Science in Christian Perspective



Frank E. Houser

From: JASA 5 (June 1953): 18-19.

Two articles having relevance to Christianity appeared recently in sociological journals. The frequency with which such articles appear indicates that religion as a research topic is a peripheral matter for most sociologists. This is in spite of the rich heritage of social theory given by such men as Troeltsch, Durkheim, and Max Weber. Interestingly enough, there is a veritable plethora of material germane to Christianity coming forth in other media than the journals. But this outpouring is not research. It is philosophizing. As such it is extremely pertinent, and it will be discussed in this column in the future. However, until it issues forth in solid social theory with hypotheses ready for and subjected to testing it will not be taken seriously by sociologists of empirical persuasion.

There is this to be said in regards to an empirical approach. In religious circles it is not hard to find discussions long on logic but deficient in data. The happy marriage of theory and fact is all too rare. Among the shining exceptions to this tendency are the aforementioned articles. The first is found in Dr. David Moberg's work on the relationship of Christian belief to personal adjustment in old age. This Bethel College professor recently published a summary of research in the February 1953 American Sociological Review.

Here are several of the findings: "This study of institutionalized aged people has indicated for the sample of persons studied (1) that the relationship of church affiliation to good personal adjustment in old age is spurious; it is probably due to the religious activities and beliefs associated with church membership;" . . . 11(3) that former church leaders are better adjusted in old age than church members who did not hold positions of leadership; .. . . . .. and (5) that holding orthodox Christian beliefs is related to good personal adjustment in old age."1

Dr. Moberg is careful to avoid the interpretation that a causal relationship has been established. While we may prefer to believe that the Christian religion is good medicine for soul, mind, and body the limitations of even a high correlation demand that we posit an alternative interpretation, viz.: those aged folks having high scores on attitude inventories of personal adjustment may be just the ones who normally turn to orthodox religion.

At any rate here are data which may help in the general problem of the relation of religion to personality. Some claim it is "normal" for the Christian to tend to neuroticism. At least in the aged group Moberg studied-and assuming the attitude inventory valid this is not the case.

Before leaving the Moberg research it ought to be pointed out that the methodology of the study is very clean. Using experimental and control groups in which all factors were kept constant except the one of interest gives a rigor to the work that is striking. Control variables included sex, education, marital status, family status, club membership and participation, self-rating of health, present employment, and age. Similar studies of different age groups in varying social circumstances would contribute materially to the general clarification of the relation between religion and personality.

The second journal article relevant to Christianity is by Isidor Thorner, and appears in the American Journal of Sociology, Vol. LVIII, July, 1952 under the title "Ascetic Protestantism and the Development of Science and Technology". In contrast to the Moberg work which deals with the relation of religion to the personality, the Thorner work is concerned with the relation of religion to society.2

Digging in the rich vein of thought first opened by Max Weber in his 9ffie Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (and later expressed in his General Economic History), Thorner takes issue with certain critics of Weber. Weber had contended that the development of science and technology was due in large part to ascetic Protestantism. Weber's critics, including Pitirim Sorokin, claimed that the development was not a feature of Protestant countries-at least prior to the 18th century-but of Catholic countries like Italy.

What is at stake here is not the historical fact of which religious group contributed more to the development of science-although this enters into the argument-but, rather, whether an hypothesis in sociology shall be sustained.

The hypothesis concerns the determinative nature of certain group attributes. In this case the group attributes are the beliefs of ascetic Protestantism. One of the main beliefs involved disciplining oneself to postpone immediate gratification. Thus Protestantism encouraged a capacity to suspend judgement, the development of an affective neutrality. And, this trait was of prime importance in scientific work. Hence the proposition that certain traits of ascetic Protestantism were largely responsible for the develbpment of science and technology.

The Catholics of the time had no similar emphasis on self-discipline. Furthermore, the individualism of Protestantism encouraged a rationality with the authoritarianism of the Catholic hierarchy could not abide.

It is Thorner's burden to sustain the plausibility of the hypothesis. To do so he offers historical evidences which Weber's critics have not considered. First, Prof. Thorner gives the number of discoveries and inventions per one million population in the major European countries at certain times in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Such use of proportionate figures places in proper perspective large and small countries. For example, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland with a population of 2,000 and 1,600 had a rate of 3.00 discoveries and inventions per one million population. On the other hand, Italy in the same year had a population of 13,000, contributed 37 inventions or discoveries, at a rate of 2.85. A survey of the data indicates that Protestant populations have always had higher rates with the exception of France. And, to show France no exception to the rule, Thorner offers historical evidence which indicates that a goodly proportion of scientists in France were Protestant.

Obviously, Thorner's conclusions depend on the validity of historical observation. In any case it is a good example of modern sociology's attempt to get at significant propositions by employing historical data. Unfortunately, in attempting to give significant contributions as broad as society it is necessary to sacrifice precision.

This proposition may be of special interest to members of the ASA. To demonstrate its modernity would be a difficult task. The Weltanschaung of Western man has changed so drastically since Luther's and Calvin's time that it is a commonplace to associate scientists with unbelief. As a matter of fact it is now considered important enough to write a book indicating that some scientists do have a religious belief!3


1. David 0. Moberg, The Christian Religion and Personal Adjustment in Old Age", Ameilican Sociological Review, Vol. 18 (Feb. 1953), p. 87.

2. No dichotomy of personality and society is implied here. While these are inseparable, to abstract for the purpose of understanding is permissible.

3. Edward L. Long, Jr., Religious Beliefs of American Scientists, The Westminster Press, 1952.