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The Book


Lewis Jones

Skeptical Briefs Volume 9.4, December 1999

The year 776 b.c. saw the first Olympiad, in which runners wore only a small loincloth. Then, in 720 b.c., an athlete named Orsippos discarded it and ran naked. (Incidentally, he won.) From then on, in the words of classical archaeologist Charles Seltman, “his practise was universally followed, first in the games for Zeus at Olympia, then at other athletic festivals, and so in gymnasia and in many public places, outdoors and in, all over ancient Greece. In Sparta, and possibly in some other states, where athletics for girls and young married women were encouraged by the state, the same custom was presently adopted by them.” If you care to assess the possibility of this happening at an Olympic event today, it will give you as good an idea as any of the huge burden of official sin that the major religions have managed to impose even on our public life.

It might also help to explain why it was in ancient Greece that science had its one and only beginning on this planet. The ancient Greeks, you see, had no Sacred Book. There was no holy, indisputable, God-dictated Book to which you could refer to obtain a final ruling. There was no ultimate authority to consult if you wanted an answer to your questions about the world. If you wanted to know something, your only recourse was to sit down and figure it out. And if you wanted to convince others of the correctness of your solution, you had to set out your reasoning and see if they bought it.

There was almost no preoccupation with sin, since the very concept was a religious notion. Neither were there officials who forbade you to investigate certain taboo areas of knowledge. And since there was no Book, there were no authorities to insist on interpreting it for you.

There were priests who had duties in making sacrifices and keeping festivals and observing rituals, but these were ordinary citizens with normal lives to live and families to raise. There was no class or caste of priests. (Compare the power of priests in Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Syria, and of the Druid-priests of Europe.) Since priests in ancient Greece were only laymen doing part-time jobs, they had no authority to demand blind submission from their fellow citizens. The Greeks took a poor view of such self-abasement, and would have looked down on it as dishonorable behavior.

They had no urge to go forth and convert heathens to the service of Greek gods. A Greek who claimed to have the one true religion, and who preached that other gods were false, would have been thought in need of a lesson in good manners. So there were no missions, and no missionaries. Seltman again:

“One emperor, Severus Alexander, wishing to venerate Christ, had a statue of Jesus put in the palace chapel upon the Palatine Hill in Rome. It was quite impossible for any sincere Christian to reciprocate with a like polite gesture without committing the sin of a ‘lapse'.”

As a result, there were no martyrs, and of course, no religious persecutions. There is no point in persecuting deviation from the Book if you don’t have a Book to deviate from.

In the words of biologist Lewis Wolpert: “Thales of Miletos, who lived in about 600 b.c., was the first we know of who tried to explain the world not in terms of myths but in more concrete terms, terms that might be subjected to verification.” Simply keeping a tally of events doesn't count as science. “There is thus nothing in the Egyptian cosmology which even tries to account for Ra’s journeys or their seasonal variations.” And Buddhist doctrines were of no help to cosmologists in ancient China: “Even though the Chinese were the most persistent and accurate observers of celestial phenomena before the Renaissance, they did not develop a planetary theory and they did not have access to a geometrical theory. There was no Chinese Euclid.” On the contrary, “the Chinese, often thought of as scientists, were expert engineers, but made negligible contributions to science.”

It would be nice to think that in these enlightened times we are at last free of the dead hand of the Book. But as Carl Sagan reminds us, “When the movie Jurassic Park was shown in Israel, it was condemned by some orthodox rabbis because it accepted evolution and because it taught that dinosaurs lived a hundred million years ago, when, as is plainly stated at every Rosh Hashanah and every Jewish wedding ceremony, the Universe is less than 6,000 years old.”

It is never long before the Book is claimed to contain everything that anyone could possibly want to know, and that to search further for knowledge is wicked. Ibn Warraq writes: “Every time there is a new scientific discovery in, say, physics, chemistry or biology, the Muslim apologists rush to the Koran to prove that the discovery in question was anticipated there; everything from electricity to the theory of relativity.” Ernest Renan maintained: “Science and philosophy flourished on Musalman soil during the first half of the Middle Ages; but it was not by reason of Islam, it was in spite of Islam. Not a Musalman philosopher or scholar escaped persecution.”

Stephen Hawking was one of the cosmologists invited to a conference at the Vatican. Later, he reported, “At the end of the conference, the participants were granted an audience with the pope. He told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of creation and therefore the work of God.”

It is all sadly at odds with Isaac Asimov’s characterization of the Bible as “a collection of two-thousand-year-old writings by provincial tribesmen with little or no knowledge of biology, astronomy, and cosmogony.”

Lewis Jones

Lewis Jones is a science writer in the U.K.