Sunday, September 3, 2017

"But Many Great Scientists Believed In God!"


Time for one quick counter-argument—

When debating the social effects of religion and atheism an inevitable argument coming from the religious will be something like, "But many great scientists were believers in God: Newton, Galileo, Faraday..."

OK. We atheists hear this a lot. Sometimes it's made by theists making the general claim that belief in god is compatible with science, sometimes it's made by theists making the specific claim that Christianity is compatible with science.


Regardless of the specifics here's my response:

Yes it is true that many great scientists have been believers in god, but it is also the case that prior to the late 1800s in Western culture you pretty much had to openly profess a belief in god. There were laws on the books in European countries that made it illegal to deny the existence of god or the truth of the Christian religion, and the penalties could be severe. Until the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act 1677 the death penalty was applied for atheism in England. And throughout all of Europe, from the time the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as it's official religion, the Catholic Church (and then later the Protestant churches after the reformation) had a monopoly on academic institutions.

What all this means is that until fairly recently there were no secular institutions of higher learning in the West. And by law, you had to profess belief in god, usually the right version of god, in order to maintain your freedom, social status, and job — and in some cases your life. So to say that Newton and Gallileo were believers in god, or were Christians and were brilliant scientists ignores that point. During their time they had no ability to be otherwise. And even during the post-Enlightenment period when the punishments for disbelief and blasphemy stopped being enforced (even though in many cases they remained on the books into the 20th century) there was still a tremendous amount of social pressure to believe in the religious orthodoxy, just as there is now in the more religious parts of the US, and in the Islamic world.

It was not really until Darwin's time in the second half of the 1800s that we began to see the emergence of any sort of real social acceptability of agnosticism or atheism. It was only once you got past the turn of the 20th century to the time of Einstein, Popper, and Freud that atheism became acceptable in the sciences and philosophy. And once it became socially acceptable what did we see? We saw the floodgates open of atheists in the sciences and today most of the best scientists are atheists or agnostics. In other words, once it became socially acceptable to be an atheist in the sciences, atheism quickly became the dominant view.

So the main reason why many great scientists (as well as philosophers, thinkers, and inventors) were believers in god, was because years ago you had to be, and religious institutions held a monopoly on higher learning.

Now of course today there are many great living scientists who are believers in god. Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, Don Page, physicist and cosmologist, Francisco Ayala, evolutionary biologist and philosopher. But if you look at the many reasons why contemporary scientists and thinkers believe in god, it rarely, if ever, is inspired by their scientific views. It is usually based on some emotional epiphany or the popular notion that god is required to have morality. In Francis Collins's case for example, he was hiking in the Cascade mountains when he saw a frozen waterfall split in three and upon seeing this, dropped to his knees and accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.

Yeah.

Furthermore, we humans are very good are compartmentalizing beliefs. We can hold contradictory beliefs quite easily. So just because a scientist is a Christian, a Muslim, or another religion, it doesn't mean science is compatible with those religions.

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