Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Christianity and the origins of science

I attended a film society debate recently over the film “Collision - is Christianity good for the world”. It was a debate between Christopher Hitchins (failed dedicated Trotskyite now failing to make a convincing argument as a dedicated Atheist), and an American Pastor Douglas Wilson (with a background in Philosophy teaching). By the end of the film I thought of them as the fundamentalist hillbilly versus the fundamentalist rationalist: and, as usual, found any version of fundamentalism spurious, frightening, and completely unconvincing.

The film wasn’t very good, largely because it was presented as a glorified book tour rather than a rational debate. The title question was – eventually - summarized in a single throw away line by each protagonist near the end, leaving the main debate to be about religion in general rather than Christianity. The discussion of religion devolved into a simple debate about whether it was possible to have a moral code that was not based on religion.

Now all three questions could have been interesting if well handled. They weren’t. No evidence at all was presented about the effects of Christianity. No good debate was had on religion in general. (Possibly because Hitchins seemed to assume that all religion is approached with the blind fundamentalism of your average suicide bomber, and the pastor always diverted that to the issue of morality.) No good debate was held on morality, simply because Hitchins never answered any of the questions put to him.

Actually Hitchins was riding to a fall here. The Pastor could look him in the eye and say that he was arguing from faith, because faith was the premises of his position, and therefore he was being consistent. He constantly requested Hitchins give a rationalist or ‘scientific’ basis for morality consistent with Hitchens basing his approach on rationalism. He didn’t. (I would argue that he couldn’t, but I am open to being proved wrong here. Pity Hitchins didn’t even try.)

The debate after the film was lively, and several people made the point that Hitchins could have made some good arguments if he wasn’t blinded by his ‘faith’ in the obviousness of his position. Instead his responses were criticisms of Old Testament examples of cruelty and capriciousness that are perfectly justifiable criticisms: but presented in a way that sounded like a seven year old being outraged… “and besides, you’ve got a big nose”.

Possibly the best point that Hitchens made, was that the early Christian Fathers seriously debated whether they should start their new religion completely from scratch, rather than adopting all the package of Judaism and the old Testament God. Hitchens casual aside on the difficulties of making such an inconsistency acceptable, could have been the foundation for an excellent debate. Certainly the pastor he was debating seemed to have a struggle to avoid actually agreeing with him.

Yet here again, and there is an inherent inconsistency in Hitchens approach to world. He is an absolute believer in Darwinian evolution, and yet completely unwilling to accept human theological evolution.

My own presentations to school children on the development of religions for ancient cultures leans heavily on the concept of evolution of understanding. Because all religions start as an attempt to explain the natural world and its effect on human cultures, all religions tend to evolve around consistent patterns. Animism is the starting point for any culture which faces the most simple of issues, such as whether there will be enough rain and sun to allow the fertility amongst plants and animals which will allow the culture to survive and prosper. Animism automatically develops into Polytheism as the culture becomes more complex, develops new technologies, engages in trade, discovers exchange methods such as coinage, and comes into contact with other dangerous and aggressive tribes. Polytheism itself automatically develops into Monotheism when it becomes apparent that a group of capricious gods that must be negotiated with is not an adequate worldview to cope with yet more complex social interactions.

Interestingly many cultures have been very happy with Polytheism until their world faces radical upheaval. For the ancient Jews who invented the concept of Monotheism, it was disaster in Judea and slavery in Egypt which moved them forward. For the ancient Romans, it was the collapse of imperial power and the incursion of ever-increasing waves of barbarian raiders. For the myriad tribes who eventually became the Moslems, it was possibly inevitable result of centuries of repression and infighting. In each case, it was not a matter of finding a new god, but simply a reinterpretation of the old. Each tribal group began with Animism, moved on through Polytheism as their society developed more complexity, and finished with the last god standing amongst the polytheistic hierarchy becoming the new Monotheistic god. This process appears to be more of a reinterpretation of a people’s understanding of their god, rather than the adoption of a new religion. I would call it evolution of interpretation.

In practical terms though, we think of each stage in their development is being the adoption of a new form of religion. So I disagree completely with those who suggest that it is not possible that the early Christian Fathers could ignore the religion that Jesus of Nazareth came from in defining a new religion. Here I would suspect that Hitchens is correct in thinking that the adoption of Old Testament Judaism within the new Christian tradition was a short-term political mechanism that may well have proved more problematical in the long-term.

The interesting thing about the debate afterwards, was the repeated assertion by 'rationalists' that any form of religion could not have a rationalistic base. And given that they had already failed in any attempt to argue that the human species can develop a moral basis without religion, this is a highly suspect argument. In fact it is easier to argue, that rationalism could not have happened without monotheism, than it used to argue that morality could not have happened without religion.

The world of the Aniministic or Polytheistic religions, is the world of capricious and uncaring gods, who have no real reason to help the ‘monkey boys’ apart from some form of bribery or deal-making. Only with the arrival of a Monotheistic God do we achieve the concept of rational and consistent rules within the universe. In particular, the Christian God, who overthrew the fundamental flaws of Greek science, namely the principle that multiple gods means that there are no immutable laws, and that in fact “shit happens”. In fact it is clear that all the marvels of Greek observational science are in fact the main hindrance to development of modern science. For centuries reference to the mistaken perspectives of the ‘divine’ Galen and Platonic Realism concepts of astrology, held back the development of rational observation science. Contrary to popular belief, it was the scholarly establishments fixation with the Polytheistically limited worldview is of the Greek and Roman forebears, that prevented Bacon and Galileo from moving observational science forward faster. The Roman Catholic Church was always on the side of the concept that the revealed world in the Bible should be interpreted by the observed world around us. Those that argue that the Renaissance was brought on by the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman texts (which had never in fact been entirely lost), need to rethink their position on just how much of modern science is based on the overthrowing of those hidebound and limiting texts.

I came out of the debate convinced of two things. The first is that nobody has yet outlined a reasonable explanation of how the human species could have evolved a moral code with-out having gone through a process of religious conviction. Morality seems fundamentally based on a prospective which acknowledges some higher purpose, or an outside value that is greater than the individual. Humanity clearly evolved more effectively than other creatures largely on the basis of specializing in co-operative behaviour and teamwork. I would suggest that this was only possible because humanity had the capacity to envisage a greater good. I would therefore argue that the concept of religion was intrinsic to the concept of communication, co-operation, teamwork and out evolving other species. (I am currently seeking a good argument opposing this perspective. If anyone can suggest sources that can be more convincing than Kant, I would appreciate it.)

The second thing that became apparent from both the film and the discussion afterwards, is that supposedly rationalistic ‘scientists’ are operating almost entirely on faith when it comes to making arguments against things they do not like or do not understand. Personally I do not believe that it is possible to scientifically prove such concepts as a ‘good’, ‘truth’, ’just’, ‘moral’, or even ‘blue’ (though I have seen some interesting metaphysical arguments attempting to do so). I am well enough aware of the limitations of human understanding that I am happy to say that I have 'faith' that there can be such a thing as truth or justice. Metaphysical concepts are no more open to scientific proof than is the theory of the Big Bang. (Though if anybody would like to demonstrate some repeatable experiments on the Big Bang theory to me, I would be delighted to see their attempt. Then I would be greatly amused to point out that the process that they are proving is the one detailed in the book of Genesis.)

I was not actually particularly impressed with most of the points made by the pastor in the film, but I had to agree with him on the basic principle. He effectively said ‘my worldview is based on faith, which you have to disprove; but your world view is based on proof, and to suggest that you want me to take that on faith is inadequate’. The convener of the film group, a dedicated atheist, complained that Hitchens simply did not offer an alternative foundation of morality on which to base his claims. He felt that this was unacceptable, though obviously he hoped such a thing was possible. In the film Hitchens more or less conceded that he could not think of a way to do it given human history, but he actually suggested that we take it on faith that it might be possible. (An argument of despair familiar to all who have read the Marxist apologists – like Hitchins - in the last 50 years.)

As an historian, what amuses me most is the parallel with the previous times religions have gone through a renaissance. Reading the works of the Rationalists, Marxists, Dada-ists, and Deconstructionists, simply reminds me of the writings of those bemoaning the collapse of Roman civilization in their own time. I see parallels in the trials of Socrates for blasphemy. I hope that our understanding of religion is moving past the appalling mediaeval concepts of hierarchical church structures enforced by in fallible humans. In fact I look forward to the next stage of the human interaction with the great unknowable. I do not a moment believe that abandoning the idea that there is order and reason and great purpose, is anything but a dead end. Unrealistic though it seems, Hitchens and Dawkins and the other atheists may have as much effect on human history as their rationalistic Greek forebears, but their self-righteous arrogance seems unlikely to halt human evolution for long. I am not sure where the next stage of our understanding will take us, and but I am sure that this is not it.


  1. He is an absolute believer in Darwinian evolution, and yet completely unwilling to accept human theological evolution.

    Couldn't an atheist argue that atheism is the next logical step from monotheism?

  2. Marxists argue that the dictatorship of the proleteriat is the logical evolution of government too, but their manufactured ideology with inadequate relationship to real world experience (and no useful moral code underneath) has proved to be a disaster. A very horrible disaster.

    How can any system that cannot point to real world underpinnings, or claim a practical moral base, ever be anything but a dead end?