Why are science and religion in conflict? Because changing ideas and new knowledge are sacrilegious.
Throughout Ken Ham’s Creation Museum, in northern Kentucky, a persistent story is exhibited in display after display. Two ways of looking at the world are shown: “God’s Word,” the ultimate source of knowledge, the Bible; and “Human Reason.” For Christians, human reason is always the fall guy, the error-filled path, while the only truth lies in listening to what God has to say. Christians have an old book with the whole story laid out—literally, as the creationists like to claim—and by their definition, all observations about the natural world must be accommodated to it. In contrast stands human reason, which dares to contradict the Bible, dares to show great truths not encompassed by the Bible’s stories, and most horribly, proposes an alternate, better source of knowledge than a body of ancient myths.
That’s a major theme throughout the “museum,” that science defies the word of God, and that the only valid knowledge must be that which is reconcilable with the Bible; Scripture is the sole arbiter of truth.
According to the Creation Museum,
“In a biblical worldview, scientific observations are interpreted in light of the truth that is found in the Bible. If conclusions contradict the truth revealed in Scripture, the conclusions are rejected.”
To that mind-set, insisting on the primacy of evidence other than the Bible is heretical—a theme at the evangelical Christian creationist organization Answers in Genesis, for instance, is that even the phrase millions of years is a signifier of gross, un-Christian error, since the Bible clearly (doesn’t it?) explains that the earth is only six thousand years old.
But, you might say, isn’t fundamentalist Christianity a kind of pathological religion that carries its antirational claims to absurd extremes? Is it fair to judge faith in general on the basis of this one radical example? Yes. Because fundamentalist Christianity isn’t at all unusual. Consider that well-known sixteenth-century theologian Martin Luther. Oh, Luther offers a rich vein of distressing statements opposing rationality.
“Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom. . . . Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism. . . . She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets. Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.
People gave ear to an upstart astrologer [Copernicus] who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”
Note that last objection: this is not just the opinion of some radical Protestant. The idea was shared with the Catholic Church, which similarly resisted the conclusions of astronomers. Islam also promoted geocentrism, despite the fact that the Koran is said to be without error and contradiction. That’s the problem with having a source that is claimed to be infallible but was actually written by people who knew next to nothing about the world around them—the stories don’t hold up.
Unfortunately, the religious strategy for coping with this conflict is not to maintain flexibility and adapt to new information, but instead to restrict new knowledge and condemn it when it contradicts tradition.
At the very least, religion’s fear of honest information about the world leads to stagnation; at worst, it is destructive to any culture that values scientific advances and the education of its children. Here’s a nightmare to contemplate: the staff of Answers in Genesis teaching children about science. And they do! They lead groups of children through recitations condemning evolution and all science that denies the “facts” of the Bible, sing songs about how the earth is only six thousand years old and the dinosaurs sailed on the Ark with Noah, and teach them how to stump scientists. (It’s easy: ask scientists “Were you there?” and when they say no, you’ve demonstrated that they have no evidence to back up their science.)
I’m beginning to think that child abuse is a tenet of the Abrahamic religions.
So here are some more sacrilegious acts you can commit: Learn something new. Teach something new. Question dogma. Challenge tradition. Laugh at the quaint myths religion offers us.
Excerpted from The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers. Copyright © 2013 by PZ Myers. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.