Adoration of science

Vic Stenger has a very nice slogan: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

It’s nice and catchy. Memorable. It inspires my envy, because I’ll never come up with anything that good. It’s too bad I find myself in such disagreement with what it actually says.

I guess a common objection might be to ask whether it’s fair to blame religion in such a blanket sense. But that’s not my gripe. In context, Stenger is saying that it takes something like a set of beliefs in religious martyrdom, an afterlife, complete moral certainty and so forth, in order to do something as spectacularly violent as flying airplanes into buildings. That’s a good point, though I’m not convinced religion (some sub-variety of religion, really) is unique in encouraging spectacular violence. If Stenger is wrong here, it’s because to make it accurate, you have to drown “religion flies you into buildings” in a thousand qualifications. And you end up with something useless as a slogan.

Right now, I’m more worried about the “science flies you to the moon” bit. That is an impressive achievement, yes. And it is certainly an achievement enabled by scientific knowledge. But surely it’s the engineers who should get most of the credit here. And if you look at a moon landing as an icon of applied science, you can quickly turn Stenger’s slogan on its head. After all, if science-based technology enables us to get to the moon, if that is what we want, then science-based technology also allows us to build airplanes—which we can then slam into buildings, if that is what we want.

Well, maybe this is all politics, science is value-neutral, and you can’t blame scientists and engineers for the fanatical purposes their work may be used for. But if so, it’s hard to praise science for getting us to the moon. If religion can take some blame for being a key motivator in spectacular violence, then we should also look at the ideological motivations in getting us to the moon. Let’s not praise science, but . . . what? Cold War politics that underlay a “space race” that poured resources into manned space missions that were scientifically of dubious value but did wonders for nationalist prestige?

Actually, if we go in that direction, the scientific and engineering efforts that brought us the moon landings can start looking very ambiguous indeed. After all, any historian of technology worth her salt can tell you that warfare is a leading driver of technological progress. We landed on the moon as a byproduct of a way of organizing scientific and technological institutions in the service of mass warfare. And this has been far more destructive of human life than small groups of religious terrorists. A plausible way of rewriting Stenger’s slogan would be that the institutions of modern science and technology gave us Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that a group of marginal Islamic extremists gave us 9/11.

But if now our attention is diverted to body counts, that is not my intention. I think that we—those of us enamored of modern science and technology and an Enlightenment political and moral outlook—too easily lose sight of the large amount of blood we have on our own hands, historically speaking. A slogan like “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings,” especially when taken without context as slogans invariably are, paints us as paragons of laudable achievement while the religious come out looking irrationally destructive. That is the sort of thing you expect from the micro-nationalists of Balkan and Near Eastern ethnic groups, who are careful to remember every atrocity committed by their neighboring groups while playing down all the righteous acts of justice and retribution engaged in by their own.

Indeed, the use of such slogans makes me want to distance myself from the more recent, more robust form of atheism. Things get even worse when we fail to acknowledge how examples like Stalinist persecution of religion are connected to Enlightenment-inspired politics. If we think life would be better for most of us if fundamentalist styles of religion had less influence, I think we should be more careful not to appear like their mirror image. It is strange to see echoes of the monotheistic inclination to imagine ideologically defined groups of moral purity and depravity in the rhetoric of nonbelievers. But then, perhaps we remain a lot closer to our religious cultural inheritance than we might like to think.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03190524739107446297 Nick

    It is strange to see echoes of the monotheistic inclination to imagine ideologically defined groups of moral purity and depravity in the rhetoric of nonbelievers.

    I dunno: I think that this is a better slogan than Stenger's. I'd much rather put this on a sign and carry it around.

    God dies, but he definitely goes down swinging. Awesome post.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17093711439992855042 UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 10/06/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12963476276106907984 Sabio Lantz

    Great precautions ! Excellent.
    Thank you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04667082818265414145 the_85_consultancy

    I have written a piece on religion's darwinian journey! Feel free to add to this blog, great stuff.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Victor Stenger’s slogan “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.” is as superficial and misleading as “Religion gives you meaning. Science gives you weapons of mass destruction.” Not to mention that comparing science to religion, instead of naturalism to religion, is an obvious category mistake.

    What bothers me in the New Atheism movement is not just its intellectual superficiality, but also the tribe mentality that keeps people who must know better from criticizing others. Victor Stenger’s “Quantum Gods” is one of the worst books I have ever read; full of mistaken or misleading statements about science and just simply bizarre in its philosophical content – but I don’t see any atheists criticizing it. If there is one thing that was supposed to characterize atheism is its love for truth come rain or shine. As far as I can see the politicizing of atheism and the search for influence instead of only for truth has opened up space for mediocrity, pretension, and worse.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06228052543574335663 geoih

    "If we think life would be better for most of us if fundamentalist styles of religion had less influence, I think we should be more careful not to appear like their mirror image."

    Hear, hear!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    Dianelos wrote: Victor Stenger’s slogan “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.” is as superficial and misleading as “Religion gives you meaning. Science gives you weapons of mass destruction.” Not to mention that comparing science to religion, instead of naturalism to religion, is an obvious category mistake.

    I think that the comparison of science to religion is appropriate because they are both general endeavors or methodologies for achieving some goal. What corresponds to naturalism would be theism, since they are both worldviews.
    Dianelos thinks that theism explains certain things better than naturalism does, but that is just one argument among many for theism, and certainly there are objections to it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Ted Drange said: “I think that the comparison of science to religion is appropriate because they are both general endeavors or methodologies for achieving some goal.

    Fair enough, even though religion’s endeavor has nothing to do with “flying people into buildings” and science’s endeavor has little to do with “flying people to the moon”.

    I think it’s clear enough what religion’s endeavor is (or at least what religion’s intellectual endeavor is): According to religion reality is much deeper than what meets the eye (i.e. the “natural world”) and religion’s endeavor is to understand how that transcendental reality is. Theistic and non-theistic religions may well be focusing on the personal and non-personal aspects of that transcendental reality. Naturalism, which can more closely be compared to religion, is basically the view that that the natural world is all there is.

    With science I find things get more confusing, for many naturalists heap on science metaphysical and even epistemological baggage which I think do not belong. I’d say that science’s endeavor is the discovery of knowledge related to physical phenomena, and especially the discovery of mathematical patterns present in physical phenomena. The discovery of such patterns makes for great science – no matter what epistemology has been used for the discovery, no matter whether the patterns discovered are amenable to naturalistic modeling or not, and of course no matter the discoverer’s own ontological beliefs. It’s true that science’s traditional methodology is the scientific method (experiments to collect data about physical phenomena, hypotheses formation, validation of the hypotheses via new experiments, and so on), but this is not a fundamental part of science in my view. Much of string theoretical work today is done on a purely abstract mathematical level that has arguably little in common with the traditional craft of the physicist. And if scientists were to find out that chanting “OM” for many hours, or perhaps studying the decimal expansion of pi, would help them discover mathematical patterns in physical phenomena then no doubt they would happily use such methodologies too. As far as I can see science is about solving a puzzle, a hugely interesting puzzle with significant practical advantage riding on even small advances solving it, but just a puzzle nonetheless. Anything beyond that is not physics, but metaphysics really.

    Some naturalists make a big deal out of the fact that scientific research proceeds on the assumption that no supernatural causes are required. But I don’t see how this is supposed to be significant; after all it’s impossible to require a supernatural assumption to solve a mathematical puzzle of any kind. If there is a mathematical pattern present in physical phenomena then by definition no supernatural causes are required. In Eric Reitan’s book the following observation is made: That if statistical studies of intercessory prayer had demonstrated systematic healing then scientists would not (or should not) have assumed a supernatural cause but rather the presence of a new natural force, namely one that mathematically binds a particular physical cause (prayerful behavior) with a particular physical effect (healing). I am not saying that if such a pattern were discovered one couldn’t reasonably assume a supernatural cause; I am saying that such an assumption could only make sense in ontological discourse, but not in scientific discourse. Indeed according to theism the very existence of mathematical patterns in physical phenomena has a supernatural cause, but whether this is true or not surely has no relevance to science.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10449040543329294980 Chuichupachichi

    Flying lessons at age 15 & on his 16th birthday, issued a pilot's license.

    Built a small wind tunnel in his basement where he performed experiments on model planes he built.

    Began work on an aeronautical engineering degree, but in 1949 was called to active duty with the Navy. Won his jet wings at Pensacola Naval Air Station at age 20, the youngest pilot in his squadron.

    Korea 1950: flew 78 combat missions in Navy jets winning three Air Medals.

    He was a project pilot on many pioneering high speed aircraft, including the 4,000 mph X-15.

    In 1962, he was transferred to astronaut status

    In 1969 he stepped onto the moon, took his pocked Bible out and read to his nation:

    “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth 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. And God said, let there be light: and there was light.”

    After his voyage Neil Armstrong was talking on the universities about his Christian faith!

    "Science flies you to the moon, Religion flies you into buildings."

    But Christianity flies in the face of fictional slogans


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