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’ 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, involving 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 bringing 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 in the twentieth into the twenty-first centuries have been 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. The pious scientist historically has engaged in a search to know the secrets of the universe and to reach the limits of human understanding within the context of nature, an overwhelming entity of mystery that dwarfs any one of us, which generates a pious response, demanding reverence, stewardship, humility, dedication, and faith, and which generates a sense of the rational continuity of time and place and awareness of purposeful change, that answers exist to questions, that order not chaos exists, that reason and knowledge are possible. Piety is the response to the realization that we live in a universe of positive, rational, predictable, orderly phenomena. At the same time the pious scientist recognized that nature represents a vast unknown of which humans would always be ignorant of the deepest secrets. As the natural theologian Cotton Mather once proclaimed, “there is not a fly, but that would confute an atheist,” which was as much an admission of his own ignorance before God’s creation as it was a condemnation of agnosticism and atheism.
The scientist derived piety from an awareness of ignorance. The humility, lack of hubris, ability to know that one does not know (or quite know), marks the pious thinker, who is expectant, open-minded, in a way awaiting discovery, knowledge, but knows that knowledge is never absolute, always subject to constraints, changes, interpretations. It is this ability to have faith that knowledge exists, which faith drives the seeker to know, that defines the pious scientist. Such knowledge is acquired in time, therefore cannot be absolute, rather is relative, in a process of accumulation. The pious scientist knows that one day he and she will know. In the meantime the pious scientist is on a quest, every day, to gain knowledge that will only terminate with death.
I wonder, is the driving motivation for those who pursue the physical, life, social, behavioral, and mathematical sciences, piety?