One key difference between religion and science, according to many scientists at least, is that religion posits one unchanging and absolute truth, while science produces a flow of provisional, replaceable truths. According to this view, the foundations of religious knowledge were revealed and locked in place at a particular point in time, while scientific knowledge has continued to evolve and grow over time.
Now imagine that their histories had been reversed. Imagine that scientific knowledge had been revealed once and for all in antiquity, while religious knowledge had been open-ended. In other words, imagine early science morphing into a religion. What might that have looked like, and meant for the world?
So how do you turn science into a religion? Easy. By making a great scientist divine. And how do you make a scientist divine? Again, easy. By writing a book claiming he is divine. And how do you make the book believable? Yet again, by claiming it’s divine (or at least divinely inspired). It’s a tried and true path revealed to us in the Bible. So let’s imagine going down it with science.
Let’s make Aristotle, perhaps the greatest classical scientist, our divine hero. And let’s reveal his divinity in the imaginary Good News About Aristotle, a life of Aristotle written by ardent followers, which also conveniently happens to be “Zeus-breathed”.
Aristotle’s divinity, so this book informs its readers, was hinted at when his birth was announced by an overhead star. More tellingly, his mother had conceived and given birth without breaking her hymen (always an infallible sign of the divinity of off-spring). It was also later announced that she had been born unsullied by both sin and scientific heresies, all the better to pass on these attributes to her divine son.
Aristotle’s wisdom was first gleaned from an early foray into teaching as a 12-year-old, where he amazed learned professors with his keen scientific insights. As an adult, he made many miraculous observations and pronouncements that rocked the world of science and confirmed his scientific greatness, and even his divinity.
But the clincher was the claim in The Good News that he had been resurrected from the dead, which sightings by his followers had confirmed (being, of course, the gold standard in confirmation of such claims). This especially captured people’s attention because few could ignore the hope that just as Aristotle overcame death, so might they.
As a result of all these claims, Aristotle’s own books were treated with reverence and many scientists believed every word in them to be absolutely true. Various of his scientific beliefs were taken on board with absolute conviction: for example, millions, if not billions of people, believe that women have fewer teeth than men and that their blood is blacker, that some animals spring into existence from the earth, that eels don’t reproduce, that children should be conceived in winter, that the heart is the source of reason and the intellect, and that the pig is the only animal liable to get measles.
When any contradictory evidence emerged about any of these points, Aristotelians insisted that no sensible person should have taken those teachings literally, only metaphorically. However, they stressed that all other Aristotelian propositions should still be taken literally; bearing in mind that, if in doubt, faith in the Master’s Word is the one reliable pathway to truth.
In the early years of Aristotle’s rise, skeptical scientists were declared to be heretics or dissenters from the one true Aristotelian path to scientific knowledge. Many were socially shunned, denied jobs, their property taken from them and, in some cases, their books burnt as, on occasion, might be the odd scientist. The rack and the inquisition also proved useful for winnowing right from wrong scientific thinking.
More recently, instead of rooting out heresy, the orthodox have held weekly meetings in temples to praise Aristotle’s infinite greatness, ask his forgiveness for their abject scientific ignorance, and to seek his help for their own scientific endeavors. These endeavors have centered on writing erudite and learned books extolling the virtues of Aristotle’s teachings or redefining fine points of his doctrine to deflect criticisms.
Critically, however, the questioning of the underlying assumptions of Aristotelianism, let alone any consideration of new science, has been unimaginable: Aristotle’s teachings are, after all, the fixed and final Word of God on all matters scientific.
Returning to the real world, the bottom line of this thought experiment is that had science gone down the same path as religion, we might still be in the Dark Ages: with no Copernicus, no Galileo, no Newton, no Darwin, no Einstein; no Harvey or Lister or Curie; no theory of gravity or of evolution or of germs; no refrigeration; no electricity; no cars, trains, or planes; no phones or computers; no penicillin; no vaccines; nor anything that, in our real world, has actually lifted people out of their former nasty, brutish and short existence.
In fact, it may well be that if science had taken the path of religion, we may still be walking around in togas, sacrificing to Zeus in the morning and praying fervently to Aristotle in the afternoon before our evening meal of wild boar by candlelight.
Thank God we have gone down the path of science in the real world: a path that Einstein said “was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it”.