Sunday, January 3, 2010

Religious Myths Conflicting With Science Facts

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his book, "The American Scholar," predicted the day would come when America would end, and I quote, "our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands."

His prediction came true in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and in no area of learning more so than in science. This surely would have pleased Emerson. When he listed his heroes he would generally include Copernicus and Galileo and Newton along with Socrates and Swedenborg.

Although I think that Emerson would have mixed feelings today about one consequence of the advance of science that has led to a widespread weakening of religious belief.

Since the Renaissance, the tension between science and religion has primarily been the result of contradictions between scientific discoveries and specific religious doctrines. Galileo remarked in his famous letter to Grand Duchess Christina that "the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how heaven goes," and this was not just his opinion of the time. Many such as Leonardo Da Vinci and even Cardinal Baronius, the Vatican librarian, were discovering through science that religious teachings of the time were inaccurate.

Contradictions between scripture and scientific knowledge have occurred again and again, and have generally been accommodated by the more enlightened among the religious. For instance, there are verses in both the Old and New Testament that seem to show that the earth is flat, and as noted by Copernicus (quoted by Galileo in the same letter to Christina) these verses led some early Church fathers like Lactantius to reject the Greek understanding that the earth is a sphere, but educated Christians long before the voyages of Columbus and Magellan had come to accept the spherical shape of the earth. Dante found the interior of the spherical earth a convenient place to store sinners.

The direct conflict between scientific knowledge and specific religious beliefs has not been so important in itself, it is the tension between science and religion that has become important.

The primary source of tension arises from the fact that religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena such as, thunder, earthquakes, disease, that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being. There was a nymph in every brook, and a dryad in every tree. But as time passed more and more of these mysteries have been explained in purely natural ways. People believe in God because no other explanation seems possible for a whole host of mysteries, and then over the years these mysteries were one by one resolved naturalistically. The “Cause & Effect” outcome is a certain weakening of religious belief is to be expected. It is no accident that the advent of widespread atheism and agnosticism among the educated in the eighteenth century followed hard upon the birth of modern science in the previous century.

From the beginning, the explanatory power of science worried those who valued religion. Plato was so horrified at the attempt of Democritus and Leucippus to explain nature in terms of atoms without reference to the gods that in “Book Ten of The Laws,” he urged five years of solitary confinement for those who deny that the gods exist or that they care about humans, with death to follow if the prisoner is not reformed.

Isaac Newton, offended by the naturalism of Descartes, also rejected the idea that the world could be explained without God. He argued for instance in a letter to Richard Bentley that no explanation but God could be given for the distinction we observe between bright matter, the sun and stars, and dark matter, like the earth. This is ironic, because of course it was Newton and not Descartes who was right about the laws of motion. No one did more than Newton to make it possible to work out thoroughly nontheistic explanations of what we see in the sky, but Newton himself was not in this sense a Newtonian.

Of course, not everything has been explained, nor will it ever be. The important thing is that we have not observed anything that seems to require supernatural intervention for its explanation. There are some today who cling to the remaining gaps in our understanding, such as our ignorance about the origin of life, as evidence for God. But as time passes and more and more of these gaps are filled in, their position gives an impression of people desperately holding on to outmoded opinions.


  1. The conflict is between science and the literal interpretation of scripture, not between science and religous belief. There are many religous and spiritual people who do not interpret scripture literally and are able to reconcile their religion with science. Religion does not always equal fundamentalism.

  2. That is so true, Marcia. I know quite a few people who fit your criteria of religious people who believe in the rational world of science and I respect their faith.
    It is harder, though, to find believers who respect my profound atheism.
    That is the crux of belief...when someone doesn't believe, it represents a chink in the wall.
    When I say, I don't believe in really doesn't mean that I don't believe...
    How can it be that some of the atheists I have met are the most profoundly spiritual people I know?

  3. Oh goes:

    if you agree that the bible is in error on a great many things relating to science / the physical world, can I also assume that you are willing to accept that the "history" as described in the bible is also subject to gross error? There are any number of contradictions and erroneous datings, lineage accounts, etc.

    If you are willing to compromise on one, why not the latter, since by vitue of it's faults its luster of divine inspiration is tarnished?

    Then if you're willing to admit to those, can I assume that you are prepared to agree that the "miracles" and "god's laws" as outlined in the five books of moses, were simply mans inventions? If not, why not?...we've already thrown out biblical science, the innerrency of its historical accounts. Why this need to cling to this book of myth and fable as a basis for supernaturalism when it has already been shown to be grossly flawed (not to mention hideously obscene)?

    this use of the word spiritualism in any secular sense always troubles me. If you look in the dictionary, spiritualism has alot of supernaturalistic definitions as its primary definitions.

    Exactly how do YOU define atheist "spiritualism?"
    Is it "wonderment" at the beauty and vastness of the universe? Is it "awe" at the intellectual excellence of a scientific formula, or Beethovan symphony? Is it "respect" for the unkown / yet to be dicovered? Is it the "introspection" one calls upon to evaluate ones sense of self etc.?

    Don't you think that "wonderment, awe, respect, introspection" better define the essoteric nature thinking people and their appreciation for nature, the physical world, and greatness?

    Frankly, this "I'm not religious but I am spiritual" crapola smacks of New Ageism and quasi-theism.

  4. Well, I might mean quite a few of the qualifying criteria you mention as a substitute for the word spiritual.
    I realize that you have rationalist bias towards anything that hints of a belief in another dimension of existence...Perhaps that would be the chink in your wall?
    I have been a profound atheist since I was 12, but I still have this whole X files sort of attitude towards the universe...I can believe everything and trust nothing and vice versa and it still makes sense to me....

  5. I have a rational bias toward things for which we have can demonstrate evidence of efficacy. I don't think one could call that a crack, or defect aka chink.

    I'm not an absolutist. I am open to new proofs, objective evidence. But the " I want to believe" Xfiles mentality some folks have is a longing for a fantasy world. I don't "want" to "believe" anything, but I will accept as genuine that which is demonstrated with science and rationality.

    Anyway, I wanted to get beyond this "atheist spiritualism" which by definition is oxymoronic..

  6. I'm almost 2 years late to this discusiion. When you say, "Anyway, I wanted to get beyond this "atheist spiritualism" which by definition is oxymoronic.." you are 100% wrong. Atheism is not believing there are gods. That's it.
    There is no such thing as Atheist dogma so we are free to be spiritual or anything else that doesn't include gods.