The Literature of the Heretics, pt. 4
One thing I have never understood—that I freely admit to never having understood—is the vehemence with which the heretics denounce beliefs about nature that do not conform to their own. When I say this I am not referring to their opposition to their contemporaries, like myself, who disagree (they have every right to disagree vehemently with me). Rather, I mean their strange reverence for the shifting of historical paradigms and the consistent change of perspective brought about by nothing more complex than the passage of time.
The heretics—at least, some heretics—simply cannot bring themselves to believe that anyone could have been ignorant enough to ever have believed that the Earth was the center of the solar system (or the universe), or that matter was made up of anything but atoms. They stand on their high-horses and ridicule anyone who came before them, not merely as the products of a less-enlightened age—but as malicious contributors to the stunting of knowledge.
I am referring, of course, to the concept commonly called “chronological snobbery,” as made famous by C.S. Lewis, who rightly considered it one of the hallmarks of the heretic. There is a decided inability to empathize with our predecessors in thought or deed; a decided lack of understanding of the movement of history and how things have really played out.
I made special note before to say that this particular trap only ensnared some heretics. I am focusing here specifically on Christopher Hitchens, who is an offender to the point that some of his more clear-minded acolytes really ought to have pointed out how petty he had begun to sound. On the other hand, at least in this area, I can give some credit to Richard Dawkins, who at various points actually acknowledges his separation from the past. For example, when mentioning Lord Kelvin’s theory that the earth could not be billions of years old or else the sun would have spent all of its fuel, Dawkins notes, “Kelvin obviously could not be expected to know about nuclear energy.” Of course he couldn’t.
Likewise, when discussing the “changing moral Zeitgeist,” Dawkins makes an astute observation: “The American invasion of Iraq is widely condemned for its civilian casualties, yet those casualty figures are orders of magnitude lower than comparable numbers for the Second World War. There seems to be a steadily shifting standard of what is morally acceptable. Donald Rumsfeld, who sounds so callous and odious today, would have sounded like a bleeding-heart liberal if he had said the same things during the Second World War.” While I am certain that I disagree with the argument Dawkins is ultimately making, he raises an interesting point: we cannot ultimately comment on history through the lens of the twenty-first century.
Now, consider those relatively magnanimous comments compared with just a few of the cringe-worthy denunciations of Hitchens:
“The early fathers of faith (they made very sure that there would be no mothers) were living in a time of abysmal ignorance and fear.”
“Aquinas...was convinced that the fully formed nucleus (not that he would have known the word as we do) of a human being was contained inside each individual sperm.”
“Augustine was a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus: he was guiltily convinced that god cared about his trivial theft from some unimportant pear trees, and quite persuaded—by an analogous solipsism—that the sun revolved around the earth.”
The last seems to me to be the most egregious. Disagreeing (even vehemently disagreeing) with Augustine’s theology is one thing—a thing that wouldn’t bother me in the least—but what sort of snob does it take to criticize a man for saying that sun revolved around the earth in a time when everyone said that the sun revolved around the earth? And what possible reason could Hitchens have for being so upset that Augustine felt guilty for stealing fruit? Hitchens, like many of his scientific colleagues, also frequently derides ancient scientists for refusing to believe in atomism, even though it was proposed by Democritus in the fifth century, B.C., ignoring the fact that no one believed it because there was no evidence for it.
There is the assumption (and Hitchens was not alone in believing it) that to believe such things as geocentrism (the idea that the sun revolves around the earth rather than the other way around) or to fail to believe in atomism could only have been a product of ignorance brought about by dogma—but the truth is exactly the opposite: I would be far more inclined to ridicule any foolish pre-Galilean astronomer deluded enough to believe in anything but geocentrism, or any pre-Newtonian naive enough to put any amount of faith into atomism. The humanist makes a great deal out of common sense, and from the perspective of man before the invention of the telescope there was no reason, apart from pure love of dissent, to believe in anything but that the Earth was at the center. The early astronomers were not being willfully ignorant in their beliefs; they were being observant, which, I understand, is something generally applauded in science.
Would any of us be foolish enough to ridicule the darkness of Dickensian London because they had not yet mastered the incandescent light? Do we think, as we read Great Expectations, that someone really ought to have just flipped a switch and so do away with that dreaded gloom? Should we mock them for thinking that they had achieved anything at all with their primitive gas lamps when there are such greater sources of light to be discovered? There is a pitiful perception that time has made humanity wiser, more intelligent, and less prone to being duped, when the truth is that we simply know more. We have no greater capacity for knowledge—we simply have a greater (and often contradictory) body of knowledge through which to sift.
It did not take two thousand years for science to reach its present state because it was stifled by dogma or because it was persecuted by the church. In fact, apart from isolated incidents that are given more than their due weight, science really has not been persecuted by the church. So few are the actual occurrences, in fact, that Hitchens had to stoop to making one up: “Atomism was viciously persecuted throughout Christian Europe for many centuries, on the not unreasonable ground that it offered a far better explanation of the natural world than did religion.” Suffice it to say, this didn’t happen at all. Atomism was never persecuted. No, science was not held back by religion, it was held back by the fact that it took people a while to figure things out.
Though it may be common among the heretics, Hitchens’ snobbery seems especially egregious, as he seems to imply that, in a similar situation, he would surely have easily seen through the “ruse” of superstition. Had he been born centuries earlier he would have been the exception; the revolutionary able to see the world as it truly was. But he would not have. If he really believes at all in reason he would have looked into the sky and come to the conclusion that the earth was at the center of things. He would have looked at the material world and decided that it could not possibly have been made of atoms. He would be the same ignorant fool that he derides.
Suffice it to say, I can’t help but think that this chronological snobbery plays a large role in preventing people from believing in God. There is a strange sense, and I have written about it several times before, that we, as human beings, have become something unique; that we are somehow different from all who came before us. There is a sense that we have the right to mock our primitive ancestors and their primitive beliefs because we have come to know and understand so much. Suffice it to say that there is no real evidence to support these conclusions. The truth, if one cares to really look at it, is humbling. We may know a few more facts about the world, we may have unlocked a few more of the universe’s gears and pulleys, but in fact we have gotten nowhere. We think that we have understood enough to supplant God in the minds of the people, relegating Him to a “God in the gaps” but in truth we have only just begun to realize how big those gaps truly are, and just how big a God would be needed to fill them. We believe that we are inching our way closer and closer to the eternal, but the fact is that our advancements might come in leaps and bounds and yet the eternal will remain the eternal.
If the situation demands anything it is precisely the reverse of chronological snobbery. We ought to be humbled by a history that shows humanity leaping every hurdle to obtain knowledge and understanding; to shine the light of understanding into the darkness. It must be disheartening to the humanist that the majority of his fellow humans have not yet accepted the glory of self-worship. It must seem strange to the devoted secularist that the world remains religious despite the tremendous achievements of science. The fact is that reason is not all it’s made out to be. Faith is on the rise, and no appeals to science or reason have stemmed the tide; and almost certainly the petty arguments of a few heretics don’t seem to be doing much either.