What has the Bible (and Qu’ran) ever done for us? (replying to deconversionmovement’s reblog)
Sorry this took me so long to reply! Life has been incredibly busy.
Here I am disagreeing with Mr. Harris’ above statement that the Bible and Qu’ran are worthless ancient texts that have been thrown aside in the light of science and maths. deconversionmovement took the time to respond, which is linked to in the title.
[Harris makes a mistake about dating the Bible and Qu’ran]
“I guess we agree on that.”
Good, I’m glad we share common ground here at least.
“This is where I begin to have problems. If you want to say that without the Bible we wouldn’t have democracy, you must concede that the Bible was an indirect influence—and that’s only if (!) you’re speaking of democracy in the Western sense; in other words, the democracy founded in the US.”
I’m not saying we wouldn’t have democracy without the Bible (for the basis of simplistic tribalism is mirrored with democracy and who knows, maybe that would have morphed into something) I’m saying we would not have the democracy we recognise without the Bible.
Before I qualify this further as I had not gone into detail previously, please allow me to state my argument clearly. I disagree with Sam Harris’s opinion that all of Western brilliance (science, Law, ethics, democracy) is a result of overthrowing the values of the Bible and argue that all these values and institutions would not be possible without the Bible and the Qu’ran.
Firstly, please note I had not mentioned the United States anywhere in what I had written (and for the record I’m not an American citizen and have never lived there). As influential as North America is and has been, it has not been the founder of democracy.
(I’ve studied Political Philosophy, but I can’t cite everything due to lack of resources, so apologies.) As you clearly state, democracy was founded in Ancient Greece 500 years before Christ. They invented the word, they started the whole voting thing, and set up things for the rest of us thousands of years later.
Unfortunately it’s not quite as clear cut as this. For the Athenians who coined the word “democracy” meaning “rule by the people”, they only defined “people” as free men over the age of 20, so 10% of their population. They were restricted by a group of elite who inherited the role (Areopagus) Much of their politics was defined by random lottery as well, (i.e. the Council and the dikasteria which had absolute power over the Assembly) so this is actually the purest form of democracy. The democracy we now use is very different to the Greek one. If you would like to read more, I recommend the Britannica encyclopedia: http://goo.gl/6Stia
The Greek’s democracy did not last long at all. Reason? Without authoritarian governing, it was extremely vulnerable and unprotected. It’s essentially a society ripe for invasion. Anarchism has the same problem. And so the Spartans invaded, snuffed it out and placed an oligarchy instead. The Athenians’ democracy as a pure system is utterly vulnerable and can never be established on its own. Ever.
Plato and Aristotle immortalised political philosophy and wrote huge amounts on autocracy/tyranny versus democracy/polity. They referred to democracy as rule by the mob, and were the most influential power in its decline.
And the greatest difference between the Greek democracy and our own is the word “right”, for which there is no Greek word. More on this later.
Authoritarianism is the stronghold of politics for the vast majority of human history, and this is due to human warfare. It is easier to win a war against an enemy in when you can force your subjects to fight, and without needing to convince them. To get power, you need warfare. To keep power, you need warfare. To win warfare, you need power. This is a self-perpetuating circle which leads to tribal chiefs, kings, emperors, caesars, sultans and so on. It is the default position due to its efficiency and affair with human anger/revenge/violence/love of power.
The Roman republic, came next, though it was not a democracy but a republic. However, it sustained the ideas behind the Athenian democracy alive for a long while, and should not be forgotten. Famously, the Roman Republic was turbulent and often overthrown by tyrants in the face of warfare and disaster. This ultimately resulted in the Roman Empire, ruled by an Emperor and the republic was lost for good.
Constantine was then the first Emperor to legalise Christianity by allowing it to coexist alongside the paganism norms. From there you get a very complicated and ultimately disastrous Byzantine Empire… And for the Medieval period a huge array of monarchs across Europe.
Where am I going with this? Well, ultimately democracy as a pure influential idea and as a practical political form did not last. What then allowed it to reign supreme in the 21st century?
The answer is:
a) The Magna Carta.
This is a Christian document written in 1215, inspired directly from the Bible, which and legally limits the monarch in favour of the liberty of the people (but only noblemen). It was preceded by the Charter of Liberties in 1110. It is essentially a legal document that states the rights of all people. It later formed the foundation of many constitutions, including the American.
b) Certain people.
This includes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Calvin, John Locke, Oliver Cromwell, John Knox, David Hume, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, George Berkeley, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Pierre Bayle, Isaac Newton, Francis Hutcheson, William Thomson, Blaise Pascal.
The combination of these philosophers resulted in empiricism (aka science and the scientific method) ethics (and therefore our laws), modern mathematics, as well as democracy. Between them they inspired many social uprisings including the French Revolution, the Industrial revolution, Civil War in Britain, and the American Revolution, invented Parliament and Constitutional Monarchy, and later Parliamentary Democracy. Through them we have suffrage, but the most important part of modern democracy of all — rights for all people. And because of that we have women’s rights and suffrage and the abolition of slavery, and in the UK at least, the abolition of the death penalty.
This group of people have heralded every part of what we call modern development, in which each and every person is valuable and free. They even led to the beginnings of modern atheism. This is not something borne of the Greek philosophies, great as they were. Every one of them were outspoken and influential Christian theologians. Their works were directly influenced by the Bible. Some are Catholic, some are protestant, some are highly unorthodox, but all of them used the Bible directly for their works.
You see, the Bible gave us the idea that each and every one of us has rights. This is utterly unique in human history, and an incredibly powerful idea at that.
You quote Georges Cuvier, who was also a devout Christian and was a Professor of Theology, and even harmonised punctuated equilibrium with the Bible. While the Bible probably did not influence his scientific findings, it formed the science that allowed him to do so.
As for the separation of Church and State, for the record I clamour for such a thing in my country. It’s a wholly irrelevant point.
You then list many things that are supposedly anti-science in the Bible, but that is not really what I am arguing here. If you want me to discuss them, please say. Regardless of the truth of the Bible, whether God exists or anything, whether it has an ounce of scientific worth or not, this document has triggered everything we define modern. Including science itself. Most importantly, the idea that all human beings have rights and worth. That the poor and helpless should be aided. It is not the witterings of barbarians, but has real wisdom that now affect you and me every single day.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 ESV
“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:16-17 ESV
“Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” John 13:16 ESV
And yes, even in the Old Testament:
“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9 ESV
“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” Isaiah 1:17 ESV
The Greeks provided a foundation of mathematics, yes, and the other cultures, but it did not result in anywhere near what we use today. After all, numerals and characters are not sufficient for algebra equations and complex sums. As a simplistic example, the Greeks did discover irrational numbers but ignored them. The Muslim Abū Kāmil Shujāʿ ibn Aslam was the first mathematician to use them as solutions, and inspired Fibonacci (who invented numbers). Modern mathematics was defined by the group of people I listed previously, especially Pascal. So while the Greeks and Romans had a firm grip on geometry and practical maths, the beauty and intricacy of theoretical maths, algebra, probability and other such advanced subjects were only explored because it was seen as a form of worship of God. And I need not tell you that such mathematics has led to computers. Without such motivation, no other culture or person has got very far (that we know of).
Yes, other cultures had laws, but not ones used worldwide today. The Laws that have stuck and spread have been inspired directly by the Bible, or the Qu’ran depending on where you are.
The ethics that you recognise as commons sense that you have been raised with and work by is from the Bible and from philosophy derived directly from the Bible.
As for the lists of people who used forms of empiricism, it has not formed the basis of modern science nor the scientific method. They are sadly irrelevent as a result. If we did use the Babylonian way to work out our chemistry and particle physics, there is a brilliant example of a non-Biblically inspired philosophy knowledge, but sadly we do not.
Islam provided Abu Rayhan al-Biruni the scope of knowledge for his works. As Islam spread, so ideas from across all of Asia were brought together. Other Ancient Empires had done similar sweeps, but not so successfully kept this knowledge and it has not affected our modern predicament. Islam had also merged many ideas with Christianity (particularly in mathematics and science) and such knowledge spread worldwide.
So no, Galileo did not find a list of instructions as to the scientific method in the Bible, but his work was directly influenced by and intertwined with the Bible. How? His work was about looking for Laws of the Universe, something which the scientific method still includes today. And such Laws were assumed because the Bible states that God is the Lawgiver of the Universe. His discoveries are the reason his is the Father of modern science, not because he first thought it up, but because he was one of the giants our science stands on. The others who got there first were lost to history and time.
You then go on to state:
“Science, like mathematics, philosophy and law, developed over time and many people—from different regions of the world and different religious backgrounds—contributed to its development. What was that about people talking about matters they’re ignorant of? Take your own advice.”
Well, having studied this for several years, and as a scientist, I have some claim of knowledge about this subject.
There have been many cultural influences for science, the law, ethics, mathematics, but the foundation and over-ruling inspiration for what we recognise of these today is the Bible and the Qu’ran. That does not mean their claims are true, that God exists, that our ethics/law/science/democracy is the best, or anything else, but merely that this is an extraordinary phenomenon for a couple of ancient texts. Sam Harris is wrong to have ignored this.
You then list some of the barbaric things in the Bible, but to summarise briefly, you should not mistake “present in the Bible” as “condoned by the Bible and God”. I can look at these individually if you like, but for now I will move on. I cannot speak for the Qur’an as I do not know it well enough. I also did not discuss it in this part of my argument.
You then inform me I’m using the Argument from Distinction, but nowhere have I tried to argue that this means God is real and the Bible is true. I have argued why it has founded the “Western Way”, that is all.
Perhaps Sam Harris has changed his mind, then, or I horribly misunderstood his two books, “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values” and “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason”. Probably my fault.
In summary, it seems you think I’m trying to tell you that the Bible and Qu’ran laid out in bullet points the scientific method, democracy, ethics and so on. This is not the case, I am saying the Bible and the Qu’ran provided the philosophy, inspiration, motivation and foundation for our modern establishments. While we may not agree with these texts, we should not deny the weight of this contribution out of spite, as Mr Harris appears to. As a result I might argue that these books are almost unbelievably influential for their humble origins, but that is probably a matter of opinion. Perhaps any old book would have done the same, it was just a matter of coincidence and timing.