Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Science vs. Religion in early modern Europe

A/N: Part I, paper 16 essay from Lent term of the 2008/09 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. M. Laven at Jesus.

To what extent did ‘science’ and ‘religion’ become separated in the early modern period?

For a long time it was assumed by historians that the early modern period witnessed an increasing separation of the scientific and the religious. ‘Religion’, a belief system based on essentially blind faith, was felt to be wholly incompatible with the rationalised belief system encouraged by ‘science’; the idea that knowledge must be quantifiable through experiment and experience. Historians such as Hill argued that a ‘scientific revolution’ took place in the early modern period, which swept away earlier misconceptions and irrational beliefs that had no basis in scientific fact. However as this ideal of linear progression, or ‘Whiggish’ history fell out of favour historians were forced to reassess the realities of early modern attitudes. Clark for example argued that far from pushing religion into the background, the ‘mechanism’ of seventeenth-century philosophers served only to ascribe an ever larger role to divine power. Shapin stresses that there is no reason why there should necessarily be conflict between science and religion in the early modern period. It would seem that during the early modern period the relationship between science and religion certainly changed; this does not imply however that the two became significantly separated.

Before considering whether ‘science’ and ‘religion’ became separated it is first important to note the motives behind scientific study in the early modern period. For the intellectual historians of the 1950s, for whom atheism was practically de rigeur, it seemed obvious that early ‘scientists’ were attempting to undermine religious beliefs. Such an interpretation ignores the historical realities however, instead backwards projecting modern ideals and concerns onto the early modern period. Whilst it is true that some of the early pioneers in science, like Kepler, were keen to disprove the theories of the past, it would be wrong to suggest they were trying to undermine religion in its entirety. In any case, the scholastic reliance on the works of pagan ancients meant that rejecting the likes of Aristotle or Ptolemy was not necessarily rejecting Christianity. More compelling is the documented insistence on the part of many involved in science that God remained the power behind all action. Newton claimed for example that there must be ‘occult active principles in the world to initiate and preserve motion’. In short there was very little active desire to present science as an alternative to religion in the early modern period.

Many who would claim that there was a separation of science and religion would argue that, even if there was no active desire for that outcome, it was, nevertheless, inevitable as scientific knowledge expanded. To some extent this view is justified of later periods; there are numerous conversion stories of Victorian scientists who found themselves forced to deny the existence of God as a result of their own experiments. However, even in the Victorian period, such people were in the minority. Certainly, in the early modern period the occurrence was even rarer. Religion was fundamental to people world view, and few felt that it was in any way incompatible with scientific discovery. In fact, science was seen as proof of the power of the divine. The invention of the microscope in the late sixteenth-century for example led people to wonder at the breadth of life God had created, rather than cast doubt on divine involvement in the creation of microscopic life forms. Thus the study of natural science was presented as a way in which to document the glory of God.

This close association between religion and scientific study can be seen in the way the study of nature was used to prove demonic activity. Johann Geiler von Kayersberg wrote in 1508, ‘what nature cannot do by its own powers, neither can the devil do’. Science proved that an ever increasing number of things that had once been though miraculous were, in fact, simply wondrous. This meant that it was well within the devil’s power to perform ‘wonders’, events that only in the then recent past would have been considered miracles. This use of science is reflected in attitudes towards witchcraft. Many historians such as Lecky and Trevor-Roper once claimed that the decline in the persecution of witches represented the victory of rational, scientific attitudes. Yet the truth was that few of the early modern philosophers they ascribed this attitude to would deny the reality of witchcraft. The Royal Society continued to support the idea of witchcraft throughout the seventeenth-century; Boyle for example admitted that nineteen of every twenty witchcraft stories was false, but stressed that this did not make the threat any less dangerous. In many areas the fact that it was difficult to prove witchcraft, and the worry of punishing innocent people, had a much greater role in calming the witch craze than scientific proof against it. Science and religion, then, remained closely bound together.

Even if there was not a clear separation between science and religion in the early modern period that does not imply that the relationship between the two remained static. This can be well exemplified in the changing attitudes towards monsters over the period. In the early fifteenth-century, as in the medieval period, monsters were seen as portents sent as signs from God. Luther made much of the Papal Ass of Rome, claiming it was an apocalyptic portent against the Catholic Church. Lycosthene wrote in 1557 that even when a monster had a natural explanation, ‘it is nonetheless impossible to deny that a monster is an imposing sign of divine wrath and malediction.’ Yet attitudes were changing, something Daston and Park link with war and religious schism: at the height of war monsters were seized upon by both sides as meaningful portents. Thus such speculation reached a height in Italy between 1494 and 1530, whilst in England it was during the civil war of the 1640s. Their reasoning appears sound and is certainly borne out by documentary evidence; in times of relative calm monsters held a different meaning of early modern Europe.

Initially this tended to involve monsters as objects of amusement. A nun at Modena wrote, for example, of seeing the corpse of a baby boy with two faces which she claimed was ‘very beautiful to see… a wonderful thing.’ Similarly Samuel Pepys wrote of a bearded woman he saw at Holborn in December 1688 as ‘a strange sight to me, I must confess… [it] pleased me mightily.’ The religious significance of monsters had been pushed back, so that it only truly touched on the hideous rather than mistakes by nature, reflecting the distinction between miracles and wonders when talking of demonology. So whilst the likes of the 1554 monster of Krakow could only be ascribed to ‘God alone’ in the words of Jakob Rueff, the majority of monsters had far more mundane explanations. Babies born with extra limbs or other abnormalities were more likely to be regarded as a sign of stress during pregnancy, or the mother’s sinful imagination, than any direct sign from God. In this we see signs that science and religion, whilst still intrinsically bound, were having the boundaries of their roles redefined.

Daston and Park then go on to describe a third stage in early modern understandings of monsters; that is monsters as figures of horror and repugnance. Again this viewpoint stemmed from an understanding of science that was closely entwined with religion. Martin Weinrich wrote in 1596 that ‘all that is imperfect is ugly, and monsters are full of imperfection’. In the seventeenth-century the idea became increasingly widespread that nature’s perfection lay in its regularity. Where this failed it was because as nature was ‘enslaved’ to God, so God was enslaved to his own laws. Rather than an intended sign of divine wrath, monsters were now seen as the result of God being unwilling to break the rules to save particular cases. This was an understanding that was as reliant on the fundamental ‘truth’ of religion as the medieval understanding that monsters were divine portents. Yet the interaction between God and the monster was different; the medieval portent was a sign of direct intervention, the seventeenth-century irregularity was a sign of God’s distance. Science and religion shared close ties, but as the early modern period drew to a close they were understood to relate to each other in more complex ways.

In conclusion science and religion did not become completely separate entities in the early modern period. Such an outcome would be extremely unlikely, in spite of what whiggish historiography has assumed, in a world where religion was fundamental to people’s understandings of both themselves and the world around them. In fact, religion remained essential to scientific understandings, especially in relation to ‘mechanism’. Nature might function like a machine, but like all machines it had to have a creator and operator; even if that operator was as loathe intervening in its functioning as late seventeenth-century philosophers believed God was. Science did not become separate from religion, but it did serve to distance the divine from the mundane and everyday.


  • Porter, R; ‘The Scientific Revolution: a spoke in the wheel?’ in Porter, R. and Teich, M., (eds.), Revolution in History, (1986). 
  • Shapin, S; The Scientific Revolution, (1996). 
  • Daston, L. and Park, K; Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750, (1998), ch. 5. 
  • Findlen, P; Possessing Nature: museums, collecting, and scientific culture in early modern Italy, (1994), chs. 1, 7, 8. 
  • Clark, S; Thinking with Demons, (1997), ch. 19. 
  • Smith, P; The Business of Alchemy, (1994), ch. 3.

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