Something for all of us to remember during a pandemic: Science has won every encounter in history in its war with religion.
This war began in Ancient Greece, and it still roils more than two millennia later.
Classical Greece teemed with magical faith. Multitudes of animals were sacrificed to a bizarre array of invisible gods who supposedly lived atop Mount Olympus. Throngs gave money to oracles who supposedly conveyed messages from the gods. Even “sacred wars” were fought over wealth accumulated by oracle shrines. Amid all this mumbo-jumbo, a few wise thinkers began seeking natural explanations, not supernatural ones. It was the birth of science — but it was risky.
Anaxagoras (500-428 BCE) taught that the sun and moon are natural objects, not deities. He was sentenced to death for impiety, but escaped into exile. Protagoras (490-420 BCE) said he didn’t know whether gods exist — so he was banished from Athens. His writings were burned, and he drowned while fleeing at sea. The most famous martyr was Socrates (470-399 BCE), who was forced to drink poison for offenses including “not worshiping the gods worshiped by the state.”
Through centuries, believers often killed scientific thinkers — but science always proved correct.
Hypatia (c. 360-415 CE), a brilliant woman who headed Alexandria’s famed library of knowledge, was beaten to death by Christian followers of St. Cyril.
Physician Michael Servetus (c. 1510-1553) — the first to learn that blood flows from the heart to the lungs and back — was burned in John Calvin’s Puritanical Geneva for doubting the Trinity.
Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burned by the Holy Inquisition for teaching that the Earth circles the sun and that the universe is infinite. Science pioneer Galileo (1564-1642) narrowly escaped the same fate for somewhat the same reason, but was sentenced to house arrest for life.
By the time Charles Darwin (1809-1882) perceived evolution, Western religion mostly had lost the power to kill nonconformists. Darwin’s great breakthrough unleashed a religion-versus-science battle that rages today. It caused the notorious “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Tennessee in 1925, and still flares when fundamentalists try to ban evolution from public school science courses. They contend that a supernatural father-creator made all species in modern form about 6,000 years ago, while science proves that life goes back vastly further, and that new species have evolved from former ones. Evolution has become the bedrock of modern biology.
Nowadays, nearly everyone realizes that science is a colossal boon to humanity, curing disease, eliminating drudgery, advancing knowledge, opening worldwide communications and generally making life better. Science has yet again come to the rescue with multiple Covid-19 vaccines that have been developed in a remarkably short time. In contrast, religion gives the world little — and has no solutions to offer for the coronavirus.
Science has won every historical showdown, constantly undercutting religion’s supernatural dogmas. World-renowned biologist Richard Dawkins says faith “subverts science and saps the intellect.” Luckily, it is still losing the war with science.
This article is adapted and updated from a piece that originally appeared on Oct. 31, 2017, in the United Coalition of Reason newsletter.