The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment as conflicts between faith and reason

Essays | Zarifa Behbudzada | 11-02-2017, 17:25

Enlightenment in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries caused a great number of cultural and intellectual changes in Europe; therefore, it is proper to say that “it changed not only ideas, but also the process by which ideas are formulated.” (Hause & Maltby, 2004, p. 291) This significant movement affected almost every aspect of European life: politics, religion, science, literature and philosophy. As a result of the scientific revolution, the Europeans started thinking about the physical universe in a different way, and to doubt their previous beliefs regarding faith, religion, and God.  (Hause & Maltby, 2004, p. 291) Jonathan Israel quotes an English publicist who complained in 1713 that “…now religion in general is the question” and there were doubts “whether there ought to be any form of religion on earth, or whether there be any God in heaven.” Although “Christianity stood at the center of European culture”, as how it had for “more than a thousand years”, at that time there was a tendency among scientists and  revolutionaries to refuse the traditional Christian beliefs. (Hause & Maltby, 2004, p. 374) For example, “Darwinism, the Copernican revolution and the Galileo affair are all too often regarded as demonstrating clearly and irrefutably that science and religion just do not mix.” (Henry, 2010, p. 39) But were the faith and the reason completely incompatible with each other? The relationship between religion and science is too complex and difficult to achieve a consensus on, but it would be a misconception to say that there have been in perpetual conflicts. As the scientific revolution radically challenged the power and authority of the Church, the Church sometimes hindered “innovations in the sciences and in philosophy”; but it shouldn’t be assumed that “religious belief and the scientific enterprise are inherently inimical to one another.” (Henry, 2010, p. 40)

The Scientific Revolution put forward the idea that the world is more material than spiritual at its core, and this represented a stark contrast with the discourse circulating during the times of religious dominance; that’s why some people viewed it as an attack on religion. (In Our Time: The Royal Society) Religious institutions were “regularly mobilized” against those whose works could be “potentially threatening to the church and its authority”. (Henry, 2010, p.40) But though there is a widespread belief in the tension between religion and scienceof that time, it is an important fact that “many, if not all, of the leading natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution were devout believers” (Henry, 2010, p. 41). The next three paragraphs are set to illustrate conflicts about the belief and scientific work of one of these devout believers, Isaac Newton, who played a pivotal role in the development of the Western science.

Newton, who was a deeply religious man, was one of the key figures in the scientific revolution; he had a great role in later success of the Royal Society, the president of which he also served as. Newton’s intention was “to make men more pious and devout” in “all his work” (Dolnick, 2011, p. 308) “Everything he did was influenced by God in some respect” (In Our Time: Newton’s Laws of Motion, 27:38). As how Newton himself emphasized in his Principia: “He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient,” and “He governs all things and knows all things that are or can be done.”(Newton, 1687) Religious belief, ultimately, was not an obstacle for his scientific experiences.

While discussing Newton’s point of view, we need to look from the different perspectives; one might argue that though Newton proclaimed being religious, his writings did not attest to this.  For example, a question can be asked regarding Newton’s Gravity theory; “where did God fit into Newton’s universe?” (Dolnick, 2011, p. 307). For the Enlightenment scientists, this theory clarified “the mysteries of a universe that acted like clockwork — smooth, mechanical, and eternal.”  (Hause & Maltby, 2004, p. 295). For most people it meant that Newton’s God was the Deists’ God, pertaining to a merely passive role in the universe. Newton, “as a deeply religious man”, would have been displeased “at the use to which his ideas would soon be put by the philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment” (Hause & Maltby, 2004, p. 295). Although “Newton’s universe seemed to run by itself”; actually, Newton intended “to portray God as a participant in the world, not a spectator.” (Dolnick, 2011, p. 312)

Apart from that, conflicts and clashes of ideas used to break out not only between non-believers ordeists and believers, but also between devout people themselves. Leibniz, himself a deeply religious man criticized Newton and blamed him in committing heresy”, and as a response “Newton fired back in fury.” (Dolnick, 2011, p. 311) Although they both believed the same God and the same religion, they still could not tolerate each other’s religious views. While discussing this issue, Dolnick made a great argument that Newton and Leibniz “talked past one another” because “they focused on different aspects of God’s greatness.” (2011, p. 312)

How accurate is to understand enlightenment as a simple dichotomy like ‘faith’ versus ‘reason’? It definitely cannot be described as a simple fight between science and religion- it was a much more complex phenomenon worth an elaborate discussion. The time was full of divisive ideas so found it difficult to come to consensus, being  kind of lost between different new ideas, as it was pointed out in the Chinese Letters: “Here philosophical systems succeed one another as rapidly as women’s hairstyles, and destroy each other just as easily” (Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, 1739). The next two paragraphs are aimed to show diverse views and beliefs of Enlightenment’s important figures; there were not only black or white, but a lot of shades of grey. Enlightenment was not just a conflict between faith and reason, but conflicts between ideas, approaches, and the ways of people thinking.

For instance, Blaise Pascal, the Christian philosopher, had the following views about God: “If God exists, not seeking God must be the gravest error imaginable. If one decides to sincerely seek for God and doesn't find God, the lost effort is negligible in comparison to what is at risk in not seeking God in the first place.”(Pascal, 1623-62) The scholar believed that there is never a certainty and “we have to make our best choice under the uncertainty.” (In Our Time: Pascal) He claimed that believing God had a great utility, if God exists; in contrast it doesn’t mean much of a loss if God does not exist. 

Apart from Pascal, there were so many diverse approaches to the religion and the God; “Although the European civilization was almost exclusively a Christian one, it was split into many conflicting sects” (Hause & Maltby, 2004, p. 374). Diderot drew a sharp distinction line between science and religion, claiming: “if you want priests you do not need philosophers, and if you want philosophers you do not need priests; if the first do good, the others do evil.” (Diderot, 1943) Furthermore, Thomas Jefferson, a contributor to the American Declaration of Independence, created his own “Jefferson Bible”; he insisted that we should select the very words only of Jesus from The Bible (Jefferson, 1895). Moreover, a new popular mode of thinking was spreading rapidly that is deism. Thomas Paine was one of the supporters of this creed; he emphasized in The Age of Reason that he believes in God only, and nothing more. He believed that “the religion of Deism is superior to the Christian Religion” and “there is happiness in Deism” (Paine, 1794). We can conclude that enlightenment involved the struggle of different ideas and beliefs.

In truth, the mutual negation between religion and science has been exaggerated and overemphasized; actually some might suggest that there was even a positive relationship science and Puritanism. Dorothy Stimson argued in 1935 that Puritanism was an important factor in making conditions in England favorable to the new philosophy (Henry, 2010, p. 44). Protestants were pioneering in science because they “urged the faithful to read the Bible for themselves and literalist reading The Bible led readers of the book of nature to develop more naturalistic reading (Henry, 2010, p.46 & 47). As literacy rates were higher between Protestants, the number of protestant scientists outnumbered he Catholic ones, though the number of the general Catholic population was vastly larger than the Protestants (Henry, 2010, p. 44). Therefore, the Puritan movement stimulated scientific innovation.

Let’s look at the question in a little bit different way; was religion a strong adversary for science at that time? Hause made a clear argument that in France, “the home of the Enlightenment”, the power of the church had been already weakened, and it created a favorable environment” for the revolutionaries and their radical ideas (Hause & Maltby, 2004, p. 382).For example, despite the Church’s efforts, Encyclopédie by Diderot was published and continued to be sold, which caused “irreparable damage to morality and religion” (Hause & Maltby, 2004, p. 383). This shows that the Church was not powerful enough to fight science.

Similarly, in Austria the Church’s power was challenged; “financial crisis brought the monarchy into conflict with the church just as it had with the nobility.” It deeply shaped the authority of the Church; more than seven hundred monasteries were closed by Joseph II and in 1768 the first tax on the clergy was imposed. (Hause & Maltby, 2004, p. 363) Meanwhile, the emperor tolerated religious minorities, and in the Letters of Joseph II it was mentioned that “no man shall be compelled in the future to profess the religion of the state”(1787). In the same way, Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia adopted the policy of religious tolerance too; many people who had been persecuted before were welcomed in Prussia. (Heroes of the Enlightenment Ep2, 2014) These facts promote the idea that religion and the Church might not be too much powerful enemy or rival for science.

To conclude, the Scientific Revolution altered the way people think, believe, and imagine in Europe. Since people adopted new paradigms and changed perspectives, new approaches to the religion and God, and were forged. These movements and tectonic changes undeniably caused many conflicts between science and religion, popes and philosophers, the church and scientists, but it does not necessarily mean that there has been perennial hostility between science and religion; their relation is much more complicated and debatable.



Diderot, D. (1943). Discourse of a Philosopher to a King. New York: International Publishers.
Dolnick, E. (2011). The clockwork universe (pp. 307-313). New York.
Gribbin, J. (2005). The Fellowship (pp. 132, 229-241). New York: Woodstock.
Hause, S., &Maltby, W. (2004). A History of Western Civilization (2nd ed., pp. 291-298, 361-367,374-389).
Henry, J. (2010). Religion and the Scientific Revolution (pp. 39-58, 64-67). Cambridge.
Heroes of the Enlightenment Ep2. (2014).
Jefferson, T. (1985). The Jefferson Bible. Washington D.C.
Newton, I. (1687). Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Benjamin Motte.
Paine, T. (1794). The Age of Reason.


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Zarifa Behbudzada

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