Science and Religion

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Controlling the world

It is often argued that science and religion are enemies, because both seek the truth, yet each finds a different truth.

The fact is that science and religion are allies. Science is interested above all in power. Religion is interested above all in order. Together, they are a winning team.

Science is a very expensive affair, and it has managed to achieve wonders thanks only to the willingness of governments and businesses to channel billions into research and development. Governments and businesses have funded science not out of pure curiosity, but because they believe it can help them gain more power and attain some cherished goals. And who sets these goals? Not science – but religions and ideologies.

Our religious and ideological beliefs are the ultimate source of funding for science, and in return, they get to shape the scientific agenda and to determine what to do with the resulting discoveries.



Religion without God

We often assume that religions and gods go hand in hand. This seems obvious to Westerners, who are familiar mainly with monotheistic and polytheist creeds. Yet the religious history of the world does not boil down to the history of gods. During the first millennium BC, religions of an altogether new kind began to spread through Afro-Asia. The newcomers, such as Jainism and Buddhism in India, Daoism and Confucianism in China, and Stoicism, Cynicism and Epicureanism in the Mediterranean basin, were characterized by their disregard of gods.

These creeds maintained that the superhuman order governing the world is the product of natural laws rather than of divine wills and whims. Some of these natural-law religions continued to espouse the existence of gods, but their gods were subject to the laws of nature no less than humans, animals, and plants were. Gods had their niche in the ecosystem, just as elephants and porcupines had theirs, but could no more change the laws of nature than elephants can. A prime example is Buddhism, the most important of the ancient natural law religions, which remains one of the major faiths.

The central figure of Buddhism is not a god but a human being, Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama was heir to a small Himalayan kingdom, some time around 500 BC. The young prince was deeply affected by the suffering he saw all around him. He saw that men and women, children and old people, all suffer not just from occasional calamities such as war and plague, but also from anxiety, frustration, and discontent, all of which seem to be an inseparable part of the human condition. People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge and possessions, beget sons and daughters, and build houses and palaces. Yet no matter what they achieve, they are never content. Those who live in poverty dream of riches. Those who have a million want two million. Those who have two million want ten. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness, old age, and death put a bitter end to them. Everything that one has accumulated vanishes like smoke. Life is a pointless rat race. But how to escape it?

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The War Against Death

Of all mankind’s ostensibly insoluble problems, one has remained the most vexing, interesting, and important: the problem of death itself. Before the late modern era, most religions and ideologies took it for granted that death was our inevitable fate. Moreover, most faiths turned death into the main source of meaning in life. Try to imagine Islam, Christianity, or the ancient Egyptian religion in a world without death. These creeds taught people that they must come to terms with death and pin their hopes on the afterlife, rather than seek to overcome death and live forever here on earth. The best minds were busy giving meaning to death, not trying to escape it.

That is the theme of the most ancient myth to come down to us—the Gilgamesh myth of ancient Sumer. Its hero is the strongest and most capable man in the world, King Gilgamesh of Uruk, who could defeat anyone in battle. One day, Gilgamesh’s best friend, Enkidu, died. Gilgamesh sat by the body and observed it for many days, until he saw a worm dropping out of his friend’s nostril. At that moment Gilgamesh was gripped by a terrible horror, and he resolved that he himself would never die. He would somehow find a way to defeat death. Gilgamesh then undertook a journey to the end of the universe, killing lions, battling scorpion-men, and finding his way into the underworld. There he shattered the stone giants of Urshanabi and the ferryman of the river of the dead, and found Utnapishtim, the last survivor of the primordial flood. Yet Gilgamesh failed in his quest. He returned home empty-handed, as mortal as ever, but with one new piece of wisdom. When the gods created man, Gilgamesh had learned, they set death as man’s inevitable destiny, and man must learn to live with it.

Disciples of progress do not share this defeatist attitude. For men of science, death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem. People die not because the gods decreed it, but due to various technical failures—a heart attack, cancer, an infection. And every technical problem has a technical solution. If the heart flutters, it can be stimulated by a pacemaker or replaced by a new heart. If cancer rampages, it can be killed with drugs or radiation. If bacteria proliferate, they can be subdued with antibiotics. True, at present we cannot solve all technical problems. But we are working on them. Our best minds are not wasting their time trying to give meaning to death. Instead, they are busy investigating the physiological, hormonal, and genetic systems responsible for disease and old age. They are developing new medicines, revolutionary treatments, and artificial organs that will lengthen our lives and might one day vanquish the Grim Reaper himself.

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Enslaved by timetables

While all these Sapiens have grown increasingly impervious to the whims of nature, they have become ever more subject to the dictates of modern industry and government. The Industrial Revolution opened the way to a long line of experiments in social engineering and an even longer series of unpremeditated changes in daily life and human mentality. One example among many is the replacement of the rhythms of traditional agriculture with the uniform and precise schedule of industry.

Traditional agriculture depended on cycles of natural time and organic growth. Most societies were unable to make precise time measurements, nor were they terribly interested in doing so. The world went about its business without clocks and timetables, subject only to the movements of the sun and the growth cycles of plants. There was no uniform working day, and all routines changed drastically from season to season. People knew where the sun was, and watched anxiously for portents of the rainy season and harvest time, but they did not know the hour and hardly cared about the year. If a lost time traveler popped up in a medieval village and asked a passerby, “What year is this?” the villager would be as bewildered by the question as by the stranger’s ridiculous clothing.

In contrast to medieval peasants and shoemakers, modern industry cares little about the sun or the season. It sanctifies precision and uniformity. For example, in a medieval workshop each shoemaker made an entire shoe, from sole to buckle. If one shoemaker was late for work, it did not stall the others. However, in a modern footwear factory assembly line, every worker mans a machine that produces just a small part of a shoe, which is then passed on to the next machine. If the worker who operates machine no. 5 has overslept, it stalls all the other machines. In order to prevent such calamities, everybody must adhere to a precise timetable. Each worker arrives at work at exactly the same time. Everybody takes their lunch break together, whether they are hungry or not. Everybody goes home when a whistle announces that the shift is over—not when they have finished their project.

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The Marriage of Science and Religion

We are living in a technical age. Many are convinced that science and technology hold the answers to all our problems. We should just let the scientists and technicians go on with their work, and they will create heaven here on earth. But science is not an enterprise that takes place on some superior moral or spiritual plane above the rest of human activity. Like all other parts of our culture, it is shaped by economic, political, and religious interests.

Science is a very expensive affair. A biologist seeking to understand the human immune system requires laboratories, test tubes, chemicals, and electron microscopes, not to mention lab assistants, electricians, plumbers, and cleaners. An economist seeking to model credit markets must buy computers, set up giant databanks, and develop complicated data processing programs. An archaeologist who wishes to understand the behavior of archaic hunter-gatherers must travel to distant lands, excavate ancient ruins, and date fossilized bones and artifacts. All of this costs money.

During the past 500 years modern science has achieved wonders thanks largely to the willingness of governments, businesses, foundations, and private donors to channel billions of dollars into scientific research. These billions have done much more to chart the universe, map the planet, and catalogue the animal kingdom than did Galileo Galilei, Christopher Columbus, and Charles Darwin. If these particular geniuses had never been born, their insights would probably have occurred to others. But if the proper funding were unavailable, no intellectual brilliance could have compensated for that. If Darwin had never been born, for example, we’d today attribute the theory of evolution to Alfred Russel Wallace, who came up with the idea of evolution via natural selection independently of Darwin and just a few years later. But if the European powers had not financed geographical, zoological, and botanical research around the world, neither Darwin nor Wallace would have had the necessary empirical data to develop the theory of evolution. It is likely that they would not even have tried.

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