Editor’s Note: This article was inspired by a lecture I heard by Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and curator of the Hayden Planetarium (which is part of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City). In a talk he gave at Fairfield University, Dr. Tyson expressed concern that America’s tendency toward religious fanaticism is having a deleterious effect on our country’s efforts to compete with some of the less fundamentalist nations in the world.

All Things Must Pass


Autumn has seen Comet ISON illuminate the night sky. Our ancient ancestors viewed such displays as harbingers of calamity, because they didn’t understand astronomy.

Many of us still don’t. A recent Gallup poll revealed that one in five Americans thinks the sun revolves around the Earth. Many of our citizens either don’t understand or don’t accept modern science. This is a depressing fact in a globalized, technological world where scientific innovation forms the cornerstone of economic security.

All great nations and empires eventually sputter out. Hundreds of years B.C., my Greek ancestors invented science, democracy, geometry, philosophy and drama. Although a tiny nation, Greece conquered the mighty Persian Empire and controlled an area stretching from Egypt to India. However, since that time, what have we Greeks contributed besides souvlakis and that annoying bouzouki music?

The Roman, Spanish and British Empires have passed away. Yet we naively and arrogantly boast about American Exceptionalism, as if the U.S. had somehow been divinely ordained as a perpetual superpower.

During the Middle Ages, the greatest city in Europe was Cordoba in Moorish Spain, which had public lighting in the streets and the world’s largest library when Paris and London were mud hut villages. The Muslim Empire bestrode Europe and Asia, and, from 800 to 1100 A.D., the intellectual center of Western culture was Baghdad, where Christians, Jews, Muslims and unbelievers studied together in its grand universities.

While Catholics burned pagan Greek texts as heretical, the Muslims were busy translating them. They developed the concept of the zero and our (Arabic) numeral system, enabling them to derive algebra and algorithms (both Arabic words). They advanced medicine, optics and chemistry, and, as astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, curator of the Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, points out, they named the stars: Two-thirds of the visible stars’ names — from Aldebaran to Zavijava — are Arabic.

However, this Islamic Golden Age passed quickly. As early as the 12th century, anti-rationalistic Ash’arite scholars such as Imam Hamid al-Ghazali began to characterize mathematics and science as affronts to Allah. Like today’s Christian fundamentalists, they promulgated a medieval form of intelligent design that rejected mechanistic cause and effect in favor of the belief that all things are predestined by god. It wasn’t long before the Muslims joined their Christian brethren in book burning.

Fundamentalist attitudes have always been an element of Islam. When Caliph Omar conquered Egypt, he was reputedly asked what to do with the books in the Library of Alexandria. His answer, which is probably apocryphal: “If the books agree with the Koran, they’re unnecessary. If they disagree, they are not desired. Therefore, destroy them.” The end of the Islamic Golden Age became inevitable, according to Dr. Tyson, “when revelation replaced investigation.”

Today, the Muslim world has nine scientists/engineers/technicians per thousand people, compared with the worldwide average of 41. Of the 1,800 Islamic universities, only 312 publish journal articles, and the 46 Muslim countries contribute only 1% of the world’s scientific literature. Spain, not known as a publishing heavyweight, translates more books each year than the entire Arab world has during the past millennium.

LMuslims are 20% of the world’s population, but Islamic researchers have garnered only one and a half Nobel Prizes in science (Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam shared one with Dr. Steven Weinberg). Jews, at 0.2% of the world’s population, represent 25% of the Nobel laureates in science. Dr. Weinberg stated that, in 40 years, he hadn’t seen one paper “by a physicist or an astronomer working in a Muslim country worth reading.”

ike Muslim madrassas that offer little more than rote memorization of the Koran, our country’s fundamentalist Christian colleges impart science from the Middle Ages. They reject Freud, Darwin and Einstein in favor of text books that teach about demon spirits, creationism and a nonsensical 6,000-year-old universe, respectively.  

Such medievalism has caused California to deny accreditation for master’s degrees in biology to Christian universities that teach so-called “creation science.” And hostility toward physics has caused billboards to sprout up across the South that proclaim, “‘Big Bang Theory. You’ve Got to Be Kidding’ — God.”

America’s tendency toward sectarian anti-rationalism has been exacerbated by the GOP’s courtship of evangelicals. Conservative candidates brag about their disbelief in evolution and global warming, even though 97% of scientists in the nonpartisan Pew Poll accept both. Although 67% of Americans now believe in climate change, 75% of Tea Party Republicans don’t.

Ominously, many Christian conservatives reject the idea that mankind has the godlike power to destroy the earth’s climate. We’ve had this power since atomic weaponry made nuclear winter (and the destruction of all life on Earth) a distinct possibility.

As inevitable nuclear proliferation and global warming make the world a more dangerous place, I have just enough faith in American Exceptionalism to believe that a world which we lead would be preferable to one dominated by some of our more unsavory competitors. Hence, I favor an America whose citizens believe in 21st century science.

Comet ISON failed to survive its transit of the sun, and I’ll be long gone when Halley’s Comet returns in 2061. However, one can only wonder what sort of people will be here on Earth to observe its passing, and what they’ll think it portends.

Click here to return to the Mark Drought home page.