Steven Pinker: Stop bashing religion. You’re hurting science.

Connor Wood

Let’s face it: we have a science literacy problem in the United States. Significant percentages of our population don’t know what a genome is, what tectonic plates do, or what a double-blind study accomplishes. Worse, very large chunks of the population actively reject basic scientific claims about our evolutionary origins and our effects on the climate. So why do famous, influential, charismatic scientists – most recently, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in the New Republic – insist on selling science to the public by trashing religion? Has it never occurred to them that they might be actively hindering the goal of making science appeal to laypeople?

Pinker’s essay sets out to refute – or, rather, co-opt – the accusation that his views are “scientistic” rather than scientific. Scientism refers to a type of aggressive science jingoism that disparages all other methods of acquiring knowledge. In this latest essay, Pinker seeks to steal the normally derogatory term and make it his own – just as, he says, gay people have done with the formerly insulting word “queer.” In Pinker’s “good” scientism, science will take over as the basic intellectual tool for understanding all aspects of the world, including morality and purpose. This implies, of course, that religion and science are in competition for the very same turf, and religion is destined to lose:

(T)he findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history.…In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.

To be sure, Pinker also makes another, and much more defensible, point in his essay: that the humanities must begin to engage the sciences, or they risk their own extinction. He is absolutely right about this. The humanities need to stop hiding in the sand when it comes to science. For God’s sake, literature professors, social scientists, and critical theorists need to accept basic scientific knowledge about human biology, culture, and evolution. Please. Enough already of the obscurantist baloney of postmodernism and its insufferable refusal to evaluate truth claims or even countenance attempts at objectivity. Just because true objectivity is technically impossible doesn’t mean that attempts to be objective get us nowhere. They clearly get us somewhere – they get us to F=Ma, and special relativity, and the double helix, and evolutionary science. They also get us to the moon.* A creative and rigorous engagement with scientific knowledge led by well-trained, savvy humanities scholars could easily lead to the most staggering era of intellectual advancement since the Renaissance. I am not exaggerating about this.

But if Pinker and his comrades want this era to arrive – if they want science to become integrated not only into technological life and the academy, but also into everyday citizens’ basic personal outlooks about the world – then they need to stop insulting religion. Doing so is myopic and destructive. It does nothing but give scientists like Pinker the warm, self-satisfied feeling that they are better than average people, and it gives those average people every reason in the world to resent and disdain scientific authority.

But What If Science Really Is the Only Way?

You may ask, but what if religious and scientific claims about the world really are incompatible? Shouldn’t we dismiss religious beliefs then? The answer is yes – in cases where the two genuinely do conflict. The earth is not 6,000 years old; sorry, creationists. Humans are evolved organisms, and our biological ancestors were predecessors of bonobos and chimpanzees. Sorry, fundamentalists.

But in most cases, religious claims are nowhere near as determinate and materially precise as Pinker seems to think they are. Famed anthropologist Roy Rappaport claimed – correctly, I think – that religious literature, beliefs, and myths are instead culturally evolved methods of activating particular emotional and bodily states. In other words, the vast majority of religious claims aren’t propositions, such as “the cat is sitting on the bed” or “the gravitational attraction between two bodies follows an inverse-square law.” Propositional statements make clear, verifiable (or falsifiable) claims about the world. When two propositions make competing claims, one of them has to be false: either the cat is on the bed or not. Period. There’s no in-between (even for Schrödinger).

This is why Pinker thinks religion is doomed to the wastebasket of history. He believes that religions make determinate, propositional claims about the universe that directly compete with scientific propositions. But religious claims and stories are almost never propositions. They are attempts to inspire in people a felt understanding of certain aspects of emotional and social life.

WARNING! Slightly Poetic Language Ahead

Want to know what I mean? Read your Bible or Qur’an, but activate your poetic self first. Start with, say, this staggering second verse from Genesis:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

For fun, listen to electronic musician Moby’s meditation on this verse while you read. Let this imagery wash over you; let it infuse the corners of your mind that think not in propositions, but in feelings, images, and metaphors. If you don’t feel something moving your affective, or emotional, self, you’re either dead or an insurance actuary.

Here’s the thing: not only is Genesis 1:2 not literally true, but the assertion that “darkness was upon the face of the deep” is so grammatically and semantically opaque that it could not possibly reference anything concrete. We’re clearly not dealing with Pinker’s kind of truth here. And that’s the point. Instead of looking for testable propositions in Genesis, pay attention to the sensations your body feels as you read – the tightening of your stomach, perhaps, or the hair raising on your neck. If there is such a thing as religious truth, it’s in those internal, bodily responses – not in externalized logical propositions about a man in the sky who made everything.

It might sound like I’m going soft. But I’m about as pro-science as it gets. I grew up learning constellations, watching NOVA specials on galaxy formation, wishing I could be Captain Picard (with hair). Words like “quasar” and “red shift” were bandied easily around our house. When I say that religious truths are different from scientific ones, it’s not because I’m some reactionary anti-science atavism. It’s because I know that the myths and practices of religious traditions speak to our bodies, to our intuited senses, in a way that abstract, propositional, scientific knowledge often can’t.†

Why This Stuff Matters

There are seven billion of us. And we are hungry. We are at the tipping point of our impact on this planet. Science is correctly telling us that the crisis moment is now. But because science has been cast as the enemy of the experiential metaphors that speak to people’s embodied selves, countless millions of us reject science’s desperate warnings. Science has little credibility with them…and scientists like Pinker, by insulting religion in the name of science, are in many ways to blame.

If climate scientists are right – and ask coastal New Yorkers whether they are – we are facing major, major challenges in the coming decades. In order to have any chance of making it safely to the 22nd century, our culture needs to establish some broad societal consensus on scientific ecology. And since ecology isn’t intelligible without evolution, we need consensus on Darwinian evolution, too. In other words, we desperately need to overcome the cultural divides that make regular people feel like science is somehow the enemy – or simply “over there,” alien, not for them.

So, then, what do science advocates such as Steven Pinker or Jerry Coyne really want? Do they want to feel like the privileged and superior guardians of an esoteric, hard-to-gain knowledge? Or do they want to live in a world where everyday people – who, by the way, are the ones who build the roads professors drive on, grow the food they eat, and make the beds in their hotels – feel comfortable welcoming basic scientific knowledge into their worldviews?

Because you can’t have both, at least not in equal proportions. If you force people to choose between the traditions and metaphors that give their lives embodied meaning and objective knowledge, they will damned well choose meaning – and I don’t blame them. So, please, don’t force that choice. Most religious claims are not propositions, and are thus not in competition with science in their own terms. Get off your smug horse and stop bashing religion, spiritual beliefs, and traditions when advocating science. Let people feel that science is something they can actually engage, something accessible. Our descendants, should we survive the onslaught nature is almost certainly gearing up to unleash against us, will thank you.

Addendum: Don’t worry, I’m not letting religious believers off the hook when it comes to science. Check back in a couple of weeks for a follow-up post, in which I’ll be just as stern with religious believers who DO make propositional claims that contradict science as I am here with reflexively antireligious science advocates.  


* In case you haven’t picked up on this by reading my other posts, I really like space. Space is awesome. I had to tell my advisor the other day that if NASA succeeds in developing warp drive, I am done with religious studies and am enrolling in astronaut training.

† Many scientists may counter that gazing up into the night sky or looking through an electron microscope speaks volumes to the emotional self. This is true, but science is far more about extracting ourselves from such experiences in order to reflect on, ruminate about, and form mental models of them than it is about immersing ourselves in them. Religious experience is about immersion; science, in the bulk of its practice, is about extracting ourselves from immersion in order to create and evaluate models of it.

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