Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred TruthsWhy Question Beliefs? Dangers of Placing Ideas Beyond Doubt, and Advantages of FreethoughtThe False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own BeliefsWhat is Science and the Scientific Method?
Perception & Memory:
What Causes Religion and Superstitions?Experiences of God are Illusions, Derived from Malfunctioning Psychological ProcessesHallucinations, Sensory Deprivation and Fasting: The Physiological Causes of Religious and Mystical ExperiencesScience and ReligionReligion and Intelligence
“No religion holds its members to the high standards of moral responsibility that the secular world of science and medicine does!”
Daniel C. Dennett (2007)1
As the Roman Empire progressed, scientific knowledge and academia flourished as best as was possible in the ancient world. Europe was largely the beneficiary of this knowledge "but during the Dark Ages in Western Europe the ability to read and write had become largely confined to the clergy, as too had a knowledge of the Latin tongue"2. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the only major European power that remained was that of the Catholic Church, which had largely become synonymous with all forms of rulership. Under its influence, science was all but destroyed as Church dogma and doctrine was violently enforced. Philosophical works were burned and lost, medicine and psychology set back hundreds of years. Neurologists Davison and Neale note that during the "Dark Ages for all medicine [...] Christian monasteries, through their missionary and educational work, replaced physicians as healers and authorities on mental disorder. [...] When monks cared for the mentally disordered, they prayed over them and touched them with relics or they concocted fantastic potions for them to drink in the waning phase of the moon"3. Historian William Draper explains that "the authority of the Fathers, and the prevailing belief that the Scriptures contain the sum, of all knowledge, discouraged any investigation of Nature", and then bemoans that "so great was the preference given to sacred over profane learning that Christianity had been in existence fifteen hundred years, and had not produced a single astronomer"4.
The Age of Faith was an era of Christian fundamentalism and superstition, of theocracy (rule by religion). During this time, the Arab world carried the torch of knowledge and surpassed Europe in its understanding of philosophy, mathematics, and the sciences in general. But then the Arab world itself fell under increasingly conservative Islam. Some Universities in Europe (three existed by 1200CE), independent from most constraints, had survived. They obtained Greek knowledge about the world via Arab translations5 and the spark of the coming Enlightenment set fires under the authority of the Church in the West. The West slowly emerged from its dark ages as the Arab world plunged into its own (from which it has not yet emerged).
As science and knowledge began to grow again in the West, Church authorities fought back with all the power of their powerful and rich organisations.
“Scientists had to suffer torture, silencing, imprisonment and death at the hands of Christians who didn't agree with newly discovered facts about the world. Christianity lost the first battle with astronomers who realized that, contrary to what Christians asserted, the Sun did not orbit the Earth, and that the Universe doesn't seem to be designed specifically for humankind. Copernicus (1473-1543), Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo (1564-1642), Newton (1643-1727) and Laplace (1749-1827) all fought battles against the Church when they published scientific papers challenging religious orthodoxy. Bible verses were all the theories Christians needed; and Joshua 10:12-13, 2 Kings 20:11, Psalms 93:1, 104:5, Ecclesiastes 1:5, Isaiah 30:26, Isaiah 38:8, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 and Habakkuk 3:10-11 all contradicted astronomers. But through intelligence and clever politics, truth gradually won out over dogma, and the Church retreated... only to go on to fight similar ignorant battles, and violently impose dogmatic errors, in the arenas of physics, biology and philosophy.
Without such interference from theists, science would have been more than a thousand years more advanced! Kepler in the 17th century only revived Greek astronomical knowledge that was condemned and hidden by Christians (Ptolemy et al) in the second century.”
One movement in the history of religion, in the 16th century, allowed science to begin flourishing and re-emerging after the dark ages of faith. The Protestant Reformation led to the founding of breakaway churches (such as the Anglican and Lutheran) from the monolithic Catholic Church.
“The development of science was retarded by the Church's imposition of orthodoxy on all fields of thought. The Church claimed to speak in an unchanging and authoritative fashion not only on matters of behavior but also on the behavior of matter. The Reformation, by breaking the power of the Church [...] made way for a variety of thought and for the questioning of tradition which is so vital to natural science.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults"
Steve Bruce (1996) [Book Review]6
The stubborn stance against science and real-world knowledge in Christianity stems from the very founders of that religion. Take Tertullian, one of the great and powerful Christian speakers of very early Christianity, who in 200CE was defending Christianity against its critics. 'Before he closes his defense, Tertullian renews an assertion which, carried into practice, as it subsequently was, affected the intellectual development of all Europe. He declares that the Holy Scriptures are a treasure from which all the true wisdom in the world has been drawn; that every philosopher and every poet is indebted to them. He labors to show that they are the standard and measure of all truth, and that whatever is inconsistent with them must necessarily be false'7. And what a terrible legacy became of that mode of thought: it is only true if it says so in the Bible. The hallmark of ignorant, dangerous barbarianism and fundamentalism.
Thankfully for the study of truth, the process of secularisation has diminished the strength of religion across the West, and since the Enlightenment, when religious institutions started to lose control of public life, education continues to act as an anti-religion force in the world: the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to be religious. Education is the key to leading successful, happy and above all, a meaningful life devoid of nonsense. The future looks bright for many. Although Europe excels (in a patchy way) in all-faiths education where religions cannot stamp their particular dogmas over science education, this is not the case in much of the rest of the world, so there is much work yet to do in combatting anti-science religiosity.
For more text that is purely critical of religion, see: "Time to Move On: Religion Has Cost Too Much" by Vexen Crabtree (2010).
The Arab world is not synonymous with the Muslim world, but, in the overlap between the two we see a lack of knowledge of science that is unimaginable to those brought up in developed Western countries. Those who do at least know of scientific theories are very likely to reject them as untrue. The Arab world is still in the depths of a Muslim Dark Ages, and although authors from time to time hail signs of an Islamic enlightenment, one has not yet come to pass, and for every step forward in one area of public engagement with science, there seems to be equal steps backwards elsewhere. As an example, read the following excerpt from The Economist (2009):
“A recent issue of Science, the weekly Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was devoted to research into "Ardi" or Ardipithecus ramidus, a 4.4m-year-old hominid species whose discovery deepens the understanding of human evolution [showing that] the hominid branch parted earlier than previously thought from the common ancestral tree.
In much of the Arab world, coverage of the research took a different spin. "American Scientists Debunk Darwin", exclaimed the headline in al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt's leading independent daily. "Ardi Refutes Darwin's Theory", chimed the website of al-Jazeera, the region's most-watched television channel. Scores of comments from readers celebrated this news as a blow to Western materialism and a triumph for Islam. Two or three lonely readers wrote in to complain that the report had inaccurately presented the findings of the research.”
How on Earth is there such a widespread misunderstanding of not only evolution, but the principles of science and scientific theories? It seems that not only are the basics missing, but that the vast majority do not have means to check, or read up independently on science. The article explains that this strange reaction stems from a culture that suffers, despite some wealth, from a very poor education that is hindered in particular by an overbearing religion, Islam:
“A third of Egyptian adults have ever heard of Charles Darwin and just 8% think there is any evidence to back his famous theory. [...] In a survey of nine Egyptian state schools, where Darwin's ideas do form part of the curriculum for 15-year-olds, not one of more than 30 science teachers interviewed believed them to be true. [...]
The strength of religious belief among Arabs partly explains their reluctance to accept the facts of evolution. [...]
The gap in the quality of education between Arabs and other people at a similar level of development is still frightening. It is one reason why Arab countries suffer unusually high rates of youth unemployment. [...] The most rigorous comparative study of education systems, a survey called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) that comes out every four years, revealed in its latest report, in 2007, that out of 48 countries tested, all 12 participating Arab countries fell below the average. [...] Other comparative measures are equally alarming. A listing of the world's top 500 universities, compiled annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, includes three South African and six Israeli universities, but not a single Arab one. [...] The Swiss-based World Economic Forum ranks Egypt [124th of 133] in terms of the quality of its primary education system and its mathematics-and-science teachings. [...]
Arab governments have been scrambling to improve. [...] Many have taken the route of encouraging private schools. [...] Oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf have spent lavishly to lure Western academies to their shores, but these branch universities are struggling to find qualified students to fill their splendidly equipped classrooms. [...]
Saudi Arabia has launched King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a city-sized institution with an endowment of $20 billion. Intended as an oasis of academic excellence [...] but one fancy new university will do little to lift the overall standard of Saudi education. And it has been attacked by religious conservatives.”
Albert Einstein (1929)9
“Modern science has cast a cold and sometimes threatening light on many deep-rooted religious beliefs.”
Wallis and Bruce stated in 1992 that rationalism and the rise of science has been one of the three biggest challenges to religion11. Some important scientists and scientific institutions have been religious in nature. Egyptian astrologers were deeply religious (but their calculations were scientific) and Pythagoras, who aside from being a maths genius was also a Mystic and pagan leader. But in the modern era, science has been the deadly bane of monotheistic religions. It less of a threat to polytheism, which has tended to be science-friendly. Basic scientific observations - such as the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun (Copernicus) have turned into raging battles between rationalists and religionists. Other ideas such as the Big Bang, natural cause and effect, philosophy, theory of evolution, biology, ancient history, geology, archaeology, tectonics and physics have also been serious thorns in the side of religion. It appears that each major advance of science reduces the assumed power of god, so that God has become what is called "God of the gaps". The result has been the loss of public confidence in the ability of faith to address fact until "science supplanted religion altogether as the intellectually most satisfying and credible explanation of the world"12.
English education was in part, ironically, founded by scholarly Christians and monks. But despite appearances, many of these were Christian in name only as a result of forced conversions and social forces compelled most people to call themselves Christian. The legacy of powerful Christian-Roman forces and then the Inquisition were not to be openly reckoned against. Many scientists and thinkers operating under Christian educational institutions were coerced by the Church to only produce material with which the Church already agreed, and much of science was done in spite of the Church's wishes rather than in accordance with them. The lives of many intellectuals, Christian or not, are dotted with imprisonments, torture and oppression as a result of their discoveries as the Church leaders did not want the public coming to any knowledge that undermined the Church. The history of science is a history of struggling against determined religious believers, who frequently were better armed and hardened, we can only wonder at how science would have progressed if only the Greeks, Egyptians or Chinese had remained economically viable and survived, or if the Arabs hadn't also succumbed to religion over science!
In the modern world modern religion and science are largely reconciled, with God-believers believing that God (an uncaused organisational force) created the sciences and thereafter has done very little (if anything), whereas atheists believe that the rules of the universe itself is an uncaused organisational force. With religious people themselves no longer believing most of what they used to, science has largely won and god has become a much more abstract, non-literal being. The same goes for angels, demons, Satan and the rest of the Western religious pantheon, retreating into a shadowy world of abstract emotional belief where science may never be able to shed light, but psychologists might.
The historical battles between religious institutions and science, such as those in physics, astronomy and biology, indicate there is something wrong with the religious approach to the study of reality. The underlying problem extends to negative effects on the individual intelligence of believers, and a related negative effect on educational achievements. Hardly any of the several-hundred Nobel Prize winning scientists have been Christians. Only 3.3% of the Members of the Royal Society in the UK and 7% the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, believe in a personal God. The more senior and learnéd the scientist, the less likely they are to believe in God. The children of highly religious parents suffer diminished IQs - averaging 7 to 10 points lower compared to their non-religious counterparts in similar socio-economic groups. As you would expect from these results, multiple studies have also shown that IQ is opposed to the strength of religious belief. 39 studies since 1927 (out of 43) have found that the more educated a person is, and the higher one's intelligence, the less likely someone is to hold religious beliefs - "religion declines in proportion to the rise in education and personal income"13. Countries with a higher rate of belief in God have lower average intelligence; all countries with high average intelligence have low national levels of belief in God. For countries where belief in God is over 80%, the average national IQ is 83 points. For those countries where stated disbelief in God is greater than 20%, the national average IQ is 98 points. Instead of belief in God, countries with the highest IQs adhere to Far-Eastern belief systems such as Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism. It is not just intelligence and education that is inversely correlated with religion - it has also been found that the more you know about religion itself, the less likely you are to be religious14.”
The next section of this page looks at some specific issues that have arisen in the history of the struggle between fact-based investigations and faith-based proclamations.
Religious groups have represented the most serious and prolonged opponents of the theory of evolution16 and preach and teach at great length against it, putting off many believers from researching the topic and leaving them only with misinformation16. This is especially damaging in countries with poor public education. Many highly religious countries have banned it (although not always everywhere), such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, the United States, Nigeria, and Turkey, "to the point where a significant percentage of their populations are firmly against it without even knowing what it is"17. In the developed world, the USA has the highest percept of creationists18 and is also the most religious highly developed country, whereas Iceland, Denmark and Sweden have the strongest belief in evolution, and are some of the least religious countries in the world18,19,20. Needless to say, education in the Muslim countries of the Middle East are heavily and horribly biased against evolution, with understanding of science even amongst teachers being poor21.”
By Vexen Crabtree 2016 Feb 14
(Last Modified: 2016 May 21)
Second edition 2006 May 19
Originally published 2003 Jun 0422
Parent page: Human Religions
Skeptical Inquirer. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, New York, USA.
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
(1996) Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK [Book Review]
(1984) God And The New Physics. Penguin 2006 edition. Davies is a Professor in theoretical physics who has published ground-breaking research.
Davison & Neale
(1997) Abnormal Psychology. Hardback 7th edition. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Amazon link points to a newer edition than the one I've used here.
Draper, John William. (1811-1882)
(1881) History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. 8th edition published by D. Appleston and Co, New York. Digital version accessed via Amazon.co.uk.
Einstein, Albert. (1879-1955)
(1954) Ideas and Opinions. Published in 1954 by Crown Publishers, New York, USA and in 1982 by Three Rivers Press. A collection of Einstein's writings and texts.
(2009) Science: A Four Thousand Year History. Hardback. Fara has a PhD in History of Science from London University. Published by Oxford University Press.
IHEU. International Humanist and Ethical Union.
(2012) Freedom of Thought. A copy can be found on iheu.org/...Freedom of Thought 2012.pdf, accessed 2013 Oct 28.
(2002) Religion, Science and the New Age. This essay is chapter 5 of "Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age" by Joanne Pearson (2002) (pages p173-224).
(1979) The Medieval Underworld. Quotes from 2004 Sutton Publishing softback edition.
(2002, Ed.) Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. Published by Ashgate, Aldershot, UK and The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.