I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought,
but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.
— Albert Einstein
Suppose Einstein’s catastrophic World War III happened and civilization was destroyed. After a thousand years, civilization returns to roughly our level of scientific awareness.
After losing all knowledge of optics and thermodynamics and gravity, this naive society has re-discovered it—the very same laws of optics and thermodynamics and gravity that we have now. Ditto for relativity or e = mc2 or F = ma or any other scientific law or theory.
Obviously, these post-apocalyptic humans would have different terms and ways of representing things—consider how mathematical symbols, numbers, punctuation, paragraph breaks, and even spaces have evolved over the centuries. But whatever notation they invented would be synonymous with our own since they would simply be descriptions of the same natural phenomena.
Does it work that way with religion?
By contrast, imagine that all knowledge of Christianity were lost. A new generation might make up something to replace it, since humans seem determined to find supernatural agency in the world, but they wouldn’t recreate the same thing. There is no specific evidence of the Christian God around us today. The only evidence of God in our world are tradition and the Bible. Eliminate that, and Christianity would be lost forever.
There would be nothing that would let this future culture recreate Christianity—no miracles, no God speaking to them, no prayers answered, no divine appearances (unless God decided to act more overtly than he does today). Sure, there would be beauty to wonder at, great complexity in the interwoven structure of nature, frightening things like death and disease for which they would need comfort, riddles within nature, and odd coincidences. People then, like they do now, would likely grope for supernatural explanations, but starting from scratch you could invent lots of religions to explain these things. There is no evidence or observation that would guide them to any specific supernatural dogma that we have today, except by coincidence.
Christians today come to their beliefs because someone initially told them of Christianity. If no one told you, you couldn’t figure out Christianity on your own, which is quite the opposite from how science works.
Note that morality doesn’t need rediscovering. Naive people don’t need to be told that you oughtn’t treat someone else in a way you wouldn’t like to be treated. That doesn’t mean that everyone in a post-apocalyptic society will act with compassion and generosity, just that they don’t need to be taught this.
The Bible weighs in on our thought experiment. It claims:
Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:18–20).
Here’s a variation on this thought experiment. Imagine the post-Christian society comes across a library from our day from which they find information about 20 religions that are popular today. This information spreads and civilization gradually adopts these new religious options. What is the likelihood that Christianity would come out on top again? Not very.
Let’s acknowledge that Christianity is sticky. If its message were a dud—that is, if it didn’t give people what they were looking for, at least to some extent—it would have faded away. But now we’ve turned our backs on the question of truth and are squarely in the domain of marketing, considering which features of religion satisfy people’s emotional needs and which are turn-offs.
The grocery store of religion
This is religion as breakfast cereal. Some new cereal brands last for a few months and are then withdrawn while others remain appealing (often adapting to changes within society) over the decades. Christianity is simply the Cheerios of religion. Like any successful brand in the marketplace, Christianity has spun off many variants—as if Protestantism were the equivalent of Honey Nut Cheerios, Mormonism as MultiGrain Cheerios, and Pentecostal as Cinnamon Burst Cheerios.
What can you say about a religion that can’t be recreated from evidence at hand today? About a religion whose god is knowable only through tradition? You can say what applies to all religions: we can’t prove that it’s manmade, but it gives every indication of being so.
I’ll end an observation by Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason, still relevant 200 years after he wrote it.
The study of theology as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and admits of no conclusion. Not any thing can be studied as a science without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is not the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.
Related post: Historians Reject the Bible Story.
There is no god, and that’s the simple truth.
If every trace of any single religion were wiped out
and nothing were passed on,
it would never be created exactly that way again.
There might be some other nonsense in its place,
but not that exact nonsense.
If all of science were wiped out,
it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.
— Penn Gillette
(This is a modified version of a post that originally appeared 2/27/12.)
Photo credit: Wikimedia