Science and Faith: The Enlightenment

Most natural philosophers/scientists wrote in Latin, making their work inaccessible to most people.  However from the late 17th and through the early 18th centuries, the growth of the printing industry, broader education, and interest in learning led to greater interest in and popularization of science.  As a result, scholars began writing in their own vernacular languages.  The establishment of scientific societies, journals (both scientific and more popular ones), and new universities opened up more knowledge and ideas to more people.

In this era, known as The Enlightenment, cultural values about knowledge were changing.  Instead of theology being primary, reason came to be the primary source of authority and legitimacy.  Tied with this, values of liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state spread through Europe and in European colonies around the world.  In France Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed a new social order based upon reason rather than Roman Catholic doctrine.  They also championed science based on experiments and observation. The political philosopher Montesquieu proposed the separation of powers in a government, while John Locke advocated the separation of church and state and individual freedom of conscience.  These concepts were embodied in the philosophical values underlying the French Revolution and were enshrined in the constitution of the United States.

Some of these thinkers argued for a complete rejection of religion and religious authority.  A few  explored the concept of atheism although even fewer actually adopted it.

Several of the influential writers and thinkers of this era were Christians.  Building on the work of Newton, Leibniz and others who came before them, most Christian writers found the concept of reason compatible with an all-wise, all-knowledgeable, all-powerful, and reason-able Creator.  God was the God of reason and order.  As they explored emerging fields like mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and geology, these Christians saw the order inherent is the universe as a reflection of the God of reason, order and purpose they saw in the Bible.

Among some of the scientific thinkers of the Enlightenment, a few to note are:

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)

Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician, Carl Linnaeus, developed the formal system of naming organisms we use today (for instance the American robin  is Turdus migratorius).  An obsessive person, seeking order and clarity, he is credited as the “father of modern taxonomy.”  Linnaeus was the son of a clergyman and saw God’s omnipotence and design in nature.  He approached his work with a sense of wonder and awe.  He wrote,

  • I saw the infinite, all-knowing and all-powerful God from behind as He went away and I grew dizzy.  I followed His footsteps over nature’s fields and saw everywhere an eternal wisdom and power, an inscrutable perfection.” 
  • “Blessed be Lord for the beaut of summer and spring, for the air, the water, the verdure, and the song of birds.”

Reflecting his belief in a God of order and reason, he also said, “In natural science the principles of truth ought to be confirmed by observation.”

James Hutton (1726-1797)

Scottish geologist, physician, chemist, and agriculturalist, James Hutton is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Geology.”  By observing rock strata, he determined that rocks have different relative ages and landscape formation takes lace over time.  He originated the theory of uniformitarianism, that ongoing natural processes shape the landscape over long periods of time.  Hutton argued the landscape is perpetually being formed and that by understanding processes like erosion, sedimentation, and rock formation we can hypothesize the past.  He also described Earth as a natural system, recognizing that geology, biology, and human interaction are all intimately interconnected in creating the landscape.

Because of Hutton’s theory of uniformitarianism, and thus of a very old Earth, some of his critics accused him of being an atheist.  However Hutton always affirmed his faith in God as “the superintending mind … a Being with perfect knowledge and absolute wisdom.”  In almost all that he wrote, not only on geology but on agriculture and physical subjects as well, he introduced his belief that in nature there is abundant evidence of God’s benevolent wisdom and design.

Alessandro Volta (1745-1827)

Alessandro Volta, an Italian chemist and physicist is credited with the invention of the electrical battery and the gas, methane.  His work eventually would lead to the field of electrochemistry. 

A faithful Roman Catholic all his life, Volta wrote, “I have, indeed, and only too often, failed in the performance of those good works which are the mark of a Catholic Christian, and I have been guilty of many sins: but through the special mercy of God I have never, as far as I know, wavered in my faith …  In this faith I recognise a pure gift of God, a supernatural grace; but I have not neglected those human means which confirm belief, and overthrow the doubts which at times arise.  I studied attentively the grounds and basis of religion, the works of apologists and assailants, the reasons for and against, and I can say that the result of such study is to clothe religion with such a degree of probability, even for the merely natural reason, that every spirit unperverted by sin and passion, every naturally noble spirit must love and accept it …  I am not ashamed of the Gospel, may it produce some good fruit.”

I am thankful for sabbatical time from my congregation and a Pastoral Study Project Grant from the Louisville Institute to support my research.