You should never, ever criticize something a New Atheist says about science and religion. Never tell them maybe it’s not the best idea in the world to just go on about science/evolution + religion in whatever way, at whatever time, in whatever manner, for whatever reasons. In fact, you cannot criticize the speech of New Atheists even if your goal is not to tell them to shut up, but to suggest that they might get their message across better and more effectively if they tried delivering it in a different manner than the one they’ve been using, because suggestions like that are CENSORSHIP and it is telling them to SHUT UP and that is WRONG and MEAN.
If you have no idea what I am talking about just Google any of the following in combination: Mooney, Kirshenbaum, PZ Myers, Unscientific America. Be warned, it is not for the faint of heart.
On the other hand, if you are not a New Atheist, and you want to speak about Science and Religion, you might want to choose your words pretty carefully. People might question why in the world you have been allowed to blog on ScienceBlogs. They might question your scientific credentials. They might call you a word-twisting intellectually dishonest buffoon. They will offer nuanced critiques of your writing such as: pathetically wrong and mind-numbingly boring.
I am amused at the outrage caused by one of my newest Sciblings, David Sloan Wilson, who writes the blog Evolution for Everyone. The dude’s not shy – he launched himself at Scienceblogs with a post on Science as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God. What’s behind all the sputtering anger? I mean, this dude is not the first person ever to posit such notions. Why are everybody’s knickers in such a knot? C’mon, you can’t pretend that idea isn’t out there and doesn’t have some serious resonance. And I’m talking about more than “high school debate team” level, as one of his commenters complained. Let’s review.
Here’s the kernel of Wilson’s post:
In short, the truth is regarded as sacred within science, more than within public life, with all the obedience commanded by the word sacred in religious life. Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.
Here are some insights that emerge from viewing science as a religion that worships truth as its god. First, being a scientist is not natural. We evolved to adopt beliefs when they are useful, not when then they are true, so being a scientist requires resisting temptation, just as religious believers must resist temptation to achieve the ideals of their faiths. Second, the ideals of science can only be achieved by an entire cultural system. Simply exhorting people to respect the truth is not good enough, just as exhorting people to do unto others isn’t good enough. Third, science as practiced often falls short of the goals of science as idealized, just as religions as practiced fall short of the goals of religions as idealized.
I really fail to see what is so fantastically radical about any of that. It is a freaking metaphorical analysis of science as a system. Are we not allowed to think about, talk about, science as science? Are we not allowed to analyze what it is we do in those laboratories all week long as a cultural practice? Are we not allowed to compare and contrast cultural systems? Well, boo hoo, too bad, that’s how I make my living as a feminist scientist/engineer blogger.
Wilson wasn’t saying science IS a religion in the sense that there’s no real underlying objective reality, everything’s all taken on faith, and we all get together and worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster at Friday seminar. But Jesus Christ, I was a grad student once, and I’ll be damned if there weren’t aspects of that experience that weren’t more than a little bit like being indoctrinated into some sort of crazy cult worship. There was a brilliant Chronicle piece some years ago by Thomas Benton analyzing the correspondence between grad school and religious cults. He was speaking about humanities students but, as I recall, it was all the rage with science and engineering students as well. Read it and see if you don’t find it chillingly applicable. My point is: what we do at the lab bench is Science. What we do socially, to each other, when we are not at the lab bench (and sometimes even when we are) can sometimes take on characteristics that very much feel like Science as a Form of Religion.
A thousand years ago, when I was a graduate student, we often used to grumble and joke amongst ourselves about the “sacred priesthood of science”. How you basically had to give up your whole life (including sex, because when did you have time for that?), and take a vow of poverty, to pursue your work. How you had to demonstrate your undying devotion to Science above all other things. And, of course, for us women, the sacred priesthood joke had special resonance, because damn, there were just so doggone many priests running the show and precious few priestesses to be found anywhere in the temples.
Imagine my surprise and amusement, some years later, to discover that our long-running joke had real roots in the way that Western science itself grew out of the ascetic tradition of the medieval Latin church – see: David Noble, A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science. There I was in grad school, joking about being inducted into the sacred priesthood of science – and here came David Noble to explain how Western science was shaped by and formed on a monastic model, designed in part specifically to exclude women.
Noble goes beyond this thesis of science as a religious calling in The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.
For social historian Noble…Western culture’s persistent enchantment with technology finds its roots in religious imagination. Despite their varied guises and pursuits, science and technology suggest nothing more than our “enduring, other-worldly quest for transcendence and salvation.” The pearl of great value is Noble’s contention that science and technology aren’t guilty of amorality: that was never the intent. Rather, he claims, new technologies aren’t about meeting human need; they transcend it. Salvation through technology “has become the unspoken orthodoxy.” Such is the new Gnosticism. This is a dense, fascinating study of technology and Christianity. Not satisfied with easy equivalencies, Noble challenges the idea of post-Enlightenment science as a secular brave new world and quietly offers that what we’re really hoping for is our reentry into Eden.
Noble is hardly the first historian of science to delve into the ways in which science functions as a religion (though no in the way those crazy Intelligent Designers like to think). But I particularly love what he does in exploring how the ways in which Western science’s birth in the monastic tradition has had long-lasting effects for women’s participation in science.
There are many reasonable, sound, scholarly bases for examining the idea of how science might function as a religion functions, or how it might work to meet needs and fill roles that are in other cases met and filled by what we more normally think of as religions. It might seem scary to ask those sorts of questions in a time where people who have decidedly, virulently anti-science agendas (and deep pockets to help carry them out) wish to put forth their own poisonous notion that science is just another religion so that they can pour their religion into science classrooms and control the agenda of science. But I’d like to think that at least amongst scientists, we can have a conversation about science as science, as cultural practice, as an institution. That we can step back and critically examine what it is we do day in and day out.
If you think the concept of science as a religion is just sooooooo unbearably stupid, high school debate, not-worthy of ScienceBlogs, it may not be the concept that’s ignorant. Just possibly, there’s a whole wealth of information out there to ponder that you are completely unaware of.