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.