Early science and Christianity

Sociologist Rodney Stark, in How the West Won (2014), compiles a list of high-profile scientists from the crucial time period that was the blossoming of the modern scientific period. The list comprises active scientists working from 1543 (the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus) to those born before 1680 – the scientific stars of this period based on rosters in specialized encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries, including Isaac Asimov’s Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (1982).

The set is of 52 scientists, including Boyle, Brahe, Cassini, Copernicus, Descartes, Fallopius, Fermat, Galilei, Gassendi, Graaf, Halley, Hooke, Huygens, Kepler, Leeuwenhoek, Leibniz, Napier, Newton, Pascal, Ray, Torricelli, and so on. Of these 52, their primary fields were physics 29%, astronomy 25%, biology or physiology 25%, and mathematics 21%.

Based on available writings, Stark then classifies these scientists based on personal piety, with three categories – devout, conventional, and skeptic.

The results are 60% devout (31), 38% conventional (20), 2% skeptic (1).

Stark’s summary is

“Clearly, the superb scientific achievements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the work not of skeptics but of Christian men – at least 60 percent of whom were devout. The era of the “Enlightenment” is as imaginary as the era of the “Dark Ages,” both myths perpetrated by the same people for the same reasons.” (p. 310)

When I started researching biographical details of individual historical scientists, to better understand why the output:input ratio of scientific achievement in contemporary times seems to have decreased significantly, I was surprised to find out a significant portion were not just nominal Christians but active – apparently devout (a few examples from the limited number I was looking at were Faraday, Clerk Maxwell, and Herschel – all from later than the period Stark analyzes). This was surprising to me because I had taken on the narrative that science emerged despite Christianity, but what I observed in the lives of the small sampling of these individual scientists could be characterized rather as a motivation for aspects of their scientific work because of their Christian beliefs – contra the popular secular motif.

Stark’s work here confirms what seemed like a trend given my sampling of historical scientists, and gives it a more robust quantitative framework while locating it in a key period in the development of modern science. Of course, these numbers have changed – contemporary scientists are probably mostly what Stark refers to as ‘skeptics’ – yet the most difficult phase of science was plausibly getting it off the ground, and that was done by and large by devout Christians, as far as we can tell. It is also contemporary scientists who are getting a much worse output:input ratio – I wonder if this is a mere coincidence, or if the motivation for truth for the sake of truth (typically put as better understanding the mind of the Christian God) was stronger amongst these earlier scientists than among many contemporary scientists (where careerism, grants, politics, and bureaucracy probably tend to play a significantly increased role nowadays).

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