“No religion holds its members to the high standards of moral responsibility that the secular world of science and medicine does!”
Daniel C. Dennett (2007)1
“Science and religion are on divergent paths, growing ever farther apart as knowledge expands.”
In Europe, the 'Dark Ages' refers to the barriers to human intellectual and moral development thrown up by a Christianity which sought to control all aspects of morality, justice, education and power, violently ending progressive morality and tolerance wherever it had the power to do so3,4,5,6,7 especially from the 4th century onwards. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church stood as the most stable centre of European power and under its dominant influence science and scholarship was all but destroyed, replaced with Church dogma and doctrine, violently enforced8. Philosophical works were burned and lost, medicine and psychology set back hundreds of years4,9,10. In some areas of knowledge, over one thousand years of Human development was lost and education became controlled by the clergy and was often limited to them alone5,11. The entire Middle Ages was subject to Christian superstitions, torture, violence, the loss of education and knowledge and the denial of basic human freedoms, specifically as a result of Christian doctrine11.
During this time, the Arab world carried the torch of knowledge and surpassed Europe in its understanding of philosophy, mathematics, and the sciences in general12,13. Europe slowly emerged from the dark age amidst continued widespread horror at the abuses of the Church, and a gradual trickle of intellectuals and early scientists emerged from the 12th century. Although they were mostly imprisoned and tortured by Christian institutions, they eventually lit the spark of the Reformation in the 16th century, which broke the power of the Catholic Church (after large scale civil wars between competing Christians14,15), and allowed the seeds of the 18th century Enlightenment to be sown8, whereupon religious organisations' power was curbed, worldly knowledge was sought and basic Human rights were proclaimed and valued.
As science and knowledge began to grow again in the West, Church authorities fought back with all of its power.
Copernicus (1473-1543)16,17, Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo (1564-1642)18,19,20, Newton (1643-1727)21 and Laplace (1749-1827)22 all fought battles against the Church when they published scientific papers that enraged the Church by writing that the Earth might orbit the sun, rather than the idea that it sat at a central position in the Universe. These and other scientists suffered torture, imprisonment, forced recantations and death at the hands of Christians20,23. The source of the Church's confidence was the Bible. Joshua 10:12-13, 2 Kings 20:11, Psalms 93:1, 104:5, Ecclesiastes 1:5, Isaiah 30:26, Isaiah 38:8, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 and Habakkuk 3:10-11 all contradicted the astronomers. It was not until 1979 that the Vatican "officially concede[d] that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not vica-versa"19.
Without interference from theists, science would have been a thousand years more advanced than it is now. Aristarchus of Samos taught that the earth moves, in the 3rd century BCE16. But Greek astronomical knowledge was condemned and hidden by Christians (Ptolemy et al) in the second century. The Ionians discovered the truth about the Sun, the Earth and the stars24, but their era ended when their last great scientist, Hypatia, was attacked by a mob of Christians and burnt in 415CE. The center of science, the Alexandrian Library, was also burnt and destroyed. Although the Church did eventually lose the battle against astronomy, it still went on to violently impose dogmatic errors in other arenas of knowledge, such as biology. Thankfully, today, most mainstream Christians accept scientific facts in many matters and Christian organisations have much reduced power to hinder research.
This isn't just a problem that the western world has faced; eastern religions such as Buddhism have also found themselves guilty of holding back Human knowledge; although he started out criticizing Buddhist scriptures and the way they are used instead of scientific discoveries about the world, his international look also led him to find the same fault in western-style theistic scripturalism.
“Chuki Tominaga (1744)... is said to have been a nameless merchant at Osaka. His Shutsu-jo-ko-go is the first great work of higher criticism on the Buddhist Scriptures. To believe blindly in the Scriptures is one thing, and to be pious is another. How often the childish views of Creation and of God in the Scriptures concealed the light of scientific truths; how often the blind believers of them fettered the progress of civilization; how often religious men prevented us from the realizing of a new truth, simply because it is against the ancient folk-lore in the Bible. Nothing is more absurd than the constant dread [of] religious men [of the] scientific discovery of new facts incompatible with [their beliefs].”
In the west, it was the Enlightenment and the Renaissance that has come to symbolize the final ascendance of science and rationality over religion. In particular, it was the victory of scientists in defending the view that the Earth orbits the sun that moved the public to switch to trusting evidence, not faith, as the arbiter of truth. This allowed science to flourish.
“After isolated advances during the mighty awakening of the Renaissance, it is not until the transition from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century that we find the modern atheistic conception of the nature of the gods of the ancients established in principal and consistently applied [and] we can scarcely avoid connecting this fact with the advance of natural science in the seventeenth century, and not least with the victory of the heliocentric system.”
For more on these topics, see:
The West slowly emerged from its dark ages as the Arab world plunged into its own, from which it has not yet emerged. The Arab world is not synonymous with the Muslim world, but, in the overlap between the two we see a lack of knowledge of science that is unimaginable to those brought up in developed Western countries. Those who do at least know of scientific theories are very far too likely to reject them as untrue. The Arab world is still in the depths of a Muslim Dark Ages, and although authors from time to time hail signs of an Islamic enlightenment, one has not yet come to pass, and for every step forward in one area of public engagement with science, there seems to be equal steps backwards elsewhere. As an example, read the following excerpt from The Economist (2009):
“A recent issue of Science, the weekly Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was devoted to research into "Ardi" or Ardipithecus ramidus, a 4.4m-year-old hominid species whose discovery deepens the understanding of human evolution [showing that] the hominid branch parted earlier than previously thought from the common ancestral tree.
In much of the Arab world, coverage of the research took a different spin. "American Scientists Debunk Darwin", exclaimed the headline in al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt's leading independent daily. "Ardi Refutes Darwin's Theory", chimed the website of al-Jazeera, the region's most-watched television channel. Scores of comments from readers celebrated this news as a blow to Western materialism and a triumph for Islam. Two or three lonely readers wrote in to complain that the report had inaccurately presented the findings of the research.”
How on Earth is there such a widespread misunderstanding of not only evolution, but the principles of science and scientific theories? It seems that not only are the basics missing, but that the vast majority do not have means to check, or read up independently on science. The article explains that this strange reaction stems from a culture that suffers, despite some wealth, from a very poor education that is hindered in particular by an overbearing religion, Islam:
“A third of Egyptian adults have ever heard of Charles Darwin and just 8% think there is any evidence to back his famous theory. [...] In a survey of nine Egyptian state schools, where Darwin's ideas do form part of the curriculum for 15-year-olds, not one of more than 30 science teachers interviewed believed them to be true. [...]
The strength of religious belief among Arabs partly explains their reluctance to accept the facts of evolution. [...]
The gap in the quality of education between Arabs and other people at a similar level of development is still frightening. It is one reason why Arab countries suffer unusually high rates of youth unemployment. [...] The most rigorous comparative study of education systems, a survey called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) that comes out every four years, revealed in its latest report, in 2007, that out of 48 countries tested, all 12 participating Arab countries fell below the average. [...] Other comparative measures are equally alarming. A listing of the world's top 500 universities, compiled annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, includes three South African and six Israeli universities, but not a single Arab one. [...] The Swiss-based World Economic Forum ranks Egypt [124th of 133] in terms of the quality of its primary education system and its mathematics-and-science teachings. [...]
Arab governments have been scrambling to improve. [...] Many have taken the route of encouraging private schools. [...] Oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf have spent lavishly to lure Western academies to their shores, but these branch universities are struggling to find qualified students to fill their splendidly equipped classrooms. [...]
Saudi Arabia has launched King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a city-sized institution with an endowment of $20 billion. Intended as an oasis of academic excellence [...] but one fancy new university will do little to lift the overall standard of Saudi education. And it has been attacked by religious conservatives.”
“Modern science has cast a cold and sometimes threatening light on many deep-rooted religious beliefs.”
Wallis and Bruce stated in 1992 that rationalism and the rise of science has been one of the three biggest challenges to religion30. Some important scientists and scientific institutions have been religious in nature. Egyptian astrologers were deeply religious (but their calculations were scientific) and Pythagoras, who aside from being a maths genius was also a Mystic and pagan leader. But in the modern era, science has been the deadly bane of monotheistic religions. It is less of a threat to polytheism, which has not tended to oppose science. Basic scientific observations - such as the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun (Copernicus) have turned into raging battles between rationalists and religionists. Other ideas such as the Big Bang, natural cause and effect, philosophy, theory of evolution, biology, ancient history, geology, archaeology, tectonics and physics have also been serious thorns in the side of religion. It appears that each major advance of science reduces the assumed power of god, so that God has become what is called "God of the gaps". The result has been the loss of public confidence in the ability of faith to address fact until "science supplanted religion altogether as the intellectually most satisfying and credible explanation of the world"31.
English education was in part, ironically, founded by scholarly Christians and monks. But despite appearances, many of these were Christian in name only as a result of forced conversions and social forces compelled most people to call themselves Christian. The legacy of powerful Christian-Roman forces and then the Inquisition were not to be openly reckoned against. Many scientists and thinkers operating under Christian educational institutions were coerced by the Church to only produce material with which the Church already agreed, and much of science was done in spite of the Church's wishes rather than in accordance with them. The lives of many intellectuals, Christian or not, are dotted with imprisonments, torture and oppression as a result of their discoveries as the Church leaders did not want the public coming to any knowledge that undermined the Church. The history of science is a history of struggling against determined religious believers, who frequently were better armed and hardened, we can only wonder at how science would have progressed if only the Greeks, Egyptians or Chinese had remained economically viable and survived, or if the Arabs hadn't also succumbed to religion over science!
In the modern world modern religion and science are largely reconciled, with God-believers believing that God (an uncaused organisational force) created the sciences and thereafter has done very little (if anything), whereas atheists believe that the rules of the universe itself is an uncaused organisational force. With religious people themselves no longer believing most of what they used to, science has largely won and god has become a much more abstract, non-literal being. The same goes for angels, demons, Satan and the rest of the Western religious pantheon, retreating into a shadowy world of abstract emotional belief where science may never be able to shed light, but psychologists might.
“The historical battles between religious institutions and science, such as those in physics, astronomy and biology, indicate there is something wrong with the religious approach to the study of reality. The underlying problem extends to negative effects on the individual intelligence of believers, and a related negative effect on educational achievements. Hardly any of the several-hundred Nobel Prize winning scientists have been Christians. Only 3.3% of the Members of the Royal Society in the UK and 7% the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, believe in a personal God. The more senior and learnéd the scientist, the less likely they are to believe in God. The children of highly religious parents suffer diminished IQs - averaging 7 to 10 points lower compared to their non-religious counterparts in similar socio-economic groups. As you would expect from these results, multiple studies have also shown that IQ is opposed to the strength of religious belief. 39 studies since 1927 (out of 43) have found that the more educated a person is, and the higher one's intelligence, the less likely someone is to hold religious beliefs - "religion declines in proportion to the rise in education and personal income"33. This correlation isn't new and was also observed in ancient Greece by Polybius (200-118BCE)34.
The effect extends beyond individual countries and is visible inter-nationally. Countries with a higher rate of belief in God have lower average intelligence. All countries with high average intelligence have low national levels of belief in God. For countries where belief in God is over 80%, the average national IQ is 83 points. For those countries where stated disbelief in God (atheism) is greater than 20%, the national average IQ is 98 points. Instead of belief in God, countries with the highest IQs adhere to Far-Eastern belief systems such as Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism. It is not just intelligence and education that is inversely correlated with religion - it has also been found that the more you know about religion itself, the less likely you are to be religious35.”
The next section of this page looks at some specific issues that have arisen in the history of the struggle between fact-based investigations and faith-based proclamations.
Religious groups have represented the most serious and prolonged opponents of the theory of evolution37 and preach and teach at great length against it, putting off many believers from researching the topic and leaving them only with misinformation37. This is especially damaging in countries with poor public education. Many highly religious countries have banned it (although not always everywhere), such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, the United States, Nigeria, and Turkey, "to the point where a significant percentage of their populations are firmly against it without even knowing what it is"38. In the developed world, the USA has the highest percept of creationists39 and is also the most religious highly developed country, whereas Iceland, Denmark and Sweden have the strongest belief in evolution, and are some of the least religious countries in the world39,40,41. Needless to say, education in the Muslim countries of the Middle East are heavily and horribly biased against evolution, with understanding of science even amongst teachers being poor42.