Most people have at least heard about it, and many, those with an interest in history, may know what I’m referring to. No, it’s not the story of my lifelong conflict with my waistline. For those who don’t know, a short history lesson is in order.
Picture this: It’s the late fall of 1944. The Allied troops, consisting primarily of American and British forces, have broken out of the Normandy region after the successful D-Day landing in June. The two Allied armies are sweeping across France and Belgium towards Germany, with the German Army being repeatedly pushed back. It doesn’t look good for Hitler. It seems like only a matter of time and resources before we will be in Berlin. But suddenly we are stopped. On December 16, the German Army begins a major counteroffensive in the Ardennes Forest, stopping us in our tracks. The attack is planned in pure secrecy, and we have no advance warning or intelligence pointing to it. The plan is to split the Americans and the British in order to give the Germans time to consolidate their forces, resources and technology, in the hopes of eventually suing for a favorable peace. When the smoke clears, the Allies have suffered over 90,000 casualties, one of the bloodiest and deadliest battles in modern history. In the end, the Germans fail to achieve their objective, are driven back even further, and we eventually reach Berlin and end the war. In hindsight, it was just a major battle. At the time, however, the final result was still much in doubt.
Why the history lesson, you ask?
I was thinking about the apparent rise in religion in general, and fundamentalism in particular, in the good old US of A. Commentators, and not just those of the atheistic persuasion, decry this. Richard Dawkins muses about it in his book, offering the explanation that perhaps it’s related to the enforced separation of Church and State. He posits that with such a “hands off” environment concerning religion, it has become akin to big business, where superstores thrive, and hucksters compete for the consumer dollar, only here they compete for our souls and dollars. And now our Government is laced with fundamentalists hoping to use their influence to re-shape the country in their Christian mold.
Christians have a lot of complaints. They complain that the culture is driving morality, and not the other way around. They complain that immorality is rampant, what with all those gays coming out of the closet, and women exercising their rights to choose not to have children, a right granted to them by Roe v. Wade, not to mention pornography on the internet, sexual freedom, and use of condoms (anyone ever notice that most immorality, as defined by Christians, involves matters of the flesh?)
So lately, say since about the time of Ronald Reagan, Christian fundamentalism has pushed back, culminating in the election of George W. Bush, an avowed “born again” Christian (though, frankly, I suspect he’s lying about that). Religion has become very prominent in our culture, far more than it should be, with fear that many would like to impose a theocracy on this country, that they’d be happier than pigs in…muck… if we “reverted” back to the Christian nation they think we once were, when the Founding Fathers, Christian in name only, created this country.
My observation here is that we are in the midst of a cultural Battle of the Bulge. The actual war is between religion and superstitious thinking on the one hand, and science and critical thinking on the other. Between magic and reason. The current ascendancy and prominence of religion in society in the last couple of decades is a metaphorical Battle of the Bulge. In my opinion, it is a last ditch effort on the part of religion to defeat science, but thankfully, I believe it’s doomed to failure, just like Germany’s last ditch efforts in the Ardennes Woods was doomed to failure. The odds are stacked against it.
This cultural war began when Christianity came to ascendancy, most notably when Constantine officially recognized it as an acceptable religion within the Roman Empire. Christianity won a stunning victory in the early and middle part of the first millennium, almost akin to a blitzkrieg assault on the hearts and minds of humanity. It solidified its gains during the Dark and Middle ages. Christianity was the sole focus of life for most people in Western Civilization, or what passed for it at the time. The Church dictated everything from birth to death. Its hold on society was nigh absolute by the time of the Reformation and the Renaissance.
However, science began to rear its evolving head and assert itself. At first, it did so within the confines of the Church, and often lost many battles. Think Galileo. But gradually it began to gain ground, by force of its logic, methodology and reason. Science discovered, bit by bit, that divine and supernatural explanations for natural events, such as weather, disease, and observable astronomical phenomena, did not hold up to scrutiny, and that there were natural explanations that made far more sense than demons, angels, sin and other such nonsense. Science was here to stay. Religion showed signs of nervousness.
The D-day equivalent in this cultural war occurred when Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species, which in one fell swoop, undercut almost everything religion had posited about life, with the exception of its beginnings. In doing so, he established a beachhead in an attempt by science to retake the field of reality. The Theory of Evolution made suspect almost everything the Church taught about God, and His place in the life of humans. Rather than being an intentional creation of a supreme being, humans were just the latest in a long line of evolved creatures. The battle lines between religion and science were finally made distinct, and the enemy was engaged.
For 150 years after the book was published, skirmishes were fought between the warring factions. But then, after WWII, the Russians began a space race with the US, and science again gained the upper hand. We needed science, by God, to beat those Ruskies! So science was emphasized in the cultural zeitgeist. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union, religion took the opportunity to surge ahead.
It’s this latest surge that I compare to the Battle of the Bulge. I think society is poised on the brink of a massive shift in thinking, in favor of science and against religion. Medical and scientific breakthroughs are occurring on an almost daily basis. Technology has become so ingrained in the culture that our dependence on it, as opposed to magic and prayer, is almost transcendent. Religion is reeling from this cultural dependence on science and technology which is fueled by critical thinking and reason. This, in turn, encourages people to question their beliefs, especially when they are not substantiated by facts. The inexorable progress of civilization and intelligence is unbeatable, but religion, like it always has, is resistant to anything that diminishes its importance in the life of its adherents. There is too much at stake. Religion is too entrenched to roll over and die. So it fights back, and the recent rise in religion in this country is, in my mind, a manifestation of this almost hysterical reaction to what science has wrought.
Look at the Intelligent Design movement. It is entirely fueled by religious thinking. The affirmative evidence for Intelligent Design is non-existent, so its proponents have to resort to illogical arguments, contrived evidence, and attacks on trumped up “gaps” in the science. There is nothing positive about the Intelligent Design theory (and I use that term loosely). It is entirely negative and defensive, though it gives the appearance of being on the offensive, giving credence to the old adage that the best defense is an offense, much like the Germans in the Ardennes.
Religion has nothing to offer save a promise of something it can neither prove nor make good on. Advances in human understanding and intelligence, along with the simple expedient of education, have to ultimately win out over magical thinking, much like the Allies superior domination of the air, and unlimited resources, won out over Germany’s deficiencies in both. It is inevitable, and religion senses the inevitability.
Perhaps you’ll find this metaphor a bit strained. Frankly, I think I see a break in the clouds, and expect that the rest of humanity will too. Reason and science take the long view; religion takes the short view. In the long view (which will probably not be in my lifetime, but hopefully in my children’s), science will just get stronger with each new advance and discovery. Science knows it doesn’t have all the answers – now. But it’s also clear that neither does religion. Science is, however, proceeding on what history has shown to be the right path to truth – the scientific method of inquiry. It knows that ultimately, with time, human intellect will reach a consensus that science is right, and religion is wrong, at least for ascertaining truth and reality. Religion may be comforting to many at the moment, but in the end, when science has won the war, science will provide far more comfort than religion has ever given.
So for those of you who are concerned about the predominance of religious thinking in today’s world – take the long view. Yes, maybe Roe v. Wade will be overturned. Yes, maybe we’ll elect another turkey to the White House. However, in the long run, religion will be turned back, and science will win the war. This current Battle of the Bulge may be a major battle for religion, but it will still not result in victory.