Speaking volumes: Religion and the Rise of Modern Science

June 26, 1998

David Livingstone on Reijer Hooykaas's Religion and the Rise of Modern Science .

It must have been May or early June. The year was 1975. I remember this because it was final honours examination period. In preparing for the paper on the history of geographical thinking, I stumbled across Religion and the Rise of Modern Science by the Dutch historian of science Reijer Hooykaas. I bought it on May 5 and began reading it in the following weeks, but I do not think I managed to get right through it. The structure made it hard to access, and the book had its fair share of critics, some of whom dismissed it as a veiled form of Christian apologetics that subverted its historical integrity. Indeed, subsequent scholarship has confirmed that a far more nuanced account is called for.

And yet it had a profound effect on me. It conveyed a tremendous sense of intellectual excitement and opened up the vast subject of the history of science and religion. It dismantled one of the enduring myths of modernity: that science and religion were locked in a violent death struggle. To the contrary, the fashionable segregation of religious belief and scientific thought, to which I was accustomed, made no sense for earlier periods, and not least for the genesis of modern science in the 17th century. Within a few weeks I was talking with my head of department about writing a doctoral thesis on religion and the history of the geographical tradition.

Friday, September 18, 1981. I find myself standing in the Belfast airport awaiting the arrival of the flight from Amsterdam. A frail, white-haired, 75-year-old figure in a black beret slowly makes his way into the arrival hall. I meet Hooykaas for the first time. He has come to speak on "The Rise of Classical Modern Science". It does not look encouraging. I doubt if he can make it to the car park, never mind survive a weekend conference. (In fact he lived for a dozen years or more.) One hopeful moment was when he displayed enthusiasm for the weak tea that we served him at home. Apart from that, all seemed lost. Until I I mentioned that I had heard that he had rediscovered the treatise by Rheticus (one of Copernicus's disciples) on Holy Scripture and the motion of the earth. His eyes lit up, weariness vanished, and he launched into a detailed account of the moment of discovery and its significance. That spirit dominated his lectures for the whole weekend. Throughout his presentations he would rifle page after page of his script looking for some marginal jotting; he would turn the sheets upside down and even back to front to find another scribbling and insight. And because he did not realise that the lecture hall clock was out of order, he kept going for well over two hours.

That ideas have a history, that realms of thought and practice now allocated to different spheres were interwoven in rich and complex ways in the past, and that if we want to figure out where we are now we need to have a sense of where we have come from, are just some of the things I learned from Hooykaas and Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. It taught me that to understand the history of any tradition of inquiry required a willingness to transcend disciplinary boundaries, indeed to recognise that disciplines themselves are the product of interest-laden historical forces.

I am not sure what were the qualities that ensured Hooykaas's longevity. But I hope that chief among them were an enthusiasm for ideas and a love of weak tea.

David N. Livingstone is professor of geography and intellectual history, Queen's University, Belfast.

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