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The Evolution of Thought

by James Underdown

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 2.

All great truths begin as blasphemies.
                 —George Bernard Shaw

It’s not what we don’t know that hurts, it’s what we know that ain’t so.
                                                                               —Will Rogers

Of the millions of nonreligious people out there, many seem to be experiencing a fairly high level of frustration about the recent rate of the evolution of thought. (By “evolution of thought,” I mean the long, slow transition from the belief in myths and magic to the use of science and reason.) We witness political candidates engage in prissy contests to see who can get to church (or synagogue) first, and hear public figures routinely assume that religious citizens are somehow more moral than atheists, agnostics, or secular humanists. There are angels on television, devils in the movies, and “In God We Trust” disfiguring our money. When are we, as a species, going to graduate past all this?

Let’s take a step back and see if the evolution of thought really is plodding along slowly, or if it just feels that way. Two thousand years ago, humanity’s knowledge of the universe was very limited. We humans generally didn’t venture very far from home; we didn’t understand where weather, disease, or earthquakes came from; and a great many of us were clearly divided between the very rich (and educated for the time) and the very poor or enslaved. This is the era that bore Christianity.

It took almost 1,500 years and movable type for Western civilization to make books available to large numbers of people who could then learn (if they could read) about things beyond their immediate environs. After taking fifteen centuries (from the time of Christ, if he existed) to go from pulling carts to pulling nicer carts, we needed another two centuries to start laying the foundations for modern science and technology. During this Enlightenment, we began studying the physical world and the skies just for the sake of understanding them. Science soared at a time when religion staked out territory and built fences. When science and technology made the Industrial Revolution possible, and a middle class came to life, education, books, and the means to think independently finally began arriving on the doorstep of the masses—for the first time in history. Remember, widespread, free, public education has been with humanity for less than two hundred years.

Think about that. The majority of humans have really only had access to the tools—never mind the inclination—to question ancient myths and medieval thinking for two hundred measly years. (Many still don’t.) That represents .0013 of human history (based on 150,000 years of modern humans.) Without access to knowledge through books and education, humans could hardly be expected to question the beliefs of their ancestors. Even today, the notion of ancient beliefs, traditional medicines, and age-old teachings connotes a deeper understanding of life and the world.

The modern world knows exponentially more than in Jesus’ day, or Darwin’s for that matter. Two hundred years ago, how many people had the knowledge or education to challenge the creation story in Genesis? What church would have ever felt compelled to compose a reasoned response to such a challenge? How many calls were there on churches at the turn of this century to cite scientific or rational arguments to support beliefs in Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, or the Shroud of Turin? For centuries, you believed what the church taught or you were shunned (excommunicated? executed?). It was dangerous to challenge dogma. It still is in many places. Churches engaged in no serious debate with nonbelievers because they felt no need to. The tradition of openly challenging religion and superstition is very modern.

Ah, but today there is debate. Despite the creationists in our midst, most modern people would as soon entertain a serious discussion about Adam and Eve as a discussion about goblins or witches—also once common beliefs. Before Darwin a century and a half ago, few scientists had any idea about how life evolved on this planet. How could the average person be expected to be able to refute Genesis? Today, no competent biologist, zoologist, geologist, etc., denies evolution. That is progress, fast progress.

Today, religions are coopting (at least the language of) science to support religion. The Institute for Creation Science and the Shroud of Turin Institute are both examples of religion attempting to deal with an increasingly educated mass of people. The Catholic Church apologized to the long-dead Galileo for his heliocentric ideas, and admits there is something to this evolution thing. Religion is for the first time in history feeling the need to use science and reason to support its ideas.

The face of religious belief is changing as well. Many religious people don’t believe in hell (or the devil) anymore. Catholics no longer believe in Limbo or abstaining from eating meat on Fridays, and (many) make their own choices (e.g. about abortion, birth control, and pre-marital sex) about right and wrong independently of church dogma.

Fifty years ago this individuality would be unheard of, or kept quiet. Now the large religions lose countless adherents because people just don’t buy the old party lines. That, too, is progress.

People live the science every day. We may not understand why our cars start, our computers hum, or our cell phones ring, but these things work, and we know science and reason brought them to us. Science lifts us into space, cures diseases, and broadcasts a world of knowledge into our homes. Science predicts the weather, powers our furnaces, and helps us live longer than our parents. When their lives are in jeopardy, holy men (and women) go to the hospital—not to a mosque, church, or synagogue—if they want to live on. Science is easing at least some of the fears religion sought to address from the beginning. That trend continues.

I know only too well how slow this process feels, but in the context of history, it appears that the good ship Religion’s leaks are becoming more unmanageable, while science and reason sail methodically, unflaggingly, into the unknown to demystify it. Patience, sailors, patience.

James Underdown is the director of the Center for Inquiry West in Los Angeles.

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