The Paradox of Christianity

This past summer the ACLU of Kentucky sent a letter to Kentucky school districts reminding them that if they allow Christian groups, like the Gideon’s, to distribute Bibles in school they also have to allow other religious organizations, including from other religions, to distribute their religious texts. When this made the news the response was pretty predictable. The newspaper was full of letters to the editor saying that the ACLU in particular, and liberals in general, hated Christians. There are similar letters whenever the paper reports on scientific discoveries that challenge or threaten Christian belief or doctrine, but those letters say that scientists hate Christians.

I always wonder if the letter writers know that both liberalism and science arose out of Christianity. That’s right. The grand paradox of the modern world is that Christianity laid the foundation for both liberalism and modern science, and then both turned on their creator. Let me explain.

The first people to call themselves “liberals” was a group advocating for individual liberty during the French Revolution. They said that a liberal is someone who seeks liberty, and coined it as a political term. But they were not the first people to seek liberty. That distinction belongs to Martin Luther, who, after breaking with the Church over doctrinal matters, called for Christian Liberty, or the liberty of each individual Christian to define his relationship with God. Luther said that each individual was created by God, and therefore had the God-given ability, and right, to define his relationship with God, and should not be subject to acquired dogma, or other arbitrary external restrictions. The only guide should be the word of God, from the Bible, and individual consciousness. The Church in Rome (later to redefine itself as the Catholic Church) pushed back, but Luther eventually prevailed.

I should note that there were many other thinkers and theologians pushing similar ideas. Men like Erasmus,Thomas More, John Wycliffe, and Pico della Mirandola, also were discussing changes to the church, and ideas about the dignity and liberty of individual Christians. But Luther was the most forceful, and most successful, and became the father of the Reformation.

After Luther other religious leaders sought liberation from excess control from the one Apostolic Church (as the Catholic Church defined itself). Many religious leaders in different countries sought to allow the teaching and preaching of religion in the native language. This push meshed nicely with efforts by secular leaders to free their nation from fealty to Rome. King Henry VIII’s push to create a Church of England was as much of a power grab as an attempt to gain favorably ecclesiastic support for his personal affairs. Similar fights were taking place in many of the other nations of Christendom.

Soon other thinkers started taking Luther’s idea of individual consciousness and extending it to other areas of life and human affairs. First political philosophers suggested that people had a right to choose their religion, then that was extended to the idea of the right of freedom of conscious, or freedom of belief and thought in areas outside of religion. Eventually some thinkers came up with the idea that individuals had a right to think about their government, and then had a right to participate in their government. (Some counter-revolutionaries suggested that Kings ruled by divine right, so people had no right to any input.)

Liberalism’s early spread was based largely on variations of Luther’s ideas, and in fact many early liberal writers and philosophers – like Locke, Hume, Mill, Montesquieu – based their theories, in part, on teachings from scripture.

One area where the idea of liberating thought from scriptural dogma quickly spread across Europe was in science. Luther’s ideas spread quickly because of the recently developed printing press. Gutenberg perfected movable type in the early 1400’s. Luther presented his Ninety-Five Theses to church leaders on October 31, 1517. It was quickly reprinted and spread throughout Europe within a matter of months. Printing allowed all sorts of ideas to spread. It allowed scientists to share their discoveries, and this allowed other scientists to learn about, apply, and refine those ideas. Many of these early scientists thought that their discoveries were glorifying the wonders of God’s creation. In fact, for a long time many early scientists were deeply religious and many were priests and members of the Church. Copernicus was a lay church official, Mendel (the father of genetics) was an Augustinian monk, Mendeleev (the creator of the Periodic Table) was trained at a seminary. While Isaac Newton is most famous for his theories about gravity, optics, astronomy and mathematics, he actually wrote as much about religion, theology and the Bible.

But it wasn’t long before scientific discoveries began to contradict Biblical teaching. Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system was one of the first, but many others soon followed. One of the first was the development of the geological theories of a British scientist named James Hutton in the 1780’s. Hutton observed that layers of rock in the mountains had fossils, and wondered if some of the rocks had once been on the sea floor. As he observed exposed strata in the mountains around Europe he developed the idea that the earth had moved dramatically, and that this must have occurred over great lengths of time. The earth, he surmised, was very very old. This meant that it could not be the age suggested by the Bible. Some thinkers at the time dubbed this concept “deep time.”

At about the same time as Hutton’s discoveries, a British astronomer named William Hershel began building increasingly powerful telescopes, and peering further and further into space. He discovered, among other things, the planet Uranus, and star nebulae, or visually undistinguishable astronomical objects. Scientists at the time had a rough understanding of the speed of light, and Hershel knew that he was looking thousands, if not millions, of years into the past. Once, when asked about what he was seeing in deep space Hershel replied “I have searched through the heavens, and nowhere have I found a trace of God.” [Holmes, Age at 198].

Scientific discoveries were challenging and disproving religious theories, and many scientists were increasingly skeptical of religion. One of the more famous stories (which may be apocryphal) involves the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace. Laplace published a book on astronomy in 1799, and Napoleon Bonaparte read it with great interest. He invited Laplace to his palace to discuss the book. Napoleon noted that the book never mentioned God, and supposedly said that even Newton described God in his works of astronomy. Supposedly Laplace replied, “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

Science did not become directly hostile to religion, but increasingly saw religion, or more particularly religious teaching, as largely irrelevant to their activities. But a strong relationship between science and religion remained, particularly since most of the universities of the time were run by religious orders.

But increasingly scientific discoveries contradicted religious teaching. Far and away the most prominent was Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was published in 1858. (I’ll note briefly that Darwin was deeply religious early in life, and had considered the ministry. He, like Copernicus delayed the publication of his theories out of concern for its impact on religion.) Evolution described the development of life in a way that directly contradicts Biblical teachings. This was a scientific discovery too far, and religious leaders struck back, vigorously challenging Darwin’s discovery. They knew that if this theory was right, or if people began to believe it was right, it would invalidate much of their teachings regarding all living creatures on earth, including man.

But this wasn’t the only scientific challenge to religion. During this era of broad scientific exploration some scientists began to evaluate the Bible based on new scientific teachings about history, archeology, and linguistics. What they found directly challenged long held views about the Bible, particularly regarding when it was written and by whom. (The famous scientist and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer was a prominent scholar in this area.) By the end of the 1800’s an increasing numbers of scientists were openly skeptical of, if not hostile to, religion. And in response many Christian denominations became hostile to science. A new strain to theology, Fundamentalism, argued that the Bible was literally true, every word of it written by God. The battle between science and this new fundamentalist view hit the headlines in the 1920’s with the Scopes “Monkey Trial” where a school teacher was tried for teaching evolution. By the early Twentieth Century the split between science and religion was largely complete.

But science was not purposefully hostile religion. Science simply pursued science, and in many cases made discovered that directly contradicted religious teachings. Scientists were not doing these things out of some animus towards religion, they were simply engaged in scientific inquiry. But many religious people didn’t see it that way and felt that it was the product of hostility. And so, since the 1920’s, many Conservative and Fundamentalist Christians became deeply hostile to science. I should note that the Catholic Church does not share this hostility, and has accepted the teachings of evolution.

The relation between political liberalism and religion did not devolve in quite the same way as the relation between science and religion. Well into the 1800’s, most political liberals were deeply faithful. But things began to change, as so much did, with the French Revolution. Religion was seen as justifying and supporting the old regime, and so political revolutionaries began to attack the Church as well as the state. As revolution spread across Europe in the 1840’s many took on an anti-religious tone because of the Church’s support for the existing order, and hostility to the demands of the reformers. Things soured considerably when Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses,” there to keep the people in a stupor so that they don’t complain about their lot in life and challenge the existing order.

The hostility between religion and reform did not take the same tone, or follow the same path in the United States. In fact, most of the reform movements were driven by people of deep religious faith. Perhaps the most important example involves the fight to abolish slavery. The fight over abolition, however, marked the beginning of a turning point between religion and political liberalism. Most of the abolitionists were deeply religious and used scripture to oppose slavery, but many southern churches also used scripture to justify slavery. And so denominations were set against each other. Increasingly the opponents of change, those who wanted to stop or slow the growing movement for more liberty and autonomy, relied upon religious teaching to oppose these movements. Religion began to change from a source of liberation of the individual to an opponent of liberation. The opponents of abolition used scripture, as did opponents of women’s suffrage. This split became more pronounced over the years. In the 1950’s the Civil Rights movement was largely dominated by Black and Progressive Churches and church leaders. But there were many other prominent religious figures, particularly but not entirely in the South, who opposed civil rights. Martin Luther King’s seminal “Letter for a Birmingham Jail” was directly addressed to the leaders of many southern churches that opposed civil rights for African Americans.

But as liberation movements moved into personal liberty issues, like women’s rights, sexual freedom, and gay rights, the church increasingly became the opponent of expanding liberty. As more churches moved away from the expansion of liberty, liberals moved away from the church. And as conservatives Christians increasingly justified their policy positions on scripture, liberals became increasingly hostile to religion.

And here we are today. Science, and political liberals, are largely contemptuous of religion. And some of these liberals now even suggest that religion, in and of itself, is a bad thing. What they don’t seem to understand is that without religion, and more specifically without Christianity, they would not be here today.

This paradox cuts both ways. Many conservative Christians disdain science and liberalism without understanding that Christianity laid the foundation for both. And many liberals disparage Christianity without understanding the debt they owe it.