12 Jan

Christianity and Science in the Beginning

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/12/06

It is widely affirmed that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is a pivotal figure in Western cultural history. Bacon was a champion and publicist for what became known as the "scientific method," sometimes referred to (in honor of his singular role in promoting its legitimacy) as the Baconian method. The central assertion of this new way of knowing and explaining the world was that empirical and inductive practices could lead to experimentally verified (and repeatedly verifiable) set of conclusions about how things happen. Classical forms of knowledge of the world proceeded by deducing conclusions in the abstract from an array of more fundamental propositions.

While figures like Galileo (1564-1642), Kepler (1571-1630), and Newton (1643-1727) are often regarded as pioneering scientists whose work had widespread influence, Bacon might be better seen as the first philosopher or theorist of science. Bacon is not known for scientific discoveries, but for outlining and defending a new approach to the world which included techniques and habits of thought. Bacon introduced a mindset into the Western world that has become its dominant identifying feature. In his characterization of what underlies Western cultural life, theologian and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin observes that the most important cultural effect of the rise of the Baconian method was to impart to the West a sense of mastery over the world, and a loss of concern for questions of purpose. "To have discovered [through inductive techniques] the cause of something is to have explained it. There is no need to invoke purpose or design as an explanation. There is no place for miracles or divine intervention in providence as categories of explanation." (Foolishness to the Greeks, p. 24)

In time, this new mentality evoked the sense that dealing with Nature (with the goal of mastery) was a more suitable preoccupation for a society than dealing with God (from a standpoint of submission and obedience). And so science is credited with having a secularizing influence in Western culture. This has led many cultural historians to argue that Francis Bacon himself was a pioneer of secularization. Even though Bacon used religious language and ideas to defend the new science (e.g., framing the project of practical social improvement, "the relief of man's estate," through the acquisition of practical knowledge as a way of undoing some of the effects of the Fall), these historians have argued that Bacon was fundamentally interested in purely social and political concerns, not in anything religious, transcendent, or eternal.

Historian Stephen A. McKnight has written a new book, The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon's Thought (University of Missouri Press) which argues that Bacon did not employ religious ideas with cynical and manipulative intent, but with the utmost sincerity. Rather "Bacon's program of utopian reform, as presented in the 'New Atlantis,' is grounded in genuinely and deeply felt religious convictions, which serve as the foundation for his program of political and social prosperity through the advancement of learning."

An excerpt from McKnight's book was published in the Fall 2005 issue of the journal The New Atlantis (now you know where the title comes from!), and is available online. If all goes well, Stephen A. KcKnight will appear on volume 79 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, during which time questions will be raised about whether Bacon's religious ideas were theologically sound as well as sincere. [Posted January 2006, KAM]