the lord chancellor of England under James I. Bacon analysed and promoted the scientific method espoused by Roger Bacon and by Galileo.

Thus, it was a church under fire on many fronts that assessed Galileo's publications and scientific methodology in the early seventeenth century. But, it was also a church that had some experience with dissent, having run the Spanish Inquisition since 1483 and the Italian since 1542--both dedicated to the destruction of heresy and to the purification of doctrine. The Catholic Church had also clarified and reaffirmed its own doctrines and asserted the supremacy of the Pope in the Council of Trent, begun in 1545. So, when the Inquisition summoned Galileo in 1633, the trial represented a classic clash of world views, but the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Galileo was forced to recant, was placed under arrest, and his books prohibited--a ban that would last for over two centuries. To some extent, he was the author of his own misfortune, for he dogmatically insisted that the Copernican view was not just a better mathematical model for the universe (that is, an abstraction to explain it, but was also the ultimate physical reality)--something that is impossible ever to prove. After all, Earth could be the centre of the universe with everything else moving about it, even though this is not the simplest of explanations for what we observe.

The church was not prepared to move on what it had come to regard as a doctrinal point merely because Galileo's explanations were more useful. He wished to remain a good Catholic, but was convinced that the church's interpretation of the Bible, and not the Bible itself, was at fault. Neither he nor the cardinals who tried him seemed to realize that both had trespassed into areas in which they were not competent to judge. Conflicts over church doctrines about the physical world, and corresponding insistence by scientists on their models as ultimate reality, have been a feature of the intellectual landscape ever since.

11.3.2 Reason in Science and Protestantism

The Catholic Church continued to fortify itself politically and doctrinally, effectively ending both the Reformation and the pursuit of science in its realm of Southern and Western Europe. Meanwhile, the scientists and religious reformers of Northern Europe and England discovered that they had more in common with each other than merely being mutual enemies of the church that had given both birth and then cast them out.

First, they shared the scholarly attention to detail, to rigor, and to logic that was their common heritage from their scholastic predecessors. This did not mean that such scholars always agreed, but it did mean that they could argue well--and it is in the crucible of intellectual argument that many a theological and scientific truth is born or tested.

Second, they also inherited the general Christian belief that God had not only expended His creative energy as the Old Testament described, and sustained it through the power of Christ as the New taught, but that He did both in a rational way. God was therefore regarded as the best of both Hebrew and Greek ideals. Moreover, humankind, being made in His image, could also expend creative energy and do so rationally. These ideas, coupled with a new reliance on the Pythagorean concept that reality is rooted in its observable and numerically describable form, meant that God's works could be analysed after Him and that enlightened reason could think His thoughts after Him. Consequently, the rules of His rational universe could be deduced (and ought to be) for the sake of understanding God and applying this to the good work of improving the human condition. That is, the created order could be studied and used for good because it had an underlying rationality--and this unique idea is in fact fundamental to all science. This was expressed in Calvinism as part of God's predetermination; He had ruled by fixed decrees from the beginning of time and these were observable as the laws of nature. This very observability, however, meant that such laws were not untouchable; they were not quite a part of God Himself so they could be understood and used.

The great seventeenth century scientist Isaac Newton believed God sustained the workings of the universe, such as those of planetary motion, by supplying additional force on an ongoing basis to keep the system constant. As far as Protestant churchmen and most scientists were concerned, the Bible, properly understood, was literally true, and it could not contradict the truths discovered in the physical world, provided they were also properly interpreted.

Third, Protestant emphasis on faith as a personal experience rather than a cultural and institutional one coincided with scientific compulsion to personally doubt, investigate, hypothesize, and experiment. In its formative years, science was intensely personal and individualistic, and its great thinkers were not afraid to become highly emotional over science as the great gift of God placed in their hands to understand the world He had made. In its later years, there was a tendency to downplay this aspect of science and to present it as if it were impersonal, institutional, a finished work, and entirely value free--but it still does have the personal element, as demonstrated in Chapter 2. Even though the professed goal of modern science is the specific exclusion of all factors that depend on variations between individual experimenters, and the practice of science assumes that a reality exists that transcends both beliefs and culture, it is impossible for its practitioners to achieve transcendence themselves. Paradoxically, they are even reluctant to do so, first, because transcendence is seen as religious, and second, because the very assumption that an objective reality exists must also be questioned if science is to be consistent. That is, just as democracy must give its enemies leave to criticize and even condemn its fundamental assumptions and it would cease to be democracy if it either abandoned its absolutes or its toleration of potentially fatal opposition; so also must science encourage and even conduct a potentially fatal criticism of its own foundational presuppositions. Failure to do so would be a betrayal of those foundations.

Fourth, both science and Christianity profess to be designed for seekers of truth, (or at least seekers of reality) and to need observable facts, though not to be dependent totally upon them. That is, both claim to be the revealers of the meanings of mysteries, not the creators of myths. There is a strong and striking element of commonality in thinking, in methodology, and in application. It is expressed in the theoretical realm by the need to conceptualize, explain, predict, generalize, and synthesize--one with theological ideas and God's revelation, and the other with physical ideas and the empirically observed universe. In experience, both are personal, descriptive, and experimental. That is, theoretical knowledge satisfies neither; both need to relate knowledge, classify it, predict with it, and consider its consequences. Also, both are relational and transformational; they both have a imperative to be applied to and to change real people in real situations. Further, they both have a philosophy of being, a set of presuppositions, or a world view through which everything else is filtered. In addition, in both Protestant Christianity and science, these four--world view, theory, description, and application--act in mutual feedback to change one another, and cannot exist alone.

Fifth, their mutual disdain of the kind of hierarchicalism expressed by the earlier Church in both its theological/ecclesiastical and physical views, led both science and Protestant Christianity to dispense with hierarchical views of nature. There was no longer need for either to suppose the heavenly bodies were virtuously ordered, or that a host of angelic beings of various ranks were employed in maintaining heavenly movements. Similarly, there was a general loss of belief in evil spirits, the other side of the angelic host, and with it the personality and activity of Satan as a progenitor of evil faded from view. Humanity began to be viewed as autonomous--free from external influences and bonds, and able to make anything of the race. Scientists were to take this much further, however, and eventually to make differences on this point a crucial factor in a near total break with Christianity.

Galvanized by the techniques of science, the growth of industry, and an entirely new view of religion, the society of Northern Europe and Great Britain underwent a startling transformation after the seventeenth century. The momentum was slow at first, for many wars came to be fought in the complex and unstable political environment left behind by the Reformation. But scientists continued as partners with the Protestant churchmen until well into the nineteenth century, to a time when the industrial revolution was solidly underway, and the scientific one highly advanced. There was a slackening of scientific momentum at the start of the eighteenth century, but it revived as scientists turned practical in England and fostered the Industrial Revolution, and as they turned theoretical in France and promoted the political revolution there in 1789.

The opening of the Americas to settlement also had a profound influence on the European scene. The new frontier provided a population safety valve, and a place to flee from religious persecution. It also triggered a major expansion in the European economy and assisted in raising the standard of living--both for those who emigrated and for those who stayed at home. During these years, it was common to be both theologian and scientist; indeed the practice of combining the roles of ordained minister with scientific seeker-of-knowledge was widespread, especially in Great Britain.

11.3.3 The Partnership Dissolves

However, this partnership was not to last, and several factors contrived to drive a wedge between the world view of science and that of its mainly protestant church partners. One was that even though both movements had begun in a reaction from the institutionalized church, both had been busy creating institutions of their own. These institutions took on new reasons for being, entrenched positions, and dogmas that their originators did not have. The institutions of the scientific world took form as the Royal Society of London (1662) and the Paris Academy of Sciences (1666--the same year as Newton's gravitational experiments). On the religious side, the new churches became more firmly connected to the state, though the 1662 Act of Uniformity in Britain had many dissenters, who set up their own universities and also became prominent in scientific circles. Though they had much in common at first, these institutions were also eventually to play a role in destroying that commonality. Usually begun under the protection of a church, they gradually went their own way and declared their independence of all things religious, and even of all society.

Meanwhile, many Protestant church organizations took on a nominalism, legalism, and formalism not unlike that which had characterized the Catholic Church before the reformation. They formed self-perpetuating bureaucracies and lost their sense of urgency and mission. It became possible to be a "good Christian" by occasionally attending services and giving a donation while pursuing economic gain in the service of industry with the energy of one's substance. Their theologians had also followed their earlier Catholic counterparts by adopting as absolute fact the current scientific world view, in this case that God had wound up creation like a clock and had then stepped out of the picture. As this abstraction seemed adequate, churchmen came to believe in it as dogma. Thus, they came to discount miracles as fables and to define the supernatural out of existence. For all practical purposes, their clockwork god became irrelevant to real (empirical) life.

At the same time, the Catholic Church had not only consolidated its doctrinal hold on the peoples it influenced, but it had also come to terms with science--not adopting its world view but tolerating it at arm's length and making an attempt to integrate an understanding of its methodology into the faith. Thus, by 1820, Galileo's books were no longer forbidden, and scientific investigations were thriving in some Catholic nations as well as in the Protestant ones. This was particularly true in France where, through the turmoil of revolution, church and state had a very rocky relationship and intellectuals had great freedom from church control.

Meanwhile, the world view of scientists was changing, too. Flushed by the success of both the scientific method and of industrial revolution's machine and by a rising standard of living, they developed four ideas much further than they had before and adopted the product as the guiding principles of a comprehensive world view of a very ambitious scope.

First, their own mechanistic view of nature was gradually reinforced by their successes to the point where it replaced the personal God who sustained the universe, and Christian belief was discarded, with God being reconceptualized or represented in daily practice as a vague personality termed "nature." Because such a god had at best only created, then stepped back and let nature take its course, he was impossibly remote, could not be experienced and was therefore essentially unknowable. To the deists among scientists, God existed only as a creative force; he had no personality and certainly no personal interest in the real world or in any individuals. He was an abstraction like any other and could therefore be redefined. Moreover, the Christian scriptures themselves were subjected to a new analysis based on the exclusion of miracles as even theoretical propositions. Thus, many scientists first rejected any intersection of the supernatural with the known physical world, then the historical accuracy of the Bible, and finally Biblical doctrines as well, for if its contents could be regarded as substantially mythological in some areas, then none of it need be considered authoritative or legitimate knowledge. In many circles, this vague deism was, of course, carried much further and became either disinterested agnosticism or hostile atheism.

Second, the philosophical techniques of science--rationalism and empiricism--gradually became elevated to positions of unquestioned, absolutes achieving a status equivalent to apodictic religious doctrine. This version of materialism ultimately came to be known in science as logical positivism--the view that positively asserts the sole existence and knowability of logical reasoning and empirical data, and that explicitly defines out of existence the supernatural (The corresponding political expression was the Marxist doctrine of dialectical materialism). That is, their world view went beyond indifference to religion, and became hostile. So great was confidence in science by 1900 that it was believed that the essential workings of the universe were now well known in the absolute sense and that only a few details--such as more places after the decimal in certain physical constants--needed to be settled. It was inconceivable that a god could have worked outside a technique knowable to science if he existed, and these were believed to be already known by humanity, so there was no need to propose there were higher ones known only to him by which he could have created and sustained the universe or worked miracles--say, of healing. Such a god could be treated as a dispensable hypothesis, as irrelevant to science. For all practical purposes, Newton had created the world, for the power of his mechanics and calculus served to explain all but a few minor details. It appeared to be plainly obvious to scientists that the physical world was indeed as it could ordinarily be observed to be. Newtonianism was no longer an abstraction, it was the real thing. Such adoptions of current scientific models and world views as though they were absolute truth had happened before, to later regret, but, as with many lessons of history, this one had also been forgotten.

Unfortunately for the nineteenth century view that only a few more decimal points needed to be calculated in some constants, those few niggling details were later to give birth to the revolutions of relativity theory and quantum mechanics--revolutions that shook the theoretical foundations of science and caused a few cracks to appear in the epistemological ones as well.

Third, scientism (for by now it was a full-blown belief system) expanded upon the humanism of the Greeks and of the renaissance thinkers. Since God either did not exist at all or did not matter, humanity was self-evidently the autonomous pinnacle of all observable nature. At most, God needed only be consulted on those questions where humans had difficulty finding scientific answers. The world was the human oyster, to do with as desired, and with no higher accountability. There were no bounds, no one need submit to another authority and no one needed a social or other context to give meaning to self. The whole cosmos existed and drew meaning from human observations; indeed, it could well be regarded as having been created by humankind, for the rational/empirical world view was the only ultimate reality. Human beings could therefore recreate the cosmos; they had either collectively become god or they could define new ones for themselves.

This new scientific humanism had a great deal going for it, because the record of achievement and progress was substantial, and there was therefore reason for the great optimism both would continue indefinitely. It seemed to nineteenth century scientists that the human race had pulled itself up by its own unaided efforts from poverty, disease, and superstition, and if not already in a golden age, it was on the very edge of one. All problems could be solved. Unlimited wealth was available for exploitation and the inherent goodness of people was evident in the technology they had created. Soon war would be abolished and a glorious age of health, wealth, harmony and global community would be entered upon. In the process of coming to this view, "progress" came to be a god word of status akin to "nature." The assumption that humanity was progressing to a higher state was unquestioned and unquestionable--it was considered a self-evident fact.

Fourth, the scope of progress was extrapolated backward as well as forward in time, and a number of theories of evolution came forward in the early part of the nineteenth century. One effect of these was to produce a naturalistic explanation for the presence of humans on the earth, one tied to the material world alone and contained entirely within the context of naturally observable processes. Thus, the mechanistic view of the universe came to be applied to humans as well; biological as well as physical systems all must have progressed (evolved) to higher forms by past operations of the law of progress in a purely mechanistic universe. Several means had been proposed whereby this mechanistic evolution might have taken place, but experimentation refuted most, and there was no popularizer for such models to make them more widely acceptable. However, the stage was set for someone who could produce a plausible theory. Then, in 1858, Charles Darwin published his idea that evolution had taken place by the natural selection of traits according to their survival value in changing environments (survival of the fittest). In addition, he was able to communicate this notion effectively to the public. Evolution had its mechanism; moreover, it was firmly placed in the past and could not be refuted by experimentation.

Though acceptance in some scientific circles and many religious ones was slow at first, the philosophical ground had been well-prepared, and evolution by natural selection eventually swept all other naturalistic theories of origins away. Along the way, it gave rise to a new hierarchicalism--this time of species--ordered according to the height (i.e., the complexity) to which each had evolved. This was later to have disastrous effects when applied to the "races" of humanity, when science came to be employed to "prove" one or another nationality or skin colour to be inherently superior, because of supposedly being more highly evolved.

Moreover, natural selection came to be applied to social, political, religious, economic, and moral systems as well as the biological. In these fields, there was even less inclination to regard this kind of evolution as a model or an abstraction--it quickly became the only possible expression of ultimate reality. For example, human opinions were part of the social machine; opinions therefore and necessarily determined social and moral patterns, which were relative, not absolute, for they too could evolve and would necessarily and inevitably do so to a higher and better order of existence. Christian morality had survived in a world that had rejected its theology, now it too was set aside. The old morality was replaced by a new one, based not on absolute divine fiat, but on changing human opinion--higher and more sophisticated principles than right and wrong applied to evolved mankind. That there was in practice little difference between the new morality and the old immorality was not much remarked upon.

It is important to note, however, that there is no logical connection between theories of social evolution and the biological ones of Darwin, so that evidence for one lends the other no support, and the refutations, problems, or failures of one cannot be used to criticize the other.

Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, those phenomena associated with what is called religion in other cultures had been abdicated by a largely nominal Christianity, and had been taken over by a confident and aggressive scientism which, though it by that time tended to eschew all religions, was filling the same intellectual, philosophical, and practical role, and could be properly regarded as a religion itself.

Conservatives in the religious community had by this time so little knowledge of, interest in, or commonality with science that they were unable and unwilling to debate the issues on scientific grounds. They had so thoroughly committed themselves to a view of the physical world as the product of a God of the clockworks they had forgotten this idea was an abstraction and could not be proven to be the physical reality itself. When science changed course and committed itself instead to a new model that conservative Christians could not accept, the evolutionary model, a classic irresolvable clash of world views resulted, one that gradually drove Christians into silence, accommodation, or an intellectual ghetto.

Thus matters stood until well into the twentieth century, when events began once again to force changes, not only in both world views, but in the societal context in which world views are formed and exercised. Before considering the direction in which these are now going, a more detailed examination of the creation/evolution debate is in order. It is not only an important case study in differing world views, but has recently been restored as a debatable topic principally through the efforts of a new breed of conservative Christians who are not prepared to assume that the last word on the subject was said in the nineteenth century.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises