Friday, July 12, 2013

Did religion slow the rate of human progress?

A scene from the TV show Family Guy,
as quoted on Google+
By Aaron Sherman

I'm going to spoil this one for you, on the topic of whether religion slowed the rate of human progress, I think the answer is clear: no, it did not. However, I also think that you can point to some serious "one step forward, two steps back" moments in history, especially as concern Europe and its recent (last 2,000 years) affair with the Christian faith.

It would be impossible to cover the entire history of the interaction of religion and human progress, but I do want to talk about some specific high (and low) points that I think make this topic a bit clearer. I should be up-front: I'm not a member of any religion, but I'm not an atheist. You can read more about my personal beliefs in my post about deism.

The first thing that many Westerners think of when they consider human progress and religion is the trouble that some prominent scientists and philosophers have had with Christianity and with the Catholic Church more specifically. I'm going to touch on that later, but it's important to start off this analysis by covering the idea that narrowly focusing on specific events when you're talking about thousands of years of human history is a major error in logic. Instead, I'm going to start at the beginning, but before I do that, let's cover the definitions. Religion is pretty easy. It's the assertion that there are forces beyond the "natural" over which humanity has no power. Further, religion is a social institution built around myth built around this assertion.

What is myth? Myth is, to over-simplify, storytelling. It is knowledge that we pass down from generation to generation. Myths can be true or false. If my mother taught me the germ theory of disease, but I had never encountered any of the evidence that germs existed, then that would be a myth, but it would also be true. So by calling religions mythologies, I'm not asserting that they are true or false.

And finally, we need to define progress. This is actually quite hard, but I'm going to define it for this article as the accretion of knowledge which furthers practical improvements in the human condition with respect to survival, standard of living and freedom of the individual.

The Beginning

Religion exists in every culture for which we have enough of a record to make any determination on the subject. Ancient religions focused on the pressing needs of the prehistoric human: food, shelter, survival. I don't think anyone would argue that prehistoric man failed to adapt to his environment because of religion. For one, prehistoric man did adapt to his environment and gave rise to the two most important technologies that man has ever invented: agriculture and writing.

So, the barrier presented by religion, if it existed, must have come later. Let's look at one of the earliest written religions: Hinduism. In its earliest form, Ancient Hinduism (AKA Vedic Brahmanism) was tightly entwined with the rise of science and mathematics in Vedic India. To quote Wikipedia:
By the time of the last Veda, the Yajurvedasaṃhitā (1200-900 BCE), numbers as high as 10¹² were being included in the texts. ... Baudhayana (c. 8th century BCE) composed the Baudhayana Sulba Sutra, which contains examples of simple Pythagorean triples [...] the Pythagorean theorem for the sides of a square [and] gives a formula for the square root of two. [...] Vedānga Jyotiṣa [an astronomical text from between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE] details several astronomical attributes generally applied for timing social and religious events. [including] astronomical calculations, calendrical studies, [and] rules for empirical observation. [It also detailed] lunar months, solar months, and their adjustment by a lunar leap month of Adhimāsa.

All of this progress was made in conjunction with the Vedic religions and in service to them. The mathematical and scientific concepts that were born from these regions would later travel along the trade routes from east to west, delivering this knowledge to the Arabic peoples of North Africa, the Christian peoples of Europe and beyond. To these cultures we owe much of the underpinnings of modern mathematics especially.

Note (edit): the above could easily apply to the ancient Egyptians, Maya or the early Taoists.


So, it seems pretty clear that Hinduism didn't slow prevent human progress. Now comes the hard part: did Christianity? This is an incredibly complex question for two reasons: first, we tend to over-emphasize the modern day because it's what we have the most documentation for. It's easy to forget that when talking about India, we just covered something like 2-4000 years of history in a couple of paragraphs. When looking at the history of Europe, we see the so-called "dark ages" as a massive gap between the Roman and Enlightenment eras, but that was a mere 1000 years. A similar time of decline almost certainly occurred during the other time periods we've discussed, but it's hard to isolate such periods when summarizing thousands of years' progress.

But were the dark ages dark? Such religious thinkers as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham were pre-Renaissance philosophers who changed the very nature of our religious and secular thought, paving the way for the single most important philosophical achievement to the topic of this essay: the development of the scientific method. In the late middle ages (the dawn of the Renaissance) Martin Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms paved the way for religious and secular views to coexist in harmony without conflict (needless to say, this was not universally applied). This concept was further developed by John Locke, whose views of religion were of cooperation with reason, not opposition to it. His views would directly lead to (and be quoted in) the founding documents of the United States of America.

The age of exploration

But that only shortens the window of the dark ages to 700 or so years. Is religion still responsible for that period of slowed progress? Not really. The primary reason for stagnation after the fall of the Roman Empire is the destruction of trade routes. Trade has always been the primary means of cultural, philosophical and technological exchange. In the middle ages, after Rome had fallen, the open network of travel that Rome had created fell apart. Local land-owners, kings and other provincial power structures began to constrain, tax and in some cases outright block mercantile travel through their regions which had previously been subject to the rights of Roman citizens to travel, unhindered. It is no surprise, then, that the Renaissance began in what is now Italy, a nation with ready access to the Mediterranean Sea, which connected North Africa and the Middle East. Access to these trade-rich regions inspired the dawn of an age of exploration that would bring the Far East into direct contact with Europe and revitalize the scientific and technological progress by revitalizing trade within the continent and thus establishing a robust mercantile class.

The Crusades

The Crusades are a complex topic on their own. Starting between 700 and 1100 CE, depending on how you measure, the Crusades are not one event, but a collection of loosely related political, military and religious struggles throughout a period of roughly 300-500 years of primary conflict. Their relevance to progress is murky at best. Contact with the Middle East did increase Europe's desire for trade and would eventually entwine with the period of exploration that was to follow. In fact, it could be argued that the crusades were a period of political expansion and re-assertion as Europe regained its footing in the post-Roman era. The inclusion of religious goals and ideologies is a path-of-least-resistance, not a cause for the Crusades. That's one possible point of view, but it's certainly not the only one. No matter how you look at the Crusades, however, their impact on progress is, at worst, a short delay and at best a shot in the arm to trade-based communication and exchange that was otherwise prevented by the provincial interests of feudal leaders.


When the relationship between religion and progress comes up, the persecution of people like Galileo is usually used as evidence that religion slowed progress, but that ignores the fact that great thinkers in Europe were very often patronized by the Church or by Church leaders (local bishops, etc). That this system was a source of corruption, abuse, or scandal is not evidence that it slowed progress, and I think much the opposite could be argued: the level of funding that the Church put into  public works, art and technology in the middle ages far out-stripped that of any individual government.


In the end, I think it's clear: the modern era was, if anything, hastened along its path by the activities of religious institutions during the middle ages. A corresponding argument can be made that there was an awful lot of fear generated by the Catholic Church and that certain ideas clearly flourished more readily under other systems (Moorish Spain can be seen as an example of this, though it can also be seen as religion barely getting out of the way of my earlier point: travel and trade increasing communication).

Like I said, this is a huge topic and one that cannot be easily addressed. What I hope to have done is make it clear that the Family Guy cartoon that I started off with is an oft-repeated over-simplification.

Side point: Is that the lab from Futurama in the background?

Notes from the Atheism Community Discussion

Thank you to everyone in the Atheism community! We had a great discussion about this, and while I'm sure there are those who will never fully agree with me, I tried to take what they all had to say to heart! I've made some edits, above, but here are a few of my responses from that discussion that I think enhance the article on their own:

  • John Locke didn't stop asking questions. Scotus and Ockham didn't stop (really, read the hell out of those three guys, regardless of their religion). Augustine, for all I may think that he was dead-wrong on many topics, certainly kept asking questions. And lest you try to accuse me of misrepresenting the list with a couple of examples, check out:
  • And note that for all we talk about the Church's treatment of Galileo, he was a Christian as was Kepler and Bacon and Descartes and Leibniz and Newton. You can run all the way up through the modern day.
  • After that you can proceed on to:
    How can we reconcile the claim that all questioning stops with this list:
    Here's my answer to that: you can't. Religion isn't an end to questions, but a start.
  • The enemy of thought and questioning is blind conservatism. Blind conservatism in the service of faith or of culture or of ethnicity or of nationalism. This is the force that fueled the Inquisition, not a the belief that a carpenter was the son of a god. This is what fueled Stalin's murderous purges. This is what fuels the bombing of abortion clinics in support of doctrine that doesn't even exist. This is what causes the rape and murder of millions in war-torn parts of the world. In short, the enemy is in us all, and it emerges when we tell someone that they're less human because of what they believe or who they love or the color of their skin or what they eat or how they dress or who they vote for.
  • "The best alternative is to consider the fundamental principles that supports science" -- such as what? empiricism? To quote Wikipedia, "Philosophers associated with empiricism include Aristotle, Alhazen, Avicenna, Ibn Tufail, Robert Grosseteste, William of Ockham, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, John Locke, George Berkeley, Hermann von Helmholtz, David Hume, Leopold von Ranke, and John Stuart Mill." Feel free to look these guys up. Not all of them were terribly religious. John Stuart Mill, for example, was an atheist. But Ockham was a Franciscan monk. Ibn Tufail was an Islamic theologian. The fundamental principles of science are the legacy of thousands of years of religious people developing the social infrastructure, philosophical rigor and intellectual freedom to get there. If you're a free thinker, you have much more in common with Locke than you do with Stalin, vastly more so!
  • +Dan Eastwood said: I find this "1000 years more advanced ..." to be an unfair criticism of religion.It presumes an alternative history where things happened very differently and growth continued unabated. We don't know that such an alternative was possible. There are many possible alternatives that might have happened, and not all of them would have allowed unabated growth. Many of them might have been worse.

    It's a bad hypothesis. It's not really testable. It relies on some very strong assumptions that simply are not justified. In short, it's too much like religion.
  • In response to a claim that I was cherry-picking religious folks who were great thinkers and that that was an exception to the rule: How many hundreds of examples must we cite before we accept the rule? Christianity did great evil and great good. It propelled the pace of progress at a rate that was often unacceptable to the feudal kingdoms with which it interacted and it conversely burned people at the stake for translating the Bible. Any religion with billions of members ( will be a massive pile of contradictions and arguments. But, unlike some religions that preceded it, Christianity more often than not fostered those arguments and embraced those contradictions as evidenced by the emergence of empiricism from the body of religious scholarship that I referenced, above.

    If you're looking for me to say that there is no alternate reality where atheist overlords would have marched progress forward exponentially faster, I can't say that, but as +Dan Eastwood pointed out, neither can anyone else. We have what we have, and arguing that religion stifled progress is not based on fact, but on supposition. My assertion is that it's based onpoor supposition, but that's just me

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