TIA: The New Luddites?

According to the diary of early Mormon disciple Abraham Cannon, Joseph Smith once preached a sermon on the so-called “Word of Wisdom,” a divine “revelation” which forbids the use of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine. Afterwards, he went out and “tried the faith” of Nauvoo residents by boldly riding around town smoking a cigar.

Vox Day spends much of chapter 2 of The Irrational Atheist arguing that there is no threat to science, either as a profession, a body of knowledge, or a methodology (and therefore Dawkins & Co. are making much ado about nothing). He then writes in Chapter 3:


…[T]he New Atheists harbor nearly as great a love for science as they do a hatred for religion. Like the science fetishists who regard science as a basis for dictating human behavior, atheists like to posit that Man has evolved to a point where he is ready to move beyond religion… A more interesting and arguably more relevant question that none of the New Atheists dare to ask is whether science, having produced some genuinely positive results as well as some truly nightmarish evils over the course of the last century, has outlived its usefulness to Mankind. Man has survived millennia of religious faith, but if the prophets of over-population and global warming are correct, he may not survive a mere four centuries of science.

Joseph Smith would be proud.

To hear Vox tell it, one would think that he would have to expect this chapter to sink his whole book, given the degree to which religion is supposed to have embraced science, and indeed even have invented it. As hard as he worked in the last chapter to try and give the impression that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, deserve special credit for sowing the seeds of modern day science, he’s going to spend some time arguing in this chapter that this might have been a very evil thing indeed. Just do the math:

The five major religions of the world, in order of their appearance on the scene, are Hinduism, traditional Chinese folk religion, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. These five religions have approximately 4.85 billion adherents, representing an estimated 71.3 percent of the world’s population in 2007, and they have been around for a collective 11,600 years. During the vast majority of those 116 centuries, the world has not been in any danger of extinction from weapons of any kind, nor has the human race been in serious danger of dying out from pollution, global warming, overpopulation, or anything else. Despite 116 centuries filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse religions, all competing for mindshare, resources, and dominance, the species has not merely survived, it has thrived…

Modern science has only been around for the last 350 years, if we date the scientific method back to the man known as the Father of Science, Galileo Galilei…

So, in only 3 percent of the time that religion has been on the scene, science has managed to produce multiple threats to continued human existence. Moreover, the quantity and lethal quality of those threats appears to be accelerating, as the bulk of them have appeared in the most recent sixth of the scientific era.

Wait a minute, though. 11,600 years? Organized religion hasn’t been around that long. Vox is taking the length of time Hinduism has been around, and the length of time Buddhism has been around, and Christianity, and Islam, and has added them up, as though that number meant anything. It’s like saying, “The temperature on Saturday was 22 degrees and on Sunday it was 24, giving a total temperature of 46 for the weekend.” It’s completely meaningless.

What’s even more striking is that Vox is using this to make a point about the relative importance of science and religion and there’s no need for it. Ok, three centuries is about three percent of 116 centuries, but the 116 centuries figure is completely bogus, and besides, he could just as easily argue that we’ve had organized religions for 70 centuries—3 centuries is still a small percentage. The point he’s trying to make is that religion hasn’t killed us yet, but technology has become a potentially lethal threat in a far smaller time. A 70 century period of religious history would still make the same point, but that’s not enough for Vox. He has to pump up the numbers to make them more impressive. If Dawkins or Harris made a math error like this, Vox would be all over them.

There’s another reason why this is a completely bogus statistic, however. Hinduism is the oldest of the religions he cites, but modern Hinduism isn’t quite the same as the Hinduism of 5,000 B.C. Religions evolve over time (even Christianity has), and the roots of a particular religion may not have a precise starting point. If you look up the history of Hinduism, for example, you’ll find varying estimates of when it actually got started, from 4,500 years ago to upwards of 8 or 9 millennia ago, or possibly more.

The problem with tracing the origin of religion is that it emerged gradually out of a less sophisticated, informal blend of superstition and animism. Yes, you can find “religion” twelve millennia ago, but it was more of the nature spirit, mythological variety. Do we really want to go back to that?

I’ll believe that Vox seriously means what he writes when I hear that he’s given up his computers and Internet connection. He does seem to write as though he meant it though:

[It] is Science, not Faith, which is the factor in the equation that presents a deadly danger to mankind.

This is true of both the military and non-military threats to humanity. While the jury is still out on the precise nature of the threat caused by global warming, there can be no doubt that the scientific method is at least in part responsible for it, along with the threats supposedly posed by overpopulation, pollution, and genetic engineering. Religion simply cannot be held accountable for any of those things, not even overpopulation.

…It was scientists who freely made the choice to develop these theories and, in many cases, the weapons, sometimes in innocence, like Alfred Nobel being stunned to learn that his blasting cap and smokeless explosives would cause him to be remembered as “the merchant of death,” and sometimes in full cognizance of their moral culpability, as in the case of Albert Einstein’s 1939 letter to President Roosevelt written in the hopes of encouraging F.D.R. to build an atomic bomb.

It is not the combination of religion and science, then, but rather the combination of scientists and the scientific method that have created this panoply of mortal dangers to mankind.

Somehow he neglects to mention the fact that Einstein was concerned that the Nazis might be working on their own bomb. The case against science sounds so much stronger when you make scientists look like they invent bombs just because they like blowing up people. But the big factor that Vox overlooks is that science does not tell people what they should do, it merely informs them how to do it, and what the consequences will very likely be if they do. And that’s the real issue here: what should we do with science?

Should we abandon it? Dismantle the Internet, stop making plastics, shut down our hospitals and labs and generators? Is that a responsible use of science? Let people die of new (and old) diseases? Do nothing to learn more about global warming and what, if anything, could be done to avoid disaster?

I don’t think any of us seriously want that, but the important point is that this is not a scientific question. Science can tell you how to build an airliner, how to make it fly, how to navigate it, how to make it more fuel efficient and so on. It takes an ideology to tell you that you should take an airliner and fly it into the World Trade Center. And that’s the important point because as bad as it is when technology is used for harm and death, it’s even worse when the “shoulds” are based on dogmatic ideas that don’t even correspond to any observable objective reality. Tragedy is all the more tragic when it is unnecessary and avoidable.

Science, per se, is not the problem. The misguided “shoulds” are the problem. Science can only tell us how; it’s up to us to decide should or should not. Yes, we’ve gotten along fine up until now because the stakes were lower. There’s only so many people you can smite with a sword, even if God does tell you to do so. But the genie’s out of the bottle now. The stakes are higher. Should or should not is a much more significant question. Would it not be wiser, then, to base our answer on the truth rather than on superstition? Does it really help to wax nostalgic over how the ignorance of the religious ancients prevented them from doing as much harm as they might have liked to do? They used the most effective means available to them, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. We need to do the same, with an emphasis on increasing the good and decreasing the ill.

I’m pretty sure Vox isn’t seriously proposing that we abandon science. He’s just expressing a bit of pique over the suggestion that maybe we ought to outgrow our religious beliefs. (And, incidentally, I do not agree that it is either necessary or desirable to give up religion, though some religions like Christianity do deserve to be exposed as myths.) But whether meant seriously or tongue-in-cheek, Vox’s argument is bogus and foolish. As long as religion continues to tell people what they should do, people will find a workable way to do it, whether they call it science or not. It is the problem of religion, therefore, that needs to be addressed.

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