Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Is Truth Compatible With Fiction?"

That is the rhetorical question posed by some perfectly sensible atheists, when asked whether science is compatible with religion. They are confident that falsehoods always melt away in the light of facts, and that religion is on its last legs.

Unfortunately, they are far too optimistic. Depressingly, they sound like many 18th-century atheists, confident in Enlightenment, who were sure that religion was on its last legs, about to disappear very shortly, to melt quickly away in the glorious sunshine of Reason and Knowledge and Science. How could it not vanish, that aggravating nonsense? And yet, here we are, in the 21st century... What about before the 18th century? Before the 18th century, in Western "civilization," all the way back to the 5th century, when the Christian crackdown became complete, atheists were forced to keep their atheism to themselves. Before the 18th century, we can only guess which brave individuals might have been trying to send an atheist message between the lines of their writings. We can be sure that Hobbes was. As far as I know, the existence of any further atheists is controversial. Spinoza, Descartes, Machiavelli, Boethius -- their religious views are hotly debated.

Surprise surprise, many believers hang on to their beliefs quite tenaciously. If they do not reject science on religious grounds, they rarely miss an opportunity to insist that religion and science never conflict, and to chuckle condescendingly at people who think they do. The thing is that believers keep inventing new fictions when the older ones wear out, rather than embracing facts. Some whoppers currently popular among Christian theologians, people who actually hold Doctorates and are allowed to teach at otherwise-reputable universities:

* Before 19th-century American fundamentalism, it had never occurred to anyone to take the stories in the Bible literally.

* Galileo and the Inquisition just had a friendly chat, not a conflict; and/or: The issue between Galileo and the Inquisition had nothing whatsoever to do with science (because the Inquisitors were the most learned men of their day, and as science-friendly as could be, harrummph harrumph), but only with a personal quarrel between Galileo and the Pope.

* The Inquisition never killed anyone! (Yes, they actually say such things. All the Inquisition did was torture people and then hand them over to secular authorities who had no choice but to burn them alive.)

* Augustine and Aquinas were friends of science, nay -- there were scientists.

* (Etc. Fill in your own favorite examples of hair-raising, jaw dropping denials of plain reality which believers bring forth, rather than just say: okay, religion was mistaken, and science is a big improvement over it.)

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