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Time Traveling with Science and the Saints

by George A Erickson

(Prometheus, $25.00, 177 pages, hardback; March 28 2003.)

The thesis of this short book is stated succinctly in its Afterword: "History reveals that religion in general and Christianity in cover scanparticular [have] retarded social and scientific progress and been the source of immeasurable woe." The book is thus a staunch rebuttal, reinforced by copious historical examples, of the commonly held fallacy that, despite all the multitudinous evils committed in its name, Christianity has overall been a civilizing factor.

Erickson begins his historical analysis by discussing the fate of Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century freethinking cleric who was tortured and burnt at the stake as a heretic for espousing and promoting the Copernican hypothesis. And it is upon the Church's still continuing and often horrendously bloody struggle to suppress scientific endeavour that Erickson, quite rightly, chooses almost exclusively to concentrate; for science, despite the frequently flawed behaviour of its establishment (as witness the derision heaped upon Wegener for advocating the notion of continental drift), is almost by definition ever in the vanguard of free thought, and without the technology that science brings in its wake freedom of thought must often be subjugated to the simple struggle to survive.

It is certainly the case that, as Erickson amply demonstrates, when science ushered in the Enlightenment, the thinkers of that era were merely picking up where the ancient Greeks had left off fifteen hundred years earlier. And it is also certainly the case, as he again demonstrates, that this 1500-year diaspora of indescribable misery and appalling brutality was imposed upon the West by the doctrines of the Christian churches and their imposition, often through the agency of secular tyrants, by supposedly Christian establishments whose primary goal was worldly gain and who had no interests in the teachings of Christ except insofar as they could be perverted in order to facilitate that goal.

During that 1500-year-long nightmare there were of course the obvious Christianity-inspired slaughters of the innocents: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch-hunts, the Thirty Years' War. What go less generally recognized are the other casualties caused by the repression of scientific advance. The violence-enforced bans not just on medical experimentation and research but also even on speculation killed countless millions. The prohibitions on work in the physical sciences -- of which Copernicus's seemingly pure-theory deductions were a part -- crippled engineering and other life-saving technologies, thereby causing countless more millions of unnecessary deaths. Deaths aside, the sheer human misery engendered by the theistic tyranny is incalculable.

Erickson retains the full force of his rhetoric for the modern proponents of religion-based ignorance and stupidity in the West. The final two sections of his final chapter offer a devastatingly effective piece of polemic directed against the modern forces of intellectual repression, from Pope John Paul II and President George W. Bush on downwards, and in defence of those who, often shamefully beleaguered, pursue freedom of thought. He mercilessly exposes the nonsense of those who describe Creationism as a "science"; of those who ban birth control yet take no responsibility for the inevitably ensuing bastards, poverty, suffering and starvation; of those who use the words of the Prince of Peace as a justification for war and genocide; of those who make the laughable claim that in order to preserve freedom of thought we must suppress it. Here is Erickson on Ronald Reagan:

Ronald Reagan, perhaps the least intelligent man to ever be elected president until George W. Bush, felt comfortable appointing fundamentalist James Watt to be the Secretary of the Interior despite Watt's apocalyptic belief that led him to advise Congress not to worry over environmental issues because, "I don't know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns."
It is shameful that we elect men like Reagan, who once inquired, "Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?"

The "intellectual curiosity", one need hardly add, that led to the development of the camera and motion pictures.

Though compulsively readable, the book is not without its flaws. Because of its brevity it must naturally miss some highlights during its brief trip through scientific and religious history -- although it does, to its credit, cover all the major bases. On one or two occasions the text seems slightly jumbled, as if Erickson had been interrupted a few times while making his final revisions, so that a sentence seems to be in the wrong place on its page. There's a bizarre tendency to use the spelling "eigthteenth", and Sir Humphry Davy is described repeatedly as "Sir Davy". Erickson says that Priestley, on discovering oxygen, called it "phlogiston"; of course, Priestley called his new-discovered gas "dephlogisticated air", believing that it had been deprived of the theoretical (in fact, imaginary) substance phlogiston posited by Stahl a few decades earlier to explain weight-change during combustion -- it was Lavoisier who, being told by Priestley of the behaviour of "dephlogisticated air", leapt to the correct conclusion that air is made up of more than one gas.

And there's one real chronological howler:

In the end, the aging Copernicus entrusted his manuscript to a liberal Nuremberg cleric named Andreas Osiander, who knew that the Vatican theologian Cardinal Bellarmine had condoned, if not arranged, the murder of Giordano Bruno for holding similar view.

Unfortunately for this statement, Bruno was burnt in 1600 while Copernicus died over half a century earlier, in 1543.

It is to be hoped that such matters will be corrected when the book reprints.

Erickson nowhere explains the title of his book, but I choose to interpret it in the sense that we're being encouraged to participate in countless mental voyages of time travel in order to ask the question, not so much "what if?", as "what if not?" What if the Roman Catholic Church, later enthusiastically joined in the persecution of free thought by the Protestant churches, had not come to power -- even, had not existed? It is almost incontestable that our civilization, for good or evil, would currently be at a level 1500 years head of where were are now. In this, of course, Erickson more than sufficiently makes his intended rebuttal; as a side-effect, he has also given us a book that serves as a possible source -- almost a blueprint -- for countless alternate history stories. It would even be reasonable to assert, although Erickson does not, that this book, through its depiction of the negative, itself depicts an alternative history-that-never-was. That alas never was.

Time Traveling with Science and the Saints can be recommended not just for your own reading but as a book you might like to give to any young adolescent of your acquaintance; it is easily readable enough and short enough even for younger children, but some of them might be seriously disturbed by the accounts of the antics of the Inquisitors and others. Whether we like it or not, our young people are bombarded at every turn by the seductions and indoctrinations of the religious, whatever their sect; I can think of no better gift to ensure that a youngster will at least be able to make up her or his mind rather than listen only to the nonsensical and fundamentally dishonest quasi-history and quasi-knowledge purveyed by the "wise".


Review by John Grant.


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