Science in Christian Perspective




Religion, Science, and the Problem of Modernity

Professor of Sociology
Covenant College
Lookout Mountain, TN 37350

From: JASA 38 (December 1986): 226-231.
Paper presented at the 40th Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation Jointly sponsored with the Research Scientists' Christian Fellowship with the theme "Christian Faith and Science in Society--St. Catherine's College, Oxford, England, July 26-29, 1985.

Two key elements in the early encounter of religion and science with modernity were the development of an "intramundane asceticism" in thinking and life style and the formation of a social system as well as a system of ideas. The ascetic quality provided the Puritan scientist with a calling to "a task set by God," but there also arose scientific societies which acted as community structures. Scientific societies lessened the tension between the sacred and the secular. However, secularization continued and modernization is now characterized by technologically stimulated growth and the replacement of calling by career. Science and religion are in need of new conceptions of reality which may be gained from a return to the merger of science and religion.

Modernity and Scientific Revolutions

The thesis of this paper focusses on the challenge of modernity and the responses of science and religion to that challenge. Since the argument for the religious origins of modern science has been effectively presented elsewhere,1 our concern here is to describe briefly some of the main elements of this Christian response and how they might be applied in this modern age.

Where it occurs, modernization produces broad institutional changes which leave the definition of reality open to interpretations.2 Many of the older forms of social support which gave plausibility to beliefs are then challenged by modernity. Consequently, modernity, especially as it is brought about by technological change, undermines religion and all those other institutions relying on a supporting network of values and beliefs.

In addition to challenging a traditional religious world view, modernization is also characterized by 1) the pluralization of society in which competing values and beliefs struggle for prominence, 2) the rationalization of society in which reality is apprehended and manipulated as atomistic units, 3) changes in human consciousness which, in its disenchantment, tends to externalize new realities enmeshed in modern technological changes, and 4) fundamental changes in science and its view of reality.

Describing scientific revolutions, Thomas Kuhn draws a parallel between political and scientific development.3 In politics, crisis occurs when one set of political institutions is relinquished for another. For a time, society lacks direction from institutions, and persons are estranged from political life. Perceiving that political recourse fails, they commit themselves to proposals for the development of new institutional frameworks. Similarly, Kuhn argues, science evolves as an institution seeking new definitions of reality. Traditional paradigms are at issue as "normal" science is put on the defensive.

According to Kuhn, the critical element in a scientific revolution is a change in world view. Galileo's genius, for example, undoubtedly benefited from a medieval paradigm shift which analyzed motion in terms of the impetus theory.4 Once a swinging stone was conceptualized as a pendulum, an important step was taken in the revolution of the science of motion. What was needed was a change of vision to allow something to be seen differently from the way it had been seen before.

It's important at this point to note that these shifts in world view are not necessarily individualistic or idiosyncratic. It's more likely that world views will be shaped in a systematic and pointed fashion by cultural changes. Such a major shift apparently occurred in the 17th century when vocational interests changed from the professions and arts to the development of science and medicine. In addition, this shift extended to a change in attitude among learned men reflecting an increased importance of utilitarianism and realism. In all fields of endeavor, the practical and applied fields increased in social value.

The Puritan Ethos

What had occurred was a major change in world view resulting from the rise of Puritanism in the early part of the 17tb century. Puritanism "built a new bridge between the transcendental and human action, thus supplying a motive force for the new science. 116 As a rising class in England, the Puritans turned to the new sciences and technology for the enhancement of their emerging power and for the stimulation of a program consistent with the development of new economic ventures. The major force behind these changes had been the religious motive of Puritanism, which had become a dominant factor in the cultural values of the day. For the Puritan scientist, "these worldly activities and scientific achievements manifest the Glory of God and enhance the Good of Man."7

It could be said that religious values were used by the Puritans to justify their involvement in the traditionally questionable practice of scientific research. Certainly religion at that time maintained the aura of acceptability necessary for invoking support of new and less acceptable behavior. But it is also true that religious values can act as reasons for actions as well as justifications. Robert Merton, sociologist of modern science, states: "It is also an acceptable hypothesis that ideologies seldom give rise to action and that both the ideology and action are rather the products of common sentiments and values upon which they in turn react.... It is the dominating system of ideas which determines the choice between alternative modes of action which are equally compatible with the underlying sentiments (original emphasis).8

This motivating system of ideas, referred to by Merton as the "Puritan ethos," consisted of three main beliefs.9 First, the believer accepted "the glorification of God as the end and all of existence, "10 Although not a new notion, this principle was given new meaning by the Puritan who sought to channel this glorification into specific and diverse institutional directions. Second, "diligence in one's calling becomes a necessity."11 Such diligence not only became a means of glorifying God but also contributed to the public welfare. Third, the choice of a calling should be limited to those which serve God and are beneficial for the public good.12 Of these, the learned professions were deemed of highest value. The result of this blend of ideas was a unique merger of reason and faith, of the utilitarian principle with the doctrine of grace.

The Puritan ethos developed as the secularizing tendencies begun in the later Middle Ages carried over into the modern era. With his world view, the Puritan spanned both periods in his thinking and provided a critical bridge for the development of progress in the modern world. In one sense, Puritanism destroyed the old religious restrictions on scientific work. In another, it opened the way for a new religious discipline in conduct. The new world was to be conquered through the religious control of action. In science, this was to be done through the study of nature which allowed a fuller appreciation of God's works and led to praise of His power and goodness manifested in creation.

Russell Heddendorf has a BA from Queens College (CUNY), an MA from Columbia University, and a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh. His special interests are in the areas of social theory and the sociology of religion, particularly in the integration of sociology and the Christian faith. He taught at Dickinson College and Geneva College before coming to Covenant College in 1982. He was president of ASA in 1985 and completes his service on Council this year.

Summarizing to this point, it is apparent that the scientific revolution in the 17th century was a stimulus for, as well as a consequence of, modernization in Western society. All of the old institutions and their religious supports were fragmented by social change. The political crisis engendered by the civil wars not only reduced scientific productivity but also led to the development of new discoveries in subsequent years. If a change in world view is necessary for such a revolution to take place, as Kuhn suggests, the evidence mustered by Merton supports the case for Puritanism as the logical motivating force. It is this shift to a religious world view, therefore, that is crucial for explaining the new scientific view of the natural world.

Puritanism and Modern Science

A basic thesis in the work of both Merton and Max Weber is that secularization, as a process in modern society, has its roots in religious motivation. In the case of the Puritans, there was a distinctly modern quality to their thought which gave them freedom in their scientific work. In this sense, the Puritan was "worldly" in his revolution against the Catholic church and its traditional Christian thought and practice. He shared the values of an emerging society and its modernity.13 But the Puritan was also "non-worldly" in his resistance to the world's influence. As Merton puts it, "Compromise with the world was intolerable."14 The world was to be subdued by the Christian's direct involvement in it. Over time, however, secularization won the day, especially as the new science successfully answered the questions it posed.

Hooykaas seems to share this opinion, that the Puritan sought to glorify God by bringing the physical world under man's control.15 Science was to overcome the curse of original sin by restoring the Kingdom of Man and his dominion over nature. Thus, science was to be applied so as to remove the curse from labor. The Kingdom of Man was to supplement the Kingdom of God with reason submitting itself to divine Truth. Ultimately, this merger of man's work with God's revelation would lead to a "sublime knowledge" capable of leading man into the future. In Merton's words, the Puritan ethic "forms the essence of the spirit of modern science."16

This search for truth in nature was a critical element in the development of the new scientific paradigm. It also aided in the transition from the Christian to the modern, the sacred to the secular. Following Calvin's lead, the Puritan scientist recognized creation, not scripture, as the source of scientific truth.17 Since the Bible was "a book for laymen , it was left to the specialist to study nature.18 The result was a completely new way of looking at creation. It was to be seen as an economical structure requiring a new view of its elements such as atoms, Molecules, cells, et cetera. According to Klaaren, this move away from a simplistic conception of the world led to the "sharp edge of modern knowledge [which] was its rule over nature, a utilitarian expression of knowledge as power."19 God's work of creation was now sharply differentiated from that of redemption, Klaaren claims, and history was conceived as a manifestation of progressive divine creation. "Scientific [and other] discoveries were signs anticipating a new age.20

What should be stressed here is the apparent ambiguity in the tension between science and Puritanism in this period. The scientific movement clearly benefitted not only from the Puritan's religious commitment to his task, but also from the unique perspective on the world derived from that faith which sanctioned this behavior. It was this combination of the religious and the utilitarian which was necessary to be maintained. At the same time, the Puritan's success in science was inevitably tied to a possible failure of faith. Indeed, as nature was successfully subdued, a new scientific ethos gradually replaced the Puritan's original religious motive. The compromise with the world, originally considered to be intolerable, in the final analysis became inevitable.

Modernity and Inner Worldly Asceticism

If we are to understand how the Protestant ethos faltered, if not failed, two crucial elements should be singled out. One of these elements in the Puritan response to modernity has been referred to as intramundane asceticism and the other was characterized by its conception of science as a social system. Together they provided a fortunate synthesis of factors contributing to the rise of the scientific revolution. It was Max Weber, the progenitor of much of this discussion, who referred to inner-worldly asceticism as "the obligation to transform the world in accordance with (Puritan) ascetic ideals, in which case the ascetic will become a rational reformer or revolutionary on the basis of a theory of natural rights. "21 Talcott Parsons provides a helpful description of the inner-worldly ascetic as one who "seeks mastery over the worldly component of his individual personality and seeks in principle to extend this mastery to all aspects of the human condition.22 For our purpose, it is important to note that Parsons likens this form of asceticism to the biblical admonition for the Christian. The Puritan "may seek salvation and yet avoid a radical break with the institutional order. He remains'in the world but not of it."23

Another way of approaching the problem of innerworldly asceticism is by noting Brentano's suggestion that it "is a rationalization toward an irrational mode of life."24 Rationalization, as used in this tradition, implies three things: "the intellectual clarification, specification and systematization of ideas, . . . normative control or sanction ... [and] a conception of motivational commitment,"25 All of these criteria were part of the Puritan scientist's effort to work out his faith in his science. But the ultimate objective of this effort was not to live a rational life style conformed to the world's purposes. The Puritan ethos clearly limited the options to those which would honor God and serve man.

Here we must insert the notion of calling or vocation as it was introduced by Weber in his original work. The inner-worldly ascetic understood that the vocation to which he was called was "a task set by God."26 His work might be a rational means but the ultimate end would always be irrational by society's standards. In the extent to which this end was lost, the process of rationalization would lead to secular trends. In other words, an irrevocable tension had to be maintained by the inner-worldly ascetic who used new, and even worldly, means in his commitment to glorify God but not for any personal long range benefit.

It is intriguing to speculate as to whether this tension between the rational and the irrational was necessary for the scientific revolution to take place. Replying to some of the critics of the Weber-Merton thesis, Merton suggests that the Puritan ethos was not indispensable, although it did provide major support at that time and place .27 But Klaaren suggests there was a distinctive quality to the modernity of this revolution which separated God's work of creation from that of redemption. Further, it gave rise to a religion of creation which could not be completely included in a theology of redemption. The result was a new conception of the world which could only be referred to as modernity. Unable to be explained in terms of traditional notions of reality, modernity had to be kept in a state of tension if  it were to be sustained.28

But if we look at the Puritan ethos over a period of time, we find that it was largely lost, along with the necessary tension, to the encroaching secularization which Weber saw as endemic to the modernization of Western society. How was it that these deeply committed Christian scientists lost the vision that initially spurred them to revolutionize the science of their day? Two possible, but not very satisfying, answers suggest themselves. For the Christian, one readily turns to the depravity of man and explains the behavior in terms of his inherent sinfulness. The scientist, however, knowing his own weaknesses, is more inclined to share Merton's view that "scientists are human, after all."29

Modernity and Scientific Communities

Here we must turn to that other element which represented the Puritan response to the emergence of modernity-the idea of science as a social system. If we accept the basic thesis of the sociology of knowledge that there is a relationship between human thought and the social context in which it arises, then it must be recognized that science is a social system shaped by non-logical forces as well as a system of ideas.' Further, such systems act as plausibility structures to support

Since few new presuppositions are presented to challenge the problems science chooses for itself, its revolutionary potential remains largely underdeveloped.

those ideas against contradictory social pressure.31 Since religious ideas are usually inconsistent with prevailing social thought, plausibility structures are especially important for the support of religious ideas. Without them, the Christian scientist is likely to lose his original commitment to the use of religious values in scientific work. In short, we must look at the scientific groups at the time if we are to explain some of the tendency toward secularization, as well as the original support of religious values found among the Puritan scientists.

Merton argues that it was Puritan influence which helped to organize the Royal Society. Again, he claims that their religious values did much to encourage its development although they weren't necessary to it.32 At a time when universities ignored science and clung to their traditional scholastic biases, learned societies, often meeting in private homes, provided the informal settings in which the integration of religion and science was encouraged. Butterfield claims that these scientific societies developed from the learned societies of the day and supported the voguishness of the new scientific inquiries. Not only did these societies bear the expense of many experiments, they also acted as panels for the criticism and verification of these experiments.33 Klaaren even ventures to say that "experimentation was institutionalized in the Royal Society."34

But social systems are rarely stable. They vacillate with change and reflect the emerging trends as well as help to shape them. What usually occurs is a separation of motive and practice. Initially, practice agrees with motive and fulfills its expectations. But, over a period of time, the values which had formed a prominent basis for action are displaced and replaced by more immediate and pragmatic means. The result is referred to by sociologists as the "displacement of ends."35

Kuhn points to this same problem in his discussion of normal science as puzzle-solving."36 Although a scientist's motives influence his or her choice of problems, they do not continue to direct behavior when actually working on the problem. Then the routine is shaped by the realization that something important is being done that demands maximum diligence and ability. "What then challenges him is the conviction that, if only he is skillful enough, he will succeed in solving a problem that no one before has solved or solved as well"37 (emphasis supplied). In the case of the Puritans, much of the motivation to glorify God was displaced by the glorification of self.

There is an ambivalence within scientific communities that allows them to be at the forefront of change or to resist it. Kuhn claims a decision is made when a scientific community accepts a new paradigm and chooses the problems to be worked on. Gradually, the paradigm is taken for granted as the community limits the problems deemed appropriate for its members to work on. Problems considered important at an earlier time may be rejected as unworthy of the expertise developing in the new and specialized discipline. in fact, Kuhn claims, a scientific community may be insulated from problems that cannot be reduced to the puzzle form employed at that time.38 Gradually, a revolutionary science becomes a normal science.

Much of the ambivalence of scientific communities is related to the equivocal attitude concerning the social role of the scientist who seeks approval in that community. Since approval is most likely to be gained when a scientist gains priority in some discovery, Merton has identified such competitive behavior among scientists as a powerful motivating force in modern science.39 But ambivalence occurs in another form as the scientist recognizes the community's expectation that he will also play down his accomplishments. The result is a contradiction in behavior which Merton sums up as follows: "Whenever the biography or autobiography of a scientist announces that he had little or no concern with priority of discovery, there is a reasonably good chance that, not many pages later in the book, we shall find him deeply embroiled in one or another battle over priority."40

Apparently, the Puritans were not above such competitive efforts. Merton, for example, describes the contests waged by Newton for recognition of discoveries also claimed by Hooke and Leibniz.41 What apparently resulted at this time for many of the Puritan scientists was a shift in the tension they felt. The original religiously motivated tension of being "in the world and not of it" gradually shifted to a tension in a community of peers whose approval was sought and belittled at the same time. Gradually, it was this community-supported motivation which dominated the thinking of scientists and replaced, for the most part, the religiously inspired world views.

Another way of looking at this trend is to say that the scientific societies were becoming professionalized as part of the modernization process. As evolving institutions in a modern society, the professions in the fields of science become part of the "movement to establish authority." The objective was to form "a community of the competent" by identifying "individuals who were competent, cultivat[ing] their competence, and confer[ring] authority upon them.42 Consequently, the calling was replaced by the career as professions now defined the task which had been set by God.

Reviewing 17th century science as it was briefly sketched here, it seems safe to say that Puritanism provided an important spur for the modernity of the day. In addition to providing a religious alternative to the prevailing Catholic-dominated world view, it fragmented institutions and gave them new directions. To use Klaaren's phrase to describe the period, "history was tensed" as new definitions of reality merged with the old.43 This tension between the religious and the secular found expression in the ambivalence experienced by Puritan scientists and their learned societies. But this original tension was lost with a return to normal science and its concern for mundane problem solving. The rise of professionalism provided new motives and values for the scientist, who, increasingly, was judged by peers rather than by God.

A Christian Response to Modern Science

Today, modernization continues to follow some of the patterns already described. Recent sociological studies have shown the reassertion of religious meanings in opposition to the nature of modernity.44 As Klaaren describes early modernity, many of our old beliefs are taken for granted as new ideas of nature, methods and knowledge emerge.45 in some areas of our society, deinstitutionalization has been severe as can be seen in the cases of the family and the church. It is this fact which suggests that new religious meanings remain subservient to the basic secularization of our age. They have failed to provide a world view to revolutionize and influence our institutions.

In one sense, no institution is more modern than science. Married to modern technology, science daily provides new realities for our consideration and contributes to the fragmentation of institutions. But in another sense, it lacks the tension produced by a competing world view. New paradigms and revolutionary trends tend to come from within contemporary science itself and not from other institutions. Since few new presuppositions are presented to challenge the problems science chooses for itself, its revolutionary potential remains largely undeveloped.

Although our society lacks the kind of cultural tension characterizing the 17th century, revolutions are still possible. Remembering Merton's claim that the Puritan ethos is not indispensable, modern science might respond in a revolutionary way to some other cultural crisis. Still, inner-worldly asceticism seems to be a valid, if not necessary, position for the contemporary Christian scientist. This is not to say that modern asceticism should take the form expressed by the Puritans. In fact, it is quite probable that "a rationalization toward an irrational mode of life" today would require a very different lifestyle from that of the Puritans. We simply don't have the kind of information to describe modern asceticism in any detail. Suffice it to say that the Christian would have to be in a field as a professional scientist 'While resisting its claims on his or her loyalty to be of that field.

Certainly it might be possible for each scientist to define asceticism for himself or herself. But if personal ambivalence is only individually defined, it is unlikely to continue. For this reason, scientific communities must also maintain ambivalence and operate as plausibility structures in support of Christian scientists who seek to be "in the world and not of it." Again, it is difficult to say precisely what is required except that God be glorified and professionalism avoided. Within these bounds, a community of Christian scientists can function to support a world view consistent with Christian objectives and scientific procedures.

And since there is no place more appropriate than Oxford, England for speaking of these things, let me simply state the obvious: Research Scientist's Christian Fellowship and the American Scientific Affiliation are heirs of the tradition which found so much stimulus here. It's intriguing for me to speculate on the meaning that tradition should have for us today. Is there a critical correspondence between certain conditions found in the 17th century and those we find today? Should we be in tension with our colleagues and professional associations, and, if so, bow is such tension to be gained and maintained? How do we resist the dominance of scientific world views while still maintaining competence in our fields? To what extent can we apply our faith in creative ways in response to modernity? In short, how do we, as scientists, faithfully act as God's instruments to unfold the future as He would have us know it?


1See, for example, Eugene M. Klaaren, Religious Origins of Modem Science (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Go., 1977); R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modem Science (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972); and Robert K. Merton, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England, (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). Originally published in Osiris, IV, Part 2, Bruges (Belgium), 1938.

2The view of modernization adopted here is most closely associated with the work of Peter Berger. See, for example, his The Homeless Mind (New York; Doubleday, 1979), Facing Up to Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1978), or The Heretical Imperative (New York: Doubleday, 1979).

3Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), chapter 9.

4Ibid., p. 119.

5Merton, op. cit., chapter 2.

61bid., p. 81.

7 Ibid., p. 85.

8Ibid., p. 91.

'9 which differs little from the Puritan Ethos.

10Merton, op. cit., p. 60.

11ibid., p. 63.

12 Ibid., p. 65.

13Hooykaas quotes C. S. Lewis as saying the Puritans "were, of course, the very latest thing. Unless we can imagine the freshness, the audacity and (soon) the fashionableness of Calvinism, we shall get our whole picture wrong." Op. cit., p. 139.

14 Merton, op. cit., p. 99.

15Hooykaas, op. cit., pp. 140-141.

16Quoted in Bernard Barber, Science and the Social Order, rev. ed. (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p. 91.

17Hooykaas, op. cit., pp. 117-118.

18Ibid., p. 118. Hooykaas here quotes Weber.

19Klaaren, op. cit., p. 189.

20Ibid. ' pp. 190-191.

21Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (London: Methuen & Co., 1965), p. 166.

22ibid., p. Iii.

23ibid., p. li.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1930), no. 9, pp. 193-194.

25Weber, The Sociology Ethic .... pp . xxxii-xxxiii.

26M.Weber, The Protestant Ethic. . . , p. 79, The German word for "calling" is "Beruf, " the same word used by Luther in his translation of the Bible.

270p. Cit., p. XViii.

28Klaaren, op cit., pp. 190-191.

29Robert Merton, "Behavior Patterns of Scientists," American Scholar, vol. 38 (Spring, 1969), p. 197.

30See, for example, M. D. King, "Reason, Tradition, and the Progressiveness of Science," History and Theory, vol. X (1971), p. 3.

31The idea of plausibility structures is developed at a number of places in the work of Peter Berger. For a proper understanding of the concept used here, see Peter Berger, "A Sociological View of the Secularization of Theology," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, VI (1967), pp. 3-16.

32Merton, Science, Technology and. . . , p. 115.

33Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1961), pp. 74 and 95.

34Klaaren, op. cit., pp. 118.

35For a brief discussion of this and related problems, see Robert K. Merton, Sociological Ambivalence and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, 1976), p. 101 ff.

36Kuhn, op. cit., chapter 4.

37Ibid., p. 38.

38Ibid., p. 37.

39Robert Merton, "Priorities in Scientific Discovery," American Sociological Review (December, 1957), pp. 635-659.

40Robert Merton, The Sociology of Science (Chicago: The University Press, 1973), p. 385.

41"Merton, Priorities...," p. 635 ff.

42Thomas L. Haskell, "Professionalization as Cultural Reform," Humanities in Society (Spring, 1978), pp. 103-104.

43KIaaren, op. cit., p. 92.

44See, for example, James Davison Hunter, American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandry of Modernity (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983).

45Klaaren, op. cit., p. 86.