During the past century science has become so focused on the material and the secular as to deny what was one of the essential characteristics of Western scientists going back three millennia: piety. Ancient Greek scientists perceived religion and science to be part of the same pursuit into the nature of being. Medieval scientists followed the Aristotelian path to discovering what they conceived to be the nature of God. Renaissance and Enlightenment scientists could hardly doubt that the Creation that they studied via mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and geology is Elder Scripture, the word of God older than, and just as authoritative as, the Old and New Testaments. The nineteenth-century geologist Edward Hitchcock’s belief that religion and geology are commensurate, the turn of the century psychologist William James’s belief that religion played a vital role in human psychology, and the early twentieth-century physicist Albert Einstein’s desire to know through science the mind of God, reveal that some nineteenth and twentieth century scientists relied on piety to approach the scientific study of human and natural phenomena.
Science is a pious enterprise and endeavor: the search to know the secrets of the universe and to reach the limits of human understanding occurs within the context of nature, an overwhelming entity that dwarfs us, generating a pious response, demanding reverence and humility, generating as well a sense of continuity and purposeful change, that answers exist to questions, that there is order rather than chaos, that reason and knowledge exist. Piety involves a sense of awe of the universe and a realization that being plays a role, whatever that might be, in its creation and constancy. Pious scientists have had an awareness of the profundity of existence, of life, and the role of something, an act moving upon potential, making and sustaining life.
Scientific and religious thought are complementary not contradictory. Scientists prior to the modern age were convinced that their research into nature shed light on the divine. The most valid response to God the Creator was a pious attempt to understand His Creation. Thinkers showed piety through natural theology; a belief in the continuity of and order in the universe; belief in natural laws; and a belief that human reason can (and will) discover natural laws.
Cultural and social influences during the past four centuries have led to a questioning of the divine role in the creation of the universe, resulting in a reconsideration of God the Creator, the divine role in the creation of the universe that is revealed through divine works, resulting in more of a general anonymous sense of a great mystery in the universe that could or could not be divine.
There was a definite change from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries in the perception of God the Creator. Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the paradigm in scientific thought helps to explain this change. The seventeenth century was a time of a providential God in control of all aspects of natural and human history. The eighteenth century moved toward a deistic God the Creator who put in motion a Creation that required very little divine intervention. Skepticism brought about by the critical discoveries of the nineteenth century resulted in the sense of the divine as a vague supernatural force that has some sort of a role in the vastness and complexity of the universe. Thinkers into the twentieth century were increasingly agnostic and atheistic in doubting any kind of supernatural agency at work in the universe.
Piety changes during this time from a clear sense of a personal God, a Christian God, to a more generic sense of a Creator God to a more amorphous mysterious presence; but during the whole there is an awareness and awe of the universe and (perhaps) its maker that is pious if not religious, piety being a sense of wonderment and humility when faced with a natural phenomenon that sometimes seems to defy explanation.
I wonder, is the driving motivation for those who pursue the physical, life, social, behavioral, and mathematical sciences, piety?……
(This is an abridged version of a much longer, 1100 word essay, a reproduction of which can be purchased at this link: https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=N5XJG4LGWH7ZG)