God and the Scientists
About 100 years ago two popular books were written which helped to establish the public image of the relationship between science and Christianity.
The first, written by a professor of chemistry, John William Draper, was entitled History of the Conflicts between Religion and Science and was published in 1874.
The second, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, was written by a historian and president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, in 1896.
Both these books fostered the idea that science and Christianity had been at loggerheads for centuries, and the notion that these two ways of thinking are irreconcilable opposites survives strongly today.
However, this powerful image of science and Christianity forever at one another’s throats, engaged in a fight to the death, conceals the fact that, for many Christians through the ages, science has been something which they did because they were Christians. Science, carried out appropriately, was fully compatible with their faith rather than in conflict with it.
In the 17th century there was a dramatic increase in the number of people actively involved in science and the first scientific society — the Royal Society — was established in England in 1663. At that time Puritan Christians were only a small minority of the English population but they made up two thirds of the founding members of the Royal Society (which still exists today). What was it that led these scientists into a career which White insisted should have been contrary to their most basic religious beliefs?
The scientists of the Royal Society believed that the God they worshipped was not capricious, and that the orderly world which he had created could be studied to find out the laws he had built into it. It was not sufficient for them to sit in their studies and read what the ancient scholars had thought the world was like. Instead their faith encouraged them to study nature itself, at first hand, through experiments.
Johannes Kepler, a Lutheran on the continent, described his scientific activities as ‘thinking God’s thought after him’. John Ray, in a book entitled The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation, saw his task as helping people to see the world around them as God’s handiwork. Even the word ‘law’ applied to nature carried with it the idea that they were the result of ‘legislation’ by God — they were His decrees and not just something which somehow existed by themselves independently of Him. God did not just create the world and then cut it adrift and allow it to function on its own as the deists believed. Instead, He continues to be active in upholding, maintaining and caring for what He has created.
In describing their purposes as scientists, many of these ‘natural philosophers’ wrote about their faith that God’s glory was to be seen in his works, and they saw their investigations as a way of demonstrating that glory to other people. In this attitude they echoed the words of the psalmist: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19:1).
For many writers of this time their studies and experiments had revealed a world so marvellous that one could only attribute its existence to an all-knowing, all-powerful Creator.
A favourite theme of these early scientists was that God had revealed himself through two books — the book of Scripture and the ‘book’ of nature — and there was information about Him to be obtained from each book which was not contained in the other. Because of this many argued that, just as they were under an obligation to study the Bible to understand God’s written word, so there was an obligation to study the world to become aware of what He had revealed in His creation.
The notion that the Christian faith and science are, in significant ways, incompatible with each other is also belied by the fact that many modern scientists are believers in the same God who was glorified by those early scientists. The following comment in 1960 by Malcolm Dixon illustrates this well:
I have been rather struck, while looking through the recent Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, by the number of Fellows who are specially mentioned as having a deep Christian faith. One can hardly pick up an issue without finding at least one, and in the latest number, out of seventeen who died during the year, three or perhaps four are mentioned in this way. This is rather remarkable in notices which are primarily concerned with scientific work.
A number of such scientists briefly tell their stories in a booklet, God and the Scientists, compiled by Mike Poole in 1997. For these scientists, as for many scientists in Draper’s and White’s time, their vocation was a task to which God had called them and which they carried out with the intention of bringing him glory. Their work as scientists was a natural implication of their faith as Christians.