I happen to be reading an outstanding book titled The Innovative University. It is an excellent account of how Harvard has shaped higher education for both good and ill during the past two centuries. I recommend it.
However, I have now encountered the same claim made on a couple of occasions in the book. The authors describe Harvard as having thrown off the “intellectual shackles of Puritanism.” According to the book, this secularization of the school enabled scholars such as John Winthrop (a descendant of the one you know) to do things such as discovering “the true, natural causes of earthquakes.”
I suppose the statement makes sense to the authors, but not to me. I have no idea why Puritanism would prevent scientists from learning things about earthquakes. Someone will likely say to me that Puritans would attribute an earthquake to the sovereign action of God. But so what? Does that mean that religious human beings would have no interest at all in the natural mechanisms of earthquake? Have religious persons NEVER made scientific discoveries? Of course they have. Besides, I’m sure Puritans saw the hand of God in the success and failure of crops. Do you mean to tell me, then, that they had NO interest at all in methods of farming? Ridiculous.
I wrote about this problem in The End of Secularism. We have been taught to believe that Christianity, for example, is some kind of science stopper, but that isn’t really so. Christians often object to particular applications of science, such as embryonic stem cell research. But there is nothing about being a Christian that would prevent a person from using the tools of science to learn and to know. There is a great difference between being against driving on the sidewalk and objecting to the general use of automobiles.