By Sadri Hassani | 6 April 2016
Mystics and some religionists try desperately to unite science and religion. Dave Pruett, a regular contributor to Huffington Post, refers to science and religion as “soulmates, each grounded in the experience of awe.” Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, laments that technology depicts “nature as an insensate order.” Deepak Chopra, the modern “prophet” of consciousness, claims that “Jesus, the Buddha, and other enlightened sages were scientists” (see here page 6). An op ed in The Wall Street Journal propagandizes that “at its heart, science is faith-based too.” There is even a $1.6-million incentive to lure scholars to the idea of justifying the unification of science and religion.
Evolution is not confined to the physical development of our species. Our intellect also has its evolutionary history. Just as we had a common origin with monkeys in the remote past, science and religion also had a common origin eons ago. While monkeys have developed very little from our common ancestors, homo sapiens have no resemblance to those ancestors. Likewise, while religion has developed very little from its common origin with science, the latter has no resemblance to that origin. What is that common origin? This post shows that science and religion both started as mythology.
Understanding the past commonality of religion and science is crucial for appreciating the present contrast between them. Without considering intellectual evolution, the God of religion becomes an authority whose words are as true as the words of science. On the other hand, studying how science and religion evolved from mythology reveals that God itself evolved — only slightly — from mythical characters, and that mankind created God, not the other way around!
The evolution of religion can be summarized in one sentence:
Religion is mythology with a sociopolitical arm.
What about science? How did it evolve from mythology? The gods of all religions reside in the sky (or on top of a very high mountain peak): Ra, the supreme god of ancient Egypt, rides on the Sun; Brahman, the god of Hinduism, lives above all the celestial bodies; Greek gods traveled between the sky and Mount Olympus; Yahweh lives in the heavens; Jesus rose to heaven to meet his father. There is another human activity connected to the sky: Astronomy, the first science, is the study of objects that reside in the sky. Is there a connection?
In His Own Image …
Open your mind’s eye for a moment and let it begin a journey in space and time! Far away and long ago. … Look at those construction workers laying down the foundation of the Eiffel Tower. As you pass over Jerusalem, see how the ruins of al-Aqsa turns into a new mosque as the workers reconstruct it brick by brick after a devastating earthquake. … You are now leaving behind the Flavian Amphitheater, the playing field of brutal gladiatorial games in Rome. You are passing the times when King Khufu commissioned the building of his tomb, the Great Pyramid at Giza, and when the Sumerian king Aannipadda built his temple at Ur. Watch how the pyramids are fading away, the temples are disappearing, the huts and mud houses leaving your sight! Do you see a savanna approaching you? Stop there. Now you are somewhere in east Africa or Eurasia some time between 50 and 100 thousand years BCE; eons before any towns or villages existed on the face of our planet.
Can you see the silhouette of those men trudging wearily in the savanna at dusk? They are returning to their cave after a long, laborious day of hunting, each proudly carrying a part of the carcasses of the boars they had killed earlier. The big smile on their faces speaks of their immense joy for having been able to provide a few day’s supply of food for their clan.
Their smiles are not to last long, however, because they notice that the wind is picking up speed, and the clouds in the sky are turning dark gray. They look at each other in fright. One of them quickens his pace; the others follow. By the time they are within a few yards from their cave, the wind is so strong that they have to bend forward and exert great pressure against it to be able to take the next step. “Big Serpent hiss,” utters one of the men as they enter the cave.
The mental capacity of our ancestors was sufficiently developed at this stage of our evolution to try to find a cause for every effect — the “scientific” disposition. All disasters were characterized by motion, severe unpredictable motion, and they originated from sky, which was also the seat of regularity and calm such as the motion of the Sun and Moon and the beneficial rain, soothing breeze, and fair weather. As our ancestors looked around, they saw that motion — both capricious and calm — was invariably associated with animals and humans. They quite naturally concluded that the source of all disasters must be mighty — possibly human-like — moody creatures residing in the sky. And when they looked up above on a partly cloudy day, they could actually see those creatures as the clouds morphed into human and animal shapes.
Was there any way that they could alleviate the disasters sent by those creatures? Conceivably, after some unsuccessful confrontational attempts, our ancestors decided to open a dialog with the whimsical and overpowering beasts up above. A direct communication seemed ineffective as the sky was too far away. On a stroke of genius, our ancestors came up with the brilliant idea of creating statues of the heavenly creatures and communicating with those statues! “If each statue is a sincere replica, then surely our words will reach the creature it represents,” they thought. And the statues began to multiply and spread from one community to another.
And thus man, in his own image, created gods to explain the natural phenomena! And with that creation, science and religion were born as twins!
The creatures sent not only storm, hail, deluge, or gentle rain and fair weather, but also an invisible entity which made its presence known whenever our ancestors imagined a dead relative, dreamed of a ferocious beast that gratefully disappeared when they woke up, or the scent of a flower that wasn’t there. In other words, the powerful imagery of our ancestors’ mind was associated with another form of a mighty invisible creature — a force or a spirit — that was present everywhere. This force exists in almost all societies. In the South Sea Islands, they call it mana; the Latins experienced numia in sacred groves; Arabs felt that the landscape was populated by the jinn. (See here page 4.)
Priests Were Scientists Were Priests
Communication with the creatures was not the task of ordinary men and women. Only the brightest and most devoted members of society were chosen to communicate with the idols, and they received the support and encouragement from the rest of the community. These were the first generation of priests.
With large resources pouring in, the priests erected magnificent temples, in which to congregate, to communicate with gigantic statues of their gods, to meditate, and to pass on the content of their experiences to each other and to the next generation of priests.
As the temple statues were only representations of the creatures in the sky, the priests inevitably turned their attention to their sources as well: they found it necessary to look at the heaven with an inquisitive eye and follow the motion of objects on which their gods were presumably riding. The first priests were also the first astronomers. (See here for the connection between religion and astronomy in ancient Egypt.)
The degree to which priests emphasized celestial observation depended on the importance they attached to the two features of their belief: the statues or the spirit (mana, numia, jinn). This emphasis varied from region to region. In Egypt and Babylon, for example, celestial observations were an integral part of the religion, to the point that later, the temples in these two countries became the Mecca of knowledge for the ancient Greek scholars such as Pythagoras.
The knowledge accumulated in the temples heralded two different destinies for the humans’ intellect. On one hand, the Greeks took the astronomical findings from Egypt and Babylon, stripped them from their religiosity and turned them into theoretical astronomy as well as abstract geometry, trigonometry, and mathematics. (See here for an account of how Eudoxus studied astronomy in Egypt.)
Greeks initiated the separation of science from religion.
On the other hand, the Egyptian and Babylonian priests’ observation of the sky, which was motivated by the intention to persuade their gods to bestow upon the earthly population health, prosperity, and long life, seemed to lead to little result, despite multitude of adjustments and fine-tuning of the idols and higher and higher price tags attached to the gifts and sacrifices intended for the gods.
Eventually, there emerged the idea that perhaps the priests were worshiping the wrong objects; that people might be better rewarded if they turned to the other manifestation of the powerful creatures: the spirit. This was the course of events that shaped the religion of East Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Borrowing from their sociopolitical structure — headed by an Egyptian Pharaoh or a Sumerian King — the “spirit” was eventually abstracted into the notion of a most powerful omniscience and omnipresent God. (See pages 40-78 of this book for an account of the emergence of monotheism.)
In contrast to the Middle East, India and the Far East, focused on the spirit from the very beginning. Buddhism and Hinduism taught that the universal spirit was inside every animate and inanimate object. So, there was no need for idols to represent something that is present in everything we see and touch. The idea of statues came, in fact, in the first century BCE, long after the death of Buddha, when a kind of personal devotion and humanization of religion, known as bhakti, was integrated into the religion and the first statue of Buddha appeared in Gandhara in northwest India. (See here pages 83-84.)
Regardless of its later development in the Middle East or in East Asia, religion was left behind by science once the Greeks secularized the astronomy that they inherited from Babylonian and Egyptian priesthood. And although science was temporarily suppressed by the rise of the Roman Empire and its eventual surrender to Christianity, it emancipated itself after the Renaissance and has left its once twin sister farther and farther behind. So, despite the attempt of Dave Pruett, Pope Francis, Deepak Chopra, John Templeton, and other scientists or religionists,
Today, religion is as much connected to science as Mayan (flat-earthed colorful) cosmology is to the big bang theory!
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Sadri Hassani is a professor emeritus of the Illinois State University’s Physics Department.
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