Francis Bacon on Science and Religion

Aphorism 89 from Francis Bacon's Novum Organum or True Directions Concerning Interpretation of Nature, 1620. Bacon, a sincere Christian, wrote this tract in defense of empirical science against both the futile speculations of the Scholastic (Aristotelian) philosophers and the 'blind and immoderate zeal of religion' at the beginning of the modern scientific age which he himself helped to usher in. It provides a brilliant example of the integrated view of science and Christian faith of a true "Renaissance man" before the problems of modernity arose.

"Neither is it to be forgotten that in every age Natural Philosophy [science] has had a troublesome adversary and hard to deal with; namely, superstition, and the blind and immoderate zeal of religion. For we see among the Greeks that those who first proposed to men's then uninitiated ears the natural causes for thunder and storms, were thereupon found guilty of impiety. Nor was much more forbearance shown by some of the ancient fathers of the Christian church to those who on most convincing grounds (such as no one in his senses would now think of contradicting) maintained that the earth was round, and of consequence asserted the existence of the antipodes.

"Moreover as things now are, to discourse of nature is made harder and more perilous by the summaries and systems of the Schoolmen [Scholastics]; who, having reduced theology into regular order as well as they were able, and fashioned it into the shape of an art [form], ended in incorporating the contentious and thorny philosophy of Aristotle, more than was fit, with the body of religion.

"To the same result, though in a different way, tend the speculations of those who have taken [it] upon them[selves] to deduce the truth of the Christian religion from the principles of philosophers, and to confirm it by their authority; pompously solemnising this union of the sense[s] and faith as a lawful marriage, and entertaining men's minds with a pleasing variety of matter, but all the while disparaging things divine by mingling them with things human. Now in such mixtures of theology with philosophy only the received [Greek] doctrines of philosophy are included; while new ones, albeit changes for the better, are all but expelled and exterminated.

"Lastly, you will find that by the simpleness of certain divines, access to any philosophy, however pure, is well nigh closed.

"Some are weakly afraid lest a deeper search into nature should transgress the permitted limits of sober-mindedness; wrongfully wresting and transferring what is said in holy writ against those who pry into sacred mysteries, to the hidden things of nature, which are barred by no prohibition.

"Others with more subtlety surmise and reflect that if second causes are unknown everything can more readily be referred to the divine hand and rod; a point in which they think religion to be greatly concerned; which is in fact nothing else but to seek to gratify God with a lie.

"Others fear from past example that movements and changes in philosophy will end in assaults on religion. And others again appear apprehensive that in the investigation of nature something may be found to subvert or at least shake the authority of religion, especially with the unlearned.

"But these two last fears seem to me to savour utterly of carnal wisdom; as if men in the recesses and secret thoughts of their hearts doubted and distrusted the strength of religion and the empire of faith over the sense[s], and therefore feared that the investigation of truth in nature might be dangerous to them.

"But if the matter be truly considered, natural philosophy is after the word of God at once the surest medicine against superstition, and the most approved nourishment for faith, and therefore she is rightly given to religion as her most faithful handmaid, since the one displays the will of God, the other His power. For He did not err who said "Ye err in that ye know not the Scriptures and the power of God" [Mark 12:24], thus coupling and blending in an indissoluble bond information concerning His will and meditation concerning his power.

"Meanwhile it is not surprising if the growth of Natural Philosophy is checked, when religion, the thing which has most power over men's minds, has by the simpleness and incautious zeal of certain persons been drawn to take part against her."


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