Newton was a creationist only because there was no alternative?
29 July 2002; last updated 29 August 2018
From Timothy … of the UK. In his letter, printed below, he tries to counter the point that the great founders of modern science were creationists — see Creationist Biographies. His letter is reprinted, with point-by-point responses by Dr Jonathan Sarfati, showing that there are a number of reasons why it’s legitimate for creationists to use this argument.
It does not seem to be an entirely legitimate strategy to claim scientists (such as Newton) as ‘creationists’ and therefore not ‘evolutionists’ when in many instances those cited would have been long dead before the rise of evolutionary theory. It is probably indisputable that such individuals would have believed in the literal truth of biblical creation, but there is obviously no way of knowing whether or not they would have rejected such beliefs in light of Darwinian theory.
It does not seem to be an entirely legitimate strategy to claim scientists (such as Newton) as ‘creationists’ …
Oh yes it is. Common canards of evolutionary zealots are that ‘you can’t be real scientist if you are not an evolutionist’ and that ‘science is impossible without evolution’. That there were people who were by definite choice creationists (not just by reason of their social milieu) and who were the founders of significant fields of science, gives the lie to these propaganda claims.
… and therefore not ‘evolutionists’ when in many instances those cited would have been long dead before the rise of evolutionary theory.
Not so — evolutionary ideas were not invented by Darwin. Some of the ancient philosophers before Christ — such as Anaximander (d. 546), Empedocles (d. 435), Democritus (d. 370), Epicurus (d. 270) and Lucretius (d. 55) — had evolutionary ideas that life arose spontaneously and that different life forms arose from one another. The ‘great chain of being’ idea pervaded English society well before Darwin came on the scene. In fact, Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, wrote about evolutionary notions of beginnings. See also Darwinism: it was all in the family: Erasmus Darwin’s famous grandson learned early about evolution.
There were plenty of atheists before Darwin and they had to have some naturalistic notion of beginnings (or try not to think about it, which many do today). Darwin just gave atheism greater intellectual respectability by providing what seemed to many at the time, ignorant as they were of the incredible inner workings of even the simplest bacterium, to be a coherent framework for biological naturalism (nature is all there is). Darwin was seen as countering William Paley’s watchmaker argument — that an intricately integrated watch must have an intelligent designer, so, by analogy, must living things, which are even more complex.
See also A Brief History of Design.
It is probably indisputable that such individuals would have believed in the literal truth of biblical creation, but there is obviously no way of knowing whether or not they would have rejected such beliefs in light of Darwinian theory.
Exactly, so we can only cite what they actually believed, and leave it up to the evolutionists to assert that they would have changed their minds had they known about Darwin. Counterfactuals are easily countered:
- Their science was motivated by their belief that the Universe was created by a God of order — see Creationist contributions to science.
- Many leading scientists who knew of Darwin’s ideas rejected Darwin, including Maxwell, Kelvin, Herschel, whereas much of his support came from compromising clergy such as Newman and Kingsley — see Holy War?.
Addendum, June 2006: Timothy contacted us to thank Dr Sarfati for the response to his letter and to say that he no longer agreed with the sentiments of his original letter. He was happy for his original letter and response to remain, without identifying him, as a teaching point for others who might need correcting.
Addendum, August 2018: Australian atheist history writer Tim O’Neill, on his excellent website “History for Atheists — New Atheists Getting History Wrong!”, replying to one of the original ‘New Atheists’, Sam Harris (Sam Harris’ horrible histories, 19 August 2018, historyforatheists.com):
This seems to be a version of a common New Atheist argument used when confronted with the awkward fact that most of their early scientific heroes were religious people. The argument is that this is purely incidental and has no bearing on their scientific interests. Thus Harris’ strange comments about Catholic and Protestant bridge building: the people who built these bridges were likely religious believers as well, since pretty much everyone was at that time, but the bridges had nothing to do with their religion. He then meanders slightly from his argument by noting “the first physicists were Christians … as is often pointed out, Newton spent about half of his time worrying about Biblical prophecy” but saying this was a waste of Newton’s time. But his key point is that any religious belief of Newton’s was as incidental to his science as those of the bridge builders was to their bridges.
And this is total nonsense. If Harris had actually bothered to read any of Newton’s work he would find ample evidence that Newton’s science was intrinsically informed by and absolutely fired by his deep religious convictions. In fact, Newton saw his science as working to increase his own faith in God and helping others in their belief. Writing to a young clergyman, Richard Bentley, on this theme, Newton said:
“When I wrote my treatise about our system, I had my eye upon such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a deity; and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose.”
(10th December, 1692)
Newton goes on in the same letter to note elements in his cosmology which he feels are a “contrivance of a voluntary Agent” and “arguments for a Deity”. For Newton, his science was not incidental to his religion, rather it is an essential and motivating part of it.
And even the most cursory reading of the leading lights of the Scientific Revolution shows this understanding was commonplace. Kepler was not just devoutly religious, but also devoutly scientific. He pursued the mathematics that lie behind his Three Laws of Planetary Motion out of his conviction that God must have put a more elegant and coherent system in place than the mathematical tangles of both the Ptolemaic system and Copernicius’ equally contrived alternative (Galileo ignored Kepler and clung to the erroneous Copernican model). Writing to Michael Maestlin, Kepler was entirely explicit about his religious motivations:
I wanted to become a theologian. For a long time I was restless. Now, however, behold how through my effort God is being celebrated in astronomy.
(3 October, 1595)
Elsewhere Kepler wrote “I am stealing the golden vessels of the Egyptians to build a tabernacle to my God from them, far far away from the boundaries of Egypt” (The Harmony of the World, Introduction to Bk. V, 1619). Here Kepler is referring to the argument of Augustine that Christians should use rather than reject pagan learning (see De Doctrina Christiana, II.40): a principle that was entrenched in medieval thought and allowed the preservation and revival of natural philosophy with the Church’s blessing. Back in the twelfth century William of Conches championed the rational analysis of the physical world in religious terms that Newton and Kepler would enthusiastically accept: “[God] is the author of all things, evil excepted. But the natures with which He endowed His creatures accomplish a whole scheme of operations, and these too turn to His glory since it is He who created these very natures”.
Contrary to Harris’ silly “bridges” analogy, all of these early scientific thinkers came from a tradition that saw “the Book of Nature” as complementary to “the Book of Scripture” (i.e. the Bible). This tradition stretched back to the earliest Christian thinkers. This is why Galileo (who was not particularly devout) could quote Tertullian (who was not especially scientifically-minded) as saying “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.” (Adversus Marcionem, I.18). The two elements were intricately and essentially interlinked.