Let’s begin with a story. We live with ideological contradictions all the time, but one of the strangest might be our treatment of “innovation” as an automatic positive. I mean, it hardly matters what you put after the word–“innovative torture methods, innovative route to state oppression, innovative gas chamber”: That first descriptor lends a positive spin to the whole, as if to say, “yes, this is awful… but also pretty darn clever!”
Then again, progress, in general, is hailed as a positive, even if the term “progressive” (noun form) often crops up with disdain among more tribalist political conservatives.
Within the atheist community, we also see “progress” and “innovation” as intrinsically secularizing. Granted, some New Atheists did tether their advocacy for a more secular world to Clash-of-the-Civilizations rhetoric that plays into reductive ideas about the loss of one “superior” culture to another. However, on whole, who in the secular community leans on “traditional” values to stump for atheism? It’s innovative society we more often regard as the ticket out of so spiritual (still) a public space.
Historically, though, innovation has been embraced by religious folks, too. The Gutenberg press didn’t just forge a new era of book culture (from the Christian Bible on); it also arose as a technological response to a surging book culture, in part driven by religious organizations in need of more efficient delivery mechanisms. (Medievalists can readily attest to this by looking at the sharp rise in clerical institutions, book fairs, and paper mills prior to the press’s invention.) Likewise, when Roger Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton broke new ground for empiricism and physics, respectively, they did so with full confidence that their work would only serve to affirm the glory of the Christian god.
Moreover, when the British newspaper and stamp duty was dropped on pamphlets in 1834, then cleverly dropped to 1d for other publications in 1836 (a move that wiped out a whole blackmarket of unstamped radical papers), evangelical societies enthusiastically latched onto the benefits of this change, to widen the reach of promotional and recruitment materials through specialized publishing houses.
Later in the 19th-century, when modern film was first coming into being, many U.S. evangelical communities also saw the technology as a new way to spread the good word, going so far as to host screenings in their churches. (It was only when fair-grounds and cinemas plainly drew people into secular dens of popcorn-ridden iniquity that the message about the medium decidedly shifted among some denominations.)
Oh, and of course, we all know the televangelical example: how the rise of TV gave many a spiritual huxster in the ’70s the means to reach vulnerable people with cheque-books at the ready, while others instead saw the political value of being able to spread a specific brand of right-wing Christianity to every North American tuning in.
So what gives with we atheists?
Why do we so often assume that “progress” and “innovation” always serve us best?
And what other cultural dangers are we perhaps blinding ourselves to, in allowing innovation to be regarded so frequently as a de facto net-positive for the secular world?
Yes, it goes back to Galileo, I fear–or at least, to how Galileo serves as shorthand for the whole contest between religion and science as far back as Lucian of Samosata in the second century (if not farther). We have this fanciful set of background cultural myths–like the idea that most people believed in a flat earth until fairly recently; or of science always being a fervently secular/anti-theistic affair–and a tendency to cherry-pick our history to match.
Galileo is the perfect example, because his story’s cultural shorthand positions the players with immense simplicity: Progressive Science vs. Regressive Church. This tale neglects, though, that the Catholic Church was nevertheless patron to a great many scientists. Did it suppress findings and finders that went against its core doctrine? Absolutely. But it still innovated in wide-ranging fields–medicine, philosophy, mathematics, engineering, astronomy, biology–while maintaining those regressive sociopolitical mandates. And that’s a messy truth that we in the secular world tend to elide.
However, I’ve already talked here about the necessity of more nuanced secular histories of science–using the case of Newton, a Christian and an alchemist (two aspects of his character that strongly relate to one another, and as such should not be excised from secular histories of science). Today, I want to emphasize what underpins such storytelling: namely, the meme-generating compulsion, among theists and atheists alike. Whatever we believe, we rally all tools at our disposal to advance. This makes it difficult to move through the world when we believe other narratives are encroaching upon our own… which, in turn, makes us incredibly susceptible to accepting at face value any story about other narratives encroaching on our own.
And that’s why a simplistic story of Science vs. Religion works so well for both camps.
Yes, both camps. While some atheists might have knee-jerk reactions to any acknowledgment of church roles in scientific history, we have to remember that many religious organizations try to have it both ways. Even while innovating with new tech, even while appropriating scientific words out of context to draw erroneous claims about the natural world… many also perpetuate the myth that “Science”, in all its arrogance, exists at a firm remove from the work of the church.
And why not?
After all, the fruits of science are only worth claiming if they can prop up religious beliefs, and… well, there isn’t much science itself that can even come close to achieving that goal. For example: Teleological evolution? Oof, tell that to the whale, its vestigial hindlimb signalling an evolutionary tree that goes from aquatic creature to land animal to aquatic creature anew. Or to Human Chromosome 2, an end-to-end fusion of two chromosomes that remain distinct in our nearest great-ape species, with a messy carry-over of telomeres and a vestigial centromere to match. (I also talked about lignin in my last essay, on unguided evolution.)
When religious communities do have a leg to stand on, it’s by pointing out that religious folks can do science, too. Which is very true! The first major proponent of what we now call Big Bang Theory was Georges Lemaître, a Jesuit-trained Catholic priest who theorized cosmic expansion prior to Hubble’s evidence for the same. And yes, plenty of successful scientists content themselves with explicit cognitive dissonance between lab and pew. Noted biologist Francis Collins is Catholic, for instance, but also emphatically articulates that his religion lies beyond the natural world, and generally refutes nonsense like the flower being a “miracle”.
So if the science isn’t on their side, and only some scientists are, what does that leave? Well, what many theists advance is the idea that science is “empty” without religion… and this is where we get to the heart of all that early-adoption of new technology. To many evangelical communities, it’s their responsibility to make all this “soulless” innovation sacred, by enthusiastically embracing it to put it to more spiritual ends.
And what do secular folk tend do in response? Oh, we flat-out repudiate this claim of “emptiness”, for sure. We push back by arguing that science is what brought us out of eras of religious ignorance, and science is what actually heals the sick and meaningfully tackles food scarcity. We fixate, too, on how plainly science continues to show that there is zero empirical evidence for a divine creator of the natural world.
But is this really the best set of counterpoints to belabour, if it was never really about the science for evangelicals in the first place?
No, if it were really about the science they could be persuaded to hold different views based on evidence, but they’re not interested in capital-T truth because they believe they already have it. As such, for evangelicals, it’s all about meme generation and propagation. It has always been about exploiting new tech and novel terminology to advance the brand. And yes, some of the material disseminated through these new mediums involves science, or perceived secular aimlessness. But the real content is the fact of the argument itself. It’s about sowing doubt in fields of empirical certitude, at least among laypersons. It’s about eroding trust in scientific expertise, so that these meme-generators can recommend a new tribe–their tribe. It’s a whispered message right out on public airwaves: Be part of something bigger, something grander, something more definitive than this “empty” sphere of worldly knowledge permits. Join us!
White Supremacy’s Similar Interest in Innovation
White supremacists have also, unsurprisingly, been savvy to the need to innovate to stay ahead of bad branding. Did you know, for instance, that a major dogwhistle for these frightened tribalists is now “human biodiversity” or “HBD”–a phrase far more innocuous than the reviled “racial realism” of the first decade of the 21st Century?
I’ve written before on the pathetic history of Aryanism, as well as some of the dangers online atheists need to be cognizant of, as our communities sometimes become breeding grounds for white-supremacy, too. But it also bears noting that white-supremacy’s adaptive resilience has a strong history between those time stamps, too. It can be seen in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, an incendiary Klansmen film well situated at the outset of widespread filmic viewing. And in the sneaky way that segregation was repackaged as a “women’s issue” during the rise of mid-century feminist movements. And in exploiting cultural wounds from the U.S. Conflict in Vietnam, fostering and even fetishizing a sense of relentless struggle on the home front, too.
We are meme-generators, we both amazing and amazingly stupid great apes. It’s how we maintain our sense of identity: by readily incorporating new information into the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Nor does what we disseminate have to be true, either–because as much as some claim, for instance, “I’m not being racist; I just think we should be able to talk about IQ demographically,” they’re then more interested in the thrill of receiving pushback. They come to thrive off others’ animosity, using it as further proof of their need to stick to their own “tribe”–even when pushback is only fair, because there are embedded assumptions and political consequences to everything we do.
(For instance, in this case: Why does IQ always end up being the most important metric in these arguments for comparative demographic studies? Why not advocate more for demographic-sensitive medical studies, so as to better target specific treatment plans to different genetic risk factors? And how are they measuring IQ? From what baselines? What historical data do they want to include, when we know the historical data is deeply compromised by cultural prejudices? Also, what sorts of ultimate conclusions are they even looking to draw when they say they “just” want leave to study this topic? How many of these conclusions are predicated on a conflation of Humean is and ought, the naturalistic fallacy writ large in public policy?)
Now, not every religious group evangelizes in a similar “just asking the tough questions” sort of way, but those that do benefit from the same rhetorical strategies employed by white-nationalists: latching onto new media, new tech, and new trends, so as to spread propaganda that would not long sustain itself if based on the rigour of evidence alone.
NB: The “Both-Sides-ism” Caveat
Is there an argument to be made for “progressives” doing similar? Yes, sometimes a lack of traditional evidence for [X] experience is used to diminish basic state protections, and activist/progressivist communities respond by employing less-than-scientifically rigorous argumentation through whatever innovative new channels they can.
One of the trickiest right now is how much trans rights are still tied in political discourse to biological determinism. It’s an approach to seeking better legal protections for an extremely vulnerable minority that nonetheless props up horrifically reductive notions of gendered brains. In reality, our MRI studies aren’t anywhere near comprehensive enough. Right now the best evidence shows neuronal tensions in self-identified trans subjects, yes–but also that there’s more variance within a given sex-population’s brain scans than between sexes. And all of this, again, with very small test groups.
This tactic is also misguided on a broader level, because the simple fact is that trans rights are an issue of fundamental human dignity in self-determination, the same as any human being should be permitted under just laws. No one should need to show genetic proof for choices they make for their own bodies, simply to receive state protections from acts of violence, abuse, and criminal neglect: to say nothing of the right to work, and the right to pursue a course of treatment that careful discourse with one’s own doctors has determined offers the strongest chance of improving quality of life.
And yes, I understand that the biological determinism tactic is well-intentioned, but it’s also destructive to other issues of fundamental dignity and self-determination, because biological determinism invites the reconsideration, too, of a whole bunch of renewed bullshit about general female vs. male aptitudes, with–of course–naturalistic fallacy endpoints in terms of attendant public policy. (I’m talking, obviously, about folks who latch onto any gendered biological discourse because they resent/feel-put-out-by society’s aspiration to build ecosystems better suited to ensuring that no one is pushed out of the work/schooling they want due to systemic prejudices.)
So, yes, it’s a mess here, too: meme-generators to the left of me, meme-generators to the right. Nevertheless, I regard folks who are at least attempting to improve legal protections for vulnerable minorities as an entirely different species of concern, where tribalism comes into play, than that posed by white-nationalism and evangelism today. Maybe some empirical purists will disagree with me, but I think this is a highly disingenuous sphere for “both-sides-ism” to come into play.
Changing How We Talk about Tech and Innovation
Either way, though, we’re still left with the question, “What’s to be done?” How can we usefully respond to the realization that progress and innovation are not intrinsically positive? Or that evangelical and white-supremacist groups are both highly resourceful when it comes to using new technology to recruit average people into deeply troubled tribes? How can secular folks be wiser in the stories we tell about socio-technological advancement, so we’re not caught off-guard when a new invention or innovation all too quickly gives these other tribes better standing?
Well, fellow secular humanists: I admit that it’s a grand thing, knowing that the science of the natural world is on “our side”. It’s a further triumph to see technological advances improving medical treatments and quality of life.
But if we want to create a culture better inured to online bullshit–from whatever camp it might spring forth–we need to do a better job quashing all rhetoric that suggests we human beings can ever evolve as quickly as our technologies. Yes, any given piece of hard- or software might be used innovatively by a current user, and yes, some people might be quicker than others at coming up with those innovations. But our fundamental constitution is not changed by living in a more elaborate world. We are not intrinsically more advanced just because we’re in contact with innovative tech.
We might have different addictions now–but vulnerability to addiction remains constant.
We might have different arenas, too, in which we strive for dominance–but the hierarchical imperative, the need to find one’s place in a tribe, remains the same.
And we might have different levels of socialization–but that diminishment of direct person-to-person contact has concrete negative effects, because the biological benefits of in-person socialization have not changed.
Does that seem discouraging? Well, sure–but such harsh truths can also fortify us against rhetoric that promises grand leaps on the personal scale. Evangelical and white-supremacist groups don’t offer much in the way of accurate facts, but they do offer the idea of a gap in our sense of self that they know how best to explain, and to fill.
So if we can take away that sense of a gap, the supposed “emptiness” that arises in the tension between having so much wonder, and things in our lives still not going right…
If we dispel the myth that digital revolution and other forms of new tech can ever truly transform us as individual sentient beings…
Then there will be no ache for evangelical and white-nationalist groups to answer.
And now wouldn’t that just be the most useful innovation of them all?