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Did the Protestant Reformation spur science?

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Dutch telescope, 1624/public domain

Not really, says David Wootton at Nature:

But it is still widely argued by historians of science that the Protestant religion and the new science were inextricably intertwined, as Protestantism turned away from the spirituality of Catholicism and fostered a practical engagement with the world, exemplified in the idea that a person’s occupation was their vocation. Merton was following in the footsteps of German sociologist Max Weber, who argued that Protestantism had led to capitalism.

I disagree. First, plenty of great sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientists were Catholics, including Copernicus, Galileo and Pascal. Second, one of the most striking features of the new science was how easily it passed back and forth between Catholics and Protestants. At the height of the religious wars, two Protestant astronomers were appointed one after another as mathematicians to the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor: first Brahe, then Kepler. Louis XIV, who expelled the Protestants from France in 1685, had previously hired Protestants such as Christiaan Huygens for his Academy of Sciences. The experiments of Pascal, a devout Catholic, were quickly copied in England by the devoutly Protestant Boyle. The Catholic Church banned Copernicanism, but was quick to change its mind in the light of Newton’s discoveries. And third, if we can point to Protestant communities that seem to have produced more than their share of great scientists, we can also point to Protestant societies where the new science did not flourish until later — Scotland, for example. More.

This shouldn’t be a surprise because the disputes that led to the Reformation were not really about anything to do with science.

Wootton argues for the discovery of the Americas, the invention of the printing press, and the development of the experimental method as providing the needed force. That sounds more likely because developments like these made science relevant to far more people than it had previously been. That is, the question for most people would not be whether they accepted or rejected findings of science so much as whether they could even find out about them — and if they could, did the findings matter?

As a general rule, when science makes a difference, everyone wants it. (Think: successful cancer treatment) And most groups want a piece of the action.

See also: Physicist: The Galileo dispute involved science as well as religion This feels new. And we could use more of it. At one time, Cool science writers could afford to get it wrong (because those they maligned Didn’t Matter). Is there now a trend toward getting it right? If so, is it possible that the recent “Bible says” fiasco at Nature made a difference?

5 Replies to “Did the Protestant Reformation spur science?

  1. 1
    Origenes says:

    //off-topic //

    Epigenetic fireworks in space.

    “Some of the most exciting things that we’ve seen from looking at gene expression in space is that we really see an explosion, like fireworks taking off, as soon as the human body gets into space,” Twins Study Principal Investigator Chris Mason, Ph.D., of Weill Cornell Medicine, said. “With this study, we’ve seen thousands and thousands of genes change how they are turned on and turned off. This happens as soon as an astronaut gets into space, and some of the activity persists temporarily upon return to Earth.”

    If this epigenetic “firework” involves functional coherent changes, and it seems that way given that astronauts tend to survive space travel, then atheists will have a rough time coming up with an evolutionary step wise just-so-story.

  2. 2
    DLH says:

    Dig deeper. See: The Book That Made Your World, Ch. 8 Science, Vishal Mangalwadi
    “The West’s passion for science began when the Bible inspired Christians to devote their lives to recovering God’s forgotten mandate for humans to take dominion over nature. . . .They assumed (the material realm) was understandable because God created it as rational, ordered, and regulated by natural laws. . . .Science was born in universities governed by the Church. It blossomed under the Church’s patronage and nowhere else.”

  3. 3
    polistra says:

    “Science that makes a difference” is crucial.

    Starting from that rule, let’s ask an abnormal question. Did Newton make a difference?

    The answer is No. Why? The printing press, and typefounding, were well developed before Newton, and many other “Newtonian” devices like clocks and guns were also well developed long before Newton. Newton’s Laws didn’t contribute to the later development of these devices. Carnot didn’t contribute to the later development of typefoundries.

    The religion correlation is easy to knock down. Greece and China and India and Persia were way ahead of Europe in science. Four different religions, all beating Christianity to the punch.

    The only connection that really matters is capitalism, or more broadly an organized economic system with division of labor and profit. Prolonged experimentation is a luxury that requires a baseline of surplus value, along with a cultural decision to encourage experimentation toward meaningful goals.

  4. 4
    Barry Arrington says:

    The only connection that really matters is capitalism

    Nonsense. Science took off in the West and nowhere else because Christianity (whether Catholic or Protestant; it does not matter) dominated in the West and nowhere else. The Christian worldview after late medieval times formed an intellectual foundation for rational inquiry that was lacking or stunted everywhere else.

  5. 5
    jerry says:

    We can look at the video tape. From the Great Courses

    Science to 1700

    Science from 1700 to 1900

    Nearly all in the West but that could be a bias and probably most were Christians after the Roman Empire fell. Though, there was a lot of development in Islamic areas. But it seemed to stop after a while and shifted to Europe.

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