“If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.” –Penn Jillette, author of God, No.
I should begin this by stating that I generally have a lot of respect for Mr. Jillette, and I think he’s done a lot of good for the concept of critical thinking, which is sorely lacking in modern America. That being said, his determination not to believe in things sometimes blinds him to things that actually do work, but are either poorly-understood, or difficult to adequately communicate. Like most libertarians, he sometimes says things which I find profoundly true, and sometimes things which I find mind-bogglingly wrong. In this case, while nothing in the above claim is factually incorrect, the entirety of it is deeply erroneous and disingenuous.
1. Mr. Jillette starts out wrong by playing into the very modern idea of some sort of conflict between “science” and “religion”. This is based on an absolute abuse of epistemology. “Science” is a method(s) of studying physical phenomena. Religion has nothing to do with physical phenomena. Mythology certainly makes physical claims which are contrary to history, but to assert that as an error is to misunderstand the nature and purpose of mythology–and in any case, mythology (stories) are not religion (practice).
2. Religion is not “nonsense” unless one examines it with an inappropriate criterion (such as predictive power). Under such circumstance, science is also nonsense. For example, there is no compelling scientific argument to do any good thing. Absent a higher moral force, the only compelling argument is not to get caught.
3. The overall claim that the total erasure of religion would delete it, but the total erasure of “science” would only cause the process to begin again, is false for several reasons, primarily because both “science” (by which I assume he means knowledge derived by use of the scientific method) and “religion” (by which I assume he means any number of beliefs about knowledge which cannot be approached scientifically) are based on models.
A. While physical investigation into the universe would likely begin again after the eradication of “science”, there is no guarantee that the same models would be derived. Nor are our models finalized; the one certainty of scientific models is that they will eventually be found false and replaced. (If you think quantum mechanics is safe in way phlogiston was not, remember that it is completely incompatible with general relativity). It is (remotely) possible that our scientific knowledge to date is based on a deep initial error, or (more likely) that there is an end-state of physical knowledge which could be arrived at by generating a completely different set of models than we currently use.
B. Mythology is a symbolic representation of universal psychological truths. Specific religions adapt these truths into cultural-normal practices (marriage ceremonies, funeral rites, etc.). That these practices were universal 10,000 years ago strongly implies that they will continue to be universal 10,000 years from now. The truths get adapted to cultural specifics, but that hardly makes them “some other nonsense” any more than the luminiferous aether was “some other nonsense” than quantum mechanics. Physics has evolved, but it’s still physics.
C. Also universal are shamanism (the initiation of individuals into a “spirit world”) and mysticism (the experience of dissolution of the subject/object relationship). Regardless of one’s feelings about extra-physical reality, the universality of these experiences and practices strongly indicates that something very real is happening (even if it is misinterpreted by the participants), and it will contintue to happen in the absence of currently-evolved belief systems.