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Scientific Revolution & Christianity Essay

FredParisFrance 61 / 7  
Oct 12, 2007   #1

Could you please read my essay and give me some feedback?

The prompt is:

In the late 1600s and early 1700s, scientists made numerous discoveries about how the physical world operates--Newton's laws of motion and gravity, Boyle's and Charles's laws about gases, and many others. By the early 1800s, these scientific discoveries had a profound influence on how many Western people thought about their Christian beliefs. What do you believe was the most significant impact of these scientific discoveries on the basic beliefs of Christianity in the Western world by 1800?

The prolific period of scientific discoveries encompassing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was later named "the Scientific Revolution". Historians have used that label because this expression implies that these scientific discoveries had a revolutionary effect on European societies, which were regulated by Christianity. However, different conclusions can be drawn in addressing the impacts of these scientific discoveries on the basic beliefs of Christianity in the Western world by 1800: in what ways was the place of humankind at the centre of the universe rejected? To what extent was God no longer the unique reference as regards ethics? How could Christian followers still believe in an afterlife paradise?

Scientific discoveries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries shook the belief that humankind was at the centre of the universe. Indeed, the philosophers of the Middle Ages had synthesized the ideas of ancient philosophes, such as Aristotle and Ptolemy, and the Christian doctrine to elaborate the Ptolemaic theory. That geocentric comprehension of the universe had imagined, not physically observed, that the earth was at the centre of the universe and constantly changing whereas the perfect and incorruptible heavenly bodies revolved around the earth in concentric orbits. That Christian worldview of sinful humans enveloped by God (omnipotent, ubiquitous, and omniscient) the saved souls living in the highest spheres of a spiritual world could not be damaged since no one had any proof of the contrary. However, the Polish mathematician Copernicus (1473 - 1543) presented his groundbreaking heliocentric theory. According to Copernicus, the earth was not static but revolved around both the sun (which was at the centre of the universe) and its own axis. However, he kept the concept of circular orbits. The German mathematician and astronomer

Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630) and Italian professor of mathematics Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642) corroborated, through empirical observations, the Copernican thesis. The former established the presence of elliptical orbits and the latter favoured the systematic observation of the heavens by means of a telescope. Those scientists propelled the European cosmology into a new era because they showed a model of infinite universe where the earth was a common planet and they obliterated the Christina representation of humankind, i.e. an image of humans who were the supreme achievement of the divine creation and who were placed at the centre of the universe (the only place where could stand God's masterwork). The Christian church succeeded in its first attempts for subjugating the heretic views through the condemnation of Copernicanism and the obligation for Galileo to abjure his findings. The conception of the Christian views could have enjoyed its success for a long time without the findings of a genius of the scientific revolution: Isaac Newton. That professor of Cambridge University brilliantly amalgamated the conclusions of his predecessors and established in his work "Mathematical principles of Natural Philosophy" the three laws of motion. That synthesis opened, once more, new vistas for his contemporaneous. The new Newtonian cosmology suggested that all the planetary bodies and objects on earth behaved according to three natural laws, one of which was the law of gravitation. Newton proposed the concept of a world-machine to describe the universe as a huge, regulated machine that operated according to natural laws in absolute time, space, and motion. The Christian church was now confronted with factual explanations buttressed with logic that spread within intellectual circles throughout Europe claiming that God had created the universe but that humankind was no longer its focus point: humans fell off their pedestal and this collapse meant the basic Christian beliefs were on the verge to lose their credence.

As a consequence, the scientific discoveries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries weakened the official Christian creed as regards the possibility of a better afterlife. Indeed, as abovementioned, the Christian followers could question their faith since they had not the certitude that God and saved souls were living in the highest spheres of the universe. Furthermore, a new kind of European intellectuals, called the Physiocrats, appeared. They were eighteen-century economists who considered that governments should not interfere in the free exercise of trade. Spearheaded by the founder of the modern discipline of economics, Adam Smith (1723 - 1790), and his "The Wealth of Nations", individuals should be free to pursue their economic self-interest. Actually, European governments should apply the "Laissez-faire" doctrine in order that the economy was regulated by the law of supply-and-demand and, consequently, that European societies could benefit from the individuals' enrichment. Furthermore, Adam smith declared that the government should only have three basic functions: protect society from invasion thanks to its army, defend its citizen from injustice thanks to its police, and keep up expensive public works (such as roads or canals). The Christian church faced the proclamation that not only was the spiritual world inexistent but also that the terrestrial happiness was obtainable since the afterlife paradise was unreachable. Once more, earthly promises of richness that did not depend upon the divine will but the individuals' work in addition to less and less probable possibilities to enter the paradise deeply affected the Christian faith. Christian followers were not faced with another dilemma: who should be the unique reference as regards ethics: God or humans?

The scientific discoveries that were made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries inspired European intellectual in the eighteenth century as regards ethics. These "enlightened" philosophes considered that humans should be conspicuously involved in the establishment of sets of ethical rules and in their implementation. Actually, they believed that humans should apply a spirit of rational criticism to all things, including religion and politics. Besides, those philosophes' focus was the improvement of the terrestrial world, and its enjoyment, rather than the belief in a hypothetical paradisiacal afterlife. In the seventeenth century, John Locke, a British contemporary of Isaac Newton, argued that humans were born with a tabula rasa (blank mind) in his "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" in 1690. Therefore, according to Locke, humans were moulded by their environment and, as a consequence, proper changes could influence their behaviour and, thus, the creation of new societies could be possible. The creation of a better world on earth was in the hand of all humans: once more, Christian beliefs were undermined. The French Enlightened philosophes have undoubtedly launched the most ferocious attacks against the Christian church and its beliefs. François Marie Arouet (1694 - 1778), also known as Voltaire, criticized the fanatical, intolerant and superstitious facets of the Christian religion. He also valued Deism (philosophy based on the Newtonian world-machine) that described God as the creator of the universe but also ascertained that God had ceased to have any direct involvement in the universe and allowed it to run according to its own natural laws. Another example is Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784). Diderot labelled Christianity as "the most absurd [religion] and the most atrocious [religion] in dogma" because of its fanatic and unreasonable behaviour. He wrote his twenty-eight volumes "Encyclopédie", or classified dictionary of the sciences, arts, and trades" to "change the general way of things" (in his own words). Diderot and the contributors to the "Encyclopédie" aimed at promulgating social, legal, political improvements all over the world. In a way, they succeeded in Europe and in the New World thanks to purchasers of the "Encyclopédie". Those people assimilated the ideas of the Enlightenment and spread that ideology in Europe and far abroad. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the subsequent creation of the United States of America, the groundbreaking US constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen were all the fruit of the seeds sowed by the scientific discoveries in the sixteenth and seventeenth discoveries and were in no way spurred into action by the Christian faith.

Finally, the scientific discoveries that were made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries gave humankind confidence in science and secured the conviction that humans, thanks to reason, can master nature to their own benefit and that nothing can hamper the course of progress. The intellectual revolution provoked by these discoveries, and their subsequent impairments caused to the basic Christian beliefs, permitted the birth of the Enlightenment, which consequently created the intellectual basis for several US founding fathers to write the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. However, despite such tremendous successes, the reason, scientific method, logic, and rational criticism were not sufficient arms to entirely annihilate the efforts to the Christian beliefs to permeate the intellectual and political spheres of influence in Europe and in the New World. Indeed, in many countries in these areas, Christianity has still been a state religion. It seems that despite several centuries of assaults, science has not succeeded in overcoming religion, as it can be noticed in the debate between Creationists and Darwinists, as if Christianity was not ready to die in odour of sanctity.

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