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From Galileo to Kansas - the Feud between Science and Religion.


Galileo and the Holy Inquisition
Many (most?) scientists believe religions to be irrational, obscurantist and anti-scientific  The problem goes back to Galileo, who discovered that the earth goes round the sun, rather than vice-versa as stated in the Bible. When he publicised his findings he was arrested by the church on a charge of heresy and threatened with torture and burning at the stake unless he withdrew them. He offered the chance for his accusers to confirm his findings by observation through his telescope. They refused - if the facts were contrary to theology then the facts must be wrong.


The burning times
During the centuries when the church held political power, numerous other investigators of the natural world were tortured to death or burnt at the stake for their curiosity. The early pioneers of biochemistry and pharmacology paid a heavy price. Anyone who was adept at herbal healing (herbology or phytopharmacology) was particularly likely to attract the attention of the church. Successful practitioners were in league with the the devil. In most rural communities throughout Europe such expertise was in the possession of elderly women, who were persecuted mercilessly by the Inquisition and other ecclesiatical authorities. These witchhunts continued until the eventual triumph of reason over obscurantism during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (a period known as the Enlightenment).

The Current Battle between Theology and Evolution
Of more immediate interest to 21st century scientists is the ongoing battle between the scientific supporters of evolution (Darwinism) and geophysics,  and the theological supporters of creationism and a 'young earth'.

The scientists believe that the world came into existence hundreds of millions of years ago. In the beginning lifeforms were simple, such as bacteria. But by processes of competition and selection more elaborate organisms evolved leading to complex multicelled lifeforms such as mammals, birds, flowering plants and ourselves. To an evolutionist a species is not something that is defined or exists 'from its own side'. The characteristics of each species are constantly changing, and if we were to look back through the fossil records to try to decide where one species ended and its successor began we would ultimately be faced with an arbitrary act of human judgement, with no 'authoritative' specification to refer to.

Creationists, in contrast, believe that the world and all its species were created as described in Genesis during six days of a single week in or around 4004 BC . The species were defined once-and-for-all according to fixed blueprints and cannot change. This implies that the entire geological record of changing ancestral forms is a sham. According to the creationists, Satan planted fossils to to deceive us. Similarly the technology of DNA sequencing, which shows a 98% correspondence between chimpanzees and humans, is a fraud manipulated by a conspiracy of atheistic scientists.

Young earth
The 'young-earth' viewpoint is similar to creationism. The theological motivation is identical -  to defend Biblical chronology by proving that the world is only a few thousand years old. The challenge facing the 'young-earthers' is that all dating mechanisms which use the decay of naturally radioactive atoms in minerals agree that many of the earth's rocks were formed hundreds of millions of years ago. To get round this objection  the 'young earthers' have either to invoke more conspiracy theories, or postulate that somehow the rate of radioactive decay was very much faster on the early earth than it it now.

The conspiracy theory has problems in that isotope dating methods are used by geologists throughout the world, so the number of people deliberately faking results and keeping quiet about it would have to be huge. The fast early decay theory, apart from having no plausible basis, implies that the Garden of Eden must have had an intensely high background radioactivity. Adam and Eve would have been irradiated to such an extent that they would probably have been unable to produce any progeny at all - let alone the whole of the human race.

At present the creationist/young earth view is winning within the US educational system, as more and more boards of education outlaw the teaching of evolution. The creationists' victory is being won not by the strength of their arguments, but by imposition of censorship. It is likely that soon many young Americans will simply never come into contact with the concepts of evolution either in their lessons or libraries. In Kansas, where the majority of people believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, popular pressure has resulted in the removal from the school syllabus, not only of evolution, but also anything at all about Darwin, the big bang and even tectonic plates! (Daily Telegraph, July 14th 2000, page 19). It is fortunate that the good citizens of Kansas have not been requested for their opinions about the shape of the earth as well as its origin, or no doubt globes would be banned from geography classes. 

Kansas may appear to be an extreme case, being a predominantly agricultural state with relatively little scientific or technological infrastructure. But the phenomenon of creationist censorship is spreading to other US states and other English-speaking countries (though not apparently within continental Europe) and is not just confined to rural backwaters. Militant creationism will no doubt become a growing issue as the patriarchal religions continue to turn away from rationalism, and become ever more fanatically fundamentalist.

But to return to the original question. What's the point of this website? Hasn't religion always been anti-scientific? Is there any possible compromise?

The combination of bad relations throughout history and the current activities of fundamentalists have convinced many scientists that all religion is intrinsically irrational and anti-scientific. Mention religion and they reach for Occams' chainsaw.

This is a Western problem - Buddhist cultures don't carry this sort of baggage.
The point of this website is that the struggle between science and religion is not inevitable. It's a culturally conditioned view resulting from an ongoing 350 year old feud in Europe and America. It doesn't necessarily have to be this way and other cultures don't carry this baggage.

So how is Buddhism different from obscurantism? Buddhism could be described as a religion, but it could equally well be described as a philosophy or a technology of the mind. It isn't dogmatic or intrinsically paranoid. It doesn't expect you to believe six impossible things before breakfast. The refreshing thing about Buddhism is that in many respects it is an empirical methodology and a liberal tradition of free enquiry. It's not so much a set of things to believe as a set of things to do. As the Buddha told his students "Don't believe anything I say just because I said it - try it out for yourselves". Which really is the only way that anyone learns anything.

Buddhist Teachings
on the mind, personal relationships, meditation and the spiritual path.

Arguments against Buddhism - the best way to understand the strengths of a philosophy is to attempt to refute it!

RATIONAL BUDDHISM
If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Christian versus Buddhist worldviews

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation