You can vote on the question today at the Center for Inquiry website. That’s right, the people who offered you Blasphemy day and the Cartoon Cavalcade and the Campaign for Free Expression now want you to “take” a quiz! It’s simple: don’t do any research. Go with your gut:
On balance, is religion beneficial for humanity?
* Yes, definitely.
* Yes, probably.
* Probably not.
* Definitely not.
* Don’t know/can’t answer
I avoid such surveys because like this one they are usually loaded dice, like the ones we will be treated to by CNN or MSNBC this week asking whether we think Christine O’Donnell is a good witch or a bad witch.
They create the illusion that Big Media care about what you think, when they don’t, or that you have something interesting to contribute to a controversial topic, when you haven’t.
As I read this little MCQ I recollected (or perhaps in Lockean terms “I associated it from”) my eleventh grade classroom, when a nun asked, sniffing the air, “Who farted?” There is something very funny about hearing a heavily habited woman say “fart.” So funny that six of us wanted to take credit. And there is something even funnier about six people wanting recognition for one small event, five eager boys and one dishonest girl flapping their hands just to be told to find a toilet.
It doesn’t matter a fart however whether you think religion is beneficial to humanity or not. It is like asking if Houyhnhnms are beneficial to Yahoos.
“Religion” (to use a term that has become categorical for superstition and stupidity in the CFI lexicon) and humanity are joined like horse and carriage. Beneficial, therefore, to the extent that you want to be driven forward in history
Most people would want to begin by saying that religions gave us, directly or indirectly, primitive science.
But that isn’t the only criterion for benefit: Whether we are talking about Sumer, Mohenjo Daro or the ancient Babylonians or Aztecs, early astronomy, calendars, mathematical notation, literacy in the form of liturgy and prayers, and myths–religion is there.
Religion gave us the primitive (“priestly”) elites that shaped and modified scrawls and pictures into more familiar writing systems. In the west, through the Scholae monasticae at Padua, Bologna, Oxford, and Paris, religious life was responsible for the first universities and the very development of what we now call scholarship: systematic study of individual subjects. Learning. From writing we developed a copyist tradition; that is how learning in all fields was mediated. It is true that monks prayed a lot. But it is also true that they copied everything. That is why we have it.
The forerunners of what would become the sciences, the arts, philosophy, serious astronomy, letters and music are grounded in ideas of mystery and dignity that came from religion and were mediated by its institutions–not by hermit atheists in the hills above Rome just waiting for their chance to be heard. We all moan (and should) at Galileo’s fate, but almost never recall his conviction that his “instrument” would be useful for biblical interpretation.
And it isn’t just the early and medieval west where religion was hitched to learning. In pre-Islamic India, Vedic culture raised the idea of reading and teaching to the highest rank among the Brahmins. Islamic culture took leaps ahead when it encountered their mathematics, art, political organization and architecture, beginning in the eighth century CE.
In the Islamic world, the original idea of the madrasah was similar: al Azhar (10th century), al-Qayrawan and Timbuktu produced seats of learning, where the idea of religious duty propelled the learning of secular subjects like botany, biology and medicine, not to mention technical subjects like engineering and hydraulics. The Qayrawan mosque held the most complete collection of treatises on botany in the ancient world–in four different languages.
In a positive way, religion fueled the renaissance with amazing works of psychology and devotion–Pico’s Oration, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Hobbes’sLeviathan, More’s Utopia. Bacon wrote his Novum Organum, on scientific method, in 1620. Erasmus had published the first critical Greek edition of the New Testament in 1516. Both were made possible because the century prior to Erasmus, printing had become available throughout most of Europe. Newspapers, broadsides and Bibles were everywhere, on street-corners and in parish churches by 1611; but most people who wanted to know how to read learned to read the Bible. That is what German peasants and American slaves have in common.
In a negative way, the creation of the printing press fueled the most important theological debates of the Reformation. At the long side of those debates, and also because of a pressing religious dilemma, a small edifice to learning was founded on the eastern shores of New England in 1636:
After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had built our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust. And as we were thinking and consulting how to effect this great work, it pleased God to stir up the heart of one Mr. Harvard (a godly gentleman and a lover of learning, there living among us) to give the one-half of his estate (it being in all about £ 1,700) toward the erecting of a college, and all his library. After him, another gave £ 300; others after them cast in more; and the public hand of the state added the rest. The college was, by common consent, appointed to be at Cambridge (a place very pleasant and accommodate) and is called (according to the name of the first founder) Harvard College.
To be honest, I am flummoxed that any organization that thinks it has anything serious or interesting to say about religion or secularism can be so persistently ignorant, so unashamedly dumb about details. Is there a model of historical development that has been kept from us? One in which religion plays no “beneficial” role? Has the Spirit of Light been imprisoned by the forces of faith ere these many centuries?
Alas, that last question is not entirely facetious. A lot of atheists follow a strange line of historical progress:
Ancient stuff, whatever
Plato and Aristotle (secular humanists)
The Dark Ages (Library of Alexandria destroyed by drunken monks)
The Crusades (jury out: kept Muslims in their place)
The Inquisition (bloody horrible intolerant religion at work)
The Renaissance (not bad, but too much religious art)
The Reformation (the what?)
The Enlightenment (prisoners of conscience set free; America founded)
Darwin (messianic age begins)
Except 9/11 (more bloody horrible religion at work)
And, no, the library at Alexandria was not destroyed by drunken monks. You have three choices: (a) Julius Caesar in 48BC, who underestimated what the burning of the Egyptian fleet would mean to buildings close to the harbour of Alexandria; (b) the Christian bishop Theophilus, in the process of Christianizing a pagan temple to Serapis (the popular story told by Gibbon and ever after by everybody else); or (c) the Muslim caliph Omar in 640CE. Omar allegedly was provoked to to this when he said, “These [books at Alexandria] will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, whereby they are superfluous.” It comes as no surprise that the source of this information is the thoroughly despicable Christian bishop, Gregory bar Hebraeus, who spent most of his idle time making up nasty stories about Muslims.
It is not often you get a choice of religions to blame for the destruction of all the world’s learning, which, by the way, Alexandria certainly wasn’t.
My strong recommendation is that this be the topic of CFI’s next pop quiz:
Who do you think burned the Library at Alexandria? The only rule is, don’t consult any sources. Go with your gut.