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The Christian Roots Of Modern Science

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No one has worked harder to document and bring to light the Christian roots of modern science than Pierre Duhem (1861-1916). His magnum opus, The Structure of the World: Teachings on Cosmology From Plato to Copernicus, is a prodigious work of ten massive volumes. It is a masterpiece that is unparalleled in its field. Yet, he was the target of censorship, rancor, and fierce opposition throughout his academic career.
Templeton Prize-winner Fr. Stanley Jaki, OSB, who held doctorates in physics as well as in theology, states: “What Duhem unearthed among other things from long-buried manuscripts was that supernatural Revelation played a crucial liberating role in putting scientific speculation on the right track. . . . It is in this terrifying prospect for secular humanism, for which science is [presumed] the redeemer of mankind, that lies the explanation of that grim and secretive censorship which has worked against Duhem.”
Dr. Peter E. Hodgson, who is university lecturer in nuclear physics at Oxford University, has made the following appraisal of Duhem’s scholarly accomplishment: “The work of Duhem is of great relevance today, for it shows clearly the Christian roots of modern science, thus decisively refuting the alleged incompatibility of science and Christianity still propagated by the secularist establishment. Science is an integral part of Christian culture, a lesson to be learned even within the Christian Church.”
Duhem’s study and documentation of the Christian origin of modern science was deliberately neglected because it was unwelcome both to the disciples of the French Enlightenment and those of the Reformation. For different reasons, these disciples would like to paint the Middle Ages as darkly as possible. Yet Duhem found enough evidence to acknowledge “the extreme liberality of the Catholic Church during the close of the Middle Ages toward the meditations of the philosophers and the experiments of the physicists.”
The continuity between Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages and modern science can no longer be doubted by honest scholars. The validity of Duhem’s work has been confirmed by such modern researchers as Anneliese Maier, Marshall Clagett, Alistair Crombie, and others. The distinguished scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead agrees that “the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.”
Nonetheless, prejudice against Christianity endures, despite what able researchers have amply documented. Carl Sagan, for example, in his book, Cosmos, sketches the history of Western scientific thought and simply omits the contribution of Christianity. There is a huge gap, though unaccountable, between the destruction of the library at Alexandria and the arrival of Copernicus and Galileo. So much for 1,500 years of contributions from Christian scientists!
Perhaps even more deplorable is the charge that certain Christian researchers have been trying to make Christianity appear to be better than it is. As an example, Noah Efron has dismissed the notion that Christianity and Christian scientists contributed to the birth of modern science as a “myth” (“Myth 9: That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science,” Harvard University Press, 2009). He accuses such researchers as being “boosters,” while claiming that their attitude is “one part condescension with two parts self-congratulations.”
“Frequently,” he adds, “they mean to demonstrate simply that Christianity is a better religion.”
To think that no religion is any better than any other religion is preposterous. It is wildly absurd to hold that all religions are equal. Moreover, if it can be shown that Christianity is, in certain ways, a “better religion,” this should be cause for rejoicing and embracing. We are all constantly looking for things that are better, whether it be a better car, a better job, a better home, or a better Church. A Christian should believe that his religion, instituted by Christ Himself, is a better religion. But in so believing, he should be humble since he sees it as a gift from God. If research confirms something of importance, the researchers should be praised, not be made objects of envy, suspicion, and ridicule.
Recognizing the important contributions of medieval Christianity toward modern science should not become a bone of contention. Nonetheless, it is another thorn that Christians must suffer.
St. Thomas Aquinas, according to Etienne Gilson, possessed two virtues to a high degree that are rarely present in the same person: the intellectual modesty to be open and objective about all things, and the intellectual audacity to hold on to truths discovered no matter how unpopular they might be. Aquinas, then, is a great role model for the modern Christian researcher.

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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)

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