Traffic’s up after the announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers. This article was originally posted on January 23, 2012.
Scientists working in the Netherlands and the U.S. who developed a more transmissible strain of the deadly bird flu have temporarily suspended their work to allow governments around the world time to assess the risks to “biosecurity.” The Dutch and American scientists, who produced their work separately, have submitted their results for publication. The National Institutes of Health, which funded the research, has requested the omission of important details over fears that the information could be used by terrorists to unleash a potentially genocidal attack in the future.
Keep this in mind as you consider what atheist writer and neuroscientist, Sam Harris, says about his “extinction equation”:
religion + science = human extinction.
He argues that religion is the source of all great conflict. Continued conflict with the destructive tools provided by science will result in the destruction of humankind. Therefore, all those who are dedicated to science must work to eliminate religion if humankind is to avoid extinction.
Yet as Christian writer, Vox Day, stated in his book, The Irrational Atheist, if we take Sam Harris’ Extinction Equation seriously, historical evidence shows that the most prudent action we can take is to eliminate science. As a professional astrophysicist who has dedicated her life to science, I must grudgingly concede that Day is correct if we are limited to an either/or choice between religion and science.
From a purely pragmatic point of view, it’s not difficult to choose which variable to set equal to 0 in Harris’ Extinction Equation. It would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate religion, which has existed in myriad forms for at least several thousands of years. Even religion’s greatest opponents, secular humanists devoted to Darwinism, recognize that the human species demonstrates a deep and enduring need for religion, so much so that even today as much as 90% of people in the world claim to be religious in some form or fashion.
Science by comparison has only been around in its modern form since the time of Galileo. It is understood, supported, and practiced by vastly fewer people around the world than religion is. The scientific method does not come easily to most people, which is why it takes many years of education and training to effectively instill it even in the small minority of humans who are predisposed to it. Science would simply be much easier to eliminate from humankind than religion.
Historical evidence also shows that religion, all by itself, poses far less of a threat to humankind than science does. It is true that throughout history religious groups have made war against each other. But the whole truth is that humans have always fought one another for territory and dominance beginning long before the appearance of modern religions. There is little or no evidence of peaceful coexistence on Earth at any time or place with or without religion. Monotheistic religion is therefore not a basic cause of conflict, but rather a relatively recently added element in the ongoing chaos and conflict of human affairs.
During the thousands of years that religion has existed, the human population has risen from a few million to almost seven billion. Since the time of the Reformation, human prosperity has improved to the point where 75% of humankind has risen out of its natural state of poverty, and there is a well-founded hope that the remaining 25% will follow in the next 50 years. The only threats to human survival during the time of religion were the possibility of an errant asteroid, such as the one that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs, and naturally-arising contagious diseases that periodically ravaged civilizations.
Science and technology has changed all of that — there can be no doubt that they’ve had a much greater and more negative impact on human violence than religion ever had. An explosion of technology beginning in the 15th century made it possible for the ongoing conflict to enter the era of modern warfare resulting in new levels of slaughter which eventually led to the horrors of the First World War. The determination of the Nazis to use science to destroy its enemies in World War II rushed humankind to the point where scientific knowledge could result in its utter destruction.
Realistically speaking, and regardless of the dangers, we can’t put the scientific genie back in the bottle. Nor can humans live without some spiritual/moral system. As the world seems on the brink of a preemptive attack (possibly nuclear in nature) to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability, there is good reason to be pessimistic about the future of humankind. Some kind of moral system must function to prevent scientific knowledge from causing the end of conscious life on Earth. As Vox Day observes, “the more pressing question facing the technologically advanced societies today is Quis eprocuratiet ipsos scientodes? Who will supervise the scientists?”
Does such a moral system exist? Yes, and that’s why I don’t think we face Harris’ either/or choice. Surak explains why here.