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Religion as a Cause in ScientificResearchJason M. Rampelt aa The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion , St. Edmund'sCollege , Cambridge, CB3 0BN, UKPublished online: 20 May 2009.
To cite this article: Jason M. Rampelt (2010) Religion as a Cause in Scientific Research, Annals ofScience, 67:1, 121-130, DOI: 10.1080/00033790902730644
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Religion as a Cause in Scientific Research
MATTHEW STANLEY, Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. x 313 pp. $37.50. ISBN-13 978-0-226-77097-0.
JASON M. RAMPELT, The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion,
St. Edmunds College, Cambridge CB3 0BN, UK
What therefore of Athens and Jerusalem, what of the Academy and the Church?
For Tertullian, these were conjunctions of irreconcilable opposites. Although
Aristotelian philosophy enjoyed the hearty approval of the scholastics in the high
Middle Ages, the Reformation prided biblical exegesis above philosophical acumen,
with the less educated strands of Protestantism reviving Tertullians simplistic
dichotomy. Some would now place science in the place of Athens, taking it not
merely as a professional occupation, but a dominant cultural paradigm. For some
religionists, it evokes suspicion as a foreign source of authority. So, while Huxley,
Draper, and White usually get the credit for the science and religion conflict thesis,
religion itself has perhaps been the one with a chip on its shoulder.1 At the very
least, advocates on both sides are equally culpable. These attitudes never cease to find
new life in each decade (Jacques Monod, Francis Crick, Carl Sagan) despite the fact
that their ideological bases are consistently undermined by the simple observation
that numerous successful scientists have been, and continue to be, devout religious
Historians of science take it as a commonplace that science and religion is a
poorly formed concept. (Which religion? Which of the sciences?) But if the pair is
allowed, there are still few grounds for opposing them. It is easy to see how one
would be led to believe that there is a conflict if the only information before them
were examples where scientific ideas destroyed religious ones (the immortality of the
soul, Transubstantiation, physical resurrection, etc.). It has been less common to
have examples of the doubly opposite case, that is, where science has not destroyed
religion, but instead religion assisted in the growth of science. Larger narratives, such
as those offered by Hooykaas and Harrison, make this point, though a historian of
science may object that a religious zeitgeist, even if adequately shown to harbor
1 John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1875); Andrew DicksonWhite, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).
Annals of Science ISSN 0003-3790 print/ISSN 1464-505X online # 2010 Taylor & Francishttp://www.tandf.co.uk/journals
ANNALS OF SCIENCE,
Vol. 67, No. 1, January 2010, 121130
scientific enquiry, is still short of counting as a cause within it.2 Yet, this objection
can be met, particularly within biographical work on religious scientists. A biography
eliminates the problem of generality in science and religion, offering the
opportunity to discover identifiable causal relations between the scientists particular
research projects and their particular religious beliefs. Practical Mystic is a very
recent example of this kind of historical work. Such causal connections are not
always immediately visible, nor is the scientist always aware of them. Yet, if we take it
for granted that human thought is integrated, not entirely separable into distinct
domains such as scientific thinking and religious thinking, then we should not be
too surprised that such causal connections exist, and are even a regular part of
scientific enquiry. This is a working assumption in Matthew Stanleys new book and
will be addressed in more detail at the end of this review. Before addressing his book,
it will be worth while to examine several kinds of such causal connections.
A cause in scientific terms is a specific relation between physical entities. It
answers the question why among physical events. Although not as common to
historical writing, it is no less appropriate to speak of causes of historical events. The
term might feel awkward because it suggests more certainty to a claim about past
events than one might be willing to grant. However, if we remember that modern
science is inductive, not deductive, any conclusion about natural causes is derived
empirically, and also subject to revision. History is carried out in a similar way,
drawing conclusions from evidence. It is true that historians cannot control
conditions and isolate variables in the same way that scientists can, but that does
not change the fact that it is nevertheless causes that the historian hopes to find. So,
if historical causes are understood with an appropriate empirical qualification, there
is no harm in using the term here.The most common way in which it is thought that religion has direct bearing on
scientific research may be expressed in the following general form:
(1?) Religion is a cause in scientific research by encouraging religious scientiststo generate scientific theories and practices which contradict or eliminate ones
which are thought to threaten religious beliefs, doctrines, or practices.
In the public eye, this definition captures everything from flood geology and anti-
physicalist philosophies of science, to political lobbies to remove embryonic stem
cells from labs. This is, however, a superficial understanding of the role of religion in
the scientific sphere, though religious people have done their share to reinforce such
thinking. This viewpoint is so prevalent partly because the media profits more from
conflict, and partly because it intuits a deeper issue to which we will turn later on.
Historically speaking, there are actually at least three significant ways in which
religion is a cause in scientific research, of which (1?) is really only a special case,hence the mark to indicate its subordinate nature. The more general class into which
(1?) fits is:
(1) Religion is a cause in scientific research by directing or informing the
scientists choice of discipline, topic of research, school, or models or theories.
2 Reijer Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press,1972); Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge, 1998). That isnot to say that Hooykaas and Harrison limit themselves only to discussing such a zeitgeist, since theyactually do speak of causes in the sense which will be described below.
122 Essay Review
Thus, it is easy to see how (1?) is merely an instance of (1). Some self-consciouslyreligious scientists, reflecting on how their religion might affect their science have
gone along with the facile view of (1?), uninstructed about the more general reality of(1) already active in their own work, though not necessarily obvious to them. So, for
example, a Christian chemical engineer may at first think that his work is made
Christian by always insisting to his colleagues that underground oil deposits were not
actually formed on the scale of millions of years, or refusing to work on Sundays.
Instead of, or in addition to, employing cause (1?), he could see his faith as a cause inhis work by motivating him to develop chemical processes with lower environmental
impact, or that can be interrupted for a day of rest. Even in the seventeenth century,
Robert Boyle was aware of the difference between (1) and (1?). At that time, judgingby Boyles response, some thought that experimental and empirical research of nature
entailed a commitment to atheistic materialism. In Boyles book The Christian
Virtuoso (1690), he dispelled this simplistic viewpoint which might otherwise have
turned Christians away from engaging in natural philosophical enquiry. Rather, in
Boyles view, such investigations were perfectly appropriate for the Christian, opening
new opportunities for doxology as he unveils the mystery and glory of Gods creative
acts in nature.There are many examples of religion causing the scientist to choose his profession
or direction of research. Leibniz thought a unified science would bring together the
divided churches of the German states, and consequently constructed a physics
combining elements of the old and new philosophies. Geology has had more than its
share: Jean-Andre de Luc in the eighteenth century, Adam Sedgwick in the
nineteenth, and George McCready Price in the twentieth.3 This discipline, with
biology, has suffered from the highly polemical religious motivations on the order of
(1?), for the superficial contradictions with biblical claims. (Mathematics usuallyescapes these difficulties and has perhaps been a scientific haven for the more irenic
personalities among religious scientists.) Edward Williams Morley, better known for
his experimental prowess in the MichelsonMorley experiments had actually built hisresearch career on careful weighing of oxygen and hydrogen gases as an analytical
chemist. For him, this began with a theological interest in a kind of early fine-tuning
argument about the physical properties of water necessary to sustain life on earth.4
Even Tycho Brahe, although not known for any religious sensibility like his
contemporary Johannes Kepler, at least had enough religio-political sense to adopt
a model of celestial mechanics that straddled the demands of the church and the
latest astronomical observations.
Religion also acts as a cause in science in the actual technical aspects of scientific
research. The first of these may be expressed in the following way:
(2) Religion is a cause in scientific research by providing, altering, or suggesting
specific methods of investigation.
3 Martin J.S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age ofRevolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 15058; John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor,Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998), 27074;Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (Berkeley: University ofCalifornia Press, 1992), Ch. 5.
4 Edward Williams Morley, Natural Theology: Theory of Heat, Bibliotheca Sacra, 24, no. 4 (October1867): 65280. Morley does not seem to have been aware of Josiah Cooke, Religion and Chemistry; Or,Proofs of Gods Plan in the Atmosphere and Its Elements (New York: Charles Scribner, 1864).
One obvious instance in recent news is research surrounding stem cells. With
embryonic stem cells considered taboo by some, even formally denied federal funding
in the United States (as of 2008), and otherwise regulated in the EU, some scientists
have been motivated to develop cell lines from sources other than early embryos. Thus,
religion has been a stimulus to scientific creativity as new approaches are developed to
avoid using embryonic stem cells. But even from the earliest stages of self-conscious
empirical investigation of nature, religion has been a basis of the empirical method.
Francis Bacon, conditioned by a Calvinistic doctrine of sin which understood humans
as corrupted and fallible, promoted empirical investigations of nature as the proper
corrective. As Peter Harrison explains, we find in Bacon an emphasis on a new
philosophical regimen that consists of externally imposed methodological con-
straints. These are, reliance upon experimentation, the accumulation of organized
sets of observations (natural and experimental, as Bacon calls them), and guided
communal endeavour. The Fall also affected the physical world more broadly and, in
Bacons view, required manipulation in order to be understood.5 Theologically, Robert
Boyle was a voluntarist, believing that God was both free and able to do what he willed
in creating and sustaining the universe. The consequence for natural philosophy was
an instrumentalist one as the virtuoso stood before a potentially incomprehensible
world, doing his best to explain nature with one theory or another.6
In an even more subtle way, religion plays an important role in providing
substantial conceptual models for developments in science:
(3) Religion is a cause in scientific research by donating its discourse and
categories, not merely about the physical world, but about its own cultic affairs.
Scholastic Aristotelian physics was for a long time under the constraint of Tran-
substantiation. Ironically, the consequent Thomistic emphasis on the Aristotelian