Religion as a Cause in Scientific Research

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Kungliga Tekniska Hogskola]On: 05 October 2014, At: 08:30Publisher: Taylor & FrancisInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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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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  • Essay Review

    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 & Francis

    DOI: 10.1080/00033790902730644


    Vol. 67, No. 1, January 2010, 121130




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  • 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.

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  • 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).

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  • 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

    category qu...


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