Science and religion in the Western world have been closely connected throughout history; changes in one discipline have influenced the other, occasionally resulting in temporary tensions. Many historians have argued that most of the historical ‘conflicts’ between science and religion are better categorized as conflicts between scientists or between religious leaders, or as situations that are better understood in the context of the time period in which they existed,,,. In addition, many of those historical tensions seem to be non-issues in our current age; they were resolved somewhere along the way. It seems to me that these moments of conflict offer potential insight to resolving current struggles and preventing future issues between religion and science. Dalton’s atomic theory is one such example – it was originally rejected by Christians but is now a foundational principle in chemistry.
John Dalton, an English chemist, developed and formally stated the atomic theory in the 19th century. An introductory General Chemistry textbook describes Dalton’s Atomic Theory according to the following statements:
1.Elements are made up of tiny particles called atoms.
2.Each element is characterized by the mass of its atoms.
3.The chemical combination of elements to make different chemical compounds occurs when atoms join in small whole-number ratios.
4.Chemical reactions only rearrange how atoms are combined in chemical compounds; the atoms themselves don’t change.
For any current student in chemistry, these basic tenets of the discipline are not surprising or in any way controversial. It would seem absurd for an individual to argue that the concept of atoms is contrary to religious beliefs, given our modern understanding of science and religion. In the early Christian church, however, atomism was rejected due to its association with an atheistic philosophy.
Hundreds of years before Dalton developed his modern scientific theory of the atom, ancient Greek philosophers had their own ideas. Leucippus is often recognized as the originator of the theory of atomism, but Democritus, his student, is more widely celebrated as the one who truly developed and established atomism.According to the Atomists, the natural world was composed of two different constituents: individual physical bodies and void. The individual bodies, called atoms, were considered the primary items that created all else through formation and dissolution of aggregates of atoms17.Atoms were separated by empty space referred to as ‘void’.
Following Democritus and Leucippus, Epicurus (341-270 BCE) elaborated on the atomist hypothesis. He integrated it into his Epicurean physics as set out below:
1.Nothing comes from what is not nor disappears in what is not.
2.The all is made of bodies and void, which are the only complete natures.
3.Amongst bodies, some are composites; others are those from which composites are made.
4.The all is unlimited or infinite both in the number of atoms and the extent of void.
5.The number of different atomic shapes cannot be conceived.
6.The atoms move constantly and endlessly because of the existence of void.
With these principles as his philosophical framework, Epicurus developed a very materialistic view that rejected teleological explanations: if all things are composed of atoms, then all of life is the result of atoms interacting without any purpose, direction, or final cause. He reasoned then, that the highest pursuit in life should be the pursuit of pleasure. It is important to note that, to Epicurus, the term ‘pleasure’ meant diminution of pain as the highest pursuit, not the lascivious, self-indulgent philosophy often associated with Epicureanism21. While Epicurus did not deny the existence of gods or discourage religion, he reasoned the gods were too busy pursuing their own pleasures to be concerned with humans. Social factors, described below, led to the association of Epicureanism with atheism.
Early Christianity and Nature
The early Christian church had the difficult task of assimilating Christian doctrine into a coherent theological framework within the Greco-Roman world. Many of the early Christians received Greco-Roman schooling, which were dominated by Greek Scholastic philosophies, such as Aristotelianism and Epicureanism. As a result, many of the underlying philosophical methodologies of the time were incorporated into Christianity.
St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, is recognized as the primary theologian to establish early Christian attitudes towards nature. Augustine was hesitant to attribute much value to pagan philosophies, such as Aristotelianism, but he was influenced by Origen’s allegorical reading of both scripture and nature. He recognized that natural philosophy was a means to an end, so he encouraged studying natural philosophy solely for the purpose of biblical exegesis. Thus, natural philosophy was relegated to the status of handmaiden to theology and it was actively pursued as a religious necessity.Augustine’s handmaiden formula dominated the Christian pursuit of natural science in the early middle ages and a handful of educated Christians wrote treatises entwining natural philosophy within Christianity.
Christian attitudes towards natural philosophy shifted around the 11th and 12th centuries. Along with the end of the Middle Ages, Europe experienced a resurgence of Scholasticism and increased interest in Greek philosophy. Aristotelian philosophy was deeply integrated into the curriculum of the educational system because it encompassed nearly all aspects of life. This presented a challenge to Christian theology, as components of Aristotle’s philosophy were potentially incompatible with Christian doctrine. Recall that Aristotle claimed the earth was coeternal with God; the world was not created by God. Furthermore, Aristotelianism was exclusively dependent upon sense perception and rationalism to achieve truth, excluding spiritual or biblical revelation. Aristotle’s philosophy was too socially valuable, however, and considerable effort was made to fuse Christianity with Aristotelianism.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Christian theologian and philosopher, was a key figure in the process of accommodating Aristotle in Christianity. In particular, his work Summa Theologiae, focused on incorporating Aristotle’s philosophy into the existing Christian theology. To accommodate the Aristotelian eternal earth, Aquinas argued that there was no reason why the earth couldn’t be both created and eternal. Apparently, this was an acceptable accommodation and, as time progressed Christian theology became deeply embedded in Aristotelian philosophy.
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, while Augustine was promoting natural philosophy as handmaiden to theology, Epicurean philosophy came to be perceived as a threat to Christianity, largely because the Christian concepts of Incarnation and resurrection of the body were incompatible with the notion of atomism. Early Christian authors, such as Tertullian and Lactantius, openly attacked Epicureanism and presented Epicurus and his followers as madmen with hedonistic lifestyles. Epicurus’s pursuits of pleasure, as well as his inclusion of women in his school, were likely the sources of these inflated claims21. By the 4th century, Epicureanism was definitively categorized as a pagan, atheistic philosophy.
With the integration of Aristotelianism into Christianity in the late medieval period, Epicureanism was dealt a final blow. Aristotle claimed all matter was composed of the four visible elements that were continuous; Epicurus’s atoms were indivisible, invisible, and separated by void. Aristotle believed in the immortality of the soul; Epicurus believed that atoms constituted all of humanity. Thus, Epicurean natural philosophy was not compatible with the Aristotelian conception of the world and, by association it was not compatible with Christianity. Epicurean philosophy was prohibited by the church and atomism rejected along with it. Eventually, the works and philosophy of Epicurus and his followers decreased in circulation and most were destroyed, degraded, or lost in monastic libraries.
Aristotle dominated the western educational system and Christian theology until the 16th century when the Protestant Reformation changed the religious and academic climate. By questioning the authority of the Catholic Church, reformers’ brought into question the source of all authority. Aristotelian philosophy was also wounded deeply when Galileo claimed evidential support for the Copernican model of the universe (the earth revolving around the sun) rather than the Aristotelian model (the sun revolving around the earth). It became necessary to look for sources of truth outside of the church and beyond Aristotle. Ancient texts were revisited and revised. In short, the Reformation upset both the theological and philosophical foundations of the time.
Laurence Carlin argues that these changes had an immense impact on the development of natural philosophy and, in particular, on the appearance of Empiricists in Europe. The Empiricists were philosophers who focused on questions of what knowledge is and how one knows when one has knowledge. Empiricists emphasized the acquisition of data through experimentation rather than the Aristotelian method of observation and reason. Empirical science instituted an altogether different mode of investigation—the ‘new science’.
Carlin lists eight natural philosophers whom he considers the most influential Empiricists; two of these Empiricists are crucial to this narrative: Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) and Robert Boyle (1627-1691). These natural philosophers significantly contributed to reviving the Epicurean notion of atoms and revising the philosophy to fit into the changing worldview of their time.
Pierre Gassendi was a priest who became dissatisfied with Aristotelianism and the educational requirement to teach the philosophy as part of the institutional curriculum. He was motivated to ‘Christianize’ atomism; that is, to prove that Epicurean atomism, with a few modifications, was better suited to Christianity than Aristotelianism.Gassendi argued that God created a finite number of atoms at the beginning of the universe, rather than the Epicurus’s infinite number of atoms. In opposition to Epicurean materialism, Gassendi also claimed that humans had an immaterial soul that causally influenced the material body. With these modifications, Gassendi eliminated the primary theological arguments against Epicurean atomism and wove it into a framework that was coherent with post-Reformation theology.
Carlin describes Robert Boyle as a deeply religious man dedicated to the triumph of Empiricism over Aristotelianism. Committed to reconciling atomism with Christianity, he put considerable effort into eliminating the atheistic reputation that was associated with Epicureanism. In his corpuscular hypothesis, Boyle claimed that all bodies are made up of one kind of material substance that was contained in minute particles called corpuscles, which were similar to Epicurean atoms. Boyle’s corpuscles, however, were theoretically divisible and capable of alchemical transmutations, while Epicurean atoms were not. Despite his preoccupation with alchemy, Boyle’s corpuscular hypothesis set a strong theoretical foundation for the development of modern atomism.
Common to the 16th and 17th centuries was the notion that God provides revelation through two books: the book of Scripture and the book of nature. Boyle took this concept so far as to argue that the natural philosopher was equivalent to a Christian priest. Natural philosophy, therefore, was not only necessary, but essential. As the study of Scripture was an obligation of the faith, so, too, was the study of nature. As a result, Boyle justified the expanding empirical study of nature, including his corpuscular hypothesis, as an obligation of the faith.
Finally, both Gassendi and Boyle adhered to voluntarism, or the notion that, by his own free will, God chose to create the world with an order that can be observed by humans. By employing empirical methods, one could test and discern how God created. As voluntarists, Gassendi and Boyle selected empirical methodologies as the means by which to study nature so they might gain insight into God’s creation.
The work of Gassendi, Boyle, and several other natural led to the work of John Dalton in the 19th century. Dalton compiled his own experimental observations, the philosophical work of Gassendi and Boyle, empirical results from of 18th century scientists (such as Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Proust), as well as influence from Newtonian physics into the basis of our modern atomistic theory of nature. Dalton’s atomic theory has provided the foundation upon which much of modern chemistry is based. Up until the 19th century, religious considerations continued to be employed in lending credence to the ‘new science’ of empiricism. Yet, for Dalton in the 19th century, science was just emerging as a discipline of study independent from philosophy and theology. Despite the fact that he was a deeply religious Quaker, it is not clear whether or not Dalton’s religious perspectives influenced or motivated his work as a chemist.
Alan Chalmers has argued that much of Dalton’s atomic theory was more philosophical than empirical in substance37. Subsequent experimentation by several other chemists was required in order to fully substantiate his claims, so like most nuanced and complex scientific theories, Dalton’s atomic theory has required revisions in order to arrive at our current understanding of atomism. While the relationship between science and religion also continue to change, conflicts, such as those surrounding evolution, still exist. What, then, can we understand about modern relationships between these disciplines in light of this historical narrative? I believe all interactions between science and religion, whether modern or ancient, are best understood in the context of the existing frameworks, or paradigms, of science and theology in the time period in which the interaction occurred. Looking back to look forward may help us all understand more about why we believe what we believe, and enrich conversations for future generations.
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With the recognition that the atomic theory, as stated, was a foundational theory that has required some minor modifications from our current level of understanding.
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