| July 21, 2010 3:51 pm

Galileo Moon Sketches - Half Full 2For much of human history, Science and Religion have had a very tumultuous relationship.  Both are systems of beliefs that attempt to answer important questions like: “Where did we come from?” and “How did we get here?”  But because they use different methods to arrive at those answers, it is to be expected that they will not always agree.  Nor is there a guarantee that both sides will remain civil.

Yet, even though Religion and Science don’t always get along, this does not mean that their relationship is one of simple antagonism.  Unlike what modern commentators such as Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens would have you believe, Science and Religion are not enemies.  Far from it, in fact.

If anything, Science and Religion are siblings.  After all, they share a common ancestry and purpose, and it’s only very recently (within the past 150 years or so) that any society – Western, Islamic or Eastern – has attempted to separate them.

Which is perhaps why it is so disturbing to see attempts by philosophers and believers to set them at each other’s throats.  Within the past few years, there has been a virtual renaissance of pro-Science (read, pro-atheist) books that have come out on the market.  These titles have advocated for a fact based morality, declared war on God, and argued that rational/scientific thought is incompatible with religious belief.  In one Slate.com piece, the author actually seemed to believe that Dr. Francis Collins shouldn’t hold a scientific leadership position because he happens to be an evangelical Christian.  (Never mind his hundreds of peer-reviewed publications and significant contributions to the field of genetics.  After all, it’s not like he sequenced the human genome or anything … )


In nearly every case, these are fantastic examples of Science’s over-reach.

Galileo Moon Sketches - Three Quarters FullAs to the first point, Science has never been in the morality market – seeing as scientific claims must be testable and morality propositions are not – so trying to build a “new” morality around “scientific principles” just seems silly.  It also ignores that modern science has to “moral principles” to speak of.  All of those questions of meaning and motivation are the realm of the third sibling in this trio: philosophy.  (Beside, scientific discovery is most interesting when lobbing wrenches at the carefully configured gears of moral consistency; whether the mechanic be philosophical or religious in nature.)

And why would you declare war on God?  Seriously.  There is no way to scientifically test His existence, and until we can do that, the entire debate seems rather moot.

A lack of experimentally derived validation has never stopped us from believing in other tenuous propositions.  As one example, let’s take String Theory – which connects some branches of complicated experimental physics with others. At present, its predictions are so insanely complicated  that we have no way to test them or verify their accuracy.  Yet, they receive serious consideration even though there are alternative models which also explain the same phenomena.  What’s more, most are forced to take these claims on faith because there are only a relative handful of people who are capable of understanding the mathematics.

(Nor does it prevent people from believing in the most outlandish predictions of catastrophic climate change, even when those claims are based upon very involved and flawed models which also have a tenuous claim on reality.)

As to the last point, anyone who believes that there is a “scientific mindset” is seriously deluding themselves.  Most people do not have a cohesive, consistent and logical world view.  (I would be shocked if most people had a world view at all.)  The personal experience of anyone over the age of two in addition to most neurological research and economic behavior show just the opposite, in fact.  People hold contradictory opinions all of the time and this hardly prevents them from otherwise living “logical”, “ordered” or “scientific” lives.

Galileo Moon Sketches - Half Full 4For example, a person might believe that most people are generally good, but that the government is run by a group of liars, crooks and thieves.  Or he might think that figments of imagination are asking him to break sophisticated code, and still produce Nobel prize winning economic theory.  (They even made a movie about that latter one.)  Most homo sapiens have the ability to keep their crazier ideas from interfering with life in the real world.  In fact, this is exactly what differentiates eccentricity with mental illness (at least as defined by DSM IV).

In some scientific disciplines, an illogical and inconsistent world view might even be a benefit.  It allows people to entertain extreme ideas, that while being crazy also happen to be correct.  It also gives an explanation as to why many of the greatest scientists have been absolute nutters.

Isaac Newton, for example, was batshit crazy.  This post on Blog Critics summarizes it pretty well:

There’s a fine line between genius and madness, and Isaac Newton skipped back and forth over it like a hopscotch happy schoolgirl.  When Newton would wake up in the morning, he would often sit on the edge of his bed for hours, and would go through his days forgetting to eat.

When he did devote time to serious science, some of his methods didn’t exactly indicate soundness of mind.  While studying lights and colors, Newton once stuck a big needle in his eye socket to determine what was back there.  He also once stared at the sun so long that he had to spend days in a darkened room to recover his vision.  Some people use the word “crazy” to explain such behavior.  In the case of Newton we use the word “dedicated.”

But serious investigation into alchemy or time spent trying to disprove the trinity didn’t prevent him from being the preeminent mind of his own age, or a great many others.


Which leads me to my main point.  Science, technology, religion and civilization are inseparably intertwined; and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.  Incidentally, this is also why you should be wary of secular histories following the “standard” path of development:

  • Family units form small tribes.
  • Which leads to a division of labor and specialization, eventually resulting in technical advancement, agriculture, pottery, and material comfort.
  • Shepherds and farmers appeared first, then created pottery, villages, cities, kings writing, art.
  • Somewhere in that process, religion emerged; and according to Harris or Hitchens, the primary reason for it was to get the masses to better behave.

This worldview is not borne out by the historical record.  As just a single point of data, consider a major temple site recently found in eastern Turkey.

Gobekli Tepe, as the monument is called, is a huge set of temple complexes (similar to Stonehenge) where thousands of people were capable of worshiping at the same time.  What is so impressive, however, is that the monuments were built nearly 12,000 years ago.  For anyone keeping score, that’s 6,000 years before Stonehenge and 7000 years before the Great Pyramid.

(Perhaps a timeline might be helpful.  You can click on the graphic for a larger, PDF version.)

At the site, there are more than 30 different stone rings with large stone pillars that weight tons.  As explained in a Newsweek article, “No one moves ten ton boulders without a purpose.  Moreover, no single tribe would have had the resources to construct the monument.  [It] implies cooperation and organization.”

Just to be clear, man’s first house appears to have been a House of God.  What’s more, this House of God engendered cooperation, organization, technology and engineering.

The existance of Gobekli Tepe requires that we re-evaluate our understanding of religion’s role in the formation of civilization.  Rather than hold civilization prisoner and prevent advancement, religion might have been the force that brought people together in the first place.  The desire to maintain a temple and site of worship resulted in the domestication of animals and the invention of agriculture.  It gave a place for artisans to trade and brought new crafts into existence.  That’s a pretty major contribution to the human race and a rather good response to Hitchen’s question, “What good has religious belief contributed?”


Which just goes to show that Religion, Science, and Philosophy are hardly in competition with one another.  Religion had its place in bringing people together, but Science (and younger brother Technology) helped them live in harmony.  They’re siblings and even though they’ve had their share of fights, family is still family.


3 Responses to “Religion and the Rise of Civilization”

Michael Booth wrote a comment on October 1, 2011

In the immortal words of Eddie Murphy, “What have you done for me lately?”

Once, long ago, religion tried to answer man’s questions about himself and the world around him. At that point, you might well have said religion and science were the same thing. So if this turkish temple or one like was responsible for the rise of civilization as you assert, you might as well say that it was dedicated to science because to the people of that time, there was no separation of the two. Or rather you could say that man’s desire to understand the universe was responsible for the rise of civilization.

Now, here’s where your argument breaks down (at least in my opinion). Religion, having arrived at its various fanciful answers for nearly every conceivable question, declared these answers as Truth and stopped looking for explanations. To say that science and religion are closely related because they both attempt to answer the age-old questions is a fallacy. Religion stopped asking. That’s what makes it religion. In fact it goes so far as to continually refuse to incorporate new evidence supporting differing answers to those questions.

I’ll go further and argue that religion can do a great deal of harm.

Look at the world from around 800-1100 AD. The western world was just emerging from the Dark Age. The center of knowledge was in Baghdad. The Islamic world at the time made huge advencements in mathematics. They gave us our numbers, including zero. They invented the field of Algebra. The world’s first observatory was built in Baghdad. And so on and so forth. Now, you might argue that all these things have their roots in Ancient Greece, and you’d be right of course. Therein lies the problem. Around 1100 Islam came under the influence of the works of Imam al-Ghazali. He so thoroughly demonized the Hellonistic traditions which influenced Islamic advances in mathematics, engineering, and astronomy that they were effectively discarded as the work of the devil… the Greeks were pagan after all… Look at the Islamic world today. It never recovered.

That could have happened to Christendom. It could still happen today. Religion constantly pushes back against advancements in our understanding of nature, from evolution to the Big Bang Theory, both of which are supported by mountains of evidence. How is religion not holding us back?

Religion isn’t the source of morality. If morality could be instilled into us from the text of a so-called holy book, we’d still need some internal mechanism to judge the good morals from the bad. At some point we figured out that slavery and rape were missing from the Ten Commandments. The Bible didn’t tell us so. It’s a major failing of the text when you consider that slavery is probably the easiest moral question ever posed. If you accept the evidence of evolution, it seems plain that morality is the result of that process. That’s how morality can stem from scientific principles. At the very least morality belongs to the philosophers… but certainly not the clergy.

The problem with Atheism, or nay-leaning Agnosticism which is what most Atheists are, is that it has a poor public relations department, so to speak. We fail to win hearts and minds. This is because many of our “spokespeople” are pompous and unlikeable, like Christopher Hitchins or to a lesser extent Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins. I’ll assume that’s why you chose to single them out and not any of the many evidence-ignoring science-haters on the opposing side.

For the record, I realize this post is over a year old, and you’ll likely never see this response.

Also, science is not a ‘system of beliefs.’ You shouldn’t say, “I believe in evolution by natural selection.” or “I believe in the Big Bang Theory.” anymore than you would say “I believe in magnetism.” or “I believe in the Conservation of Mass.”

Alisdair wrote a comment on December 15, 2011

Humpty Dumpty is the consummate guide in this, and so many other areas of debate, i.e. words mean what ever I want them to mean.

I say ‘God’; someone thinks, ‘infantile superstition’, someone else thinks ‘angry ancient waving a big stick’, someone else again thinks, ‘a way of understanding absolute truth and goodness’, and on ad infinitum.

Likewise the word ‘religion’, what does it mean? Well, it means something to me, but it probably means something different to you. Which is an invitation either to a fight or a discussion, or to a discussion ending in a fight, or in a discussion that results in friendship (or at least some degree of mutual understanding),…

To me at least, the problem isn’t really about ‘religion’ or ‘science’—whatever those words actually mean—the problem is us—people—who use words as fronts for our fears, hatreds, guilts, and greeds. Excuses to enable us to wage war on our enemies and scapegoats; after all, it’s always someone else’s fault.

Religion/science is not to blame for the ills of humankind; people are—we are. Those concepts just make convenient straw-men in our ceaseless attempts to exonerate ourselves and put the blame on those who we do not/will not understand or care about.

Call ourselves atheists/believers/sitters-on-the-fence, it really doesn’t matter what the label is, does it? We are all capable of wickedness and stupidity, just as much as we are of goodness and brilliance.

‘Science’ and ‘religion’ both describe aspects of what it means to be a whole person. The fact that people use these labels as weapons simply demonstrates how broken/dysfunctional/sinful we are; not that there isn’t potential for ‘holiness’!

Perhaps we need to have the courage, the determination, and the humility to stop hiding behind labels and instead consider those ‘qualities’ that really determine who we are and what we do. Things expressed in words like: ‘justice’, ‘mercy’, ‘humility’, ‘grace’, ‘hate’, ‘fear’, ‘selfishness’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘love’.

Hedorah wrote a comment on September 16, 2012

@Michael Booth For most of your post I will say that you seem to be making the common mistake of lumping in religious people into one group. If you honestly haven’t heard of Christians and Muslims who support evolution, the Big Bang, etc. then you really need to get out more.

“The western world was just emerging from the Dark Age.”

More and more historians are coming to believe that the Dark Ages were not, in fact, Dark.

“including zero”

Actually the first people to come up with the concept of nothingness as a numerical value were the Indian mathematicians.

“Now, you might argue that all these things have their roots in Ancient Greece, and you’d be right of course.”

The point at which the Greek and Muslim scientists differed is that the Greeks used “logic and common sense” to in their science, which led to the erroneous belief that the sun revolved around the earth, which eventually became part of Catholic dogma, and thus why Copernicus had problems with the Church despite being a Catholic himself. The Muslim scienists on the other hand used a method that was more similar to the modern day scientific method – that is, deductions about the world were made based on experimentation and observation rather than make “logical” assumptions.

“Around 1100 Islam came under the influence of the works of Imam al-Ghazali.”

You seem to be operating under the fallacy that a few individuals acting in the name of a certain philosophy is enough to condemn the entire philosophy rather than the individuals. Were not the scientists you spoke of Muslims themselves? If they were anything like the European scientists then they believed their god created an ordered universe that could be understood through careful observation and logic. Also, it’s not just the Abrahamic religions that have a monopoly on this sort of thing. The Athenians executed Plato for “neglecting” their pagan gods. In fact, it’s not only non-Abrahamic religions that are guilty of this, but certain atheist societies as well. The Soviet Union tried to abolish the practice and teaching Mendelian genetics because Mendel was a Catholic priest. In fact, hundreds of geneticists who continued to uphold Mendel’s theory were executed and imprisoned.

“That could have happened to Christendom. It could still happen today. Religion constantly pushes back against advancements in our understanding of nature, from evolution to the Big Bang Theory, both of which are supported by mountains of evidence. How is religion not holding us back?”

Again, if you haven’t seen or heard of the many, many Christians and Muslims who support evolution and other scientific theories, then you need to get out more. It really wasn’t until the age of the so-called Enlightenment that people began to think science and religion were at odds with one another.

“Religion isn’t the source of morality. If morality could be instilled into us from the text of a so-called holy book, we’d still need some internal mechanism to judge the good morals from the bad.”

The secular morals of most seculars are mostly lifted from the morality of religious people while stripping the morality of the deities attached to said morality.

“At some point we figured out that slavery and rape were missing from the Ten Commandments. The Bible didn’t tell us so.”

Though that isn’t true, you seem to be speaking with the common trend that treats “religion” as a synonym for “Christianity.”

“If you accept the evidence of evolution, it seems plain that morality is the result of that process. That’s how morality can stem from scientific principles.”

That just tells how morality came to be in human beings, not how morality can arise from science. Science is by defintion the observation and attempt to understand the natural, physical world. Morality cannot be tested, experimented upon or observed in the way that you can a quark or a dwarf star. Natural laws behave the same way over and over again without fail, which cannot be said of sentient creatures. So, morality falls outside the realm of science and squarely in the realm of philosophy, and yes, religion.

“but certainly not the clergy”

I personally have seen examples how this is not true. But to look at the favorite atheist philosophy, humanism, most humanists during the origins of humanism (the Renaissance), with the exception of very few writers were Christian and firmly held their Christian morality is what contributed to their philosophy.

@Is it okay if I glomp you?

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