Thursday, February 18, 2016
One of the most common tropes you hear from religious people is some variation of the theme "we are better than you". The "we" may refer to religious people in general, or it may refer to any subdivision in the taxonomy of religious beliefs and cultures. The "you" refers to anyone who is not identified as being part of the select group. Claims of this sort are therefore an expression of some kind of tribalism. These days, with the declining rates of religious belief, and the corresponding rise of alarm and anxiety among believers, there is deepening concern that the "others" represent an existential threat to their religious culture.
In response to this perceived threat, they tend to revert to the behavioral patterns of their ancestors of long ago who lived in tribal groups with strong social bonding, and fought for their survival against rival groups. They enhance the social bonding within their own group by differentiating themselves from the "others", often through the use of stereotypes and various dehumanizing devices. In this way, it becomes morally acceptable to engage them in battle, to inflict harm or punishment, or to treat them dismissively or with disrespect.
There are various kinds of claims made by today's religious people that attempt to differentiate themselves by asserting their own superiority. You hear things like "we are moral and you lack morality" or "we are rational and you are irrational" or "we are charitable and you are not". Of course, none of these claims are based in fact. They are merely assertions made by the group that defines itself as religious, that their affiliation with this group makes them better than the others who are perceived as their enemies, so they can pat each other on the back and and rejoice in their shared superiority.
Now Victor Reppert has pointed out yet another of these claims: that science has its foundations in the rise of monotheistic culture. This view has been stated much more eloquently by Nancy Pearcey, who also includes the mandatory jab at the atheist community, accusing them of unjustly trying to claim the credit for the rise of science, which truly belongs, in her view, to Christians.
The central point of Pearcey's thesis is that it was a single supreme being, as creator of the world, who imposed a regularity on nature that forms the basis from which scientific investigation can proceed, and it was this observation that led Christians of the late middle ages to want to explore and understand God's creation in a rigorous manner, which was the foundation of modern science. Pearcey rejects Greek, Chinese, and other ancient cultures as establishing the foundations of science because they stopped short of developing modern scientific practice. She insists that historians are now in agreement that science was founded on Christian thinking. One could easily conclude, on this basis, that modern science would not exist at all, if it weren't for Christian thinking.
But there are also views of the history of science that are based more on fact than on Christian apologetics. It is true that modern scientific method arose in Christian Europe, beginning in the late middle ages, and flourishing in the age of enlightenment. It is equally true that it was built on the foundations established by other non-Christian cultures, including the Egyptians and the Greeks. And historians recognize their contributions to the establishment of science in modern times. As pointed out in this article, it was the regularity of nature that led to some of the earliest scientific developments in non-monotheistic cultures around the world. The monotheistic God had nothing to do with it. And perhaps it's no coincidence that the flourishing of scientific and logical thinking in ancient Greece was accompanied by a rise in atheistic thinking.
Furthermore, if it is true that monotheism leads to scientific thinking, then one would expect that the ancient Hebrews would have outshone their neighbors, the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks, in scientific development. As it turns out, they were much too busy waging tribal warfare for the glory of Yahweh, while their polytheistic neighbors were developing the foundations of science. The Hebrews preferred their view of an angry God who wreaked havoc at will, and performed all kinds of miraculous feats that certainly were not in keeping with the regularity of nature.
And what about Christian culture? I have previously pointed out that the Christian church has suppressed scientific development throughout history, up to and including the present day. To be sure, the pioneers of modern science were Christians, but it stands to reason that in a society where everyone was Christian, it would be Christians who were the first to defy and break away from church dogma. The age of enlightenment seems to be more a product of the rise of secular universities and international commerce than of any religious doctrine. Without the rise of Christianity in Europe, perhaps the development of modern scientific method would have happened a thousand years sooner, in a continuation of the Greco-Roman traditions of science and technology.
But leave it to Christian apologists to claim all the credit for science on behalf of their tribe. They have to make the case that they're better than us. I certainly don't want to overstate the contribution of atheistic thinking to the development of science. But I do think it's worth pointing out that in the European age of enlightenment, as was the case in ancient Greece, the rise of secularism and non-theistic thinking accompanied the rise of scientific thinking. One could reasonably conclude at least that scientific thinking leads to atheistic thinking. All those Christians who want to take credit for science should be cognizant that they are taking credit for atheism as well.