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God doesn’t care, nor should we

The scientists searching for the God Particle — the phenomenon that turned energy into mass at the time of the Big Bang to create the universe as we know it — say they’re closing in on their quarry.

Of course, there’s nothing God-like about what they’re hunting, but the fact they’ve chosen to give it this name aptly illustrates our preoccupation throughout human history with deities of one kind or another.

Human beings created Gods (in our likeness?) around the time that we moved from hunter-gatherer status to tillers of the soil — or maybe earlier. The Sumerians, ancient Greeks and then the Romans codified their Gods but it took the rise of Judaism and Christianity — and later Islam — to create the monotheistic, all-fearing, vengeful God handed down to us in the Common Era.

A new book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton) explores how some of the early philosophers, notably Epicurus in 3rd century BCE Greece, and Lucretius in 1st century BCE Rome, challenged this belief in gods. Greenblatt has constructed  a fascinating narrative around a 15th century ex-Papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, who  found  the forgotten manuscript of Lucretius, On The Nature of Things, in a monastery in southern Germany. He had it copied (in beautiful calligraphy as readable as modern printing), and soon it was influencing the work of Renaissance thinkers, insidiously undermining the conventional wisdoms of the Church. With the discovery, Greenblatt writes, “the world swerved in a new direction.”

Epicurus had taught that  the gods, if they exist, did not care at all about human beings. If the gods did not care, why should we? The purpose of life, Epicurus said, should  be the attainment of pleasure, and one should believe only that which can be tested through direct observation. The universe is made up of atoms, moving randomly about.

Lucretius used these arguments to bolster further disbelief in gods. As Greenblatt sums up Lucretius’ conclusions: “There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design … no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place” in the universe.

The notion of atoms, and of evolution, was joined in The Nature of Things with the conviction that “there is a hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you.”

According to Lucretius, Greenblatt writes,  “there is no single moment of origin, no mythic scene of creation … There is no afterlife … When you are dead, there will be neither pleasure or pain, longing nor fear. You will not care, because you will not exist … There are no angels, demons or ghosts.”

Greenblatt points to the rejection by Lucretius of the cruelty of religion, as manifested in the sacrifice of a child by its parent in order to please a god.

“Writing around 50 BCE he (Lucretius) could not, of course, have anticipated the great sacrifice myth that would come to dominate the Western world, but he would not have been surprised by it or the endlessly reiterated, prominently displayed images of the bloody, murdered son.”

When the ancient manuscript found by Bracciolini began to circulate in Western Europe, the Church of course took action. An early strategy was to impugn the teachings of Epicurus as nothing more than a craving for gluttony and a sinful exercise in excess. More damaging was the persecution by the Holy Office (the Inquisition) of those who dared advance scientific thought.

The author of The Swerve draws an interesting comparison between the attack of the early Christians on scientific thought, and the enlightened pursuit of knowledge that had taken place in Egypt under the Ptolemaic kings before the birth of Christ. With their Greek heritage, they encouraged intellectual inquiry which led to the development of higher mathematics (geometry and calculus), posited that the earth was round, that the year was 365 1/4 days thus requiring a leap day every four years, and speculated that India could be reached by sailing west from Spain.

All of this knowledge, and more, was accumulated in half a million papyrus scrolls in the Alexandria Library. Early in the Christian era, Jews, pagans and Christians lived side by side in tolerance. After the Roman emperor Constantine decreed Christianity as Rome’s official religion, the attack on Alexandrian pluralism began. There must be no free-thinking inquiry, everything must give way to religious dogma. Soon, Christian mobs were vandalizing the great library, slaughtering pagans and expelling Jews. Rome’s own libraries fell into disrepair, with the historian Marcellinus bemoaning that “Romans had virtually abandoned serious reading.”

The collapse of the Roman Empire quickly followed. The Western world fell into a thousand years of stagnation and decay. Stephen Greenblatt’s Swerve leaves me wondering how much of a factor was Christianity in those lamentable occurrences. Did the Christian suppression of scientific inquiry cost us ten centuries of progress? Where might we be today if the seeds planted in Alexandria had been allowed to flourish in Rome, Florence, Venice and London ?

Ultimately they did of course bear fruit, in many ways and in many different places. Concludes Greenblatt: Thomas Jefferson would give “a momentous political document, at the founding of a new republic, a distinctly Lucretian turn. The turn was toward a government whose end was not only to secure the lives and the liberties of its citizens but also to serve ‘the pursuit of Happiness.’ The atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence.”

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