Does Christianity Offer the Best Basis for Science?

There’s an argument I’ve run across several times, that theism, and specifically Christianity, forms a much better basis for science than does atheism. Indeed, some people go so far as to claim that only Christianity provides a foundation for science. Matt Slick at CARM lays it out well (though Don Johnson Ministries makes a similar argument). After listing a number of influential scientists who were Christians, Slick writes:

To many Christians, the idea that God existed and brought the universe into existence meant that the universe could be understood because God was a God of order and his character would be reflected in creation (Rom. 1:20).  Instead of a Pantheon of gods who ran the universe in an unpredictable fashion, Christianity provided the monotheistic bedrock (Isaiah 43:10; 44:6,8; 45:5) upon which the scientific study of nature could be justified.  Many Christians expected to find the secrets that God had hidden in the universe and were confident in being able to discover them.  This is a critical philosophical foundation that is necessary if an emerging culture is to break the shackles of ignorance and superstition in order to discover what secrets exist in the world around them.

This emphasis on order seems odd, since one of the main features of Christianity is miracles, that is, violations of natural law. Without at least the resurrection of Jesus, there is no Christianity. Add to that the various miracles Jehovah, Jesus, and various and sundry saints are said to have performed, the common notion that God sometimes responds to prayer by performing additional miracles, and weekly transubstantiation in church, and you get a picture of reality in which any regularities, any laws of nature exist only so long as a malleable deity permits them to exist.

If scientists like Kepler and Newton saw the Christian God as fundamentally one of order rather than caprice, and drew inspiration for their scientific pursuits from that, fine. But that’s hardly the only type of Christianity out there. I doubt that theirs was even a majority view. But in a time and place where pretty much everyone was Christian (and where not being Christian often carried either social stigma or legal penalty), of course Christians are going to be the ones doing science.

It seems to me that Taoism is a much better match for Matt Slick’s description than Christianity. You could, I think, make a strong case for the notion that the Tao is natural law. There’s certainly the notion that you can either go with the Tao, or you can wear yourself out trying to go against it.

(Yes, this still leaves the question of why so many scientific discoveries came from Europe rather than China. But that’s an interesting question for another day. I suspect that the fact that Europeans wrote American history textbooks has something to do with it.)

I suppose it wouldn’t do to mention alchemy and algebra, whose prefix “al” betrays their Muslim origin. Or the fact that a large proportion of visible stars have Arabic names.

I also don’t see why it takes a whole religion or worldview to want to figure out what makes the world tick. Anyone can see that day follows night, summer follows spring, rocks always roll downhill, never up, and that oaks only come from acorns. Clearly there are some regularities, and these can be investigated. We’re curious creatures; figuring stuff out is fun.

There’s a related claim to the one that Christians founded all the sciences: that Christians founded all the major universities. I haven’t checked this, but I see no reason to doubt this claim.

This brings me to my final point: let’s grant, at least for the sake of argument, that Christians, motivated by their understanding of God as a lawmaker, got all of the sciences started; that most or all of the major universities were founded as institutions to learn how God set up the universe; that Christianity is the only religion — the only worldview — that could have kickstarted science this way, and that out of those beginnings grew science as we know it today… so what? Why keep religion around today?

A scaffolding is essential when beginning a new building. But after a certain point, it needs to go. I was on an all-milk diet for the first, crucial part of my life, and that helped make me into the person I am today. But that doesn’t mean that I should continue to drink milk as an adult; I especially shouldn’t be on an all-milk diet.

Whatever benefits religion may once have provided to science, these days it just gets in the way, from creationism to anti-gay “conversion therapy” to faith-based climate change denialism. It’s time to jettison it.

Encouraging Islamic Reform

In 2010, Ayaan Hirsi Ali participated in an Intelligence Squared US debate on whether Islam is a religion of peace. In it, she made the argument that while Islam is not currently peaceful, it can become peaceful if it reforms.

More recently, her latest book, Heretic, lists specific recommendations for an Islamic reformation. Things like accepting non-literal interpretations of the Quran.

So I was heartened when I listened to the Intelligence Squared US debate, and heard the the two pro-Islam debators argue that certain verses needed to be “contextualized”, or understood within the culture that Mohammed lived in. To my ears, this sounded an awful lot like “you’re taking it out of context” and “oh, but that’s the Old Testament!”

These are, of course, two of the rationales that Christians love to use to explain away those passages of the Bible that they don’t like. Those two will do the trick 90% of the time, even when “that’s not in my Bible!” won’t.

The problem is that these excuses are, well, excuses. Don’t get me wrong: they allow Christians to get along with other people in the 21st century. It’s bad enough that there are any people left who still believe in witchcraft; let’s not encourage them to believe that “Do not allow a sorceress to live.” is still accepted as mainstream.

Clearly, we want to encourage people to ignore, downplay, or reinterpet the less-savory parts of their holy books. The problem is, how to sell this without being too obvious that that’s what’s going on?

Christianity benefits from the fact that most Christians don’t bother to read the Bible. That means that they tend to be unaware of passages advocating slavery or genocide, unless their pastor chooses to mention them, which I think most pastors are loath to do. For those who do want to read the Bible, there are Bible study materials and ready-made apologetics to explain away the inconvenient passages.

I’m guessing that similar interpretations and apologetics exist for the Quran as well. But how widely are they used? And how can we encourage more people to gravitate toward the hip-and-groovy interpretations?

Fitna in Arkansas

Fitna is an Arabic word meaning something like “disorder” or “unrest”. It’s often used as a justification for women covering themselves up, by not tempting men into lustful thoughts and the depravity and civil unrest that are sure to follow.

Now, I’ve always found this argument rather insulting: it basically says that men are weak-willed, that the moment we see an exposed elbow, we’ll go into some testosterone-fueled frenzy, unable to think straight, stopping at nothing in our craving for sex.

In other contexts, this is not considered a virtue. If I walk past you with my new iPad 2 or whatever the hot toy du jour is, and you like it so much that you steal it from me, that makes you a thief who needs to learn some self-control.

Now, obviously it’s polite to refrain from drinking in front of an alcoholic, or smoking in front of someone who’s trying to quit, but as a rule, people should be expected to control their antisocial emotions (although there’s an interesting exception, that I keep hoping to write about).

So anyway, the reason I bring this up is because of the bus ads in Arkansas, which you’ve probably heard of by now: in brief, the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason wanted to put some billboards on buses, saying “Are you good without God? Millions are.” The Central Arkansas Transit Authority had a fit, but decided that it couldn’t legally stop them. So instead, they demanded that the CoR pay a $36,000 deposit to insure against vandalism. As a person at the company that handles advertising put it,

“in reality, Arkansas is the buckle of the Bible Belt and I can easily envision zealots or upstanding citizens with a strong faith acting out.”

In other words, fitna. The transit authority and its advertising agency are afraid that the good people of Arkansas, once they see an atheist ad, will fly into a fury of vandalism and won’t be able to help themselves from keying the bus or slashing its tires.

Arkansans, is that really how you want to be seen? Unable to control your temper or play nice with others? Because if so, you may want to get a nice, modest gingham burqa to cover up your wimminfolk. I’m sure there’s someone out there who’ll be happy to sell you one.

Update Fri Jun 17 12:50 2011: Fixed broken HTML. HT alert reader Fez.

Isn’t this Backward Logic?

The Post writes in an article about the release of Manal al-Sherif, who dared to commit the crime of Driving While Female in Saudi Arabia:

There is no written Saudi law banning women from driving — only fatwas, or religious edicts, by senior clerics. They claim it protects against the spread of vice and temptation because women drivers would be free to leave home alone and interact with male strangers. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers or rely on male relatives to drive.

Except, I thought it was Saudi men who are so weak-willed that if they so much as glimpse a female ankle, they’ll lose all control and go on a rampage. So shouldn’t they be the ones forbidden from driving or leaving the house until they learn some impulse control?

Boobquake vs. Feminism

For those who hadn’t heard, some idiot Muslim cleric said the other day that “women who do not dress modestly” cause earthquakes. So Jen McCreight, aka Blag Hag decided to test this proposition scientifically. This became known as Boobquake. There was much tittering on the intertubes, and it quickly became more popular than any of the myriad thoughtful posts she’d written up til then.

But it also apparently raised the ire of feminists, on the grounds that encouraging women to show cleavage promotes the objectification of women. Okay, I can see that as being a valid concern.

Now, I like to think of myself as a feminist, in the sense of someone who thinks women should be equal to men in most situations. So of course I’m opposed to seeing women as nothing more than sex objects.

However, there’s a difference between not being merely a sex object; and not being a sex object at all. I have friends who are fantastic cooks, and I’d be a fool to turn down a dinner invitation from them. But that doesn’t mean they’re merely cooks, that they aren’t fully-rounded people. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I can just expect them to cook for me whenever I want, or that if I walk by when they’re cooking, that it’s somehow acceptable or even expected that I’ll be so overcome with hunger that I’ll be unable to resist stealing their lunch.

Having said this, I don’t deny that sexism is still a problem in the US (where, after all, “she was asking for it, dressed the way she was” is still a credible excuse for rape in some circles). But we’re still light years ahead from the sort of society where women are expected to be covered head to toe lest the sight of an unclad earlobe send a man into an involuntary libidinous frenzy or, worse yet, challenge his assumed superiority in all things, including control of women’s bodies. And that alone makes Boobquake a worthwhile poke in the eye to more repressive societies.

But I’m not going to tell anyone to participate in Boobquake who doesn’t want to. That’s an individual decision. But in the final analysis, the whole thing is a bit of fun, albeit with a serious underlying message. And if you can’t have fun with sex, you probably have other problems.

Indian Stupid Burns Like a Hyderabadi Biryani

First, the Telegraph has a
about an Indian nun’s book about sex in the church:

The book by the former nun reveals how as a young novice she was propositioned in the confession box by a priest who cited biblical references to “divine kisses”. Later she was cornered by a lesbian nun at a college where they were teaching. “She would come to my bed in the night and do lewd acts and I could not stop her,” she claims.

When she was sent to Bangalore to stay with a priest known for his piety, he lectured her about the need for “physical love” and later assaulted her.

To steal a line from
Monty Python,
“may I take this opportunity of emphasizing that there is no sex in the Catholic Church. Absolutely none, and when I say none, I mean there is a certain amount, more than we are prepared to admit”.

The article concludes with a spokesman who dismisses the nun’s claims:

“How far what she says is well-founded I
can’t say, but the issues are not very serious. We’re living with
human beings in a community and she should realise this is part of
human life
,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

(emphasis added.)

Oh, the irony! If the Catholic church would only realize that yes, sex
is part of human life, and would allow its priests and nuns to get
laid every once in a while, maybe there’d be less of this sort of
thing, to say nothing of child abuse.

(Cue BillDo in 3… 2… 1…)

The second item concerns an
op-ed piece
that appeared in
The Statesman in India.

The piece by Johann Hari argues that while people deserve respect,
ideas don’t. And that a recent UN resolution to avoid criticizing
religion has the effect of shielding human-rights abusers.

He and his editor have since been
for “hurting the religious feelings” of Muslims. You can’t make this
stuff up.

The Statesman’s
letters page
includes a letter entitled “Denigrating Islam”. Among other things, it
replies to Hari’s original contention that

I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a
“Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and
ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t
follow him.


Hari has made some vulgar remarks about the marriage of the Prophet with young Aisha, which incensed and hurt many readers of The Statesman. Muslims regard the pious wives of the Prophet as their mothers and hold them in high esteem.

Aisha, was not 9 but 10 years of age when she was married to the
Prophet, but came to live with the Prophet much later. It was after
attaining puberty when she was more than 15 years of age. Following
the Arab custom at that time, her father Abu Bakr, the first caliph of
Islam, proposed this marriage to cement his close relationship with
the Prophet.

Oh, so instead of a 53-year-old man fucking a 9-year-old, it was
actually a 58-year-old fucking a 15-year-old. I guess that’s supposed
to make it all right.

I’ve heard Christian apologists make similar excuses for the Old
Testament atrocities (e.g., by saying that Leviticus sets rules on
what you can and can’t do to a slave; which presumably makes it okay
to own human beings as chattel). I’m sure the fact that their Muslim
counterparts use similar arguments says something profound about the
ecumenical brotherhood of man or something. I can’t help imagining a
crowd of Christian and Muslim fanatics hand in hand with torches and
rakes, singing Kumbaya while marching to punish the heretics who would
disrespect their imaginary BFFs.

Everyone’s a Critic

The LA Times reports

Friday’s violence occurred as hundreds of thousands of worshipers across Iraq took part in Ashura rites commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of Muhammad who was killed by the army of the Caliph Yazid on the plains of Karbala. Hussein’s death in 680 made permanent the schism between Shiites and Sunnis over the succession after Muhammad.

During a reenactment of Hussein’s slaying in Basra, the crowd turned on the actor who was performing the part of his killer and beat the man so badly that he returned with an assault rifle to exact revenge. At least one onlooker was killed in the crossfire when soldiers tried to subdue the man and his relatives, security officials said.

Why am I not surprised that religious nuts can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction? This would be Pythonesque if it weren’t tragic.