Hearts of Darkness 6 - A God of Order or of Chaos

Does God play dice?

Most people today, when asked about the relationship between science and religion, would likely answer that they are inherently opposed.  We've all heard how the Catholic Church forced Galileo to recant his belief that the earth revolved around the sun, instead of vice versa as traditional beliefs had it; and how he muttered as he walked out the door, "Nevertheless, the earth does move."

As, of course, it does, and the Church figured it out eventually.  More recent times have seen conflicts between belief in a Creator God vs. countless billions of years of random chance producing all we know today.

Contrary to popular belief, religion and science are not by nature at war with each other.  In fact, modern science owes its very existence to some key doctrines espoused by Protestantism; it's no accident that the vast majority of early scientists who founded entire scientific disciplines believed devoutly in the God of the Bible.

For example, Sir Isaac Newton, who formulated what we now call Newton's Laws of Gravity, believed that God created the universe, wound it up, and set it free to run without getting involved in it subsequently.  He spoke of the "Watchmaker God," pointing out that if someone found a watch in a field, that person would hypothesize that some intelligent watchmaker had designed it and made it.

Although Sir Isaac's concept was that God did not involve Himself in creation after setting it going, he believed that God set up the universe in a very orderly, predicable manner so that it could operate hands-off for long periods of time.  Sir Isaac believed it was worthwhile to study the universe to see how it operated because God had set the universe up to operate in a repeatable manner according to "natural laws," or "the laws of physics," whichever you prefer.

This insight is the foundation of all of modern science; without repeatability, the very idea of science is nonsense.

For the scientific method to have any value, it is essential that an experiment can be repeated in the same way and that the results should be the same, every time, no matter who is performing the experiment.  By definition, the scientific method calls for hypotheses to be testable by observable, repeatable, measurable experiments, by whomever wishes to perform them.  This works if, and only if, you believe in a God of order and pattern.

The ancient Greek thinkers developed many amazing technological gadgets, ranging from steam engines to mechanical computers.  Many historians have wondered why they did not continue their developments in technology and create the modern world thousands of years ago.  One possible reason they didn't is because of the Greek concept of the gods as capricious.

Anyone at all familiar with Greek mythology knows that Greek gods had a lot of similarity to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton - an awful lot of power, which in theory could be used for good or evil, but not a lot of wisdom as to how best to use that power.  Like Britney and Paris, the Greek gods tended to use their power mostly to pursue their passions or petty jealousies of the moment without thinking through the often dire consequences.

As a result, a devout Greek couldn't really expect the exact same experiment to work quite the same way every time.  Poseidon might be grumpy today, or Mercury feeling frisky.

Greek mythology did reflect observable reality to some extent - for example, Apollo, the god of the sun, was portrayed as a little more mature and reliable, just as the sun itself is pretty reliable.  For science to work, however, everything has to be reliable and operate according to laws that are the same each and every time without exception; Greek religion simply didn't support the idea.

Given that your experiment might turn out differently depending on how the gods were feeling that day, there was no way for the Greeks to formulate the idea of the scientific method.  The idea of gods as capricious beings who operate without rules held back Greek science.  The surprise isn't that Greece didn't develop more technology; it's that they got as far as they did without the necessary underlying philosophical underpinnings for scientific research and discovery.

The God of the Bible is known as a God of miracles, so at first glance, Christianity would appear to have the same problem as the Greeks.  A close examination of the Bible, however, reveals that while God certainly has the power to tinker with the laws of nature, He does so rarely enough that you can count on repeatability.

The Jewish scriptures recorded that hundreds of years would pass with no special miracles or supernatural interventions of any kind; then there'd be a rash of them generally revolving around a particular noted prophet; then there wouldn't be any for a long while, and so on.  The God of the Bible has never been in the wholesale miracle business.

As a result, unless you personally are Elijah or Moses, you can count on the rules of nature staying the same for you all the time.  Although Christianity certainly believes in miracles, practically speaking you can live your life as though there aren't any.  This works well with science; scientists are not generally the sort who make great mystic prophets.

People who believe that the universe came about through random chance scoff at Christians who believe in supernatural intervention and proclaim loudly that everything we see can be explained by the operation of natural law.  Despite centuries of scoffing by skeptics, most ordinary people seem to believe in miracles, at least when they're in extremis.  The military has a saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes."

There are many stories of former atheists praying to God for preservation from danger and going on to serve God when they survived the experience.  Church attendance jumped all over the US in the immediate aftermath of 9-11; the effect wore off in a week or two.  Many Christians suspect that few "foxhole conversions" result in any permanent changes in the person's way of life, but it should be recognized that "conversion experiences" can result in major changes, whether the conversion be brought about by Christianity, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Nation of Islam ministering in American prisons, or any other change agent.

A God Too Orderly

Asian religions generally agree with Christianity in believing in a God of order, but their sense of the gods' sense of order was too strong for Asians to invent the Scientific Method.  The Chinese invented gunpowder, mechanical clocks, and printing with movable type, to name but a few of their discoveries, but decided not to pursue any of these innovations.

One reason the Chinese didn't follow up their technological discoveries was the long, long shadow of Confucius, a scholar who lived around 200 BC.  He wrote during a period of turmoil between the fall of one dynasty and the rise of another; his writing emphasized the value of stability and predictability above all.

Confucius' teachings became so well known and respected that the government used his writings as the curriculum for aspiring bureaucrats.  Anyone who wanted to go into the civil service had to pass an extensive examination on Confucius' writing.

Since learning Confucius' teaching would have a guaranteed payoff whereas studying science, math, or technology might not pay off, there was every reason to focus on Confucius.  This led to an extreme conservatism throughout society.  As Will Durant put it,

There was something prim and Puritan about Confucianism which checked too thoroughly the natural and vigorous impulses of mankind; its virtue was so complete as to bring sterility.  No room was left in it for pleasure and adventure, and little for friendship and love.  It helped to keep women in supine debasement, and its cold perfection froze the nation into a conservatism as hostile to progress as it was favorable to peace.

Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1954) p 676

Any observer of the rapid pace of technical change in America need not be reminded that technology is utterly disruptive of any existing social order.  New fortunes spring up; old families go to the wall.

Any sensible autocrat knows that innovation has only down-side risk for the establishment.  Given that they're on top of the pile, any change, no matter how it benefits the average citizen, can only be for the worse for them.

Chinese rulers were always intelligent enough to realize this, which was yet one more reason to discourage technical change, particularly since conservatism was enthusiastically supported by the ancestor-worship taught by Confucius.  It's one thing to respect the teaching of your parents and grandparents; but if your ancestors are actual gods with powers of deity, well, "If it was good enough for my grandfather, then it's good enough for me - and Granddad will make sure it stays that way."

A God Just Orderly Enough

Regardless of what various religions teach about the nature of God, it is a historical fact that the scientific method, which was based on the concept of God as the author of repeatability and order, came out of Christian tradition.  The Bible teaches that God, as the author of creation, can be worshiped and honored by respectful study of His creative achievements as well as by study of His book.  A scientist working in his laboratory is in a sense worshiping God; many early scientists were motivated by their desire to understand the mind of God by understanding His creation.

There is a further impetus to inquiry in that the Bible is a book whose intellectual depths cannot be fully plumbed in a single lifetime, unlike the teachings of Confucius which are pretty well worked out and knowable in their entirety or the Koran which is short enough that a significant number of Muslims memorize every word.

Knowing that they could never truly master the Bible encouraged Christians to form the habit of lifetime study.  Chinese scholarship tended to focus on poetry and philosophy rather than on the grubbier and open-ended pursuits of engineering and understanding natural law.  Unfortunately for the Chinese and for most of the other nations of Asia, their reluctance to involve themselves in manipulating the physical world left them hopelessly outgunned when the round-eyes arrived.

Scientifically speaking, the saving grace of Far Eastern cultures is that they tend to be pretty pragmatic when confronted with the inevitable.  When Commodore Perry showed up off the coast of Tokyo with modern warships that could blow the Japanese knights and castles to bits, the government officials quickly realized that they'd made a wrong turn somewhere and needed to get with the program post haste.

The story of Japan in the Meiji era, in which it went from medieval feudalism to defeating one of the major technological European world powers in less than half a century, is far too long to relate here - but the bottom line is, the Japanese cast aside whatever elements of their old religion stood in the way of power.  They didn't just use Western technology, they set out to thoroughly understand it, focusing on basic social necessities such as armaments to keep the barbarians at bay, and adding whatever else they figured out for themselves.

Modern Chinese are following the same path to technological excellence with similarly effective results.  It will be most interesting to see how several generations of focusing on understanding technology well enough to become wealthy will affect the ordinary Chinese person's attitude toward the "nothing should change" teachings of Confucius.

A God Who's Complete in His Book

The Islamic world, in contrast, shows a very different point of view.  Muslims are not shy about making use of Western equipment; terrorists don't show up with swords and Arab princes are famous for buying anything that strikes their fancy.

Unlike the Far Eastern nations, though, the Muslim world seems to have a strange reluctance to get down and dirty with technology.  Buying a product off-the-shelf is fine, and paying someone else to operate it is fine too, but understanding it well enough to set up a factory and go into independent, competitive production is a bridge too far.  This is clearly not because Arabs and Muslims are less intelligent than anyone else; being a doctor is no job for a fool, yet some of the world's finest surgeons are Islamic in origin.

No, as with the ancient Greeks, there is a discontinuity in Islamic culture that leads to problems with basic science and engineering.  Christians may believe the Bible is the Word of God, but they know that the words of the Bible are not the only words of value.  Because God created the heavens and the earth, it's a worthy endeavor to examine and document how they operate.

Islamic theology, in contrast, places such a heavy emphasis on the all-encompassing authority and sufficiency of the Koran that anything other than the Koran is as best superfluous and more likely blasphemous.  As Caliph Umar reportedly said on ordering the great Library of Alexandria and its priceless contents to be burned, "If these writing of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.  Burn them all."

The attitude that the Koran is not only of divine origin but complete in itself makes it hard for an ambitious young person to want to study anything else; and we see the overwhelming preponderance of Islamic "education" taking place in madrassas, which teach Koran memorization primarily if not exclusively.  Regardless of its spiritual merit, memorizing the Koran is entirely useless for modern technological and scientific success.  Western Christian and Catholic schools, though they certainly emphasize religious education, spend the majority of the teaching day on more practical pursuits and have done so for hundreds of years.

The world history of the last millennium is the history of clashes of civilizations, some more successful than others.  Western Judeo-Christian civilization developed effective technology and was able to impose its will on other civilizations that didn't, until Rudyard Kipling's "lesser breeds without the law" caught up.  Japanese Shinto was deeply conservative, but was sufficiently pragmatic to realize that their way simply didn't work anymore, and to change accordingly; China with its traditional Buddhism and India with its Hinduism are well on the way to doing the same.

Islamic radicals are all too aware of their culture's inferiority technologically, politically, and economically, but their response is different: rather than change their culture to its own advantage as the Japanese did and the Chinese and Indians are doing, their goal instead is to destroy and ruin everyone else's advantage so as to drag them down to their own medieval level.  Unfortunately, modern technology is so effective and yet so complex and interdependent that this could actually work, as long as fundamentalist Muslims can reach a minimum level of power to destroy enough technology to get us below critical mass.

The degree to which religion influences society depends how various groups share power within the society.  The most powerful organizations known to man are national governments.  Thus, religious influence on society is affected by the intimacy of the ties between the religion and the government.  Our next article deals with the relationship between church and state.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
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