Science, Faith, and Superstition
The view that science will replace religious faith in all matters because of its progress and ever-more precise explanations of the natural world is common in our age. This view is built on an assumption that people believe in God when they lack a scientific explanation for events in nature. According to it, faith is nothing but superstition (A. Comte 1858, Sir J. G. Frazer 1890, R. Dawkins 2006, V. J. Stenger 2007, C. Hitchens, R. Dawkins, S. Harris, D. Dennett 2019). In addition to the reductive approaches, there are some attempts to secure a proper place for faith in human life according to which the role of faith is to give us meaning and moral guidance (Wittgenstein 1979, S. J. Gould 1999, F. Collins 2007).
These approaches have recently been challenged by a number of historical and philosophical attempts to move beyond the view of science and religion as two separate fields with different concerns (P, Harrison 2015; P. Harrison J. Milbank eds. 2022). Historical studies show that the way we conceptualize science and religion, as well as their relationship, is contingent on and a result of particular historical developments.
The main goal of this project is to contribute to and develop historical challenges to the prevalent understanding of science and religion. The project focuses on two historical periods: the period of late Antiquity and the period of the Renaissance through the 17th century. Both are important because of the major shifts in the understanding of the ways the natural, human, and divine intersect. The central question of our project is how philosophers, doctors, alchemists (proto chemists), and the Church fathers in the early days of Christianity and Modernity understood the purpose of the study of nature, the nature of faith, and the meaning of superstition.
Specific questions we plan to address are:
1. How did altruism, as a central value of Christianity, crucially contribute to and shape the study of nature? In particular, how did the goal of alleviating human suffering in this world motivate advances in medical science and technology? Did this change between the periods of early Christianity and early Modernity, and if so, how?
2. What was considered superstition in late Antiquity and what was superstition in early Modernity? We explore in depth what the Church fathers thought of pagan rituals, the place for petitionary prayer in Christian life, whether and how it was different from superstition, the healing role of relics etc. We also tackle the question of the nature of the relationship between superstition and technology.
3. Did metaphysical (Aristotelian and Neoplatonic) views and Christian faith influence practical sciences such as medicine, and if so, how? Our goal is to explore the link between metaphysical conceptions of nature, religious faith, and medicine and also examine the impact they had on alchemy and technological advances in the military, agriculture, the textile industry etc.
We believe the close study of these historical periods with a focus on these specific questions can help us move beyond current, limited ways of thinking about religion and science and their relationship and conceptualize in a more fruitful way the link between Christian faith, altruism, and technological advancement. The project brings together social historians, historians of science and technology, Classicists, theologians, and philosophers.
This research was supported by the University of Oxford project 'New Horizons for Science and Religion in Central and Eastern Europe' funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in the publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the John Templeton Foundation.