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Some Thoughts on Religion and Science

The Christian church, in its attitude toward science, shows the mind of a more or less enlightened man of the Thirteenth Century. It no longer believes that the earth is flat, but it is still convinced that prayer can cure after medicine fails.
- H L Mencken


In Galileo, Bertolt Brecht underlines the tension between religious authority and scientific inquiry. This struggle has existed for nearly the entirety of Christianity. Christians today like to pretend that the hands of contemporary religion are clean from the blood of scientific martyrs. Despite their delusions, religions like Christianity are doing just as much damage today as they did in the time of Copernicus and Galileo.

Rather than doubting the veracity of the heliocentric model of falling bodies, today's religious autocrats handle scientific research which they feel is of much more moral weight. Studies in stem cells and bioengineering have been halted because the faithful feel as if man is tampering with and destroying valuable life, and unfortunately they have voting power. Evolution has been all but abrogated by God's elect simply because it differs with the authoritative reading of Genesis. Religion interferes with the social sciences as well. Because they felt that condom use encouraged licentious behavior, Christian groups actively oppose sending condoms to sub-Saharan Africa to stem the flow of AIDS. Never mind that these situations feel eerily similar to the ones encountered in the day of Galileo and the Inquisition. Christians like to think that its opposition to science today is somehow different than the Church's opposition to heliocentric theory. The church refuses to acknowledge its behavior for what it is: the obstruction of progress – progress which serves the good of humanity.

Why is Christianity so good at suppressing the rising tide of scientific progress? I do not recall any situations in which belief in Athena or Poseidon stifled the progress of the Greeks, or in which Jupiter prevented the Romans from advancing in their society. The Egyptians believed the Pharaoh to be a god, yet they accomplished many great feats. These religions seem to have been equipped with the ability to change and adapt with the times. Religions that claim to have the word of God in written form (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) cannot change; they are slaves to a book. Such religions are static. Christians treat the Bible, not science or rationality, as the sole infallible authority in their lives. If the Bible does not support the scientific claim, the science is wrong. The only reason the church finally caved to the heliocentric theory was because it was embarrassing. The truth was too obvious, and what's more, the masses could look through a telescope and see for themselves. Fields like climate change and evolution are more complex. They are harder to observe, but their truths are just as cogent as the idea that the earth revolves around the sun.

The tyranny of the printed God-word survived even the Reformation. Although Luther took a rather cavalier approach to the Bible – he did not like the doctrines espoused in James, so he relegated it to the category of extra-canonical – he still believed in absolute authority. He doubted that the pope, or even the Church, had exclusive access to this authority. The Anabaptist movement took this idea even farther. For them, the interpretation of the God-word was a matter of public domain. This of course led to further massacres in the name of God, between not only the infidels and Christians, but between the members of God's own family. Although Christians now have the freedom to reinterpret the Bible to accommodate scientific claims, this merely creates degrees of scientific ignorance within the church. For example, some Christians accept anthropomorphic climate change claims, but others reject medicine and instead rely on the healing powers of prayer. It should be noted that Christians accept scientific evidences only to the degree that they read the Bible in an allegorical sense. The point is that the written God-word is itself a threat to science, and only by ignoring it or perverting its meaning can a reader make its teachings cohere with even some of the most basic scientific principles.

The Christian religion's tendency to obstruct science doesn't just make humanity more ignorant: it delays the formulation of potentially life-saving research. In other words, religion is killing us. Robert Oppenheimer recognizes why dogma cannot exist alongside science without one of them being destroyed:
There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry ... There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.

May we loosen ourselves of the shackles of religious literalism and live in freedom.
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