I’m appalled at a article in Saturday’s Torygraph that gives credit to religion for major advances in technology.
A while ago, we discussed the accommodationist contention that “science derives from Christianity,” with one of its lamest assertions being that some believers, like Isaac Newton, made contributions to science. That alone is supposed to give a patina of science-friendliness to religion, and it’s sometimes further burnished by claiming that some scientific findings were not just made by men of faith (they’re always men), but were inspired by faith. I suppose that might be true, though I’d be hard pressed to name any.
The proper answer to this claim is fivefold. First, those discoveries were made in times when everybody was religious and you risked a lot by professing nonbelief. If religion gets the credit for science, then it also gets the credit for everything that happened until the seventeenth century, since everything was done by religious people. Second, the discoveries cited were invariably made by men, so why not give the Y chromosome credit for science? The fact that people will credit faith but not male-ness shows that we’re dealing not with causality, but a correlation.
Third, many of the discoveries may have been made by religious people, but were not motivated by religion. Even religious people can be curious and want to find out stuff, and it’s not necessarily because they feel impelled by God. Fourth, even if those discoveries were made by men of faith and even inspired by faith, they were made by purely materialistic means—by ignoring God completely and using the naturalistic methods of science that have proven so productive. Laplace was correct in arguing that science doesn’t need the “God factor.” Even if you give religion credit for the inspiration, you have to add that the perspiration—the results—came only by ignoring God.
Finally, since most scientists are now atheists, and the best scientists are even more atheistic (93% of the members of the USA’s National Academy of Sciences, for example, don’t believe in God, and figures for the UK’s Royal Society are similar), then according to this tactic we must now give credit to atheism for major scientific discoveries like the structure of DNA, the discovery of gene regulation, the Higgs Boson, the theory of relativity, and many more.
But in Saturday’s Torygraph, writer (and atheist) Matthew Kneale can’t refrain from dragging this old chestnut out again—in a piece called “To make an almighty explosion, just add faith: Scientists who regard religion as an irrelevance are foolish. Like it or not, belief has led to mankind’s greatest scientific innovations.” Here’s his thesis, which is launched after recounting the Gunpower Plot of 1605:
Fawkes used the best weapons technology of the moment: gunpowder. Some 36 barrels of it, to be exact. Religion looked to science to attain its ends. Was it ever the other way around? Science worshippers may view religion as an irrelevance. And yet, surprisingly, religion has been the midwife of a good number of humankind’s greatest technological discoveries. Including gunpowder.
But the weird thing is that Kneale’s examples of religion’s contributions to technology are incredibly weak. Here are some (quotes taken from article):
“One of the great religions of 9th-century China was Daoism. Famously incomprehensible, Daoism was greatly concerned with extending the length of its followers’ lives, ideally for ever. Among various means to achieve this, Daoists recommended taking special potions.
. . . Another favoured ingredient was an ore of mercury, red cinnabar. But this was hard to find. Daoist texts mention an alternative mix, which included saltpetre and sulphur. As it happens, these were also the two key elements of gunpowder, which first appeared on the historical stage, also in China, shortly afterwards, around AD900. It seems that, in their efforts to prolong life, Daoist alchemists accidentally stumbled upon a certain means of shortening it. Yet this was far from the first time that religion inspired a key technological breakthrough.”
Yep, that’s the big contribution of Daoism: not even gunpowder, but two ingredients of gunpowder. And one can make a good case that Daoism isn’t even religion, since there’s no God in it. It’s more akin to a philosophy.
But then there’s agriculture!:
- “Yet this was far from the first time that religion inspired a key technological breakthrough. In the West, most of the key cereals we eat today descend from the wild grasses from a surprisingly tiny part of the world: the Karadag Hills of south-east Turkey. Only 12 miles from these hills, at Göbekli Tepe, lies what is believed to be the world’s first temple. Dating back 11,500 years (more than twice the age of Stonehenge), it is an extraordinary site, high on a hilltop, of stone circles built on buried stone circles, and megaliths carved with animals and, in one case, what seems to be a severed human arm.Studies of the site have revealed that its builders were not yet farmers. They ate seeds of wild plants. The archaeologist Jacques Cauvin suggested that Göbekli Tepe kick-started farming. Worshippers carried bags of seeds with them, replanted them, and accidentally selected the rare mutant strains that became the very basis of our agriculture. It used to be thought that organised farming inspired organised religion. Now it seems that exactly the opposite was true.”
So religious people started planting seeds? Even if that were true, and I am skeptical about that, there’s not an iota of evidence here that the tenets of whatever religion those people practiced inspire them to plant seeds. It’s just a lousy example. If a student used this kind of logic in an undergraduate paper, she would get a failing grade.
Kneale goes on to credit the invention of writing (in what is now, he says, Iraq) to religion as well, but doesn’t give a shred of evidence beyond the claim that the people in that area were religious. Another fail.
Finally, he ascribes printing to religion as well:
- “For our fourth and final technology, we must return to China, around the same time as Daoist alchemists stumbled upon gunpowder. China’s other great religion of this age was Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhists believed that to make a copy of a sacred text counted as a good work, and would bring one closer to nirvana, a form of Buddhist paradise. The more copies you made, naturally, the better.This thought set minds to work. A set of Buddhist scrolls found in Bulguksa temple in Korea, dating from the early 7th century, are the earliest known printed texts. It appears that the development of printing — our greatest information technology revolution, which made knowledge available to all — was inspired by Buddhist beliefs.”
Well, this is also a stretch, since I’m not sure whether the printing press in Europe, the forerunner of modern printing, was influenced at all by the movable-type wood-block system of Asia. But let us grant the technology to Buddhists out of comity. Note, though, that none of these technological advances are ascribed to Christianity, even though that is most commonly cited as the source of modern science.
So, if you are out celebrating Guy Fawkes’ sorry night of failure, and find yourself watching rockets launch into the sky, as you chew on a party sandwich, and perhaps, in a quiet moment, glance at your copy of The Sunday Telegraph, you might pause to reflect that the bread of your sandwich, the words you read, the printing they are formed with, and the gunpowder in the fireworks all came to exist thanks to religion. Whether you believe in gods or not — and personally I do not — there is no denying that religion has had an explosive influence on every aspect of our lives.
What on earth, save a need of money, would inspire an atheist to make an argument as lame as this? And what would inspire the Torygraph to print it—save the desire to coddle faith?
Curiously, only last month Tom Holland reviewed Kneale’s book An Atheist’s History of Belief for the Guardian, and faulted it for being too strident! Here’s the last bit of Holland’s review:
It bewilders me that [Kneale] should have written a book so unreflective, so under-researched and so gratingly complacent. It reads, not like the work of the Booker prize-shortlisted novelist he is, but like an extended essay by a sixth-former who has just discovered Richard Dawkins. God willing and inshallah, Matthew Kneale will not be giving up the day job.
Could it be that Kneale has now seen the light, realizing that writers are much more popular when they coddle religion than when you criticize it?