'They make propitiatory sacrifices, slaughter black cattle and despatch offerings to the departed spirits... As children in blank darkness tremble and start at everything, so we in broad daylight are oppressed at times by fears baseless as those horrors which children imagine coming upon them in the dark. This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shinning shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature’
Lucretius, Book II, Lines 50-62
With these words Lucretius launched the idea of scientific knowledge as some kind of weedkiller to get rid of religion, a rhetoric which would be taken up in more modern times by figures such as Bertrand Russell, Peter Atkins and Richard Dawkins. In 1966, for example, Anthony F. C. Wallace wrote that:
‘Belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge’
(For future reference, it is unwise to make predictions like this in case you are proved wrong and thereby doomed to be quoted in future essays as some kind of false prophet).
To many it is considered a truism to say that science has prompted the secularisation of society, ushering in scepticism and laying the foundations for intellectually respectable unbelief. History reveals a more complex picture than this. A study by Susan Budd entitled ‘Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Unbelievers in English Society 1850-1960’ revealed that the reasons given by those who had lost their faith in Victorian England hardly ever included ‘advances in science’.
Budd’s research drew on the direct testimony of one hundred and fifty unbelievers and evidence from two hundred additional biographies. She found that conversions to unbelief were most commonly associated with changes from conservative to radical politics (religion being rejected as part of privileged society)and the reading of radical texts such as Thomas Paine’s ‘Age of Reason’.
Another commonly cited reason was the reading of the bible itself, in particular the Old Testament with it’s vengeful and anthropomorphic conception of the deity. In a recent essay in the book ‘Galileo Goes to Jail’, John Hedley Brooke cites a speech by the President of the National Secular Society given in 1912 where he insisted that the biblical stories of ‘lust, adultery, incest and unnatural vice’ were ‘enough to raise blushes in a brothel’. In ‘The God Delusion’, Richard Dawkins refers to an incident where Winston Churchill’s son Randolph was provided with a bible by Evelyn Waugh in an attempt to shut him up when they were posted together. Waugh later wrote:
‘Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud “I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible..” or merely slapping his side and chortling “God, isn’t God a s**t’
Judging by Budd’s study other readers of the Old Testament had performed a similar exegesis.
Other difficulties for believers emerged because of the gradual emergence of a historical understanding of the bible and Christianity as a whole. This began to undermine Christianity, one major blow occurring with the publication of Essays and Review in 1860. The authors, a group of liberal Anglican clergymen, argued that an inspiration reading of the bible should be replaced by a historical one. Essays sold 22,000 copies in two years, more than 'On the Origin of Species' sold in its first twenty years. It sparked five years of increasingly polarized debate with books and pamphlets furiously contesting the issues.Biblical criticism and history therefore emerged as the chief challengers to religious authority. The writers of the Old and New testaments became seen, not as timeless authorities but as unreliable products of a distant culture. As Owen Chadwick remarks in ‘Evolution and the Churches’:
‘[In the 1860s] theologians were busier with the consequences of Biblical criticism than with the consequences of the natural sciences...their new historical knowledge made them shrink away from basing the revelation of God upon documents which without doubt contained historical truth, but no-one could say how much truth.’
Truth, more specifically the exclusive access to the truth claimed by every Christian sect began to take it’s toll as did the perceived immorality of certain tenets such as the doctrine of Hell (Charles Darwin, horrified at the preaching of evangelicals on the afterlife referred to this as a ‘damnable doctrine’). The idea that atheist could be as morally upright as believers also began to gain credibility.
Hedley Brooke also draws attention to the sociologist Mary Douglas who argues that ‘religion is principally grounded in social relations, not concepts of nature’. In the 19th century secular reactions were provoked by movements from within Protestantism and Catholicism; claims for the inerrancy of scripture and vulgar bibliolatry; claims for papal infallibility and the provocative Syllabus of Errors published by the Catholic Church in 1864. These were the activities that prompted John William Draper to write ‘History of the Conflict between Religion and Science’ in 1874, popularising the thesis that Catholic Christianity and science were at war.
With regard to the modern era, Hedley Brooke writes:
‘In modern times, the expansion of secularism can be correlated with social, political and economic transformations having little direct connection with science. Historians point to increases in social and geographical mobility that have fractured communities once bound by common religious values. The growth of capitalism, commerce and consumerism has fostered a pervasive hedonism that threatens commitment to religious institutions and long term goals...secular values have been heavily promoted in the sphere of education and in the media. In some countries religious solidarity has been replaced by national solidarity or by the ideology of political parties. That such transformations have taken place at different rates and to different degrees in different cultures means there is “no consistent relation between the degree of scientific advance and a reduced profile of religious influence, belief and practice”.
There is however, the distinct possibility that all this post mortem analysis is a trifle premature. In Europe religion is in decline, but in the U.S and the rest of the world, as John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge claim in a newly published book, ‘God is Back’, religion is actually experiencing a surge. Many countries that tried to stamp religion out are now run by religious leaders. China is now estimated to have between 77 and 100 million Christians in house church movements. In Russia, 86 per cent of the population now identify themselves as Christians. In Guatemala there is now a 12,000-seat church with a heliport and giant swimming pool for baptisms (this complex has been built at the end of a road called Burger King Drive). In South Korea there is now an 830,000-member church (growing “by 3,000 a month”) with 12 choirs, 3 orchestras and “huge television screens supplying the words” to hymns ‘karaoke-style’. There is even some kind of bizarre miniature golf course in Kentucky which starts with the creation at the first hole and ends with a hole based on the resurrection. According to historian of science Ronald Numbers, creationism is booming around the world despite having been thwarted in court cases in the U.S
The statistics show that despite the hopes of rationalists the vast majority of humanity continues to believe whole heartedly in supernatural entities and despite the hopes of liberal believers it’s the fire and brimstone and biblical inerrancy which seems to be taking off the most. The world isn’t going to become a ‘clear thinking oasis’ any time soon.
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