The problems faced by scientifically-minded people as the western world struggled to emerge from the Christian dark ages.
Thousands of years ago, most people believed that the earth was flat, and that the gods were responsible for the motion of the sun, the moon, and the stars. The ancient Babylonians described the universe as a closed chamber with the earth as its floor. Around the earth lay a moat of water, beyond which stood high mountains supporting the dome of the heavens.
Early travelers used the stars in the night sky to help them navigate. They looked for recognizable patterns in the distribution of the stars. Throughout the ages, the shapes of some of these star patterns (or constellations) came to represent the mythical characters of campfire stories.
Years were measured by the passing of the seasons. Months were measured by the phases of the moon. The seven days of the week were dedicated to the seven gods who were thought to control the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets. These bodies appeared to move across the sky along a narrow band known as the zodiac. As they passed through the constellations, they were believed to have a mysterious influence on people’s lives.
Attempts were made by some ancient civilizations to keep records about the motion of the sun, the moon, and the stars. As early as 4000 BC, the Egyptians had begun to count the passing of the years using 365 days in a year. But over the centuries, their years fell out of step with the seasons, because the actual number of days is 365.242.
The ancient Babylonians devised a calendar with 12 months in a year. Each month had 29 or 30 days in accordance with the lunar cycle. Every few years, a 13th month was added to keep the years in step with the seasons. Variations of the Babylonian calendar continued to be used across much of the ancient world until the year 46 BC, when Julius Caesar introduced a new calendar throughout the Roman Empire.
Recognizing the need for a stable and predictable calendar, Caesar invited the help of astronomers from the city of Alexandria who recommended disregarding the lunar cycle and fixing the average length of a year to 365¼ days. The new calendar was proclaimed to have 12 months and 365 days in a year with one extra day every 4 years. The Julian calendar was so successful that it continued to be used throughout Europe for the next 1600 years.
The city of Alexandria
The city of Alexandria in Egypt was named after the Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great, who established the city as a port on the mouth of the Nile River around 330 BC. Because of its convenient location on the major trading routes, it quickly grew to become one of the wealthiest cities in the Mediterranean, and one of the largest trading centers in the ancient world.
The Great Library of Alexandria was built by the Greek kings of Egypt who had inherited this part of Alexander’s empire. Over the centuries, they devoted much of their wealth to collecting and copying books to add to their library. They collected books on every subject from all over the known world. Their library soon grew to become the largest collection of literature in the ancient world, possibly containing as many as half a million hand written papyrus scrolls.
The library also had research halls, laboratories, observatories, a dissecting room, a museum, a botanical garden, and a zoo. People traveled from all over the ancient world to study its collection of books on architecture, astronomy, geography, history, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and physics.
Many famous discoveries were made at the library. Euclid wrote a book about geometry which has remained the standard for the last 2200 years. Archimedes invented the water screw, Galen laid down the foundations of medicine, and Heron invented the gear train and wrote books about steam engines and robots.
Alexandrian astronomers studied the stars, and by performing clever experiments and making careful measurements, they were able to calculate the size of the earth, the moon, and the sun, as well as the distances between them.
One astronomer, Aristarchus, wrote a book suggesting that the earth was just another planet. He said that the earth was spinning, the planets revolved around the sun, and the stars were a great distance away from the sun. But his ideas were rejected at the time because most people believed the earth was the center of the universe. They thought that if the earth was moving then it would leave the moon behind. And it did not make sense that the earth moved because nobody could feel the movement beneath their feet.
Around the year 150, a researcher named Ptolemy wrote an encyclopedia in which he summarized the work of the Alexandrian astronomers. Although Ptolemy considered the earth to be the center of the universe, he was able to accurately describe the relative motion of the sun and the planets by using circles within circles. Ptolemy’s work remained the ultimate astronomical reference the next 1400 years.
When Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria in 48 BC, he became involved in a civil war between Queen Cleopatra VII and her brother King Ptolemy XIII. Caesar’s forces came under attack from both land and sea. He gained the upper hand in the battle by setting fire to the docks to block the enemy fleet. Unfortunately, the fire spread from the dockyards to the library and destroyed many of the books.
The library continued to operate under the Roman Empire until the rise of Christianity. Under the command of a bishop named Cyril, the Jews were expelled from the city, followers of Greek philosophy were brutally murdered, and anything seen as a pagan influence was destroyed by rampaging mobs of fanatical Christians. Cyril was later honored with a sainthood. Whatever remained of the library was stolen or burned when the Muslims invaded Egypt in the year 640.
Only a small number of the books that were kept in the library have survived. All that remains of some of them are scattered fragments. Among the losses that we know about were several hundred pieces of classical Greek literature, as well as books about science, mathematics, and the history of the ancient world.
The calendar introduced by Julius Caesar was only accurate to 1 day in every 134 years, and over the centuries, there was a growing concern about the slipping of time. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church grew to become the only institution in Europe with enough authority to change the calendar. In 1514, the church asked for the opinion of a highly respected Polish scholar named Nicolas Copernicus.
Copernicus said that the motions of the sun and the moon were not yet sufficiently understood to attempt changing the calendar. He then continued for more than ten years to make careful observations of the night sky before finally writing a book in which he clearly demonstrated that the earth revolved around the sun.
Copernicus was reluctant to release his book out of fear of the criticism he would receive. His friends eventually convinced him to publish it shortly before his death. Although his ideas were not popular, they did become the basis for calendar reform. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed a new calendar in which three out of every four centuries lost one of its extra days. The new Gregorian calendar was accurate to 1 day in every 3000 years.
Catholic countries adopted the new calendar immediately. Protestant countries like England and Germany took until the 1700s and 1800s to change their calendars. Eastern European countries under the Greek Orthodox Church refused to change their calendars until the 1900s. The new calendar was eventually accepted across Europe and America and is still being used today.
As people get older, they often lose the ability to focus their sight on nearby or distant objects. The ancient Greeks knew that curved glass could bend light and make images appear larger or smaller, but it was not until the 1300s that the quality of glass and the techniques for working with glass had improved enough to allow craftsmen to begin making lenses for eyeglasses. By 1600, the techniques for grinding and polishing lenses and mirrors had improved enough to allow the invention of the telescope.
Galileo Galilei was an Italian mathematics professor who designed and built many of the world's first high powered telescopes. When he studied the night sky with his telescopes, he saw mountains and craters on the moon, he saw moons orbiting Jupiter, and he saw spots on the sun. In 1610, he published a book about his observations and his name soon became famous throughout Europe. He had demonstrated that the universe did not revolve around the earth, and his discoveries suggested that the earth was just another planet.
His discoveries upset a lot of people. University professors accused him of challenging the teachings of Aristotle, whose ideas about the universe had been considered to be the ultimate truth for centuries. Aristotle had written that it was common sense that the sun revolved around the earth. He had also written that different weights fall to earth at different speeds. Galileo proved this to be wrong by dropping two different sized stones from the leaning tower of Pisa. They both hit the ground at the same time.
Galileo was constantly forced to defend himself against accusations of heresy by the church. After appearing before a Vatican council in 1616, his books were banned and he was ordered not to hold or defend the belief that the earth revolves around the sun. While trying to defend himself, in a letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, he wrote ...
Some years ago, as Your Serene Highness knows, I discovered many things in the heavens that had not been seen before our own age. The novelty of these things, as well as some consequences which followed from them, contradicted the commonly held notions of the academic professors, and stirred many of them up against me - as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences. They seemed to forget that discovering new truths stimulates the investigation, establishment, and growth of the arts - and does not diminish or destroy them.
Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for the truth, they sought to deny and disprove these new things, which if they had cared to look for themselves, their own senses would have demonstrated to them. To this end they hurled various charges and published numerous writings filled with vain arguments, and they made the grave mistake of sprinkling these with passages taken from places in the Bible, which they had failed to understand properly, and which were poorly suited to their purposes.
Men with a strong understanding of astronomical and physical science were immediately persuaded by my discoveries. There were others who denied them or remained in doubt only because they were strange and unexpected discoveries, and because they had not yet had the opportunity to see for themselves. These men are gradually becoming satisfied. But there are some who stubbornly cling to their original ideas, and for some unknown reason, they remain hostile not only towards my discoveries, but also towards me.
These men persist in their resolve to destroy me by any means they can think of. They are aware of my views in astronomy and philosophy. They know that I believe the sun to be situated in the center of the celestial bodies while the earth revolves around the sun. And they have endeavored to spread the opinion that such propositions are contrary to the Bible and as such are damnable and heretical.
Their reason for condemning the opinion that the earth moves and the sun stands still is that in many places in the Bible one may read that the sun moves and the earth stands still. Since the Bible cannot be wrong, it follows as a necessary consequence that anyone is mistaken and heretical who maintains that the sun is motionless and that the earth moves.
These men go about using the Bible for their own deceitful purposes. Contrary to the intention of the holy fathers, they would have us altogether abandon reason and the evidence of our senses in favor of some biblical passage, although under its surface the passage may contain a different meaning.
Nobody can deny that the Bible is often ambiguous, and may say things that are quite different from what its bare words suggest. If one were to always read the Bible literally, then one might fall into error. Not only contradictions and falsehoods might appear, but even grave heresies and follies. One might believe that God has hands and feet, as well as human emotions such as anger and hatred, and sometimes even forgetting the past or not knowing the future.
These propositions, inspired by the Holy Spirit, were written by the sacred scribes to accommodate the capacities of the common people, who are simple and uneducated. For the sake of those who deserve to be separated from the herd, it is necessary to express the true meaning of such passages, together with the special reasons for why they were set down in these words.
It is reasonable to say that whenever the Bible speaks about physical matters (especially those which may be complicated and hard to understand), it has been written in such a way as to avoid confusing the minds of the common people and causing them to reject the higher mysteries. In order to appeal to common thinking, the Bible has not hesitated to obscure some very important concepts, attributing some qualities to God that are extremely remote from (and even contrary to) his essence.
Who can rightly say that the Bible should be taken literally when it is speaking casually about the earth, the sun, or any other created thing? Especially when these things do not concern the primary purpose of the sacred writings, which is the service of God and the salvation of souls - matters that are beyond the comprehension of the common people.
The Holy Bible and the phenomena of nature both proceed from the designs of God. But in order to accommodate the understanding of every man, it was necessary for the Bible to say many things that may appear to be different from the absolute truth. But Nature, on the other hand, is exact and unchangeable. She never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares about whether her methods of operation are understandable to men.
For that reason it appears that nothing which we can experience with our senses, or which can be proven by demonstration ought to be called into question (or much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages that may have some different meaning beneath their words. God is no less excellently revealed in the laws of Nature than in the sacred statements of the Bible.
I am not suggesting that we should not have the greatest respect for the passages of Holy Scripture. I should judge that the authority of the Bible was designed to persuade men of those articles of faith, which surpassing all human reasoning could not be proven by science, or by any other means other than through the very mouth of the Holy Spirit.
Hence I should think it would be sensible not to permit anyone to use scripture to argue some physical conclusion to be true, when at some future time, a reasonable demonstration might show the contrary. Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being known has already been discovered? Let us rather be honest and say, “The truths that we know are very few in comparison with those which we do not know.”
In 1634, at the age of 70, Galileo was brought before the Vatican inquisition and threatened with torture if he did not publicly retract his views. He was sentenced to imprisonment and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. The persecution of Galileo remained an embarrassment for the Catholic Church for the next three centuries. The Vatican finally forgave him in 1992.
Although mainstream European society in the 1600s appeared to be faithfully Christian, the religious authorities were losing their power to silence criticism. After the religious wars between the Catholics and Protestants, and with the growing availability of books containing skeptical ideas, many educated people were beginning to doubt that there was anything worth believing in, least of all religion.
In the 1640s, the French philosopher Rene Descartes noticed that ...
Almost everyone who regards themselves as more intelligent than others takes refuge in skepticism, when they find nothing in the currently accepted philosophy to satisfy them, and they cannot see any alternative which is more true.
Descartes wanted to restore people's faith in the cosmic plan. He wrote books explaining how we lived in an orderly universe governed by laws of nature that could be discovered using science and mathematics. As well as being one of the pioneers of modern science and philosophy, Descartes tried using logic and reason to convince people to believe in the existence of God.
The church and the universities at the time were too blinded by superstition and prejudice to be interested in supporting scientific discovery, but throughout the major European cities, there were wealthy men with lots of free time on their hands who enjoyed dabbling in science.
One such group of men joined forces in 1660 to form the Royal Society of London, whose purpose was to organize funding for scientific research and to publish new findings. In 1666, the government of France established the Paris Academy of Sciences, and by 1700, similar organizations were operating in Italy and Germany.
Early progress was slow, as there are limits to what can be observed with the naked eye. They lacked instruments to make precise measurements, but occasionally, some creative thinker would devise a clever experiment, carefully measure the results, and a profound discovery would be made.
It was found that every time an experiment was performed correctly, it would always produce the same result. This proved that some things always behave in predictable ways, and gave people a reason to believe that maybe everything in the universe behaved in a predictable way.
In 1687, an English scholar named Isaac Newton modernized our understanding of the universe by publishing a book in which he explained the laws of gravity and motion. He declared that all objects were attracted to each other by a force called gravity, and this force was the reason why objects fell to earth. He used mathematics to show how the force of gravity was responsible for the motion of the planets around the sun.
Newton's theories indicated that we live in a ‘mechanical universe’, where everything works like the moving parts of a machine. The machine is always moving and it is the work of science to find out how. Like many other scientific thinkers at the time, Newton believed that God created the universe but then left it alone to operate, governed only by the laws of nature.
Scientists continued to write books and share their observations. These writings formed a growing collection of real knowledge about the workings of nature. Others were able to learn from and build upon previous discoveries. As one discovery led to another, a growing number of people became convinced that all of the secrets of the universe might eventually be discovered through the methods of science.
European thinkers in the 1700s began to openly criticize Christianity. Although they were divided in their opinions, they valued the freedom to have an opinion, and they dared to express their views on religion without any fear. The public was exposed to an avalanche of new ideas.
This period of history became known as ‘the Enlightenment’, because it marked the beginning of a long struggle to free people's minds from more than a thousand years of domination by the teachings of the church. The thinkers of the enlightenment wanted to replace revelation and faith with knowledge and reason.
Some favored a more enlightened form of Christianity. They embraced the teachings of Jesus as a moral guide and a foundation for social justice, but they attacked the miraculous and supernatural aspects of the religion. They wanted Christianity to change and become more compatible with a scientific understanding of the world.
Others openly condemned Christianity, believing that it had long lost any intellectual credibility. The church had become authoritarian, superstitious, and fearful of science and philosophy. It had departed from reality and become lost in the dark delusions of sin, redemption, and hell.
Some philosophers wrote books trying to persuade people to believe in a more natural form of religion, one that rejected the need for churches or religious scripture. It was said that God shows himself in nature, and that we worship him best by living constructive moral lives.
Voltaire was a French philosopher in the 1700s who was not afraid to criticize the church or the aristocracy. He was thrown into prison a number of times for his outspoken views and he spent much of his life in exile.
Voltaire wanted to replace Christianity with ‘natural religion’. He wrote that although our observations of design and intelligence in nature make the existence of God obvious, organized religion can cause us to associate God with superstition and fanaticism. He said that believing in God makes us aspire to be good. If God did not exist then we would need to invent him.
In 1764, he released a book called ‘Philosophical Dictionary’ in which he exposed the myths of Christianity and highlighted the corruptions of the church. Addressing those who would defend the church and its mythology for the sake of trying to uphold public morality, he wrote ...
Don't you see that you pervert these poor people? Among them are many more rational thinkers than you realize. They laugh at your miracles and superstitions. They have enough good sense to see that you are preaching to them a discreditable religion, but they do not have enough sense to raise themselves to a pure religion free from superstition. Their passions make them believe that there is no religion at all because the only one they are taught is ridiculous. And so you become guilty of all the vices into which they plunge.
You would be stoned to death by the people if you taught them impure morals. Men have been made in such a way that they are quite willing to do evil, but they do not want it preached to them. Nothing can be gained from preaching wise morals that will be rejected because they are mixed with absurd fables. Because of your deceptions, which you could easily do without, you weaken the morality which you are obliged to teach.
It is necessary for every man to be honest, and the surest way to instill justice in all men is to teach them religion without superstition.
Attempts were made to define natural religion in a way that would inspire new generations to believe, but because it was seen as little more than a skeptical reaction against traditional religion, and because it rejected the idea of being defined by any kind of scripture, it was never really able to establish itself as an independent philosophy.
Natural religion continued to attract a small following of free thinkers, many of whom became members of the Unitarian Church. Although the Unitarians were often persecuted by conservatives, their church provided a meeting place where free thinking people could share their enlightened views without being accused of atheism. Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Charles Darwin were just a few of the many well known Unitarians.
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher in the late 1700s who developed powerful arguments against religion. He said that religion was nothing more than a human invention. It was simply the projection of human hopes and fears onto external invisible objects. Religion began as an instinctual belief in spirits controlling the forces of nature, and this evolved into a cultural obligation to worship a single God of creation.
Hume did not deny the existence of God, but he rejected using myths about miracles to prove God's existence. He believed that miracles were violations of the laws of nature, and that our faith in the laws of nature should be as firm as any faith could ever be, because the entire world sees these laws working in a reliable way every day. And so regardless of how strong the argument is for a miracle, the evidence against it is stronger.
He said that human trickery and stupidity were so common that he would think that any reports of miracles were due to these reasons rather than admit that there had ever been any violation of the laws of nature. Only those claims that can be demonstrated by experimental science should be considered to be true. Any other claim should be “thrown into the fire”.
Hume concluded that no reasonable argument could ever provide an adequate justification for religious morality. Our feelings about each issue have more authority than the application of any arbitrary system of moral values. Ideas about right and wrong are really whatever is in the best interests of the community at the time.
He also concluded that no reasonable argument could ever explain the existence of God or any of his attributes. He did concede that there may be grounds for a rational belief in a supreme creator and a world ordered and governed by divine providence, but this would be a leap of faith until science was able to provide deeper explanations for the mysteries of nature.
He said that although some rational minds were moved to believe in God through admiration for the natural order of the universe, the vast majority of ordinary men and women were moved by emotional responses to the uncertainties of life. They lived in fear and hope of secret and unknown causes, and so they were easily led to believe in superstition. Organized religion thrived by helping to relieve feelings of insecurity and vulnerability in a confusing and often hostile world.
Atheism grew more as a reaction against the absurdities of traditional religion than an exact belief. The writings of Hume and other atheists helped to calm the religious tensions that were still simmering throughout Europe after the religious wars. By raising the level of skepticism against Christianity, many people became less passionate about their own religious beliefs and more tolerant of others.
Atheists believed that good and evil were merely human inventions rather than universal absolutes. But then this led to the question of how anyone can justifiably argue against selfish greed or callous disregard. Unrestrained selfishness can end up harming everyone, including ourselves, and so we need to accept some practical restraints. Although atheist philosophers could see the need for upholding acceptable standards of behavior, they could not agree on what they were or how to promote them.
Since the time of Aristotle, philosophers had realized the need to find a non-religious groundwork for ethical values, but by the end of the 1700s, the enlightenment's inability to establish any clear alternative moral system had become a serious problem.
The abandonment of faith in any universal goodness was explored in the writings of the Marquis de Sade, who also abandoned any faith in the value of human life. De Sade declared that we are free from all moral values. Nature, far from having any purpose or any inherent goodness, is absolutely indifferent to the struggles of humanity.
The world according to de Sade was the opposite of what the religious prophets and moral philosophers had been preaching. De Sade wrote that generosity is often abused by those who see it as weakness, those who give more than they take just end up with less, and the selfish get what they want much more than the good.
In a world without any true values, the only thing to do is to pursue one's own pleasures. The greater the pleasure, the greater the value of the act. Since sexual pleasures are usually the most intense, these can be pursued without restraint. Crime is even better than sex under some circumstances, because it can be more exciting, and a sex crime is the best of all.
Most atheists viewed de Sade with horror because they saw in him the logical conclusion of their own beliefs. If there is no God, no purpose, no plan, no design, then there is no underlying foundation for morality, and no fundamental reason for the preservation of life in this world or in this universe. Nobody can be truly justified in imposing their own ideas about right and wrong upon anyone else.
The political revolutions that spread throughout Europe in the 1800s came as a shock to Christianity, which had long depended on a close association between church and state. Aristocrats began to lose their position as political and cultural leaders and were gradually replaced by the industrial elite. The new capitalist values, with their emphasis on competition and profit, had little in common with Christianity.
By the mid 1800s, the Catholic Church had grown openly hostile towards the modern world. One pope even declared steam trains to be evil. The church publicly condemned democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought. When one pope demanded more influence over the governments of the world, many countries responded by passing laws restricting Catholicism. The population of Italy soon rose up in rebellion against papal control.
Other European churches withdrew from political power and instead concentrated on their monopoly as religious institutions. While most Europeans remained members of their traditional state churches, in the United States there were no state churches. This led to an intense competition between the different denominations for religious market share. Driven by market forces, Christianity in America rapidly descended to the lowest common denominator. Without the deeper explorations that European theology once provided, it grew increasingly shallow, evangelical, and fundamentalistic.
While conservative churches tried desperately to cling to the old ways, progressive churches compromised with scientific ideas and modern values, quietly admitting that the Bible was full of myths intended to support moral values that were open to interpretation. The focus of these churches shifted more towards providing social networks, promoting community values, doing charity work, and performing weddings and funerals.
The enlightenment philosophers had tentatively ventured beyond traditional Christian ideas, and then when it seemed safe to speak freely, they turned against Christianity with a vengeance, punishing it for having held back the progress of philosophical questioning for so long. But then once they were free to ask themselves what the real truth was, they found that they could be certain of nothing.
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher in the late 1700s who tried to overcome the growing tide of skepticism. He developed a comprehensive theory about how we think, how we experience things, and how we can be certain of what we know. He wanted to build a philosophical foundation for knowledge that would restore human confidence in absolute truths and values.
Kant's theories soon gained widespread acceptance as the best possible justification for knowledge and morality on the basis of human reason alone. His work inspired many others to build upon his foundations. But at the end of the day, his philosophy was too difficult to read, many of his ideas were flawed, and he only really confirmed what the skeptics were already saying.
By the mid 1800s, German philosophers were beginning to reject any faith in reason or progress. Every attempt to explain knowledge and experience in an understandable way had failed. The search for meaning had revealed no great answers. A radical new form of skepticism began to descend upon the world of philosophy with disastrous consequences. It was the end of the innocence of philosophy.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher in the late 1800s. His father and grandfather were Lutheran church ministers. After spending his childhood studying Christianity, it was assumed that he would follow in their footsteps. He studied classical literature and philosophy as the world was becoming aware of the theory of evolution. Nietzsche lost his faith in Christianity and his thoughts turned instead to the rejection of every aspect of religion and morality.
According to Nietzsche, religions and moral philosophies preach self-sacrificing values like servility and compassion. But these values go against our natural instinct for survival. Perhaps moral philosophy is actually a cultural disease that we need to rise above. For Nietzsche, the illness began with Judaism and reached its destructive potential with Christianity. The Christian values of gentleness, forgiveness, and mercy are against the competitive forces that drive the evolution of both man and society.
Nietzsche dreamed of a stronger man, a ‘superman’, whose understanding and maturity would be so complete that he did not need moral boundaries, he could sense for himself what was of practical importance. Such a man would be driven by a passion for life, and would aspire to the natural virtues of courage and strength.
Nietzsche thought that if mankind was the end product of evolution, then the strong should replace the weak, and intelligent thinking should replace ignorance and superstition. He claimed that history had proven only one universal value, ‘the will to power’. The irresistible urge to take control was the guiding force behind all human endeavors. Even Christianity's most striking characteristic was its drive to take power and impose its will. Nietzsche believed that Christian morality was just a clever deception used by the weak to assert power over the strong.
One of the last books that Nietzsche wrote was called ‘The Antichrist’. His earlier books were cryptic in order to disguise his true meanings, and many of his earlier ideas were undeveloped. But by the time he wrote The Antichrist, he had grown tired of his own dishonesty. In this book, Nietzsche wrote ...
What is good? Anything that makes us more powerful. What is bad? Anything that results from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power grows, that resistance is overcome. Not contentment, but more power. Not peace, but war. Not virtue, but strength and ability. What is more harmful than any vice? Compassion for the sickly and weak, in other words, Christianity.
The question is not “what should replace mankind as the next species?”, as human beings are the conclusion, but rather what type of human being we should breed, we should will, as being more valuable, more worthy of life, more certain of the future. This more valuable type has existed often enough already, but only as an exception. His appearance has often struck terror into the hearts of others, and from their fear, the reverse animal has been bred - the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick animal, the Christian.
Mankind in general is no stronger or smarter today than he was in the past. The idea of such progress is a myth. But there are some cases in today's world where a higher type of man has emerged. And compared to the rest of humanity, he is a kind of superman. Even entire races, tribes, and nations, can under certain circumstances represent such people.
Christianity must not be defended. It has waged a war to the death against this higher type of man. It has rejected all of his instincts, declaring them to be evil. The stronger man has been despised and treated like an outcast. Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, and has made an ideal out of opposing the preservative instincts of a strong life. It has corrupted the minds of even the most intelligent by teaching men to feel that intelligent ideas are sinful misleading temptations.
Christianity is a religion of charity and compassion. But such expressions of pity work against our natural instincts intended to preserve and enhance the value of life. They oppose the law of evolution by preserving what is ripe for destruction, by defending the homeless and the condemned. Under Christianity, compassion is called a virtue, it is the foundation of all virtues. Nothing in our unhealthy modern world is more unhealthy than Christian compassion.
The people of Israel once stood in a correct relationship to nature. Their God was an expression of their consciousness of power, of their delight in themselves, of their hope for themselves. In him they anticipated victory and salvation. But after being defeated, every hope in their God lay unfulfilled. They should have abandoned him, but instead they changed their conception of him. All good fortune would now be interpreted as reward, and all misfortune as punishment for disobedience. A most untruthful account of a supposed ‘moral world order’ in which the natural concept of ‘cause and effect’ was turned on its head.
Having falsified the concepts of God and morality, the Jewish priesthood did not stop there. They produced that masterpiece of falsification known to us as the Bible. With contempt for every historical truth, they translated their entire national history into religious terms. They simplified the psychology of every great event into the idiotic formula of obedience or disobedience to God.
Out of this false soil grew Christianity - a form of mortal hostility to reality in which neither morality nor religion have anything to do with the real world. Nothing but imaginary causes, like free will and sin, and imaginary effects, like redemption and forgiveness. An imaginary explanation of our existence with a complete lack of scientific understandings, and an imaginary psychology of nothing but self-delusions. This entirely fictional world has its roots in hatred of the real world.
Like most men who have studied history, I am largely tolerant when I look back at the madness of more than a thousand years of Christianity. But my feelings suddenly change when I consider our modern age. What was once tragic now becomes disturbing and offensive. It is a crime against nature to be a Christian today.
All of the concepts of the church are recognized for what they are, the most malicious fabrication for the purpose of denying nature and opposing natural values. The priest himself is recognized for what he is, a parasitic kind of human being who prospers only at the expense of every healthy form of life.
Everyone knows this and yet everyone remains unchanged. Where have the last feelings of decency and self-respect gone, when even our statesmen still call themselves Christians? When every proud, patriotic, and self preserving instinct in modern man is clearly anti-Christian, what magnitude of self deception must he be living under that he is still not ashamed to be called Christian!
Months after writing these words, Nietzsche went completely insane and spent the last ten years of his life as a vegetable being cared for by his mother and sister. In order to raise money, his sister devoted herself to promoting his books. His ideas gradually gained momentum among German thinkers.
By the time of the First World War, the German army was distributing copies of Nietzsche's books to inspire the men in the trenches. One of the survivors of the war was a corporal named Adolf Hitler. Nietzsche's sister later became a prominent member of Hitler's Nazi party.
After sailing around the world for five years on a British science expedition, and after more than twenty years of careful research and writing, in 1859, Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species” in which he explained that life on earth evolved through a slow process of random mutation and natural selection.
Darwin understood that his theory would provoke serious controversy, and so he did not dare to discuss the evolution of humankind or the philosophical implications that evolution might have on ideas of human purpose or morality. But as the theory of evolution slowly gained acceptance, other thinkers did begin to speculate.
The idea soon became popular that because evolution led to the rise of intelligent life, it was a process that generated something of value, and could therefore be equated with “progress for the better”. It was believed that continued human evolution would lead to further progress, and so anything that aided this process could be thought of as ‘good’.
It was believed that evolution would benefit from increased competition. The capitalist free market economy favored individual resourcefulness and was therefore considered to be good. Social welfare was seen as helping the sickly and feebleminded to survive and multiply, thereby working against natural selection and decreasing the future survivability of the entire species.
These kinds of ideas were promoted by conservative political elitists, not only as a way of justifying the inequalities between races, sexes, and classes, but also as a way of arguing for more aggressive economic policies that would favor their own special interests. Many conservatives argued that society's interests were best served by individuals acting out of pure self-interest.
All over the world, government health services interpreted evolution in a way that led to the sterilization of people with physical and mental handicaps. But the power to decide who should be sterilized was regularly abused, and such policies usually led to unfavorable outcomes.
Some people even argued that evolution justified the imperialistic competition for global resources, which often erupted into war between nations and the subjugation of defeated populations. They claimed that such conflict favored the survival of the fittest and was therefore an effective form of natural selection.
This way of thinking reached its destructive potential with the Nazi conquest of Europe and their policy of racial purification through extermination. After the defeat of the Nazis, the dismemberment of the European empires, and the end of institutionalized racism, the idea that some people are more highly evolved than others and are therefore more valuable was universally condemned and abandoned.
In an effort to counter the common misconceptions about his theory, Darwin wrote a book called “The Descent of Man” in which he expressed his own views about the moral implications of human evolution.
Darwin wrote that many animals have evolved innate social instincts that guide their group behavior and help to strengthen their social cohesion. These instincts evolved because living in groups gave these animals an evolutionary advantage.
Human beings also survive better in groups, and so we also evolved social instincts, some of which take the form of fond affections and sympathetic feelings. These social instincts make group living more effective and harmonious. But because we also possess higher intelligence and the ability to speak, our social instincts work together with our intelligence to create something that Darwin called our ‘moral sense’.
The way that we care, understand, and sympathize with each other helps us to cooperate towards our common survival, and so our moral sense has continued to evolve and strengthen to the extent that we now generally see ourselves as contributors to our family and community rather than as separate selfish individuals.
Darwin wrote that our ability to reflect on the things we do and our reasons for doing them, and our inclination to approve or disapprove of others as well as ourselves, forms something beyond our ‘moral sense’ that he called our ‘moral conscience’. Our moral conscience was the “the supreme judge and monitor” of every action.
Darwin never suggested that we should do anything to influence the course of evolution. One of Darwin's closest friends and supporters was the philosopher Thomas Huxley, who played a major role in helping to promote and defend the theory of evolution.
Huxley argued that science was morally neutral, and he vigorously attacked anyone who claimed that evolution should be used to justify discrimination or war. He was later given the nickname ‘Darwin's bulldog’.
Huxley invented the term ‘agnostic’ to describe the belief that there is no conclusive evidence to either prove or disprove the existence of God. An agnostic would say that there is no way to be certain about whether there is any higher purpose behind our existence.
For thousands of years, philosophers have argued about the existence of God, but nobody has yet delivered a compelling case. Although everyone is entitled to have their own opinion, opinions do not count as scientific evidence, and it would be unscientific to commit to any unproven conclusions.
Huxley said ...
When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; or a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had nothing in common with any of these denominations except the last.
So I took thought and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of ‘agnostic’. It came into my head as being the opposite of the ‘Gnostic’ of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant.
Throughout his early years, Darwin followed the traditions of his society and regularly attended church. But his feelings slowly changed over time until he eventually lost faith in Christianity. Later in life, when explaining his religious views, he wrote that he had never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. He said ...
An agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind. The whole subject of God is beyond the scope of man's intellect.
Albert Einstein was born to Jewish parents in Germany. After studying in Switzerland, he worked as a clerk in a Swiss patent office. Much of his spare time was devoted to studying theoretical physics, and from 1905 onwards he continued to publish scientific papers that would revolutionize our understanding of the universe.
Since the days of Isaac Newton, people had believed that time and space were constant, but Einstein showed that time and space were relative to the observer, and that only the speed of light remained constant. His theory of relativity used mathematical equations such as e=mc² to explain the relationship between time, space, energy and matter.
Other scientists were slow to accept his ideas, but eventually his work was so well received that he became an international celebrity. He lectured around the world, received honorary degrees, and was awarded numerous prizes including the Nobel Prize for physics.
After the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Einstein moved to the United States and became a leading campaigner for world peace and one world government. He supported the formation of a Jewish state and pleaded for harmonious coexistence between Jews and Arabs, but he declined an offer to become Israel's first president.
Einstein devoted much of his life to social and political causes, and many of his writings contain profound insights into philosophy and religion, but science always came first, and he spent his later years attempting to unify the laws of physics.
Einstein wrote that the earliest humans were driven by fear and ignorance to imagine the existence of spirits who controlled the forces of nature. They offered prayers and performed rituals in order to gain the favor of these spirits.
With the development of civilization, larger populations were driven by a desire for guidance and love. Community leaders formed the idea of a moral god who loves and protects his people, rewards and punishes them, comforts their sorrows, and preserves the souls of the dead.
In practice, most religions contain a blend of both fear and love, with more progressive religions tending more towards love. In both types of religion, the spirits or gods are described as having human qualities such as human thoughts and emotions.
Einstein wrote that there was another kind of religious experience that he called the ‘cosmic religious feeling’; a feeling experienced only by the fortunate few. God is not thought of as having any qualities that can be explained in human terms, and God never interferes in the workings of nature. The cosmic religious feeling comes from a sense of being part of a mysterious universal order which reveals itself both in nature and in the world of thought.
The cosmic religious feeling is not explained in any book. Believers have no church, and so they are often accused of being heretics or atheists. But a hint of the cosmic religious feeling sometimes shines through in traditional religious writings. Einstein believed that this feeling was the strongest and most noble motive for scientific research.
During his life, Einstein was known to have said ...
Strange is our situation here on earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That man is here for the sake of other men - above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.
A human being is a part of the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
My religion consists of a humble admiration of the limitless superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.
I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own; a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.
The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.
Our sense of purpose
Einstein said that although science can provide us with real knowledge about the universe, it cannot provide us with any reason for pursuing this knowledge, and it cannot provide us with any guidance for how to live. Science will never be able to determine our purpose.
Our sense of purpose, and the basis for our moral judgments, can only come from having faith in some kind of religious or philosophical ideology, and this is the role that traditional religion plays in the social life of man. If we were to question from where religion gets its authority, we can only answer ...
Religions exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions which act upon the conduct, aspirations, and judgments of the individuals. They are there as something living, without it being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly.
The highest principles for our aspirations and judgments are given to us in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. It is a very high goal which, with our weak powers, we can reach only very inadequately, but which gives a sure foundation to our aspirations and values. If one were to take this goal out of its religious form and look merely at its purely human side, one might state it perhaps thus - the free and responsible development of the individual, so that he may place his powers freely and gladly in the service of all mankind.
Continue to chapter 8 ... Hinduism and Buddhism