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Zapatista University Chapter 5: Science and Religion
por Ezra Niesen Saturday, Mar. 07, 2009 at 8:03 AM

Here's some more free science education for farmers, with the audio version now. The complete book can be copied from my site. The complete audio book is on my site now also, and the printed book can be ordered by mail. My Spanish isn’t good enough to translate a whole book, but I know there are plenty of people who can.

audio: MP3 at 8.2 mebibytes

Flash player: Embed this audio player:

Now I must talk about the difference between science and religion. They are both ways that people have used to try to figure out how the world works, but they work differently.

The goal of religion is to make the world make sense. If you don’t believe me, ask a religious leader about anything you want. One way or another, he has an answer for your question.

The goal of science is to discover patterns of cause and effect that make the world work the way it does. Scientists try to find answers to every question in the world too, but not for the same reason. If you ask a scientist a question that he doesn’t know how to answer, he’ll tell you he doesn’t know the answer. The reason for that is that the goal of science is to find reliable information.

You depend on reliable information and discovering patterns of cause and effect on your farm. You know that you have to plow your fields a certain way, you have to plant your seeds at the right time of the year, your crops have to get the right amount of water, and so on. You know that if certain things happen, it makes your plants grow up healthy and it makes them produce a lot of good food. If any of the things your plants need to grow big and healthy don’t happen, your plants won’t grow as well.

There is a pattern of cause and effect taking place here because certain things happening make other things happen. You need reliable information because making your plants grow as well as possible depends on your knowing how to make them grow as well as possible.

How do people use religion to figure out how the world works? With a religion, there are things no one can see, and there are stories people tell about how those things work. With science, there are also things no one can see, and there are stories people tell about how those things work.

But where did the stories come from? That’s where religion and science are different. Religious stories are either stories people tell because they have an idea and that’s the best way they can figure out to tell their idea to someone else, or else they learned the stories from their parents, and their parents learned them from their own parents, and so on. With religious stories like that, either nobody knows who told the story first, or else you know it was first told by someone who lived thousands of years ago.

People tell religious stories because they figure out something important about life, and then they want to teach it to their friends or their children. People teach their children what they figure out about life, and people have always done that. The problem with religious stories is that thousands of years ago, people had the same ideas people have now, but they didn’t have as many words to be able to talk about them. So if you hear words that were first spoken by people who lived thousands of years ago, you can get an idea of what they meant, but you can’t guarantee that they were using their words the same way people use those words now.

For instance, 2,000 years ago, there was no word for airplane, because airplanes hadn’t been invented yet. There was no word for bicycle, because bicycles hadn’t been invented yet. There was no word for microscope, because microscopes hadn’t been invented yet.

Also, back when Jesus lived, he couldn’t tell his followers about tomatoes. People who lived in Israel didn’t have tomatoes, so they didn’t have a word for tomatoes. People who lived in Mexico had tomatoes, so they had a word for tomatoes, and they could talk about tomatoes. The same was true for corn—people in Mexico had it, and people who lived in Israel didn’t.

That means that if a Maya figured out that eating healthy food was important and he taught his children about it by telling them a story about a person eating corn and tomatoes, someone from Israel wouldn’t be able to understand what the story meant. The person from Israel might’ve had the same idea, but he taught it to his children with a story about a person eating wheat and peas. So the two people figured out the same things, but they can’t recognize that the other person figured out the same thing they figured out—the same way a person from the jungle and a person from the desert can figure out how to live well where they live but don’t know how to live well where the other person lives. The person from Israel with his story about wheat and peas might be able to recognize that the person from Mexico had an idea that was kind of like his, that he’s telling with his story about corn and tomatoes, but he still can’t recognize that they’re the same idea.

People are the same all over the world. People all over the world have wondered the same things about life. People all over have figured out answers, and have told stories about them to their children. People have wondered what makes the universe work, they have wondered what happens to people after they die, they have wondered how people can make themselves happy, and they have wondered how to get people to cooperate with each other. But if people use different stories to tell about the same ideas, a lot of people can’t recognize that people who tell different stories are just like them.

Say Hernan Cortes met Montezuma. Cortes said, “Hey, Montezuma, buddy, this is a nice city you’ve got here. You Aztecs must know a lot about life. Tell me, what have you figured out?”

Montezuma says, “Well, Quetzalcoatl told us the secret to being happy is to eat corn and tomatoes.”

Cortes says, “Corn and tomatoes? You stupid Indian! You don’t know anything! Jesus told us to eat wheat and peas! Now we’re going to have to have a war with each other!”

That’s just a joke, but I hope you can see my point.

There are also new religious stories that people tell. Some people know they’re just making up a new story, and know they’re just comparing it to their religion to make it easier for people to understand. Those are just the same as ancient religious stories people made up, except that now you know who made up the story. People have always done that. The ancient stories people tell now were new stories back in ancient times. The ancient stories people still tell today became ancient stories because the people who told them figured out a good way to teach something that, one way or another, has been important for people to learn. Since that way of teaching that lesson works so well, and the lesson has been so important, people keep telling the story. If you make up a new religious story today and it’s a good way to teach an important lesson, people will still be telling your story in 2,000 years from now, and to them, your new story will be an ancient story.

There are some new religious stories people tell because they believe they have been chosen to be special messengers for their religions. These people get an idea for a story, and then they feel that everyone is supposed to listen to them. The Pope does this all the time. He tells everyone that his god has given him a message, and now Catholics everywhere are supposed to obey it. But how do you decide whether the Pope really is a special messenger, or if he’s just making something up?

If the Pope told you that Jesus told him that you were supposed to plant your corn at harvest time and harvest your corn at planting time, you’d probably say, “Well then, Jesus must not know anything about farming.” And then you’d probably go right on planting your crops the way you knew they would grow best. Or you might ask the Pope why he believed that planting your crops at harvest time was a better idea than planting them at planting time, when you have a lot of personal experience at farming and you have a lot of good reasons to believe that planting your crops at planting time is the best idea. Whatever answer the Pope gave you, he would probably say that even though planting your crops at harvest time sounded like a bad idea, you had to have faith that it was a good idea.

But what if the Pope had his great new idea because he had been smoking a lot of marijuana? Some people would plant their crops at harvest time, and what would happen? Their crops wouldn’t grow. Then you would say that was proof that the Pope didn’t know what he was talking about, and everyone would forget his new religious story about how planting crops at harvest time was the best idea, and would go back to planting their crops at planting time.

The Pope doesn’t tell people new religious stories about simple things like this that would be easy for people to figure out whether he was right or not. He tells people new stories about very complicated things that most people can’t figure out. But scientists do figure out very complicated things. They do find evidence about whether or not complicated new religious stories are right or not. So this silly little story about the Pope giving everyone bad advice that they’re supposed to accept on faith is something that happens all the time, but it happens to scientists, not to farmers.

Scientists realized these kinds of problems people cause when they depend on religious stories, so they figured out a different way to study the world.

Science works by people studying how the world works now, by studying things they can see for themselves, without depending on ancient stories people told. Then scientists study how all the things they can observe fit together. For example, if they see that Aztecs ate corn and tomatoes, and they see that Spaniards ate wheat and peas, they can study corn, tomatoes, wheat, and peas, to see what they’re made of. They can see that the food the Aztecs ate had the same nutrients as the food the Spaniards ate—or pretty close, anyway. Then they can study physiology—how people’s bodies work—and discover that people need a certain combination of nutrients in order to be healthy. Then they can see that the Aztecs and Spaniards were both eating food that made them healthy. Then they can study neurology—how people’s brains work—and see that when people are healthy, it makes them happy. Ancient people didn’t know about chemistry or physiology, but they did figure out that eating certain foods make you healthy. People don’t really need to eat wheat and peas to be happy just because Jesus told them to, or to eat corn and tomatoes because Quetzalcoatl told them to, but their ancestors each figured those things out, and telling those stories was the easiest way they could find to teach their children to eat healthy food.

Religion works well as a way of figuring out how the world works if you live a simple life in a village where things don’t change very much. When things change a little bit, you can figure out what changed and how you’re going to need to live differently now. Then you can make up a new story and tell it to your children.

For people who build big machines and use them to make big changes in the world very fast, religion doesn’t work very well. Science works by people figuring out how the world works now and being aware of what ancient people thought about, but not depending on their words meaning exactly what they sound like they mean. Religion works by people today believing ancient people talked just like people do now, so that whatever words the ancient people said still mean the same things now. But that doesn’t help people who make big changes in the world very quickly.

Scientists study the world the way they study it so they can figure out chains of cause and effect. By figuring out how things work now, they can back up and see if things work this way now, and this is what the world is like now, what the world must have like before, in order for that chain of cause and effect to turn the world into what it is now.

If you saw some broken glass lying next to a rock, you could guess that someone threw a bottle against the rock. Then you could look at the pieces of glass and see if they looked like they could make the shape of a bottle. When you saw the broken glass you wouldn’t have to say that Jesus must’ve put it there. This is the kind of thing scientists do, but they can do a lot more of it, because they have more machines for figuring out things like this than you do.

Once scientists figure out what happened to make the world like it is now, they can back up again and figure out what it was like before that, and so on. They can also look ahead and see if the world is like this now and we know what is happening now, what will happen next? And what will the world be like afterwards?

If you try to do the same things with religious stories, it doesn’t work. If you know what the world is like now and you think you know what the world was like before because you think you understand exactly what the ancient people meant, but you misunderstood them, then you misunderstand what happened to make the world change from the way it was before to the way it is now. That would be like seeing some broken glass and saying, “Oh, well, the Bible says God created the world, so God must’ve created that broken glass.”

That sounds silly, but that’s the idea. A serious way it happens has been happening for a long time. Someone might say, “It says in the Bible that all the land is supposed to be mine. Look at those stupid farmers over there. That land is supposed to be mine!”

If people try to figure out how the world works by seeing how it works now, thinking they knew how it used to be, and then guessing to try to figure out how it went from being the way it was then to the way it is now, they can’t use that to figure out a chain of cause and effect that will show them what will happen next. They will think they figured out a chain of cause and effect, but it won’t work. They will expect one thing to happen, but something else will happen instead. Then they won’t know why it didn’t work.

A scientist would say, “I live on this land, and those farmers live on that land. If I take their land, they won’t have anywhere to live. If I try to take their land, they’ll try to fight me.”

That person who said, “The Bible says those stupid farmers are living on my land,” doesn’t understand why you think the land is yours. If he thinks the Bible says the land is supposed to be his, he might think that you’re supposed to know that too. Then when he tells you to get off his land, and you tell him it’s not his land, it’s your land, he won’t know what to do, because he didn’t expect that. So then he’ll try to think of something else. Maybe he’ll think that the fact you think the land is supposed to be yours proves how stupid you are. Or maybe he’ll think you’re just bad people. If he thinks he’s supposed to have all the land and you’re not supposed to have any land, then he obviously thinks he’s more important than you, or better than you. But he’s not, he’s a human just like you are.

You know you need land to live on. So if the guy thinks you’re not supposed to have any land and you’re just too stupid to know that, maybe he’ll call up the army and come take all your land. Then he’s going to have a whole bunch of people in his country who are starving and other people who are trying to fight him, because without their land they can’t get enough food now. But he’s still not going to be able to figure out why everything went wrong, because the Bible told him all the land was supposed to be his. That’s pretty much what happened to the Indians in the United States.

Again, this is kind of a silly little example, but I think you can see how this affects you in real life. This might’ve happened a little bit differently in Mexico than it did in the United States, but not very much. In both countries, when the Europeans came, they believed the Bible told them they were supposed to own all the land.

So the question this raises is: How are we supposed to figure out who is supposed to live on which land? Just because some people tried to use religion to answer the question doesn’t mean you can use science to answer the question. People still have to figure that out for themselves. But science does show us how the world got to be the way it is now, so it gives us some big clues about what will happen if we make different choices now.

A lot of what scientists have discovered contradicts what a lot of religious people have believed. There are a lot of people here in America who refuse to believe the scientists’ discoveries, and I bet there are a lot of people in Mexico who feel the same way. If you are going to argue with these people, you must be prepared.

One argument people use to try to disprove science is to say, “I don’t know how you could figure something like that out with science, so you must be making it up.” Another argument people use is, “I don’t believe it’s true, so it can’t be true.” Well you know how to make food grow out of the ground because you are farmers—which means you get lots of practice at making food grow out of the ground. Science is studied by scientists. Most of them don’t know how to grow food, because they spend all their time studying science—which means they have a lot of practice at what they do. If a person who you know isn’t a farmer tries to use this argument, ask him, “You don’t know how to grow food. Does that prove that food doesn’t exist?” Of course, if he is a farmer, you have to ask him about something else he doesn’t know how to do, but you get the idea.

Another argument a person might make is something like, “The Bible says this land is supposed to be mine.” You already know how this argument works. Just because the Bible says something must be true, doesn’t prove it is true. A lot of people assume it does, but all that proves is that the people have been taught to believe that anything the Bible says must be true. Montezuma was an emperor, and he had no way of knowing about the Bible before Cortez came along. But he had a different religion, which was taught to him by his ancestors, and he probably believed that religion was true just as much as Cortez believed his own religion was true. If people want to argue about who’s religion proves which land is supposed to belong to who, maybe you could go find Montezuma’s great-great-great-great-grandson and tell everyone he’s supposed to be the president of Mexico!

There are many other arguments that people make against science. I won’t tell you what to say for the rest of them, I’ll just tell you what the science means. For me to explain it to you will take some time. For you to explain science to people who think you’re just a bunch of stupid farmers will probably be difficult.

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