COVID Vaccines, Nuclear Weapons, and Scientific Progress

COVID Vaccines, Nuclear Weapons, and Scientific Progress February 3, 2021

I started college as an astrophysics major. I had always loved Star Wars and Star Trek, math and science, and particularly the mind-blowing parts of physics like quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Then, as a college freshman sitting in a windowless basement lab learning about standard deviation, I had a deconversion experience of sorts. I looked at the symbols on the board and just saw Greek letters. I knew the mathematical concepts they signified, but I no longer cared. I realized that I liked the ideas of science, but not the practice. I would eventually develop into an intellectual historian who studies the causes and effects of ideas in American society (and who studied Greek in seminary!). In the meantime, I switched my major to the history of science.

I returned to this background this year when developing my version of our department’s new required course on “The United States in Global Perspective.” That’s a lot to cover in one semester, so we each choose a lens through which to explore this country’s connection with the broader world. I chose “Science, Technology, and Medicine.” I will admit to doing so in part to attract Baylor’s enormous number of freshmen who enter declaring some sort of health sciences major. But I also did so because I believe that rightly interacting with science and technology is one of the great challenges of the modern world, perhaps especially for Christian believers.

Image courtesy of Pexels.

I have long emphasized to students that human life does not automatically improve with time, a belief I call “the iPhone fallacy.” We have iPhones now, so things must be better. Technology does in fact improve with time, which is what makes this belief so tempting. We clearly have more things, more “convenience” than we did even a decade ago. But that does not automatically mean our lives are better, ethically or even in terms of enjoyment. Simultaneously, Americans can hold a “golden age” fallacy, that life was better overall at some time in the past. Hence the need to “make America great again.” One of many possible rebuttals to this equal and opposite fallacy is: “Better for whom?” The 1950s were not a better time for African Americans, for example. And especially before approval of the polio vaccine in 1955, they were also not a better time for children’s health.

Oddly, many of us, myself included, manage to hold some version of both of these beliefs simultaneously. I would add that this might be particularly true of many White American Christians, who may lament the loss of a past perceived to be more saturated by Christian values but at the same time celebrate with their fellow citizens new medical and technological breakthroughs. Some historical perspective on the developments of science and technology—on the hard realities of the physical world and the ethical responses of previous generations—can be an antidote to both tendencies.

Consider this: The first successful treatment of patients with penicillin as an antibiotic occurred in 1942. The first successful test—and wartime deployment—of the atom bomb as a weapon of mass destruction followed in 1945. Saving life and destroying it, both on a scale previously unimaginable. All within a 3-year span. Scientific knowledge itself is ethically neutral; what matters is what we do with it. The Spider Man principle applies: with great power comes great responsibility.

Exactly what to do with that responsibility has not always been easy to discern. Christians in the past have responded to scientific developments in a range of ways, both intellectually and ethically. Take Darwinism: Christians have both embraced and rejected the scientific theory, some believing it to explain how God created the universe as described in Genesis 1 and others believing it to contradict that account.

Let’s zero in on Christians who have rejected evolution. That rejection might lead to very different political stances. For example, the prosecutor in the famous 1925 trial of John Scopes for illegally teaching evolution in Tennessee was pious evangelical Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan. As Edward Larson has demonstrated in Summer for the Gods, Bryan’s militant stance against evolution arose from his horror at German militarism in World War I, which he believed resulted from their adoption of the philosophy of the survival of the fittest. Bryan, a pacifist, had resigned as Secretary of State when he believed—accurately—that President Woodrow Wilson was moving toward joining the war.

Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By contrast, many conservative Christians embraced militarism during the Cold War with the Soviet Union that followed on the heels of World War II. That hot war came to an abrupt end when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Relief was short-lived, however, as the Soviet Union developed their own nuclear weaponry in 1949. The same brand of biblical literalism that led many Christians to reject Darwinian evolution led them in this case to view the subsequent international struggle for dominance as a fight to preserve godly democracy from godless communism, and hence worth the risks of nuclear buildup and ultimately the lives lost in Vietnam. I am not saying military preparedness does not have a place. As the saying goes, it would be a great day when PTAs across the nation are fully funded while the army has to hold a bake sale—but the day after that might not be as good. These issues are indeed complex; consequently, Christians have come to diverse conclusions. But also consequently, it is not clear when the supposed ethical golden age might have been.

Nor is it clear we are entering it in the future. We still have this military capacity today. Indeed, much scientific research has gone into making deadlier and deadlier weapons. By contrast, this past year, an absolutely extraordinary international effort has produced multiple highly efficacious vaccines to COVID-19 in record time. Just like in the 1940s, we have the power to heal and the power to kill, now on an even wider scale. Technological progress does not automatically make us better or worse, as individuals or as a society. It does make the stakes higher. May my students—and all of us—learn to use that power wisely.

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