On the Scientific Revolution and the Journey it Demands of Us
Should any fundamentalist Christians happen to read this post, I hope you’ll find it both illuminating and entertaining.
For about five centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church had an absolute lock on information so far as the Western world is concerned. (Emperor Theodosius had unwittingly seen to that by making Christianity the state religion a little over a century earlier. To this day, in secular America, there are Christians who think Theodosius had the right idea and pray for the rise of Mike Huckadosius to set things right.) That’s why we call that era the Dark Ages: it was an age of dogma and the uncritical acceptance thereof, an age of serfdom and tractable compliance therein. The prerogatives of barons and bishops went unchallenged. People’s beliefs weren’t founded on their Bible reading; they were illiterate, and they didn’t own Bibles. They just believed whatever the clergy told them to believe. And they believed in outlandish stuff, like faeries and witches and demon possession and the evil eye, in zombies and unicorns and sea monsters. Almost everyone was ignorant as shit.
Then after about 1000 C.E., when a calendric millennium turned without the skies being rent asunder by a rider on a white horse, and it thus became apparent that Christ’s promised return may in fact lie a long time in the future, people slowly but surely began turning outward. The earliest gains were almost exclusively mercenary, but with trade comes exposure to more of the world and a gradual relaxation of strictures, and people’s minds began to churn. But it would still be another half-millennium until the sciences were born, beginning with that first great generation of discoverers from Bacon to Newton, and including the likes of such pioneering luminaries as Galileo, Kepler, and Boyle. Despite a gradual, almost imperceptible, loosening of their shackles, most people remained ignorant as shit, and even the so-called scholars were more deeply versed in the black arts than in observable phenomena.
Francis Bacon was the watershed: not so much for what he discovered, but for his way of thinking about the world. He was apparently the first in the modern world to understand that the cosmos and everything in it can in principle be accounted for in purely naturalistic terms. (I’ve seen Christian apologists make the absurd claim that this is a faith. In fact, it’s the very opposite: the progression of science since Bacon has borne out his insight at every turn. The foundation of the scientific method is not faith; it is evidence and reason. Do scientists hold beliefs about the world? Of course they do – beliefs born of evidence and reason. Faith and belief are two completely different things.)
That early era of discovery – the 17th century – is often referred to as the Scientific Revolution, but in some ways that term is a misnomer. Even in Newton’s day, most people in Europe were as ignorant and illiterate as their counterparts had been during the Dark Ages; the new discoveries were known only to a few, who were lucky enough to be relatively high-born. Information can spread only as far as its organs make possible and its managers permit, and daily newspapers were still centuries in the future (to say nothing of the internet). A proper revolution is the province of far more than a handful of aristocrats.
Let’s pause at this juncture and consider more closely the state of mind of those whose lives lay outside the short reach of that scientific beacon. Even as Kepler was working out his laws of planetary motion, and Newton, his law of universal gravitation, most Europeans probably still considered Earth to be a flat disc around which a star-studded sky revolves once every 24 hours – assuming they thought about it at all; for all practical purposes, they were still pre-Copernicans. Consider: not long before Newton, the privileged, aristocratically-connected Galileo Galilei had been placed under house arrest by the reigning Pope for the crime of broadcasting the inconvenient truth that the relationship between the Earth and the Sun is not exactly as the Bible describes.
Some of you may be wondering what relevance this could possibly have to you. I’m getting to that. In fact, I’m going to anticipate my conclusion by telling you a true story: when I was about 25 years old, I met an old geezer who, for reasons I can’t begin to reconstruct, engaged me in a conversation about science. Even though I cannot recall the particulars of the meeting, I do recall precisely what he said: “Yeah, I admire them scientists and all that stuff they’s findin’ out, but there’s just one little thing that I disagree with ‘em about.” [At this point, I was thinking to myself: ‘Not again! another evolution-denier! When are we going to hear the last of this?’ But no, he continued. . . ] “They’s tryin’ to tell us that the Earth is round, but I’ve got a Bible, and I read it every day, and the witness of God in my heart says it’s true, and I don’t care what them pointy-headed scientists say, the Earth is flat just like God’s Word says it is.”
He wasn’t kidding; he meant every word he’d uttered. That was in 1975 or thereabouts. The plate tectonics revolution was already well underway in geology, DNA had been determined to be the carrier of genetic information for all life, atoms had been smashed in cyclotrons and the building of modern particle accelerators was in full swing, the universe was known to be expanding, and we had landed men on the moon and sent probes into space. And this geezer was still living on a flat, pre-Copernican Earth – because that’s what the Bible teaches.
You fundamentalist Christians no doubt consider him woefully behind the times and perhaps delusional as well (and surely an exceptional case that has nothing to do with your beliefs). Please hold that thought in mind. Now let’s get back to my thumbnail sketch of the history of the Scientific Revolution.
Now we come to the 19th century, the century of some of the most phenomenal, earthshaking discoveries. And to cut straight to the chase: in 1859, Charles Darwin published a book that was profoundly disturbing to English clerics (to say nothing of the way it was received in the United States). In personal correspondence with the author, one bishop went almost so far as to counsel public retraction on Darwin’s part, expressing his wish that – if it were to turn out to be true – the public might never hear of evolution by Natural Selection, or at least hear that it had been denounced by its author.
If I were able to travel back in time, I might enjoy being the bearer of reassuring news to the good bishop. I’d almost relish telling him that he need not worry: thanks to centuries of indoctrination, most people, on hearing of Darwin’s theory (especially as it relates to the evolution of Homo sapiens), would simply dismiss it as the ravings of a lunatic or a demoniac – much as you fundamentalists are still doing today, a century and a half later. Reading about it in the newspaper wouldn’t change the mind of your garden-variety true believer. As every educator knows, literacy is a necessary but insufficient condition for critical thinking. Most of the people in Darwin’s day were still ignorant as shit; they just looked a little more “modern” than their counterparts who’d lived a millennium earlier.
I doubt I have to continue with an account of science in the 20th century; by now, my point is made if it’s going to be made. It’s not the cosmological discoveries of the recent past that have most of you bent out of shape: you haven’t even noticed those. Most of you hit a snag in 1859 and have been stuck there ever since.
Do you understand what I’m saying here? Your cherished beliefs – those that fly in the face of science – are the intellectual equivalent of the flat-earth views propounded by that geezer I met about four decades ago. They’re the views of those who haven’t kept up, of people who’ve decided that actually learning something about the cosmos is just too damned hard, who don’t want their comfortable faith challenged or shaken. You haven’t emerged from the Dark Ages, nor do you have any intention of so doing: you just look a little more “modern.” Some of you are going to respond to this post using a computer that was made possible by breakthroughs in quantum physics, without giving any thought whatsoever to how that science fits together with all the others in order to give us a vision of the cosmos that is unspeakably grand – humbling and ennobling simultaneously. The kinship of all life – a fact established, not “guessed at” by Darwin – is not, for you, a rich and rewarding thing to contemplate: it gives you a shudder of dread and revulsion; you retreat into comforting Bronze-Age myths recorded in your well-thumbed Bible. Confronted with string theory and dark matter, your brains seize up. Why? Why won’t you make the effort? What are you afraid of?
Is it the fear of death that’s got you locked in a state of intellectual stultification? If it is, for god’s sake stop worrying about it – it happens to everyone, and there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it. If you find the idea of death abhorrent, then try living! Death is simply unconsciousness. There’s nothing to fear in unconsciousness. It is a return to a state that is identical to that which obtained before you were born and began to be aware of the world. Is that something to fear?
Are you afraid of hell? Childhood indoctrination runs deep and poisons the entire well of experience. Are you afraid that apostasy would land you in the Lake of Fire? Hell doesn’t exist. It’s the fantasized horror of people whose knowledge of the world was so abysmally curtailed that an erupting volcano couldn’t possibly have meant to them what it means to a geologist schooled in plate tectonics; they’d have seen it as an entrance to an underworld; they’d have extrapolated a place of torture in a fiery abyss beneath the Earth. It’s a Bronze-Age view, neither true nor useful. You might as well believe in Valhalla or Hades. It’s a fairy tale. And that’s what your entire “holy book” is – just a bunch of fairy tales, a bunch of crap that people made up and that a gaggle of bishops cobbled together to support their orthodoxies and buttress their control over their “sheep.” You can stop believing it now. You can stop teaching it to your children. You can grow up and join that part of the human family that’s headed into the future instead of stuck in the past. (You see how optimistic I’m being here? I keep saying you can do all this. Whether or not you will is of course a different matter.)
To be fair, I understand why you’d find the prospect of apostasy terrifying. I was there. I spent a decade careening wildly from faith to faith, desperately afraid that one of them might in fact be right and that I might miss it if I didn’t try them all. That’s what childhood indoctrination will do to you. It locks you in a prison that’s so secure, you can spend decades of your life escaping even after making the discovery that you are, indeed, in the calaboose. I’m not kidding when I tell you that I feel your pain; my journey out of that living hell took everything I had, and I often wonder that I survived the struggle. All I can tell you is, it’s worth it. Once you’re free, you understand: it is this intellectual freedom, the freedom to let your mind run full tilt at any problem that interests you, that is the answer to the question of what it means to be human. To be human is to cogitate, and not be afraid of where cogitation leads you. One thing is certain: cogitation does not lead you into fundamentalist religion; it leads you out of it.