Modern Science is Built on a Christian Foundation

To say that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible is historically ignorant.

Msgr. Georges Lemaître and Albert Einstein
Msgr. Georges Lemaître and Albert Einstein (photo: Register Files)

Psalm 19:1 (RSV) The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Acts 17:28 ... In him we live and move and have our being ...

It’s very fashionable nowadays for atheists (including atheist scientists) to make extreme claims about the alleged utter incompatibility between Christianity and science. It is said that the two are antithetical, or that God was ruled out of science or disproven by scientific findings (particularly Darwinian evolution) long ago, or that science proceeds forward based on reason and evidence, whereas religion (being faith-based) supposedly has no reason and cares little or nothing for evidence, or that one cannot consistently be a Christian and also a “real” scientist.

Not only are science and Christianity compatible, but I submit that it is also the case that modern science would not have even gotten off the ground if it hadn’t been for medieval, scholastic, Catholic thought for the previous several hundred years: in the realm of empiricism and scientific observation.

Moreover, the foundations of modern science (once it did really get going in the 16th century) were overwhelmingly Christian or at least theistic. To say that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible is literally a nonsensical statement that would obliterate science at its very roots and presuppositions and bedrock premises. It’s a self-defeating proposition. It is “historically illiterate” to propose such a ludicrous notion.

Eminent physicist Paul Davies (as far as I can tell, a pantheist) stated in his 1995 Templeton Prize Address:

All the early scientists such as Newton were religious in one way or another. ... science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological world view.

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) expressed the same notion in his book Science and the Modern World (1925):

The inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner ... must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God ...

My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.

One of the leading philosophers of science, Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), elucidated the medieval background in his book, The Copernican Revolution (New York: Vintage Books / Random House, 1959):

After the Dark Ages the Church began to support a learned tradition as abstract, subtle, and rigorous as any the world has known ... The Copernican theory evolved within a learned tradition sponsored and supported by the Church ... (p. 106)

The centuries of scholasticism are the centuries in which the tradition of ancient science and philosophy was simultaneously reconstituted, assimilated, and tested for adequacy. As weak spots were discovered, they immediately became the foci for the first effective research in the modern world. ... And more important than these is the attitude that modern scientists inherited from their medieval predecessors: an unbounded faith in the power of human reason to solve the problems of nature. (p. 123)

Loren Eiseley, an anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and natural science writer, who received more than 36 honorary degrees, and was himself an agnostic in religious matters, observed:

It is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear articulated fashion to the experimental method of science itself ... It is surely one of the curious paradoxes of history that science, which professionally has little to do with faith, owes its origins to an act of faith that the universe can be rationally interpreted, and that science today is sustained by that assumption. (Darwin’s Centenary: Evolution and the Men who Discovered it, New York: Doubleday: 1961, p. 62)

In my research, I have discovered that Christians or theists were the founders of at least 115 different scientific fields. Here are a select 49 from that list (an asterisk denotes a Catholic priest):

  • Anatomy, Comparative: Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)  Astronomy, Big Bang Cosmology: Georges Lemaître (1894-1966*) 
  • Atomic Theory: Roger Boscovich (1711-1787*) John Dalton (1766-1844) 
  • Bacteriology: Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) 
  • Biochemistry: Franciscus Sylvius (1614-1672) / Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) 
  • Biology / Natural History: John Ray (1627-1705) 
  • Calculus: Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) 
  • Cardiology: William Harvey (1578-1657) 
  • Chemistry: Robert Boyle (1627-1691)  
  • Dynamics: Isaac Newton (1642-1727) 
  • Electrodynamics: André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836) / James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) 
  • Electromagnetics: André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836) / Michael Faraday (1791-1867) / Joseph Henry (1797-1878) /
  • James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) 
  • Electronics: Michael Faraday (1791-1867) / John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945) 
  • Genetics: Gregor Mendel (1822-1884*) 
  • Geology: Blessed Nicolas Steno (1638-1686*) / James Hutton (1726-1797) 
  • Geophysics: Jose de Acosta (1540-1600*) 
  • Hydraulics: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) / Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) 
  • Hydrodynamics: Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) 
  • Mechanics, Celestial: Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) 
  • Mechanics, Classical: Isaac Newton (1642-1727) 
  • Mechanics, Quantum: Max Planck (1858-1947) / Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) 
  • Mechanics, Wave: Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) 
  • Meteorology: Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647) / Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799*)
  • Neurology: Charles Bell (1774-1842) 
  • Paleontology: John Woodward (1665-1728) 
  • Paleontology, Vertebrate: Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) 
  • Pathology: Marie François Xavier Bichat (1771-1802) / Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) / Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902) 
  • Physics, Atomic: Joseph J. Thomson (1856-1940) 
  • Physics, Classical: Isaac Newton (1642-1727) 
  • Physics, Experimental: Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) 
  • Physics, Mathematical: Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) / Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) / Isaac Newton (1642-1727) 
  • Physics, Nuclear: Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) 
  • Physics, Particle: John Dalton (1766-1844) 
  • Physiology: William Harvey (1578-1657) 
  • Probability Theory: Pierre de Fermat (c. 1607-1665) / Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) / Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) 
  • Scientific Method: Francis Bacon (1561-1626) / Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) / Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655*) 
  • Seismology: John Michell (1724-1793) 
  • Stellar Spectroscopy: Pietro Angelo Secchi (1818-1878*) / Sir William Huggins (1824-1910) 
  • Stratigraphy: Blessed Nicolas Steno (1638-1686*) 
  • Surgery: Ambroise Paré (c. 1510-1590) 
  • Taxonomy: Carol Linnaeus (1707-1778) 
  • Thermochemistry: Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794)  Thermodynamics: James Joule (1818-1889) / Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) 
  • Thermodynamics, Chemical: Josiah Willard Gibbs (1839-1903)  Thermodynamics, Statistical: James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)  Thermokinetics: Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) 
  • Transplantology: Alexis Carrel (1873-1944) Joseph Murray (b. 1919) 
  • Volcanology: Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680*) / Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799*) / James Dwight Dana (1813-1895)  Zoology: Conrad Gessner (1516-1565)