Does Science Equal Atheism?

(system) #1
What’s wrong with space-age sound bites about science and religion.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(George Brooks) #2

I have absolutely nothing to say at this time… because I haven’t finished reading the entire article!!!


(Mervin Bitikofer) #3

“There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion. It is what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts”

This quote from Brooke above reminds me how often I do resort to the shorthand (in my language and even my conceptions of it --there “it” is again!) to speaking of science, or a relationship between science and religion as a monolithic concept. Referring to early Greeks or others as “fathers” of science probably bolsters this misconception in unhealthy ways. I resolve to tweak that somehow, but shorthand is all that fits on a bumper sticker and also then is all that may fit into a brief comment or exchange with someone. Maybe the upshot of all that is: don’t expect soundbites to get anything completely correct.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #4

I would say that the reason there is no one relationship between science and theology is because there are three basic disciplines underlying Western culture, these being Greek philosophy, Christian theology, and modern science.

Each works in connection with the other two. A serious problem being today that Greek philosophy no longer works for modern science and needs to be replaces for theology, so the old three legge3d stool does not work and science are at odds, because they so not agree on a philosophical foundation.

(Peaceful Science) #5

@Steve_Snobelen nice article.

I agree that professional science does not start till the 1800s.

Would you agree though that modern science (or the scientific revolution) starts in the 1600s right after the Copernican Revolution?

(Stephen Snobelen) #6

That’s a great question. I teach a course on the Scientific Revolution every year and we regularly engage with this question and the relevant historiography. The issues are partly definitional and with history we are often dealing with processes. Obviously, people didn’t wake up one morning in, say, January 1800, and release that science now existed. What I tell my students is that although science as we now know it wasn’t in place until the beginning of the nineteenth century, in courses that deal with the story before 1800 we are dealing with the pre-history and roots of science. It does make sense to point to the beginning of the nineteenth century as the time when we begin to see professional science. One could perhaps argue that it begins a bit earlier than this in France, in the 1780s and 1790s, with people like Lavoisier and those who operated under the auspices of the French Academy of Sciences. While in Britain even after the term ‘scientist’ is coined in the 1830s this begins to happen somewhat later. For instance, one could make the argument that Darwin – who lived into the second half of the nineteenth century – wasn’t a professional scientist. He had no university or government post and instead worked in a genteel setting (complete with domestic servants) at Down House in the country east of London. With respect to the seventeenth century, one could say that modern science is emerging in this period and continues to become more professional, more collaborative, more exact, more mathematical and so on through the eighteenth century. The Copernican Revolution takes a half century or so to get going. Copernicus’s De revolutionibus appears in 1543, but there are no significant developments in heliocentric astronomy until Kepler and Galileo in the early seventeenth century. But De rev is certainly one catalyst for the Scientific Revolution. Although I tend to be a continuist in these matters, I would still want to argue that the historiographical concept of the Scientific Revolution has validity. But again, we are dealing with a long, drawn-out process or processes. The main point, with respect to the current topic of essentialism, is that the rational reconstructionist tendency to find “scientists” in the early modern, Medieval and ancient worlds doesn’t work. It is anachronistic. Instead of imposing modern categories on the past, the job of the historian is to ask what the past was like. The answers are not always clear-cut, but it is a great question. Many thanks!

(Peaceful Science) #7

I can agree that there is a continuum here, but I think the story and the specific changes are important.

I would argue that the Copernican Revolution, especially its culmination in Kepler’s work in 1609, is a major turning point. Even though it starts in the 1500’s, is success becomes a puzzle that must be explained in the 1600s. It is the effort to give an account for this, and map a way forward, I would say that gives voice to the key innovations.

In particular, I would put the beginning of modern science at Novum Organum in 1620, which defines the modern scientific effort in opposition to “ancient” study of nature (e.g. Aristotle). He does not use the word “science”, but this is where the key philosophical shifts are laid out, and this work becomes influential as a guide for early “scientists” seeking replicate the Copernican Revolution’s success in new areas.

This way of telling the story does suffer from anachronistically using the term “science”. However it does better justice to the continuity between us and the Copernican revolution, and the sharp break they felt they were making with earlier studies of nature in the 1600s.

Now, I am a scientist. So I am genuinely wanting to get this straight, because it is not my area. So I genuinely care to hear your opinion of that account @Steve_Snobelen. What do you think?

(Peaceful Science) #8

And I would agree with this entirely.

Modern science is not just any sort of “studying nature” or “curiosity” or “logic + evidence”.

Rather, science is peculiar and idiosyncratic to our current time. It is not natural at all, and takes years to train people to think this way. There is no obvious way to come to this way of studying the world by instinct. In fact, there is good evidence that our instinct is to think non-scientifically about the world. This is particularly true when science brings us us to non-intuitive things.

(George Brooks) #9

As most readers can imagine, while progressive advancements in one scientific field are being made, during the very same time other fields of inquiry might suffer. And this can be said about the resistance we find amongst Western chemists to break away from archaic ideas during the 1600’s… the very century where so much was being accomplished in Astronomy and Physics!

But things looked so promising for the 1600s! In 1660, a Committee of 12 announced the formation of a group with the “undeniably euphonious” name of the College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning. The group met weekly to conduct experiments and spread methods quickly to other “wealthy eccentrics”.

In 1662 the King of England signed a charter for “Royal Society of London”, soon updated in 1663 with a more fulsome charter and a more fulsome name: “the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge”.

By this time, the claims of Alchemy had become more consistently set aside, and there was great promise for the “new” science of Chemistry! But many forget that “Chemistry” had to be re-defined … because since the Rosicrucian mania only a few generations before, Chemistry and Alchemy had actually meant the very same thing! - see the book “Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz”, a wild ride in alchemy published in 1616.

So, now, Chemistry was going to start getting things Right !! Whereupon a German “chemist” (aka - “alchemy just has to be right!”, J.J. Becher, in 1667, singlehandedly sets back “new chemistry” more than a century with his “theory of phlogiston”: postulating that "a fire-like element called phlogiston is contained within combustible bodies and released during combustion or rusting.

Wiki Summation:
“Phlogisticated substances are substances that contain phlogiston and dephlogisticate when burned. Dephlogisticating is when the substance simply releases the phlogiston inside of it and that phlogiston is absorbed by the air. Growing plants then absorb this phlogiston, which is why air does not spontaneously combust and also why plant matter burns as well as it does.”

Yes, it all seemed so logical… Becher offered additional and insightful expansions on the principle:

“When air had become completely phlogisticated it would no longer serve to support combustion of any material, nor would a metal heated in it yield a calx; nor could phlogisticated air support life. Breathing was thought to take phlogiston out of the body.”

“Phlogistination” and the “Four Classical Elements” theory (you know, the theory that says the whole universe is made up of a combination of just 4 elements: water, air, fire and earth) would keep their plump bottoms well planted on the true advancement of chemistry for more than one hundred years! < Did you read that? More than a hundred years! From 1667 to 1783, the inertia of the West’s most acclaimed chemists far exceeded the inertia the new steam devices that the Scottish engineers were producing!

In 1783, French chemist Antoine Lavoisier read to the French Academy of Sciences his “Réflexions sur le phlogistique” (Reflections on Phlogiston), a full-scale attack on the current phlogiston theory of combustion. He was jeered. His precision was praised; his conclusions were mocked. At age 28, he had married the 13-year-old daughter of a aristocracy. Now 40, his wife had been translating English science papers for him for years. And 6 years later (1789) he published his “Traité élémentaire de chimie” (Elementary Treatise on Chemistry). It proposed eliminating the Four Elements the West depended upon for 2000 years … and described Oxygen as the replacement for all that phlogiston-ation! And still the old school chemists mocked him.

But let us turn to the Wiki article which provides a great summation of this book:

o o o o
It “… represents the synthesis of Lavoisier’s contribution to chemistry and can be considered the first modern textbook on the subject.”

“. . . [it] became a most effective vehicle for the transmission of the new doctrines. It presented a unified view of new theories of chemistry, contained a clear statement of the law of conservation of mass, and denied the existence of phlogiston.”

“This text clarified the concept of an element as a substance that could not be broken down by any known method of chemical analysis, and presented Lavoisier’s theory of the formation of chemical compounds from elements.”

“It remains a classic in the history of science. While many leading chemists of the time refused to accept Lavoisier’s new ideas, demand for Traité élémentaire as a textbook in Edinburgh was sufficient to merit translation into English within about a year of its French publication.”

[Footnote 38: ". . . pp. xxvi–xxvii, xxviii of Douglas McKie’s introduction to the Dover edition: “Elements of Chemistry, in a New Systematic Order, Containing All the Modern Discoveries (Edinburgh: William Creech, 1790; New York: Dover, 1965) translation by Robert Kerr of Traité élémentaire de chimie.”)
o o o o o o

And then the politics …

The French Revolution had come. Lavoisier’s commission on weights and measures recommended adopting the metric system in 1791; the Convention adopted the measures in 1793. Four months later, he was removed from the commission. Even before then, all the learned societies, including the Academy of Sciences, were suppressed.

Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror” began in 1794, Lavoisier had also intervened on behalf of a number of foreign-born scientists including mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, which helped to exempt them from a mandate stripping all foreigners of possessions and freedom. Lavoisier was tried, convicted, and guillotined on 8 May 1794 in Paris, at the age of 50, along with his 27 co-defendants.

Only five years before he had irrevocably set in motion the forces that changed the course of Western Chemistry… after two eons of tom-foolery with the Four Classical Elements…
Science is amazing. Politics are scary.

Lavoisier’s importance to science was expressed by Lagrange who lamented the beheading by saying:

“Il ne leur a fallu qu’un moment pour faire tomber cette tête, et cent années peut-être ne suffiront pas pour en reproduire une semblable.”

**(“It took them only an instant to cut off this head, and one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce its like.”)

[Footnote: Guerlac, Henry (1973). Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier – Chemist and Revolutionary. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. p. 130.]

(Stephen Snobelen) #10

You are absolutely correct to point to the importance of the scientific method in helping to establish modern science. I would add to Baconianism also the four Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy in Newton’s Principia (developed over the three editions of 1687, 1713 and 1726). Yet even here there is some continuity. For instance, some see in the work of the Medieval Bishop Robert Grosseteste a precursor of the scientific method, although as the entry on Grosseteste in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, this must be heavily qualified. (The same entry also points out that Grosseteste’s use of mathematics in explaining natural phenomenon–which is a key element in the Scientific Revolution–is probably more important). With respect to Newton’s Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy, the use of ‘philosophy’ (actually, ‘philosophising’, as the original Latin is regulae philosophandi) is suggestive. Newton was a humanist (in the Renaissance rather than the modern secular sense) in the first instance and a natural philosopher rather than a ‘scientist’ (because, as noted in previous discussion, the latter term wasn’t invented until over a century after his death). So it is not surprising that we find some methods embedded in the regulae that come from philosophy–most strikingly the parsimony principle (Ockham’s Razor). What is more, some elements of the regulae are very similar to pre-existing principles of biblical interpretation, including some that Newton laid out in his 1670s treatise on the Apocalypse. So, there is some continuity as well as some overlap with disciplines that many would today consider outside the realm of science. (As an aside, this helps show how problematic the New Atheist attack on philosophy–mentioned early in this series–is, as well as the New Atheist attempt to argue for a radical separation of theology from science–even in history, which brings us back to the essentialism discussed in my post above). Despite all of these qualifications (which I am duty-bound as a historian to make!), the scientific method (as we now call it) is much more developed in the early modern period and this more developed form is exploited to an extent that has no parallel with earlier periods. So again, we can embrace both continuity and innovation in our understanding of the Scientific Revolution.

(Stephen Snobelen) #11

You might find support for your argument in a book published in 2011 that contends that while religion is natural (to humans), science is not:
Robert N. McCauley, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not (Oxford University Press, 2011). The author provides a summary of his views here:
McCauley is a cognitive scientist, so he writes from that standpoint.

(Stephen Snobelen) #12

Not wanting the discussion to veer completely away from the main topic at hand – the New Atheists – let me add some thoughts on alchemy and chemistry:

Traditional accounts of the history of chemistry see a transition from the older, putatively ‘superstitious’ alchemy to the modern, precise and effective chemistry. Historians today realise that a) there is no moment of sharp transition between alchemy and chemistry and b) that it is in any case difficult to distinguish between the two before 1700. The modern understanding of alchemy as arcane and superstitious begins to emerge in the eighteenth century. To reflect these dynamics and to insure that it is an actor’s category, historians of science William Newman and Larry Principe propose that the early-modern spelling ‘chymistry’ be used for the discipline in the pre-1700 period. Despite its reputation of being associated with the symbolic and qualitative, alchemy/chymistry already embraced ideals and practices that are associated with modern chemistry, including measurement and discovery (heurism). The alchemists also invented the laboratory, that crucial institution of modern science. Ted Davis is an expert on Robert Boyle and can confirm that although Boyle is considered one of the founders of modern chemistry, he was also an alchemist. Newton, one of the founders of modern physics (and science more generally), practised alchemy at Cambridge for three decades during his time as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Two courses in my own history of science academic unit (taught by a colleague who is a specialist) are devoted to the history of alchemy. In sum, alchemy doesn’t deserve the bad rap it often receives–at least not from a history of science point of view. I recommend Principe and Newman’s “Alchemy vs Chemistry: the etymological origins of a historiographical mistake”, Early Science and Medicine 3 (1998): 32-65 as well as Newman’s truly excellent The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project:
Bill Newman presents evidence on this site to show that Newton’s alchemical pursuits helps stimulate his science, including, for instance, his optics.

(GJDS) #13

Can you elaborate on this “the one that best describes the historical and contemporary examples is the Complexity Thesis”

I have been comfortable with the science-faith in harmony model, with qualifications in that we consider established science and well discussed Christian theology (by established I mean we try to avoid ever-changing speculation and enquiry in science, and we avoid novel ideas in theology).

Within the context of your article, I can see the ‘harmony’ model may a counter to the ‘conflict model’.

One aspect of atheists that does not come across in your article is that of the non-aggressive atheist who more or less does not care if others profess a faith. How would your model deal with this?

(Peaceful Science) #14

Sounds very Lutheran doesn’t it? =) @JustAnotherLutheran

(George Brooks) #15


I agree with everything you write above. To be sure, there are even more qualifications one could add.

By the way, I really like the convenience of using a “retro-spelling” of Chymistry (with an extra “y”) to separate the earlier form from Chemistry (without the initial “y”) to help make it clear to the reader which chemistry is intended!

You being a professional historian, you must be perfectly familiar with the challenge of quickly explaining the difference between Alchemy and Chemistry without offending any of the following: the muses, the alchemists, and the latter-day chemists!

I am pretty comfortable with the Alchemical record. For an important time in the West, Alchemy was the best science available. After all, Phosphorous was the first element discovered in thousands of years, and it was discovered by an Alchemist.

The last elements to have been “discovered” (they just didn’t know that it was to qualify as an “Element”) was Arsenic and Antimony in the 800’s CE, by Muslim alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. So it would be another 8 centuries before the 1669 discovery of Phosphorous. But in a way, such a lucky break can ruin a discipline (if more people had known about it when it first happened). There was something “so perfect” about Phosphorous to the alchemical mind:

  1. Being made from urine, it was a bi-product of humans - - which was very consistent with alchemical metaphysical beliefs about the importance of humans and/or the sacred roles of all kinds of matter;

  2. It didn’t require knowledge about electrons, protons or even atoms in general; no need to know what a chemical reaction was and so forth. And so simple equipment, that was cutting-edge for that time - - like distillation systems, were perfectly adequate for the purpose.

  3. And phosphorous glowed! How the alchemy-prone must have loved that when they learned about the discovery! You couldn’t have asked for much more dramatic an unveiling than that!

But alas, future discoveries were not to be so easy or even that dramatic. It would be another 66 years before Swedish chemist, Georg Brandt, would discover the next element in 1735: cobalt. But the pace did pick up after that point.

Your point out alchemists inventing the laboratory is especially relevant to the BioLogos theme… for there is this well known illustration of an Alchemists workshop… which shows that no good Alchemist was ready to work until he had repaired to his tabernacle to pray to god, and to ask for the assistance of angels. Readers, see the man on his knees, arms out-stretched! :smiley:

(Stephen Snobelen) #16

John Brooke’s “Complexity Thesis” reflects the messy reality of history. Historical models that deal with essences (like “science” and “religion”) are artificial whereas the reality is complex. The New Atheists gravitate towards the Conflict Thesis partly because it coheres well with their anti-religious agenda. It is also likely that some or all of them sincerely believe it. But an non-essentialistic view of science and religion relations will also want to be cautious about the Harmony Thesis for pretty much the same reasons: it is hard to define science and religion now and in the past and the relationships between them are multiple and varied. Nevertheless, there is a lot of harmony to be found in the history of science and religion relations–enough for numerous scholars to study. This helps explain why the field is flourishing.

My aim in this series is to study the phenomenon of the New Atheism from a history and philosophy of science standpoint. As such, I am not commenting on atheism per se. In fact, as already noted, many atheists will agree with the kind of analysis of the New Atheism I and others are presenting–some, like Michael Ruse, have made some of these arguments themselves. Many historians of science are personally atheists and many have over the years written about the positive ways in which science and religion have interacted (along with some examples of conflict). Atheism like theism is a broad church, so to speak, and some moderate atheists will agree with elements of the New Atheists’ arguments even while others are, like Ruse, embarrassed by them. But then again, many theists will find themselves agreeing with elements of the New Atheists’ arguments too (such as their criticisms of abuses of religion). So, once again, complexity …

(GJDS) #17

The “complexity thesis” is an interesting way to view the historic interactions between Christian theology and what I term non-religious philosophies. This goes back to Patristic times when Christian thinkers often assumed some aspects of Pagan thinking as relevant - e.g. Gregory of Nyssen accepted the four elements to comprise the basics for all nature, the earth the centre of the universe and so on. It seems to me that the early Christians were only interested in separating aspects of faith from pagan beliefs, and matters on Nature were not considered important, with the exception that they believed in One God who created all from nothing.

Nowadays, the Physical Sciences seem to have been appropriated by anti-theists who, as you say, have an agenda. It seems to me however, that a fundamental shift has occurred, for both atheists and some theists, to place science at the centre of their outlook. For those atheists, science is all there is and anything else is false, while for those theists, science is the measure of truth, and theology must be judged according to this measure, and accept this or be considered untrue.

How would a historical approach correct this error?

(George Brooks) #18

I think we can re-write your sentence above so that it comes closer to the views of the pro-Biologos audience here:

“For Theists, science trumps theology when there is a conflict; otherwise, they are two different rulers by which to measure the truths of reality.”

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #19


Again people today make science and theology a duality, when Reality is not dualistic, it is a triad, physical, rational, and spiritual. Science is what governs the physical. Theology is what governs the spiritual. Philosophy is what governs the rational.

However the “physical” natural world is not only physical, but also rational in that it has rules and laws, and spiritual in that it has meaning and purpose. The spiritual world of humans and God is also rational and physical. The rational world of philosophy must integrate the physical world of nature and the spiritual world of God.

The irony of the development of modern science is that it did not develop in opposition to Christianity, but in opposition to philosophy in the form of Aristotelianism. Even though the Church made this philosophy the philosophy of the Church, the problem is still a philosophical one, not a theological one. This is why we need to separate philosophy from theology to solve this problem.

The fact is that each discipline reigns in its own area of competence, but all three need to compatible with each other. That is why all three need to be relational, because they are relational as Reality is relational.

(John Dalton) #20

One approach could be to provide examples of historic beliefs which have demonstrably been proven false, and how it was done so, and then contrasting with the failure to do so in this case.

That will still leave the question of what is true though :slight_smile: