Religion is much older than science. While the modern scientific method dates back only 3 centuries or so, there are intense discussions in the anthropology community about whether or not religion preceded agriculture, which was discovered at least 10 thousand years ago. Science is young. Religion is ancient. Even if we extend our conception of science to the Classical world, we are still staring backwards at millennium after millennium in which man had naught but his faith to keep him alive.
It is understandable that many people value religion precisely because it has stood the test of time. We like to suppose that if a thing has weathered many winters, its tenacity has given it worth. There is a sense of reverence many of us feel when we look backwards. We see the sacrifices that our parents made, and their parents, and their parents. We see the fantastically improbable series of events going back into prehistory, a series in which any deviation at all would have resulted in our not existing. It is fitting that we might be awestruck looking back over the legacy of struggle, triumph, love and loss that has led inexorably to our afternoon reverie and a triple latte with soy milk.
However, there is a danger in revering a thing simply because it is old. In fact, when one surveys history, one is struck by a rather startling revelation: when a thing is respected precisely because it is old, it is almost always a very bad thing. Here’s a brief list of some very old things we have clung to because they are old:
- Slavery – Arguably one of the oldest institutions on earth, slavery is acknowledged as an evil by almost all civilized cultures today. Yet these same cultures, when they were faced with overwhelming humanitarian reasons for ending the practice, were littered with various conservatives bemoaning the end of a practice that went back generations upon generations.
- Racism – Among other racist traditions, it wasn’t until the mid-20th Century that the United States removed legal restrictions on interracial marriage. This despite overwhelming evidence that the practice was harmless, and that preventing it was an exercise in discrimination. Again, conservatives bemoaned the destruction of civilization.
- Sexism – When women were given the right to vote, conservatives were sure that everything good and holy in the world was ending. Women had never had the right before, and society had worked perfectly well. And then it was birth control. And then it was equal pay for equal work. And then it was no-fault divorce. In each case, conservatives bemoaned the end of a long-standing tradition.
Of course, pundits in support of these kinds of traditions didn’t rely solely on their age in their stump speeches, but clever readers of history will note a pattern: As science debunked more and more of the traditional defenses of these institutions and attitudes, supporters were left with less and less to hold onto. In the end, all they were left with was tradition.
When tradition is all that is left, we must admit that tradition is not a good enough reason to continue a practice. We no longer use leeches to bleed the sick. We no longer use sails to propel warships. We do not thresh wheat by hand. These are all traditions that humans have practiced for much longer than those which replaced them, yet we have no trouble understanding the need for dispensing with the old when the new is clearly an improvement.
We are left to worry when someone even mentions tradition as an argument for continuing a practice. If that is the best foot they have to put forward, theirs must be a weak argument indeed. In the world of golf, women are still not allowed full participation at the most revered and elite club, the Augusta National Golf Club. To what do the old-timers refer for defense of the practice? Tradition. Though ritual hazing has claimed the lives of dozens of college students, to what do fraternities and sororities appeal? Tradition. Though marriage has changed and diminished in importance, to what do the religious want to return us? Traditional marriage.
Indeed, one is struck by a compelling thought: If tradition is the last defense of the obsolete, must we question a worldview whose default goal is the preservation of the old in opposition of boldly pursuing the new? Is conservativism not the embodiment of the irrational reverence for the traditional? Is not innovation the driving force behind all that man has accomplished? We are forced to ask a difficult question: Is there anything we can think of that is good only because it is old?
Of course, the answer is obvious. Being old only means being old. Age is neither a good nor a bad thing, and as such, it is irrelevant to any question of value. The only question worth asking is this: Does this new thing perform better than the old thing? If the answer is yes, then we are just succumbing to irrational nostalgia by clinging to the old.
Human progress has always been — by definition — the pursuit of the new in favor of the old. In the entire history of science, there is not a single example of going backwards to something that worked better. If Newtonian Physics is good, Quantum Physics is better. If algebra is useful, calculus is more. If Penicillin is good, then Cipro is better.
Where does this leave religion?
- Religion used to answer the question, “From whence came life?” Today, science has shown us that evolution is the answer that religion could never find.
- Religion used to answer the question, “From whence came morality?” Today, science has shown us that altruism and cooperation, the foundations of morality, are evoluationary adaptations inherent in virtually all social species.
- Religion used to answer the question, “What are those lights in the sky?” Today, science has shown us that they are great balls of gas undergoing nuclear fusion.
- Religion used to answer the question, “How must I act if I am to be a good person?” Today, science can and does quantify the effects of our actions, both at an individual and societal level. For any goal we choose, science can show us the most advantageous path towards it.
- Religion used to answer the question, “How should we govern our sexuality?” Today, the science of human sexuality has answered this question. Again, religion was wrong.
It is truly remarkable how much respect we still give to the clergy despite the fact that their religious training has not qualified them to answer a single question that science has not addressed. We would rather ask a preacher about the origin of the universe than a cosmologist, even though the clergyman has had exactly zero training in the sciences which have already answered this question. We ask ostensibly celibate priests about the intricacies of sexual relationships when there are highly qualified scientists whose lives have been devoted to the subject. We ask our religious leaders how we should behave when scientists have proved beyond any reasonable doubt that they act no better than the non-religious under the best of circumstances.
It is time to demand an answer of religion: What, besides your age, qualifies you to be regarded as anything other than an obsolete remnant of our less enlightened history? We must ask of our clergy: What, besides the age of your institution, qualifies you to answer any questions for us? For that matter, what questions are left, after science has shown us the true answers to everything you proposed to explain? What is it about your dogged refusal to progress that we should respect? To which point in our less literate, less enlightened, less humane past should we return such that you could once again be relevant? And more importantly… why?