Joel Achenbach downplayed the most obvious culprit in his otherwise superb account of “Why Science is so Hard to Believe” (Washington Post, National Geographic) in accounting for skeptical views toward vaccination, fluoridation, and genetically modified foods. He de-emphasized religion’s influence. Religion is arguably science’s oldest, most powerful, and persistent foe. The fates of Socrates, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo; the various Inquisitions in search of heretics; the rejection of Darwin’s theory of evolution; the claims of young-earth creationists; the shenanigans of climate change deniers; and, the ongoing efforts in Texas to write curriculum standards and choose science textbooks acceptable to Evangelical Christians, are only low hanging fruit from the cornucopia of historic assaults by religionists on science.
These dramatic examples detract from more important facts:
- Religion is fundamentally opposed to science. Religion emphasizes faith regardless of evidence. Science emphasizes evidence regardless of faith.
- Religion and science, despite their opposition, are twin pillars of modern society—local, national and global—and cornerstones of personal identity. People most everywhere believe in both, but cleverly segregate the two domains, religion for issues regarding the purpose and meaning of life, science for practical problem-solving and economic development. Science owns brains, economy, jobs, workweeks, medicine, defense, and electronic entertainment venues. Religion gets hearts and souls, anxiety, fear, rites, weekend services, and dread-filled nights. Science gets this life and its problems; religion gets afterlife and eternity. Science gets nature; religion gets supernatural beings and territories.
- The respective philosophies and methods of religion and science compose and confound individual minds and social institutions. Some people, perhaps most, achieve a comfortable synthesis satisfactory for everyday use. Others find the meld fragile and occasionally troubling, for example when the claims of Genesis and Darwin are under discussion. Others, more than a few, find the conflict between faith and evidence disabling, even tortuous.
- Religion and science, uneasy allies at best, are unequal partners in matters of government and politics. Religion gets the predominant right to influence the purpose and goals of public policy. The role of science tends to be restricted to the means of achievement. Citizens outside of the community of scientists have little patience with knowledge for its own sake. Taxpayers want to pay for applied science. Pure science remains contentious and difficult to fund. Ancient religions, while trapped in the quicksand of time, and floundering in discreditable claims, nevertheless reign over science.
It is this last fact that bears most tellingly on the question of credibility raised by Achenbach. Because science is thought of as a means to an end—rather than as inherently valuable—it is the consumer’s right to disbelieve any scientific claim discommodious to his way of life and personal beliefs, no matter how well supported the claim may be by evidence.
The greater marvel would be if citizens believed in science on its own terms, which is to say, appreciated and felt bound by the demands of validated evidence, and loved the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. But one doesn’t have to know science or understand the scientific method to benefit from it. One can even be an enemy of science if one prefers. Most people take the benefits gladly and fault the source. Denigrating science and scientists (eggheads, brains, intellectuals, Frankensteins, geeks, etc.) has always been a mild yet popular parlor game.
That, in essence, is my amendment to Achenbach’s arguments: incredulity toward science is more firmly institutionalized than he admits!
Let’s turn to a more chilling related question: whether the radiation emitting from the weak bond between religion and science is important? Is the situation more than a little toxic? Could the injurious combination turn fatal?
Well, Yes, it is injurious, it has turned fatal, and the danger seems to be increasing daily. Consider the case of an airplane hijacked and under the control of Islamic terrorists. Yes, the events of 9-11-2001 offer a stunning example of the religion-science partnership. The control agents, the terrorists, claim a religious purpose, make a plan and set the goal; the plane, the means of destruction, is a subservient product of science. Here we have a prototype example of what the hegemony of religion over science means in the modern context.
The existence of the nuclear bomb stockpiled in nine nations, with Iran in the wings, is an even more potentially deadly example. The fearful nations, headed by leadership committed to a religious faith, claim the right to use the terrible products of extraordinary science for the survival of its variant of humanity. The commitment to religion and ideas like heaven, hell, and salvation make the otherwise unthinkable use of such weapons thinkable.
Because of this possibility, the Doomsday clock was invented in 1947 by atomic scientists. The Doomsday Clock is meant to dramatically indicate the realistic probability of nuclear calamity, and the “minutes to midnight” has been announced on every cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists since its origination. It was originally set at 11:53, seven minutes to midnight. This was shortly after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of World War II, the development of the Hydrogen Bomb, and the beginning of the cold war with the Soviet Union.
On January 22nd of this year, 2015, the clock was reset to 11:57, three minutes to midnight, to reflect not only recent improvements in nuclear weaponry, the unsolved problem of nuclear waste, and Russia’s entry into the Ukraine, but also because of the dismal news on climate change, that 2014 was the hottest year in memory and that average global temperature has been increasing.
It is deeply ironic that science is responsible for so much that people value in modern life without winning the hearts and minds of the majority of benefitted citizens. It is even more terribly ironic that the most dangerous knowledge and capabilities of science are often in the control of religionists who might use them for terror and war. We don’t even seem to have the good sense to believe scientists on global warming. The results seem predictable: stormy, calamitous times ahead.
Do I know any good answers to address our collective global dilemmas? Not really, but I have a few ideas. First, let’s give science a turn as advisor, guide, and primary authority on truth claims and the meaning of life. Second, let’s agree to allow God to get out of the war business. Third, let’s ask religious communities to celebrate nature, the planet, and the mystery of life on earth as revealed by science, foregoing the historical focus on death and the dramatics of afterlife. That would be more than a start. That would be a healthy revolution. Let’s give science a chance to guide us into the future. Science has earned it.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
April 10, 2015
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good