Science in Christian Perspective


John A. McIntyre

From: JASA 16 (March 1964): 7

Does a religious or a secular society provide the best milieu for the flourishing of science? Seventy years ago a case was presented against the society dominated by theology in Andrew D. White's History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom (See Bube's note, JASA, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 24-25, June 1960.) Since then, however, Max Weber and his followers have taken the position that the flowering of modern science was helped by the spirit released by the Protestant Reformation.

In a recent book, Lewis S. Feuer has re-examined the question and reached conclusions similar to those of White although his analysis is distinctly more sophisticated. Feuer not only takes a position that deplores the effect of a Puritan society on the flourishing of science but goes further to espouse a "hedonist-libertarian ethic" as the basis for scientific progress. His thesis is, in his words:

In this study I shall try to show that the scientific intellectual was born from the hedonist-libertarian spirit which, spreading through Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, directly nurtured the liberation of human curiosity. Not asceticism, but satisfaction; not guilt, but joy in the human status; not self-abnegation, but self-affirmation; not original sin, but original merit and worth; not gloom, but merriment; not contempt for one's body and one's senses, but delight in one's physical being; not the exaltation of pain, but the hymn to pleasure-this was the emotional basis of the scientific movement of the seventeenth century.

A most interesting review of Feuer's book (The Scientific Intellectual: The Psychological and Sociological Origins of Modem Science, Basic Books, Inc.) appeared in the August, 1963, issue of Scientific American. The reviewer, A. Rupert Hall, Professor of the History and Logic of Science at Indiana University, applauds the publication of a book which re-examines the relation of science to society, but he enters the reservation whether the right questions are being considered in Feuer's book. On the one hand, Feuer, with some justification, can write about the freedom of Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia being "eclipsed by the gray fog of religious revival that closed in on the bright dawn of American genius." On the other hand, he ignores the decline of science in the Ottoman Empire where the libertarian philosophy was accepted in its entirety. Feuer also can point to the liberating spirit of the 17th century as supporting the tremendous attainments of the English science of that time; however, the even more hedonistic England of the 18th century produced little of scientific value.

As the reviewer emphasizes, the issues raised by Feuer are too complex to be understood on the basis of sociology or psychology alone. Certainly liberty and a feeling of optimism and expansiveness are helpful to the scientific enterprise. Nevertheless, it is clear that other factors must be considered if a satisfactory understanding of the health and growth of science is to be obtained. -John A McIntyre, Cyclotron Institute, Texas A & M University.