History is replete with examples of misguided religious zealotry, ignorance and intolerance being the antagonist and enemy of reason and science. Indeed, most wars have been fought over religion. I will discuss several historical accounts where religion has collided with science and reason to the detriment of all and conclude by suggesting that if the Hawaiian Islanders are successful in thwarting construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, we will be witness to yet another example of the same.
Hypatia of Alexandria was a Greek teacher, Mathematician, Astronomer and Philosopher living in Egypt. She lived at a time of great tumult, a period just prior to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Labeled as a witch and a pagan, she was stoned to death in the name of religion by an angry mob, Christians who considered her teachings those of the devil and used her role in a local dispute as a pretext for murder. Her death has been used to mark the end of classical antiquity and she is regarded as the first martyr for science and reason.
The Decline of Baghdad
Up through the end of the 12th century, the city of Baghdad was regarded as a leading center of science and learning, specifically in the fields of astronomy and mathematics; indeed, more than 1/3 of all stars’ proper names have Arabic roots, a testament to the contribution of Arabic scholars to astronomy. Whether or not the Sunni Muslim cleric Al-Ghazali is directly responsible for the decline of science and higher learning in the region, with the fall of Baghdad as its center, can be debated, the city never recovered. The decline of science and higher learning at this point in history and in this region of the world is often used as an example to illustrate what happens when religion is allowed to run amok, unchecked by reason.
Galileo & Giordano Bruno
The story of Galileo Galilei, aside from personally tragic for him, was a loss for all of us. The measures imposed on him prevented him from realizing his full scientific and teaching potential while living out the remainder of his years under house arrest; his was a case of systemic, unbridled and unchecked religious intolerance. A similar, previous and more extreme case of the same was that of Giordano Bruno. Galileo entered into what amounted to a plea bargain in exchange for his life; Bruno was burned at the stake. The extreme measures taken against these men in the name of religion for merely seeking the truth are a matter of historical record.
Current Crisis due to Ignorance and Religious Extremism
The decent into war, violence and chaos currently gipping the Middle East with the resulting migratory and humanitarian crisis beginning to seriously tax the ability of many European countries’ ability to absorb the masses, is a direct result of the rise of ISIS and their specific brand of militant Islamic extremism. As the scourge of ISIS continues to spread, people of other faiths or none at all flee for their lives lest they are beheaded or otherwise meet a violent end simply because they have a different religion or world view than the invaders.
Ignorance combined with Unchecked Religious Intolerance as Problematic Towards the Greater Good
Religion is a personal matter where faith and belief inform an individual’s behavior for their good and the collective good of others. When that individual’s behavior or the collective behavior of others who hold similar beliefs begin to negatively impinge on the freedom of others and the collective good, the underlying religion looses its credibility and should be put in check. Such is the case confronting the Thirty Meter Telescope project. While the religion of the Hawaiian Islanders should be respected, indeed should enjoy protection under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the behavior of its practitioners is now negatively impinging on the freedom of others, indeed on the worldwide scientific community!
Creation Myth Dictating Public Policy
Reasonable people can agree to disagree and reach a compromise; they can agree on certain concessions and this has been the course of action thus far. Burial grounds should always be respected and should never be trodden upon and certain areas of the mountain should be set aside out of respect and in accordance with the people’s historic and religious traditions. What the Hawaiian Islanders believe the mountain to be in their creation myths is all well and good and that story should be told and revered by the elders and all practitioners of that faith as they see fit but to impose those beliefs on the worldwide scientific community as they have, as a proscription against land use based on ancient, pagan myths and beliefs, is absurd in the extreme. They are acting as modern Al-Ghazalis, complete with a similar measure of religious intolerance and antipathy towards science and reason.
Science vs. Creation Myth
The Hawaiian Islands are a volcanic mountain chain with the large island, Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano. The island is an inanimate parcel of land; it is no more alive than a stone. It has no soul or animus, as it is not a living entity and never was. As such, the Islanders religious contention is inconsistent with science and reason and their case should be rejected out of hand. It is unfortunate and regrettable enough that they have delayed the project as long as they have, but to have the case now be decided by the state’s highest court is no longer a reflection of their intellectual shortcomings but on the misguided tolerance of others who should have acted decisively and in a manner consistent with their office and in the best traditions of an enlightened civilization.
Humanity’s Greatest Telescope
If the proposition were the construction of a casino or a luxury hotel, the Islander’s objections would be understandable but that is not the case; indeed, the land use is holistic and consistent with their belief system, that it will be used for the greater good of all, for the benefit of all humankind, the study of our universe so that we may better understand ourselves and our place in it. What better testament to their religion and the use of the mountain, as the top rung of a ladder to the stars, indeed as a stepping stone, a perch upon which to see the reflection of ourselves in the stars. It should be regarded as an honor, that this mountain was chosen as the platform upon which humanity will place its greatest telescope. In this context, it would be instructive to consider the words of physicist Steven Weinberg: “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things which lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy” and to meditate on the words of the late, great astronomer Carl Sagan in his Pale Blue Dot, describing the tiny image of the earth, recorded from a distance of 6 billion kilometers by Voyager 1 as it was departing the solar system:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi