Why God likes science and capitalism
By painting a picture of human history, James Knight argues against the viewpoint that science and capitalism are at odds with Christianity.
You don't have to look too hard to find religious people who are stridently opposed to, or defensive against, science or capitalism (or sometimes both).
Those against science are usually religious fundamentalists from the far right who see the scientific edifice as a profane bogeyman that undermines their rigidly literal interpretations of the Biblical accounts of creation. And those who are irrationally defensive about capitalism are usually believers from the left who think the free market economy fosters exploitation and unhealthy wealth stratification, and that it fails to safeguard their own national industry.
It is thought by many proponents of the above that these are valid criticisms against science and capitalism, and that those criticisms are strengthened by a religious alternative. They are not. They are misjudged criticisms. I'll paint a picture of human history to show what's wrong with them.
The system we value most in terms of science and economics is a system based on facts discovered through empirical findings. If something works, or is factual, we want empirical evidence to support that conclusion. With that in mind I'll give you some empirically verified evidence of how the world has gone for human beings in the past 200,000 years.
For the past 199,800 of those 200,000 years we had low global populations, and humans lived in meagre conditions, with lots of primitivism, low life expectancy and frequent infant mortality. People's earnings stayed around the subsistence levels (save for a tiny minority of aristocracy and ruling classes), and despite our being religious for most of that time, our beliefs had no real impact on human beings at a scientific or economic level. Yes it is true that great works were produced by some great religious minds - but compared with everyone who ever lived they amount to a tiny minority. And while it's true to say that fabulous cathedrals and temples were built in reverence to God - it is equally true that around those great buildings most people were still barely subsisting - and nothing built or designed or written from worshipful inclinations changed that with any real significance.
The point being, religious belief may be based on supernatural and metaphysical truths, and such belief may be extremely valuable to individuals and communities at a devotional and communal level, but it would be false to say that in the past few hundred thousand years religious belief had any significant impact on people's health, wealth and standard of living, or on their economic and scientific development, or on their knowledge of how the world works, when compared with the effect that science and capitalism had, because it didn't.
The argument that some great scientific innovators and pioneers were religious won't help here, because it still fails to account for their relative scarcity, or for the thousands of years that preceded them where not much progress was being made.
So, despite the evolution of religious belief and moral ideas, for the past 199,800 of the aforementioned 200,000 years human progression moved at a snail's pace. Then a couple of hundred years ago something changed. People started to become more scientific, more empirically minded, richer, and populations began to increase more rapidly (it's still going on). What caused this sudden cheetah-like sprint of progression was primarily two things - and they are the same two things I said are the target of many religious people - science and capitalism.
This science and capitalist-based progression can be explained by a simple rule of thumb - people innovate, improve and provide answers to problems - and the more people, the more innovation, improvements and problems solved. The more ideas and the more people to share those ideas with, the more humans prosper, and the quicker they do so.
Now let's be clear; science and capitalism haven't created a materialist utopia (far from it), nor a panacea against moral ills, and they are not without their negative spill over effects - but their prominence has seen an exponentiation effect that has brought more progression in the past 200 years than in the previous 199,800 years. In those 200 years earnings, health, wealth, knowledge, scientific and technological capacity, and overall well-being has improved at an astronomical level not seen in any period of time that predated it.
So unless your religious belief trammels your ability to appreciate these things and generally disallows the embracing of human progression, there are no grounds on which at a generalised level religious belief should be opposed to, or at odds with, science or capitalism. Of course we can all wish to bridle good things when they max out in extremis to the point of over-preoccupation or misuse, but that's not the same thing.
Clearly the ability to embrace good, enhancing and progressive things need not be antithetical to religious belief. Quite the contrary - such ability should be augmented by one's relationship with God. If the foregoing considerations show that religious belief, by itself, has not been sufficient to lift humanity out of a very limited life in which we've hovered around the subsistence level for tens of centuries, it shows two other things as well. Firstly, it shows that science and capitalism have qualities quite apart from religious belief, and should be embraced for those qualities. And secondly, it shows that whether one is religious or not, the empirical evidence demonstrating the qualities and influence of science and capitalism in the past 200 years ought to be embraced in perfect consistency with religious or atheistic belief. Failure to recognise the second point puts one in a potentially knotty situation if one is a theist, because purely on the record of human health, wealth, standard of living, economic development, technological and industrial progress, and knowledge of how the world works, it cannot be denied that the 200 years when science and capitalism have been most prominent have provided a much better record for humans than the thousands of years prior to that when religious belief was most prominent.
Naturally, then, if religious believers pit their beliefs up against science and capitalism, those beliefs come off worse on a number of issues related to human prosperity. But if, as I advise, they are not set against each other, but all mutually embraced for their own qualities, and assented to only in relation to the wisdom, truths and knowledge in which they purport to enlighten, then religious truths can enlighten in ways they are meant to, and science and capitalism can enrich and inform in the ways that they continue to do as well.
The achievements of science and capitalism are clear for all to see - they are still fresh and empirically demonstrable, and probably will continue to be so. But what's clear here is that they demonstrate a different kind of benefit to humanity than the Christian faith. I'm fully seized by the way the Christian faith has driven so many people to good deeds, scientific endeavours, charity, and economic institutions - its influence has been immense. But it was when Christian faith acted positively alongside the qualities of goodness, scientific exploration, and economic analysis that Christianity has been a vehicle for good in those areas. What the Christian faith gave to humanity is the set of fundamental truths necessary for salvation. As an appendage to those truths we find that what works for humanity's betterment cannot be inconsistent with the Christian faith, because God is for us, and it from Christ's inspiration that all goodness and progress flows.
St James in his epistle informed us that "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead". Even though he lived in a time when these things were still embryonic, St James would have understood why only science and capitalism could provide the practical benefits and well-being necessary for human progression:
"What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?"
If Christianity is about using the power of Christ to do the most good, then it must involve in part the best humanly-constructed tools to do the job. And when it comes to human health, wealth, standard of living, economic development, technological and industrial progress, and knowledge of how the world works, history shows there are no better tools than science and capitalism, which is why God almost certainly is for them. It’s true that science and capitalism are sometimes used for the glory of God and often not. But what God is against is the human element when it goes bad, not the tools themselves. Think of money as a good analogy here; some people use money for good deeds, others use it for bad deeds, but what counts is what is in the hearts of those involved with the material currency we call 'money'.
While it is true we have a recognisable material currency made of metal or paper or 1s and 0s on a bank’s computer, it is not the thing that can be criticised, because currency is amoral and devoid of conscience. These qualities stand and fall in relation to the human element.
Finally, one further point needs making. It would, of course, be impertinent to measure human progression in terms of science and capitalism without mentioning the importance of Christianity in the areas of life into which science and capitalism make no real inroads. For it stands to reason that the way Christianity enriches us is both locked into the material tenets of life, but also very much locked into metaphysical tenets too. If you look at the past 2,000 years you'll see a gradual progression, with a notable distinction in patterns between the exponentiation effect of human prosperity in the past 200 years due to industry, science and capitalism, and the rate at which Christianity has had effect on the world in the past 2,000 years.
We know why the emergence of industry, science and capitalism 200 years ago caused such a snowballing effect on our prosperity, but what about the spreading of Christianity in the past 2,000 years? I think the key difference is that it is easy to observe an exponentiation pattern in industry, science and capitalism (Moore's law being a good example) because the empirical evidence is imprinted in history with perspicacity. But we just don't see the entire broader picture of how Christ affects people's lives around the world, because much of it is going on at an inwardly personal level, or at a communal level, and not so often making it into the history books.
Another key difference, particularly between science and Christianity is that science is much more about discovering new things and building a more comprehensive jigsaw of knowledge of the previously undiscovered physical substrate, whereas Christianity is more about building on our knowledge of a set of truths that Christ has already completed on the cross, and working out on our own journey how those truths can best bring about actionable faith towards doing good in the world.
So in summary, science and capitalism are not at odds with Christianity; they can be mutually beneficial as well as independently beneficial, or they can be misused, just as a religious ideology can be misused. What we've considered here is what it was about science and capitalism that did so much to improve people's health, wealth and knowledge in such a short space of time that 1800 previous years of Christian faith didn't do. In part it shows that Christianity had a big head start on science and capitalism and yet was relatively unsuccessful in lifting humans to the level of health, wealth and knowledge that science and capitalism went on to do.
But it isn't beyond our reach to consider why this is the case. On the one hand Christianity's slower progression helped lay down the foundations for the future prosperity brought about by science and capitalism - but on the other hand the kind of progression that Christianity went on to engender was more than that which belongs in the domain of science and capitalism – it was, and is, the foundational truths for which Christ set us forth.
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users.
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