Recently I listened to a BBC History Extra interview with historian Michael Hunter on the great 17th century scientist Robert Boyle, one of founders of the scientific method. Boyle, a pioneer of scientific experimentation, was motivated by a religious zeal – for religion. He was a devout Christian, and was concerned by an apparently godless movement rallying around philosophers like Thomas Hobbes. Boyle created the foundations of modern science not despite his faith, but because of it: he believed that his discoveries of a deeply complex scientific reality were evidence of God's design.
This does not fit with those anti-religious narratives I encounter. In those views it was the destruction of Christian power following the Reformation that led to the growth of science. As Christianity fell away, Enlightenment ideals prospered, irreligious humanism emerged, and old ills like slavery and sexism were overthrown.
Yet the Enlightenment period was one of fierce religious passion and its greatest thinkers were mostly devout believers. Modern people may look back and perceive a linear progression from the darkness of religious superstition to the light of secular knowledge, but this is anachronistic. The heroes of science and liberalism took religion for granted; it was a spur for discovery, not an inhibitor. Today we talk about Newtonian physics; Isaac Newton wrote seriously about witchcraft, magic and alchemy. Today anti-religious commentators talk about the illiberalism of Christianity; John Locke – the Father of Liberalism – was a passionate Christian who saw reason as a God-given trait that could only bring humanity to a belief in Jesus.
How religion created science, liberalism, and peace
Recently I listened to a BBC History Extra interview with historian Michael Hunter on the great 17th century scientist Robert Boyle, one of founders of the scientific method. Boyle, a pioneer of scien…
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