By James A. Haught
In an 1820 letter to Portuguese scholar Correa de Serra, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“Priests of the different religious sects… dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight.”
Jefferson saw the clash between religion and science clearly. Ever since his day, science has achieved astounding benefits for humanity, while supernatural faith has provided little.
In Jefferson’s time, human life expectancy averaged in the 30s (mostly because of horrible child deaths). Today, life is near 80, thanks chiefly to medical science.
I was born in 1932 in a little Appalachian farm town with no electricity or paved streets. Horse wagons were common. My privileged parents had gaslights and running water – but most farm families had kerosene lamps and outdoor privies. Conditions were little improved from medieval times. Since then, science has sent American life skyrocketing.
Just before World War II, penicillin and antibiotics were developed – and they eventually cut world deaths enormously, saving millions of lives.
In the 1940s, Arthur C. Clarke and a few other science writers saw that, if an object was rocketed into space at just the right speed, 22,000 miles above Earth’s equator, it would fall into an orbit exactly matching the planet’s rotation, so it would remain “fixed” in the sky, usable to bounce communication waves. Now more than 1,000 such satellites fill the sky.
Discovery of the double-helix DNA molecule in 1953 explained life, evolution, biology, and unleashed new fields of health.
Exploring the solar system has become so common that a private firm does it, and human stations on the moon and Mars seem likely.
I spent almost seven decades in newspaper, starting in the era of hot-lead printing. Time after time, I heard predictions that electronic delivery systems would put papers into homes, eliminating the cost of presses and truck fleets. But it never happened – until the Computer Age and Internet put the whole universe into homes free, wiping out the financial basis of newspapers.
Growth of nuclear power has been limited, but I still hope that either fission or fusion eventually can join solar, wind, tidal and others to provide all the energy humans need.
What’s next for science? – Floating offshore farms to boost the food supply was a proposal I saw recently.
Presumably, science will continue transforming civilization in decades ahead, as it has in the past. In contrast, does magical religion give anything to the world, with its invisible gods and devils, heavens and hells? It provides hundreds of suicide massacres (like 9/11) and an ugly wing of the Republican Party. But it’s difficult to think of any benefit.
Compared to science, it’s insignificant.
(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine.)