Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


Religion And The Rise of Modern Science: A Review Reviewed
D.M. MacKay
Department of Communication University of Keele 
Keele, Staffordshire STS SBG England

From: JASA 27 (September 1975): 141.

Seldom in a Christian publication have I found such disregard for the normal (not to say Christian) standards of accuracy and fairness as in David C. Lindberg's review of Religion and the Rise of Modern Science by R. Hooykaas, reproduced in the December 1974 issue of the Journal ASA. One does not have to be a professional historian, provided one has read the book, to recognize the contrast both in content and in spirit between the original and the caricature that Lindberg has seen fit to present. If his review exemplifies his own conception of a scholarly approach to his material, it is as illuminating as it is self-calibrating. In the first place, Lindberg by implication represents Hooykaas as claiming that "Christianity or (Puritanism) was the very cause of the birth of modern science" (my italics), and proceeds to castigate this as simple minded, naive etc. In the real book, Hooykaas is careful to emphasize (e.g., on pages xiii, 36-39, 101) that biblical religion was only one, though an important one, of many factors which cooperated to overthrow the traditional and rather rationalistic medieval world-picture and to stimulate interest in both experimental science and technology. His claim is merely that the positive influence of biblical ingredients has been underestimated, and the declared purpose of his short book (which is based on invited lectures for a general audience) is to redress the balance in this respect rather than to attempt a complete analysis of all the factors operative.

Secondly, Lindberg describes Hooykaas as "a positivist" who maintains that "science ... properly pursued ... recognized that there are no causal connections". This completely misses the distinction, which Hooykaas has made particularly clear in his earlier book on The Principle of Uniformity, between the methodological principles of science and their ontological foundation. At a methodological level, Hooykaas is quite as well aware as Lindberg that "the search for causal connections was at the heart of the 17th century ... scientific enterprise". What he argues is that a biblical ontology, which traces all physical events ultimately to their origin in God and rejects any 'deification' of natural causes, provides a sounder philosophical basis for this search than the pagan idea of nature inherited from the Greeks; but he in fact expresses no personal commitment to positivism or any other 'ism' of the day.

Lindberg proceeds to more vague and still more unsubstantiated accusations, for which I think the only remedy is to read the book, note the contrasts, and draw the appropriate conclusions. Where, for example, does Hooykaas state or imply that "a new conception of science and of the proper methodology for pursuing it lead . . . swiftly to a dramatic alteration of the contents of science" (my italics)? He claims at most (and with ample supporting evidence) that it did at certain points fertilize some of the new developments. Again, Lindberg's statement that "when Hooykaas enquires whether Christianity (or Puritanism) provided a climate favorable to science, he insists on a "yes" or "no" answer, which can be applied to an entire age and an entire continent" does gross injustice to the care with which the real Hooykaas frames his questions and the caution with which he stresses their complexity and the tentativeness of his answers.

Perhaps most revealingly unfair is Lindberg's final innuendo, that "a carefully reasoned . . . analysis was never (Hooykaas') real purpose." In point of fact, what Hooykaas has produced has been recognized by many who do not share his theological position as one of the most carefully documented and scholarly short treatments of his subject that have recently appeared. It rests on a lifetime of published research into original sources, which has earned its author election to membership of half a dozen European Academies. In England, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science has been adopted as a recommended text for the British Open University. I hope that readers of Lindberg's animadversions will not allow themselves to be deflected from the rewarding experience of reading this stimulating and informative book for themselves.