01/09/2013 12:21 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2013

Too Simple to Be Wrong: Atheism's Bronze-Age Goat Herder Conceit

Imagine we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would even embarrass a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is the center of the cosmos, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach.

There are two explanations for this: either we perfected our religious understanding of the world a millennium ago -- while our knowledge on all other fronts was still hopelessly inchoate -- or religion, being the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress.

Thus writes Sam Harris in his 2004 book The End of Faith. This passage shows up in a section about religious peoples' insistence on clinging to tradition. The idea being, only in religion would the thoughts of a 14th-century person still be considered authoritative.

Harris' words are indicative of a profoundly anti-intellectual conceit that holds an alarming amount of influence within contemporary scientifically motivated atheism. In his 2009 book "The Greatest Show on Earth," Richard Dawkins used the disparaging phrase "Bronze Age desert tribesmen" to describe the source of and intended audience for the biblical book of Genesis, and this phrase has been transformed in the mouths of lesser atheists into "Bronze Age goat herders." As in, "The Bible was written by a bunch of Bronze Age goat herders" (lifted from the JREF forum).

What's so wrong with goat herders, I don't know.

Harris mentions neither the Bronze Age nor goats, but it does not matter. He demonstrates the selfsame conceit.

The conceit probably originated with Kant but has since fallen far. Its contemporary expression might go like this: Way back a long time ago we weren't so hot at science. We were babies then, so in the face of an unpredictable world we clung to our religion like mama's skirt. Now we're growing up and must put away childish things: all religion must go.

My own rather strong religious impulses, for example, are relics of the bad old days and must be dropped. How? Apparently I must learn some science. Once I do that I'll be all grown up and I'll be able to relax and stop worrying, man, and enjoy my life.

Zooming out: We are at a critical point in history, and the sooner we slough off the old religious crap the sooner we'll be able to get on with the business of saving ourselves. Because "God" is clearly not going to do it.

So on one hand we have our Bronze Age goat herders; on the other, our contemporary atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. What came between these endpoints of intellectual evolution? I mean, besides our medieval ignoramus?

Sir William Herschel, that's who. He was the greatest astronomer of his time, which was approximately the late 18th to early 19th centuries. He discovered Uranus (make up your own jokes) and infrared radiation, discovered that coral was an animal and not a plant, discovered a couple moons of Saturn and Uranus, was the first to realize that the Solar System is moving as a unit through space, and coined the term "asteroid." Plus: He's the namesake of the big crater on Mimas, the "Death Star" moon of Saturn. He was a real scientist with a lot going on.

But he wasn't free of the old God baloney. In fact, he was plumb full of crazy religious-y ideas, like what we call today "cosmic pluralism." This is the belief that there is lots of intelligent life out among the far-off twinkly lights. Some people believe this on semi-scientific grounds today, but Herschel's arguments were not scientific at all. Instead, they were based on analogy and a belief in a God of abundance who would not waste perfectly good worlds.

Alasdair Wilkins published a nice piece some time ago at io9. Entitled "Cosmic Pluralism: How Christianity Briefly Conquered the Solar System," it addresses Herschel's belief that outer space is a full house. Wilkins writes:

By the 1700s, there could no longer be any doubt. Earth was just one of many worlds orbiting the Sun, which forced scientists and theologians alike to ponder a tricky question. Would God really have bothered to create empty worlds?

To many thinkers, the answer was an emphatic "no," and so cosmic pluralism -- the idea that every world is inhabited, often including the Sun -- was born. And this was no fringe theory. Many of the preeminent astronomers of the 18th and 19th century, including Uranus discoverer Sir William Herschel, believed in it wholeheartedly.

So under the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit, Herschel lived at a time just before the smart people came to disbelieve in everything but science. We had not yet seen clear through our biblical fairly tales, but we were undoubtedly approaching our majority.

We now have four points on a curve: (1) The Bronze Age infants who wrote the fairy tales for the goat herders in the first place; (2) our educated but unenlightened medieval fairy-tale expert; (3) the almost-grown-up but still somewhat silly Herschel, and (4) our brightest and most clear-thinking contemporary persons, who are of course all atheists.

It's too simple to be wrong.


(Larger version here.)

When you look at it like this, you don't have to do any work; the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit simply saunters into your mind and sets up house. It is self-evident. One is compelled to ask: How could the world be otherwise?

Which is the point. The Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit is anti-intellectual, yes, but is it wrong? I think it is, but that's not important for my present purpose. The point I'm working towards is that, right or wrong, any theory goes down nice and easy if (1) you want to believe it, and (2) you're not interested in doing your homework.

Next up: I will complete this article by suggesting an off-the-cuff and just-as-believable theory to compete with the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit. I was going to propose it in this post but I got a little carried away with the chart.

P.S. I am aware that Galileo was not martyred.