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Once Again, Science Explains Religion

by Massimo Pigliucci

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 2.

That science and religion have constantly been at odds is a fact that only certain politically correct revisionists seek to deny. This does not mean that there is a necessary conflict between the two, because science simply cannot address all of the statements and assumptions that go into religious pronouncements-not to mention that faith is by definition beyond any rational inquiry.

However, science can show that some specific statements found in religious texts are in fact false.1 This has happened many a time: Copernicus swept away the Catholic (actually, Aristotelian) doctrine of the Earth as the center of the universe. Both indirect observations and photographs from space have shown that the Bible was wrong in implying that the Earth is flat.

A more recent and intriguing example comes from research conducted by an eclectic group of scientists comprising archeologist John Hale, geologist Jelle De Boer, chemist Jeff Chanton, and toxicologist Rick Spiller. In an article recently published in Scientific American (August 2003), they detail how they came to solve the mystery of the famous ancient Greek "oracle" of Delphi. As described by ancient historians and commentators, including Plato and Cicero, the priestess of Delphi entered trances induced by the god Apollo, who spoke through her (often in rather arcane terms) to those who had consulted the oracle for guidance before they took action on some proposed plan. We have very detailed eyewitness testimony of how the proceedings went, for example, from the hand of Plutarch (46-120 c.e.). A piece of Athenian pottery dating from 440 b.c.e. depicts the priestess of Delphi in action.

This is all superstition and legend, or so went the official scientific explanation until very recently. The French-English classicist Adolphe Paul Oppˇ "debunked" the Delphi myth at the beginning of the twentieth century, arguing that no known geological phenomenon could explain the details reported by Plutarch, and so modern science would be much wiser if it completely dismissed ancient testimony.
But Plutarch was to be vindicated by Hale and his team, who over a period of several years found not only that the precise location of the oracle's chamber coincides with the crossing of two underground geological faults, but that this unusual configuration-coupled with the particular makeup of the porous rocks under the temple-produces a mix of ethane, ethylene, and methane that sometimes invades what is thought to be the oracle's small chamber. These gases are known to affect human beings by inducing a trancelike state of trance and hallucinations, as well as occasionally causing violent reactions and death-just as Plutarch had said long ago.

Chalk up one for a naturalistic interpretation of the world, and one against religious superstition. And yet, Hale and collaborators conclude their Scientific American article with a series of curious sentences that are worth quoting:

Two thousand years ago Plutarch was interested in reconciling religion and science. . . . Plutarch's careful observations and reporting of data about the gaseous emissions at Delphi show that the ancients did not try to exclude scientific inquiry from religious understanding. The primary lesson we took from our Delphic oracle project is not the well-worn message that modern science can elucidate ancient curiosities. Perhaps more important is how much we have to gain if we approach problems with the same broad-minded and interdisciplinary attitude that the Greeks themselves displayed.

Now, I am certainly all in favor of "broad-minded interdisciplinary" attitudes. But it seems to me that the "well-worn message" that modern science can debunk ancient superstition is in fact the moral of the story and that scientists should not shy away from this conclusion, if and when it is substantiated by facts.

If Hale and coworkers felt compelled to end their fascinating article with such a whimpering remark about the debunking of a religious myth nobody actually believes in anymore, one can only imagine the lengths they would have gone to in order to save religion from science if they had discovered, say, how Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea, or how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. Why is it that we cannot face the simple truth? Religion is at best unsubstantiated superstition. Whenever it comes close enough to reality that its claims can be investigated by science, they invariably end up falsified. Religion's record as truth-revealing is abysmal, and it is getting worse every year, thanks in part to people like Plutarch, as well as to Hale and his collaborators.

1. As I have argued, for example, in "A Case against God: Science and the Falsifiability Question in Theology," Skeptic 6, no. 2 (1998): 66-73.

Massimo Pigliucci is a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee. His latest book is Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science (Sinauer, 2002). Many of his ramblings can be found at www.rationallyspeaking.org.

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