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Book Preview – Slaying the Dragons: Destroying myths in the history of science and faith

27th May 2021 | Biology and Belief
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Science as we know it stems from monotheism.

The Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Polynesian, Chinese, and Meso-American cultures all built up complex and sophisticated systems for making sense of the natural world as they understood it within the context of their environments. … “Nature” was not conceived of as having an independent existence, but was, rather, an expression of many fickle deities in action, and could suddenly change at the failure of a sacrifice or the omission of a ritual.

Of course things were not much better in Homeric Greece around 1000 bc … Profound changes took place in Greece, however, between the days of Thales and Pythagoras, from around 600 bc, to the death of Aristotle in 322 bc. … It is not for nothing that the Greeks invented “civic society” and “public consciousness” in the city-state, of which there were well over 158 in Greece by the time of Aristotle.

I would argue that it was from this dynamic cauldron of circumstances that the leisure, thinking space, and resources emerged out of which the arts and sciences were born in Greece. … Very significantly for future religious thinking, some Greek philosophers, such as Heraclitus and Anaxagoras, were asking by the fifth century bcwhether there might be a higher powerbeyond the gods of Olympus. It was not personalized, but rather some kind of organizing power or principle of order, which might have something to do with why mathematics, logic, and reason made sense. …

By the time of Plato and Aristotle, in the fourth century bc, Greeks were even discussing creation itself. Did the cosmos come about, as Plato proposed in his Timaeusnarrative, by a divine craftsman imposing order on rough materials in the same way as a potter imposes the Form of a pot upon every vessel he makes on the wheel? Or did it come about, as Aristotle proposes in his Physics, by an Unmoved Mover setting creation in motion? Indeed, it was not for nothing that early Christian theologians would equate this creative Unmoved Mover or Logoswith God in Christ Jesus, as did the writer of St John’s Gospel.

But this radical and world-changing insight only emerged when these fifth-century-bcGreek ideas took a new direction as they came to be combined with the vastly more ancient ideas of the Jews. For in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as it would develop, this Greek Logosfirst revealed himself as “I AM”, or “JEHOVA”, to Abraham in Mesopotamia around 2000 bcas a very personal creator of all things. Indeed, he was not a conceptlike the Logos, but an eternal, divine, living being who formed the very image of mankind from himself, who gave us our intelligence, and for whom we, and especially those descendants of Abraham who would become the Jews, were the supreme, albeit disobedient, fruits of creation. …

So here we have that dynamic of creator, giver of life and reason, lifting humanity from the cowering slave caste of the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian religions, and affirming us as beings with a value and a divine destiny in our own right. …

This, I would suggest, is the origin of monotheism, and without it we would not have that unified concept of nature and its accessibility to human intelligence without which modern science is impossible. For irrespective of where a person may stand today on the creedal scale, it is monotheism that is the father and mother of the concept of a natural world that makes (or appears to make) logical sense.

Yet, these essential intellectual components of monotheism derived from rabbinic Judaism on the one hand and pagan Greek philosophy on the other. Why should it have been in European – and later American – Christendomthat science assumed the dominant cultural role it holds today? There is nothing especially scientific in the teachings of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, St Paul, or any other of the Christian apostles. But what I would argue is that science entered early Christian and medieval Europe by a process of cultural osmosis. For one of the formative and enduring features of Christianity, from the ad30s and 40s onwards, was its social and cultural flexibility. One did not have to belong to any given racial or cultural group, wear any approved style of clothing, cut one’s beard in a prescribed way, speak a special holy language, or follow essential rituals to be a Christian. Women in particular, amazingly, considering their limited social role in antiquity, were drawn to Christianity in large numbers, as the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles make clear, where they are shown as openly expressing their views. …

It was generally accepted that many honest pagans had glimpsed key truths of God’s creation, and who could blame the wise Socrates and Aristotle if they happened to have been born 400 years before Jesus, for their wisdom and honest contributions to learning were beyond question. This is how ancient science came to slide effortlessly into the Christian world, for it was useful for making calendars, treating diseases, and explaining the physical nature of things from the facts then available. …

It is for these reasons, I would argue, that modern science is a child of Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman parentage, and why I speak of Westernscience as becoming the dominant style of thinking about the natural world and humanity’s inquisitive relationship with it. …

Indeed, considering the magnitude of Christianity’s moulding influence upon Western civilization, and its provision of that rich soil in which post-classical science could flourish and grow, it is hardly surprising that, in this imperfect world, it has detractors. … Nor is it surprising that, within a post-classical and modern West with its ancient traditions of respect for argument, debate, and – in varying degrees – toleration, myths have abounded.


This post is a series of extracts from Chapter 1, ‘Myths, Monotheism, and the Origins of Western Science’ in Slaying the Dragons: Destroying myths in the history of science and faith by Allan Chapman (Monarch, 2013), price £9.99. Used with permission of the author and publisher.