Jerry Coyne on the Scientific Method and Religion - Evolution News & Views

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Jerry Coyne on the Scientific Method and Religion

Jerry Coyne, in his post "Religion Takes Credit for Science", takes some shots at the mundane observation that the rise of the scientific method has its cultural and intellectual roots in Christian culture and theology.


But the scientific method as we know it has nothing to do with religious inspiration.

Coyne is half right. The scientific method -- the empirical systematic theory-based study of nature -- has nothing to so with some religious inspirations -- Animism, Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Islam, and, well, atheism.

The scientific method has everything to do with Christian (and Jewish) inspiration. Judeo-Christian culture is the only culture that has given rise to organized theoretical science. Many cultures (e.g. China) have produced excellent technology and engineering, but only Christian culture has given rise to a conceptual understanding of nature. Coyne needs to explain that.


[The scientific method is] a method of finding things out based on reason, observation, and experiment, which is the direct antithesis of how religion finds things out.

The difference between Christianity and other religions (and irreligions) is that Christianity posits the creation and maintenance of a Universe by a rational creator, and Christianity posits the creation of human beings in the image of the Creator -- human beings who are thus able to comprehend some of the rationality underpinning nature. The early Christian word for Christ -- the Logos -- expresses this view nicely.

Other religious traditions view the Universe as unpredictable in one way or another (subject to the whim of pagan gods, or the irrational will of Allah, etc). Athiesm, the least useful basis for science, posits no reason for the Universe whatsoever. "Sh*t happened" and "Man is an accident" is a motivation for chaos and for the assertion of power, not a motivation for science.

And it existed well before Christianity.

The scientific method as we know began with Roger Bacon O.F.M., a 13th century Franciscan friar who pioneered the empirical study of God's rational creation by rational man who was created in His image.

What do we get when scientific methods of investigation are influenced by religion?

All scientific methods of investigation since the middle ages have been influenced by the Christian understanding of man and nature, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Here are two examples: natural theology and intelligent design. Natural theologians before Darwin, like William Paley, studied and described the wonders of nature as evidence for God's power and cleverness. Because of that, they were inhibited from seeking non-divine explanations for life.

Natural selection isn't an "explanation" for life. Tautologies explain nothing. The arrival of the fittest, not the survival of the fittest, is wherein the explanation for life lies, and genetics and even metaphysics (is there teleology in nature?), not Darwinism, addresses the question as to how adaptations arise.

It was only when Darwin threw off these God-shackles that we truly began to understand how life developed and branched.

Darwin built on millenia of "God-shackled" science, from Aristotle to Bacon to Hunter to Linneaus. Pasteur pioneered the germ theory of disease and Mendel started the science of genetics with God-shackles firmly affixed, and without a whit of concern for Darwin.

Likewise, intelligent design (ID) deliberately includes notions of a celestial designer in its search for understanding. Where has ID gotten us? Nowhere.

Most biologists work within the design inference, whether or not they admit it or even know it. Try doing biology without addressing questions of purpose or design of biological structures and processes.

Every inch of progress in science has come from rejecting any notion that the universe reflects divine causation and will.

Coyne's ignorance of the history of science is baffling. Rodney Stark, one of America's leading historians and sociologists, has observed that nearly all of the great scientists of the Enlightenment were practicing Christians. Stark observed that the great Enlightenment scientists were more fervently Christian than the general population; he identified about half of the scientists as exceptionally devout.

The rise of science and the scientific method was founded on the Christian understanding of nature and of man's ability -- even his obligation -- to comprehend it.

For religious people to now take credit for this progress is not only offensive, but smacks of desperation, of how beleaguered and inferior theologians really feel.

The Christian basis of modern science is a fact of history that Christians should talk about more often.

Of course, science in the 20th and 21st century is less explicitly Christian, even though it remains rooted in Christian understanding of nature as a rational creation and of man as capable of understanding it. The de-Christianizing of science is apace with the de-Christianizing of our civilization. The Nazi medical atrocities, the Soviet use of psychiatry to punish enemies of State Atheism, the Chinese one-child policy of forced abortions and coerced female infanticide (a genuine crime against humanity) are all examples of secular science untethered from Christian precepts and the Christian understanding of man. The rise in the 20th century of science apocalypses -- eugenics, overpopulation hysteria, global cooling hysteria, global warming hysteria, climate change hysteria, etc. -- is another example of science untethered from its real origin in the Christian understanding of man and nature.

Coyne has a vicious disdain for Christianity. He demanded the resignation of Dr. Francis Collins, one of the leading scientists and science administrators of the 20th century, because of Collins' public admission of his Christian beliefs. Coynes's anti-Christian malice, however, doesn't change the facts of the history of modern science, which is founded on the Christian understanding of man and nature.

My question to Coyne is this: what impetus to science is provided by the atheist view that the universe happened without reason and that man is an accident?

Cross-posted on Egnorance