Saturday, August 4, 2012

How religion created science, liberalism, and peace

A lot of my friends have anti-religious views. They tend to see religions, especially Christianity, as having retarded the natural progress of humanity by inhibiting science and inciting wars. They like Richard Dawkins, and share his support for Professor Steven Weinberg's statement that:
With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion.
I read these anti-religious comments by my friends on Facebook with a growing sense of doubt.

Recently I listened to a BBC History Extra interview with historian Michael Hunter on the great 17th century scientist Robert Boyle, one of founders of the scientific method. Boyle, a pioneer of scientific experimentation, was motivated by a religious zeal - for religion. He was a devout Christian, and was concerned by an apparently godless movement rallying around philosophers like Thomas Hobbes. Boyle created the foundations of modern science not despite his faith, but because of it: he believed that his discoveries of a deeply complex scientific reality were evidence of God's design.

This does not fit with those anti-religious narratives I encounter. In those views it was the destruction of Christian power following the Reformation that led to the growth of science. As Christianity fell away, Enlightenment ideals prospered, irreligious humanism emerged, and old ills like slavery and sexism were overthrown.

Yet the Enlightenment period was one of fierce religious passion and its greatest thinkers were mostly devout believers. Modern people may look back and perceive a linear progression from the darkness of religious superstition to the light of secular knowledge, but this is anachronistic. The heroes of science and liberalism took religion for granted; it was a spur for discovery, not an inhibitor. Today we talk about Newtonian physics; Isaac Newton wrote seriously about witchcraft, magic and alchemy. Today anti-religious commentators talk about the illiberalism of Christianity; John Locke - the Father of Liberalism - was a passionate Christian who saw reason as a God-given trait that could only bring humanity to a belief in Jesus.

If homo sapiens first emerged over 100,000 years ago, and the liberal and scientific ideas modern anti-religious humanists value went undiscovered until finally emerging among deeply religious Christians in deeply Christian societies, it seems odd to blame Christianity for retarding them.

I will propose a different narrative for how religion, morality and science emerged. Readers, please correct me if I make mistakes, I'm straying out of comfortable territory here and really just tying facts together with guesses.

First, humanity evolved from pre-human primates. These newly intelligent humans had nothing to explain the world around them, but they did have a natural hereditary instinct to project human characteristics onto nature. A bolt of lightning might feel like anger from a god of the sky, so early humans would have attempted to negotiate with, manipulate, control or supplicate themselves towards the spirits in the same way that they negotiated with other human beings. This was the earliest folk religion, and it was an everyday part of life in a world with no secular-sacred division.

Natural curiosity led groups to develop creation myths to explain their existence. They had not yet worked out any alternative mechanistic view of nature so religion was the way in which everything was understood. It played in that time the roles that culture and science and law all play today. Almost everyone who bothered to think was religious because there was no convincing alternative narrative. An irreligious individual then was not any enlightened atheist, he or she was simply incurious.

As most of early human development happened when people were scattered in small clans, human instincts favoured suspicion of the outsiders, who might be dangerous. As Lawrence Keeley explained in War Before Civilization, small tribes were perpetually terrified that their neighbours would attack, so they pre-empted these attacks with raids of their own. There was no concept of a universal humanity that had universal human rights, so tribes raided, raped, enslaved and cannibalised their neighbours - who were as alien to them as wild animals.

As communities became more populous and complex, new cultural rules emerged to unite the former enemies that were absorbed into big communities, to justify power inequalities and to protect public goods. In places like Egypt and Japan, rulers justified their domination of the land by claiming divinity. Ancient Rome became exceptionally powerful because of its ability to absorb non-Roman enemies, offering them citizenship in exchange for service in the Roman army. I read anti-religious commentators complain that religion is 'about controlling people'. Of course it is: without universal rules to bind tribes together the early states would have collapsed back into tribal anarchy. The natural animal instincts to fight and steal and cheat had to be controlled.

This gave the ancient states a conundrum, too. Should they tolerate different religions when their own political legitimacy was connected to a consensus on their divinity? Rome brutally suppressed Jews, British druids, and Christians who resisted Roman Imperial divinity but in different periods was relatively tolerant of religious dissent.

These early multitribal cultures were probably a mix of obvious moral rules that are still familiar today (do not steal or murder), and less recognisable religious rules and taboos. When different cultures met, they must have gone through a natural selection process. Cultures which failed to protect the material well being of the people would probably disappear as more efficient civilisations conquered them. Cultures which failed to defend their own rituals and taboos would vanish over time too, replaced by those cultures that more jealously defended their norms. Hence, perhaps, Judaism survived conquest after conquest by greater regional powers when most other religions and cultures vanished; the Jewish faith was stricter and less willing to accept heresy or external modification than others.

From this period of early states and empires, when sacred and secular were still one, emerged for the first time the religious idea that there is a universal humanity for whom one set of natural rights apply. Scott Atran writes:
Cannibalism, infanticide, slavery, racism and the subordination of women are vastly more prevalent across cultures and over the course of history. It wasn’t inevitable or even reasonable that conceptions of freedom and equality should emerge, much less prevail among genetic strangers. These, when combined with faith and imagination, were originally legitimized by their transcendent “sacredness.”

...Human rights weren’t discovered but invented for social engineering of a kind unprecedented in human history. The American and French Republics began to render real the fictions of individual and equal rights through new mores, laws and wars, and not through independent scientific discoveries.... As philosopher John Gray of the London School of Economics convincingly argues, it is universal forms of monotheism, such as Christianity and Islam, that merged Hebrew tribal belief in one God with Greek faith in universal laws applicable to the whole of creation that originated the inclusive concept of Humanity in the first place.

Universal monotheisms created two new concepts in human thought: individual free choice and collective humanity. People not born into these religions could, in principle, choose to belong (or remain outside) without regard to ethnicity, tribe or territory. The mission of these religions was to extend moral salvation to all peoples, whether they liked it or not. 
Thus in a period when the Roman Emperor Commodus was having one-legged cripples tied together to serve as 'giants' that he would club to death in the gladiator ring, Christ's followers were preaching about compassion and salvation, in which the poorest and weakest were more likely to be saved than the powerful. I can't help but feel this was a huge step forward.

Historian Peter Watson told BBC's History Extra that ' as many scholars have said, firstly the invention of Jewish monotheism, and then Christianity, and the idea of an abstract God, who nonetheless can be known, provokes the idea of scholarship, of inquiry, that leads to progress, to science and so forth. And this makes the Old World, according to this theory, a far more curious entity than the New World.'

To us it seems obvious that we are all part of the same human species, but there was nothing inevitable about the idea that two-legged animals that speak must be our human cousins. So uncertain was this concept that Pope Paul III wrote the Sublimus Dei in 1537, announcing that Native Americans were not 'dumb brutes created for our service' but 'truly men and... capable of understanding the Catholic Faith'. He forbade the enslavement of the Native Americans on those grounds: the Indians were humans with the potential to become Christian, 'even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ'.

Yet the old tensions and abuses persisted even after the rise of universalist religions, partly because humans were still at an early stage of technological and diplomatic development. Borders were insecure, food supplies fluctuated and famine was always a danger. Today I see anti-religious commentators blame religion for medieval European wars. Yet Europeans had been hacking each other to bits for thousands of years and were probably at their most peaceful during the Pax Romana, when the advanced institutions and military domination of the Roman Empire kept the smaller tribes and kingdoms peaceful. With the collapse of that military authority, Europeans returned to their natural state of anarchistic violence; the alternative to embracing violence was to be victimised oneself. Christians killed Christians, Pagans killed Pagans, Muslims killed Muslims, Mongols killed everyone. Borders of conflict were as often within religious civilisations as they were between them.

As order returned and some countries began to become very prosperous, they were finally stable and secure enough to take seriously the religious morality they had preached but little practiced over the centuries. Hence the British Empire cheerfully traded in African slaves until it was mighty and secure, but by then the loudest voices on the side of abolition were devout Christians, especially Quakers, who criticised slavery on Christian, not irreligious humanist, grounds.

Of course religious people did terrible things which they justified on religious grounds. Yet it seems that people had been doing horrific things forever. In Western Europe, in deeply religious societies, some deeply religious people founded science, liberalism, slave-abolitionism and so on. It seems upside down to blame Christianity for depravities that existed everywhere and ignore advances that existed nowhere else.
Anti-religious commentators look back to a violent, oppressive past, see religion, and conclude that religion caused the violence and oppression. I suggest that poverty, political instability, technological backwardness and scientific ignorance caused both the oppressive violence and the domination of society by religious belief. As societies developed, borders stabilised and hunger abated, the worst excesses of oppression declined too, often because devout religious people denounced those social ills on religious grounds. Alongside those political and technological developments were scientific developments that created ideas of nature as a giant, godless mechanism. Atheism emerged from the discoveries of Christian scientists.

Even early feminism identified sexual equality with Christianity:
‘Christ is being crucified in Holloway’ – so ran the headline in the 5 June 1914 issue of The Suffragette. In this case, the Christ crucified in prison was the leader of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, but in fact any other suffragette in prison was liable to be likened to Christ. ‘Woman [is] ...crucified’, proclaimed Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, co-editor of Votes For Women, in a 1911 editorial. Indeed, suffragettes so consistently identified themselves with Jesus Christ that if, as Pethick Lawrence wrote, ‘[t]he Woman’s Movement means a new religion’, then this new religion certainly bore a distinct relation to the old one.
Liberalism, gender equality, abolitionism, science, religious tolerance: all were born out of a religious Europe, usually from deeply religious thinkers who were inspired by the Bible.

One might argue that religion is no longer necessary in our stable, modern, liberal democracies. Perhaps, now that the edifice of human rights and science is built, we can kick away the scaffold of religion; at least, though, acknowledge its role in creating the beliefs now held dear. Perhaps the truth is closer to the opposite to Steven Weinberg's statement. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil. But for most people to be consistently good and overcome their natural animal instincts to grab and kill - that takes some kind of universal ideology, like a religion.


  1. Interesting post. Being a subscriber of an Australian internet service provider subscriber, I have been open to different aspects of life without sacrificing my faith.


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