We posted on the secularization of science last summer, in connection with Herman Dooyeweerd’s essay of that title. Like me, you may have been surprised to learn that for Dooyweerd, the ‘secularization of science’ reached its culmination around the Renaissance, just as theology began to be marginalised in Western culture. This might seem to belittle the Christian faith and piety associated with subsequent scientific thinkers, from Copernicus and Galileo to Boyle and Faraday, for example. Isn’t secularization a more modern phenomenon – perhaps even driven by scientific progress itself? I want to explore some links between the earlier and later phases of this secularization, and where we might be heading now. 

First of all, let me reprise a bit of Dooyeweerd’s essay. As I explored in the All Of Life Redeemed webinars, his thesis is that, while the life of faith has been associated with a realm of supernatural ‘Grace’, Christian scholars – ‘scientists’ in the very broadest sense – have embraced the supposed secularity of ‘Nature’, having barely envisaged what the radical liberation of our theoretical frameworks from pagan worldviews might look like.  There should never have been a tension between grace and nature, but ancient Greek philosophy was so attractive that ancient sciences such as geometry, astronomy, medicine and even theology were taught and developed, by European Christians as much as anywhere else, as if their foundations were religiously neutral, untouchable by God’s redemptive grace.  Yet Socratic philosophy was developed as an alternative to ancient religions and inevitably took on some of their functions; its wisdom offered unifying explanations, moral guidance and vision for the future.  And it provided what Dooyeweerd calls a religious ground-motive: specifically the dualistic motif of Form (superior) vs. Matter (inferior but recalcitrant).  When this non-biblical dynamo emerged in Christian thinking as the ‘Grace vs. Nature’ motif, it was more of a Trojan Horse than a spiritual foundation for scholarship such as Christ’s lordship calls for.  The ‘Nature’ pole of this Medieval dualism aligned all too easily with scholarship (sacred theology excepted of course), welcoming it into the driving seat of the humanistic worldview that emerged from the Renaissance.  The new sciences of mechanics, dynamics, optics, and in due course geology, biology, sociology, and so on, emerged in a birth pool from which any role for God’s saving grace and the lordship of Christ had largely been expunged, relegated to theological discussion. The secularization of science, according to Dooyeweerd, was actually its inauguration as part of the humanist religion.

The second story told about secularization – specifically that of the natural sciences – focuses on the science–religion conflict as fomented in the 19th century and promulgated in the 20th.  While there have always been prominent scientists professing a desire to ‘think God’s thoughts after Him’, Christian faith in scientists was better known before the ‘church scientific’ of T.H. Huxley and colleagues began its campaign against clerics and women in the Royal Society.  The best telling of this story that I know comes from Peter Harrison, whose masterly book The Territories of Science and Religion I reviewed last year.  Harrison also traces a long backstory to this high-profile round of secularization; in fact his book is really about the historic non-existence of both Science and Religion.  In this view, the secularization of science arguably came with the attempt to centralize Science as a singular cultural authority.  It’s safer in Harrison’s view, I take it, to explore the relationships among diverse sciences and religious piety (perhaps worldviews). 

Where I think Dooyeweerd would agree with Harrison is that Science is denatured by taking it as a quasi-religious authority, and that co-opting scholarship to play too central a role in our culture can be counter-productive.  We see the fruit of this, arguably, in the fragmentation of academia into the sciences and the humanities (isn’t geography a microcosm of this?), the snowballing acceleration of scientific publishing, and the discovery of the poor reproducibility of much scientific research (the replication crisis).  At the same time we see growing mistrust of ‘science-based policy’ and proliferation of conspiracy theories (I’d like to see a study on this).  And so I perceive a gradual, long-overdue defrocking, if you will, of secularized Science. 

In this situation, I think we should pray and campaign for the restoration of the sciences to their own scholarly sphere, in which they can be better developed, understood and applied in a multi-disciplinary university context.  Meanwhile, we Christians working in scholarship should daily bring our work before Jesus Christ, and where possible share it in our church fellowship too.  Scientific study is not the preserve of the local church, but scientists’ worldviews need nourishing by communities that put their faith in something bigger than science itself.

Richard Gunton
Latest posts by Richard Gunton (see all)

Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]