By James Haught
James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.
The historic war between science and religion began in Ancient Greece, and it still roils more than two millennia later. Science has won every encounter, yet supernatural believers won’t surrender.
Classical Greece teemed with magical faith. Multitudes of animals were sacrificed to a bizarre array of invisible gods who supposedly lived atop Mount Olympus. Throngs gave money to oracles who allegedly conveyed messages from the gods. Even “sacred wars” were fought over wealth accumulated by oracle shrines.
Amid all this mumbo-jumbo, a few wise thinkers began seeking natural explanations, not supernatural ones. It was the birth of science – but it was risky, because believers killed nonbelievers.
Anxagoras (500-428 BCE) taught that the sun and moon are natural objects, not deities. He was sentenced to death for impiety, but escaped into exile.
Protagoras (490-420 BCE) said he didn’t know whether gods exist – so he was banished from Athens. His writings were burned, and he drowned while fleeing at sea.
The most famous martyr was Socrates (470-399 BCE), who was sentenced to death for offenses including “not worshiping the gods worshiped by the state.”
Through centuries, believers often killed scientific thinkers, but science always proved correct.
Hypatia (c. 360-415 CE), a brilliant woman who headed Alexandria’s famed library of knowledge, was beaten to death by Christian followers of St. Cyril.
Physician Michael Servetus (c. 1510-1553) – the first to learn that blood flows from the heart to the lungs and back – was burned in John Calvin’s Puritanical Geneva for doubting the Trinity.
Bruno Giordano (1548-1600) was burned by the Holy Inquisition for teaching that Earth circles the sun, and the universe is infinite. Science pioneer Galileo narrowly escaped the same fate for somewhat the same reason, but was sentenced to house arrest for life.
By the time that Charles Darwin (1809-1882) perceived evolution, western religion mostly had lost the power to kill nonconformists. His great breakthrough unleashed a religion-vs-science battle that still rages today. It caused the notorious “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Tennessee in 1925, and still flares when fundamentalists try to ban evolution from public school science courses. They contend that a supernatural father-creator made all species in modern form about 6,000 years ago – while science proves that life goes back vastly further, and that new species evolved from former ones. Evolution has become the bedrock of modern biology.
The struggle between science and religion also arises when some strong believers let their children die because – trusting promises by Jesus that prayer will cure disease – they refuse to get medical help.
Nowadays, nearly everyone realizes that science is a colossal boon to humanity, curing disease, eliminating drudgery, advancing knowledge, opening worldwide communications and generally making life better. In 1900, the average lifespan was just 48 years, but now it’s near 80, thanks mostly to medical improvements. In contrast, religion gives the world little, and Islamic extremism causes constant slaughter.
Science wins every showdown, constantly undercutting religion’s supernatural dogmas. World-renowned biologist Richard Dawkins says faith “subverts science and saps the intellect.” Luckily, it’s still losing the war between science and religion.
This essay appeared in the United Coalition of Reason newsletter, 10/31/17.
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I’ve just finished reading ‘It keeps me seeking – the invitation from Science, Philosophy and Religion’ ISBN 978-0-19-880828-2 by Andrew Bridges, Hans Halvorson and Andrew Steane. Two are world class physicists at Oxford and the other a philosopher (of science and quantum physics) at Princeton.
They put a contrary view, all being Christians, which is worth considering.
They demolish Dawkins as (theologically) simplistic.
Dawkins’ response to theology is not simplistic. However, he is responding to simplistic theology. This is very relevant because it’s literally the theology believed by millions or billions of people.
Well Shawn the Humanist. I think that is a ‘simplistic’ response but I would need to read say ‘The God delusion’ again to see whether the criticisms of at least one of the above authors were valid.
There’s also a difference between ‘simple’ and ‘simplistic’.
I was just making the point that the above book is worth reading (although difficult) and it is always worth listening to those who disagree with you.
Listening only to those who agree with you is not productive.
Good day Trevor,
You are absolutely right that Dawkins only takes on the low hanging fruit and argues against simplistic views of religion. I agree.
I just think that is the point.
It’s completely valid to say that he ignores more sophisticated views of theology in his work. The reason that’s fine is that most people don’t believe that stuff.
Consider this review of the book:
Being against evolution is a multimillion dollar Christian industry. It’s relatively rarely among theologians, but not with regular people, and that’s the point.
Yes, Dawkins attacks simplsitic theology. Rather than attack him for that, theologians should join him to get Christians and others to believe more sophisticated and nuanced views.
Consider reading the review I linked to and rereading this book. It’s important to listen to people who don’t completely agree with you. You may learn something.
Re: “Consider reading the review I linked to and rereading this book. It’s important to listen to people who don’t completely agree with you. You may learn something.”
I’m not sure why you repeat my point at me.
I have read the review and note that it is favorable in parts but I think much of its criticism is quite unfair. (It certainly does not obsess about Dawkins). The book is not even trying to do many of the things the reviewer suggests it should and why should it?
I also think the book is unsatisfactory in many ways but I was just making the point that I think it is worth reading – I think this is clear from the review.
I think you, Shawn, misunderstand my positiion.When I read the ‘God delusion’ (and other works by Dawkins on biology) I found myself 98% in agreement with him. It’s the 2% where’s he’s so completely off the wall that I’d worry about.
I can’t say I 98% agree with ‘It keeps me seeking’ – perhaps not even 50% but they do make many valid points and they are NOT in any way attacking science – quite the opposite.
However, the book is probably not worth reading if you are NOT interested in science and philosophy, rather than religion or if you are not open to considering points of view other than your own.