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What difference did Protestantism make to modern science?

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Protestantism, we are told, “didn’t hold back science – it revolutionised its methods, its theoretical content and its social significance:

This elevation of the active life went hand-in-hand with Lutheran and Calvinist notions of the sanctity of earthly vocations. The priesthood, on this view, was no more religious a vocation than any other. ‘All Christians,’ Luther maintained, ‘are of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office.’ Calvin strongly supported this ‘priesthood of all believers’. This general principle meant that for the first time the formal study of nature could be regarded as a priestly activity. The ideal of the scientist-as-priest would subsequently become a common motif among 17th-century Protestant natural philosophers. Kepler, for example, had originally studied theology at Tübingen with the intention of becoming a Lutheran minister: ‘I wished to be a theologian; for a long time I was troubled, but now see how God is also praised through my work in astronomy.’

Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry and a pioneer of experimental methods, spoke in similar terms of the priestly role of scientific investigators. The study of nature, he claimed, was ‘the first act of religion, and equally obliging in all religions.’ Boyle captured the Protestant spirit of the new science perfectly: ‘Discovering to others the perfections of God displayed in the creatures is a more acceptable act of religion, than the burning of sacrifices or perfumes upon his altars.’ Kepler, Boyle and others saw their scientific work as part of a religious mission to uncover the divine order of the natural world. Again, then, values derived from Protestant ideas of vocation motivated at least some of the most influential scientists of the period, and provided a religious rationale for pursuing the study of nature.

Peter Harrison, “Reformation of science” at Aeon

Hmmm. It all sounds great except for when it isn’t.

For example, consider eugenics. The Catholic Church always opposed that dreadful scourge of people armed with strong opinions passing laws compelling some of their neighbors to be sterilized. When they did so, these eugenicists were acting explicitly as the priests of science. That was their idea of a vocation and Protestant churches largely supported it.

And what do we think about all that now?

Hey, just sayin’ is all: Science is an endeavor like any other and a vocation in science can be for good or for bad, just like a vocation in art or politics can be for good or for bad.

Please. If you have a “science” halo, please put it in the toxic waste recycling bin, for pickup first thing Monday.

2 Replies to “What difference did Protestantism make to modern science?

  1. 1
    Silver Asiatic says:

    values derived from Protestant ideas of vocation motivated at least some of the most influential scientists of the period, and provided a religious rationale for pursuing the study of nature

    That seems true and there was a greater mixture of theological and scientific vocations (and ideas) from Protestantism, where any and every layman could be a religious authority. What happened was that science ultimately surpassed theology in that view, since there was no way to become credentialed as a Protestant religious authority but science held all sorts of academic standards.
    Darwin, for example, took this mixture of theology and science to heart, and used his theory as a religious statement.

    ‘Discovering to others the perfections of God displayed in the creatures is a more acceptable act of religion, than the burning of sacrifices or perfumes upon his altars.’

    That reflects the secularizing tendency within Protestantism that actually lead to Darwin and ultimately to secularized religion and atheism at the end of that slide. Protestantism put the focus on the individual as the only authority, and thus was rationalist. In many ways that helped science, but it also advanced the culture of scientism and the rule of an academic-elite. The answer from a faith-perspective in Protestantism has been a Bible-alone view which lacks philosophical, logical and historical foundations and is thus an easy target of the atheism which it actually fostered (if not created).

    The “earthly vocation” always gives Protestantism an edge in “earthly matters” – and this was always seen in economic issues where the prosperity gospel (John Calvin) was created and traditional moral injunctions against the sin of usury were rejected.
    As St. Paul might say it, Protestantism is a “Judaizing” movement that puts the emphasis on the earthly city in that regard.
    The same gave some benefit to science, but also caused untold damage to human culture.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    I think the monastic life did more for science than any particular theology. In France and Italy before their secular revolutions, most of the productive scientists were in monasteries. In England, though Rome had been replaced by Canterbury, the monastic life continued in major universities. Freedom from daily tasks and financial responsibility made it possible to focus long-term attention on projects.

    Inherited wealth had the same effect, but monasteries made leisure possible for thinkers who weren’t born to money.

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