Science and religion really are in conflict, people

Science and religion really are in conflict, people May 22, 2017

Pondering science versus religionScience has gotten a bit…politicized lately. From predictably partisan beliefs about climate change to grandstanding about GMOs, our ideas about science increasingly seem like flag-waving for our political tribe as much as our ability to coolly evaluate data. This growing ideological cleavage was why I found myself strangely ambivalent toward the recent March for Science – despite the fact that, as a researcher, I’d be woefully impacted personally by cuts to science funding. To be specific, as Science™ has come more and more to be identified with cultural progressivism, the part of me that loves and derives a sense of meaning from the past – from the traditions and people that came before me – has come to feel less and less welcome in the halls of science. Lonely, even.

Let me explain. I spend a lot more time than most Americans in two types of places: churches and scientific conferences.* This means I get a pretty unique insider’s view into two ways of seeing the world that many people think are fundamentally at odds. While I don’t actually agree that religion and science are inherently incompatible, I do think there’s a real tension between them. As of 2009, more than 80% of Americans claimed to believe in God, but only one-third of scientists did. Two percent of Americans were convinced atheists, but the same ratio for scientists was nearly 20%. Maybe the conflict between religion and science isn’t logically necessary, but it’s real. And one of the biggest sources for that conflict is attitudes toward progress.

Science and the Museum Mentality

Science, as an institution, is resolutely forward-looking. Tackling problems like AIDS, climate change, or lack of quantum computers necessitates striving toward a future where those problems have been broken down and solved. The ideology of science is therefore progressive: we inevitably advance toward an ever-more-perfect world, in which technological and scientific mastery will reach their final apexes. In that scientifically advanced future world, bald men will fly around in starships spouting Enlightenment axioms. Poverty, starvation, and ecological crises** will have been finally vanquished.

This ideology of science encourages one of two attitudes toward the past: condescension (those poor unenlightened brutes living in the pre-scientific times, when they thought demons caused zits!) or the museum mentality. The museum mentality respects the past, sort of, but considers it inert. Old artifacts, paintings, and religious iconography are carefully archived in storerooms, guided tours, and college lectures, but they’re not used as living things. The past is acknowledged, sometimes even politely, but it’s not considered alive.

In the museum mentality, progress still reigns supreme: we advance, inexorably, on our course toward scientific mastery, taking the things we’ve outgrown and placing them antiseptically in well-labeled boxes. We can retrieve them from time to time for educational or research purposes.

But institutional religion has a much more intimate relationship to the past. Recently I was at an Anglican mass in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and as I was attempting to sing the tenor part of a hymn (I can’t read the bass clef any better than I can speak Urdu), I noticed that the words in the hymnal had been written by someone who was born during the American Revolution. The American Revolution! By Internet standards, that’s Triassic. But the melody was even older: its author was a contemporary of Shakespeare. And of course the communion ritual itself, which the priest conducted from within a thick protective cloud of incense smoke, was in a lot of ways pretty much the same as it had been 1,900 years ago.

This wasn’t the museum mentality. Most of the elements of the service were old – many were really old – but they were all in use.

Continuity and Grandmas

It was really the 200-year-old hymn, written by a colonial-era American lyricist, that got me thinking. Since American politics fell into the outhouse, I’ve pondered more and more about what it means to be American. This seems important to me because my roots go deep in this strange country of ours: my ancestors, the Woods, were prototypical American colonists, Calvinist pioneer sorts who followed the expanding frontier from state to state until, finally, their covered wagons arrived in Colorado territory. When they staked out their first ranch, Denver was a scraggly collection of huts, and the Civil War was still only brewing.

Since coming to Boston, I’ve come to feel more and more affinity for this part of my history, where my family’s past intersects with the story of my country. And, importantly, I’ve noticed that it’s often been in churches where that story has come alive.

For a while, I attended Old South Church, a colonial-era congregationalist church on the city’s Copley Square. It’s a community with a history. Benjamin Franklin was baptized there. Phyllis Wheatley, the great African-American poet and former slave, was a member. Going to services at Old South was like basking in a story about the meaning and purposes of my weird, frustrating, beautiful country.

But outside that church’s walls, Boston is not exactly a city in love with the past. Forward-looking tech companies, researchers, and intellectual property lawyers drive the economy (and drive up the property values). Progressive politics are practically mandatory. When people talk about the country’s past, it’s often in the same embarrassed tones they might use when telling humiliating stories about their teenage years.

It’s also an increasingly international city. On my street I hear Chinese and Caribbean Spanish daily, and the top-notch universities here attract grad students and professors from all over the world. Understandably, many of these new arrivals don’t have the same kind of emotional attachment to the American story that I do. For them, America represents opportunity. I think this is great.

For me, though, it represents my grandma.

So when I see hymn lyrics written by an old American colonist, it reminds me of continuity. Standing in a pew with a near-indecipherable hymnal open in my hands, I’m doing something that my grandma did, and her grandparents before her.† It’s not progress. It’s repetition. And as I continue the repetition, I come to feel more and more a part of a story – one that extends backward in time and will continue after me.

Professional Science and the View from Nowhere

Things are very different in the world of professional science. When you’re getting drinks with colleagues after a conference, mentioning that you really feel attached to the story of your family and your country – even if that attachment is tinctured with ambivalence and disappointment, as mine inevitably is – is often a faux pas. It’s not quite like blurting out that you love bacon at a vegetarian potluck, but it’s close.

Why? For one thing, scientists are an international lot, and they don’t want geographic, religious, or ethnic differences to divide them. From the beginning, science was supposed to help us break away from small-minded traditions, to free us from petty tribal viewpoints that obscured universal natural laws. Francis Bacon warned against “idols” of the mind, such as dogmatic beliefs or cultural customs that masqueraded as universal truths. So, since Bacon’s time, science has become a powerful opponent of the particular stories that divide us from one another – stories about “Englishness” or “Christendom,” about “Muslim,” “Quebecois,” or “Tamil.”

If you’re, say, an Iranian Muslim who identifies too strongly with her tribe, then you might be prejudiced against any scientific discoveries that contradict Muslim doctrine or Persian mythology. If you’re an Anglo-American Protestant who feels too close an affinity with his Protestant ancestors, then you’re in danger of slipping out of the cold, bracing air of scientific objectivity into the warm bath of cultural myths and inherited illusions.

So scientists don’t talk much with each other about their countries or their grandmas. They talk about research. At international conferences, this lets them disagree, productively or pettily, about objective matters, instead of dredging up ugly cultural divisions or ancient ethnic resentments.

Local pride is proscribed. Nationality is mostly irrelevant. What matters is your work.

As such, at a gathering of scientists, you’re not a unique former child of a particular place, who remembers your grandma’s voice singing hymns in church. You’re a universal mind, free of such inconveniently particular attachments. It’s what Thomas Nagel called “the view from nowhere.”††

The Conflict Between Religion and Science Isn’t Necessary. But It’s Real – And Politicized

Like science, politically progressive ideology is also uncomfortable with culture and tradition. Progressivism is, by definition, pointed toward the future, at ridding ourselves of outdated norms and obsolete biases. And in today’s era, when reactionary forces are threatening the stability of the global system, progressivism and the ideology of science seem to be banding more tightly together than ever. Both look with fearful mistrust on the habits and rituals from the past. Both are aimed at liberating us from the fetters of tribal bias. As politics become more polarized, being a good progressive increasingly means conspicuously aligning yourself with Science™. And fewer and fewer scientists are conservative or religious.

But while I share the goal of being as scientifically unbiased as possible, it turns out that I, personally, just can’t turn my back on the past. I have a personal history and memories from childhood. I miss my grandma. And it’s in the churches of Boston – not in the conferences, lectures, or lab meetings – where I’m reminded of that part of life. That’s where life feels continuous, where the past and the present overlap and I’m allowed to remember that I’m a person with a story, not just a researcher with an agenda.

I haven’t figured out how to reconcile these things. Some advocates for religion-science dialogue, like the BioLogos foundation, argue earnestly that there’s no inherent contradiction between religion and science. And as far as logic goes, they’re mostly right. But in my experience, the actual facts of being a researcher are in real tension with the human need for meaning that finds its most marked and challenging expressions in religion.

For example, in Charles Darwin’s autobiography, he lamented that, after decades spent thinking theoretically, he had lost his ability to appreciate or enjoy poetry – and he also lost his religious faith.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like conflict to me.

It also seems like conflict when, at a conference, I mention that I’m going to drop in on a local church (something I like to do wherever I go), and a chilled discomfort falls across my newfound colleagues. Or that the physical actions and objects in a church, mosque, or temple evoke the past – turning it into a living, experienced present – whereas the actions and objects at a scientific meeting don’t reference the past at all, except as data.

With its emphasis on progress and mistrust of cultural traditions, the culture of science often discourages – however subtly – the sense of personal continuity and story that might give life a deeper narrative meaning. Instead, it asks us to find our meaning in the rush of exhilaration that comes with discovering the impersonal mysteries of nature. Rather than huddling up by the fire with our ancestors, recounting old, familiar tales, science asks us to march out into the cold and stand face-to-face with the frozen and glittering stars, feeling the ice-hard ground, knowing that if we shout into the wind no human ear will hear us.

If we do, we will have learned something about the void.

But we will have left our ancestors behind.


Some caveats on this piece: This article makes me sound like more of a serious, respectable scientist than I really am. In real life, I’m a sort of a vaguely interdisciplinary social theorist who does social science and some computational research and blogs. I’m not a physicist, although I find myself at conferences with physicists sometimes. Also, it’s important to point out that I have a lot of friends in my field. Once you hang out with the same colleagues at consecutive conferences year after year, you get to be friends, and you start knowing each other more personally. So I’m not saying that scientists don’t forge personal friendships, or that scientific conferences are all work and no play. I’m only saying that, in my experience, religious settings are quicker to draw my mind’s attention to the personal dimensions of my life story and history than scientific settings are. 


*Some readers sputter: But Americans are much more churchy than any other rich Western nations! Most Americans outside New York and Boston spend their entire weekends throwing their hands up in pews and speaking in tongues! On weeknights, they have Bible study! That is a perfectly normal stereotype, usually on the part of Europeans, New Yorkers, or Bostonians, but it’s false. Yes, Americans are more religious than Swedes or Danes, but in fact only around 20% of Americans attend church each week. The equivalent ratio for scientific conferences is quite a bit more dramatic: only about 5% (one in twenty) Americans work in the sciences or in engineering. And lots of them don’t go to conferences.

**But not, apparently, baldness

† Although they were mostly Calvinists, as I mentioned, so the incense would have scandalized them.

†† What’s interesting is that a lot of scientific conferences take place in history-drenched cities heavy with the vestiges of former eras. In a European city, you might have an oblique view over a 400-year-old church from the window as you start your presentation. In Istanbul, you might have to pause your talk to wait for the call to prayer to finish echoing outside. Often, the conference hosts will put on paid tours, where you take a break from sciencing for an hour or two and go snap photographs of castles or temples or mosques with the other conference-goers. So the past is there, but it’s an object of observation, not participation. It’s the museum mentality.

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