I've been meaning to respond more to Dave's provocative post Anti-intellectualism of 09/12/05. I already posted the obligatory comment there about it being pagan heathenism and all. Who says liberals don't know how to talk about religion?
But actually his post is a straightforward and perfectly valid questioning of how much the Christian religion itself contributes to an anti-science attitude. And, even speaking from a Christian religious viewpoint, I would agree that there is a lot to his main point.
Christianity, along with the other two great monotheistic religions Judaism and Islam, is a religion of revelation, a "prophetic" religion. The three Abrahamic religions view God as a "transcendent" being that exists somehow outside (above, behind) the material world in which we live. And in the messages which form the core of the sacred Scriptures for those religions, God is seen as having broken through the usual order of things to inject himself into human history. Hinduism and Buddhism, by contrast, are "immanence" religions, which understand God more in the sense of pervading all of creation, the natural world.
But neither the prophetic view of God nor the immanent view are inherently pro- or anti-science. Both can emphasize the more supernatural aspects of their tradition. And it's that emphasis on the supernatural that poses the risk of the kind of thinking which sets up a dichotomy between Faith and Science, or Faith and Reason, and rejects science as being contrary to the faith.
In point of historical fact, however, the viewpoint of the prophetic religions has not only accomodated but even encouraged scientific thinking. Present-day "creationism" is really an historically recent phenomenon. It grew up as a reaction against the advances of Darwinism that challenged the accepted notions of the age of the universe. Darwinism also challenges the traditional Hindu version of the age of the earth and humanity, one which sees both as much older than scientific findings have shown, as opposed to the Christian creationists who see a much shorter period for the earth's past history.
While there were undoubtedly times where religion and Church institutions clashed with scientists and their views, Christianity has traditionally recognized in some form that science (formerly known as "natural philosophy" in the European tradition) is working on a different track than religion. Creationism is not an issue for the official Catholic Church, for example. The Church - at least until very recently - has relied on St. Augustine's observation that the Scriptures are meant to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. Trying to read the Bible as a science text is something of an innovation of conservative Protestants of the last couple of centuries.
Sadly, the Church leadership is on such a reactionary course that they, too, are starting to flirt with Protestant creationist hokum. As Gary Wills notes in a recent article (Fringe Government New York Review of Books print edition 09/09/05; Web link is to a subscription-only page):
As nuns disappear and priests age, the Vatican's response is to become ever more extremist. Pope John Paul changed a long Catholic teaching tradition when he supported the need for life support in terminal cases. The hierarchy has changed its long acceptance of the theory of evolution as a scientific account - after being attacked by rightist Catholic groups for being too lax on the subject. These are odd moves for authorities who claim they never change.
As bad as this is, as Wills' comment indicates, it is also a departure from centuries of Catholic Christian tradition. The famous papal confrontation with Galileo is a reminder that this is scarcely the first time it's happened. But this happens when reactionary men like Ratzinger who are more interested in authoritarian rule and sexual repression than in freeing the spirits and bodies and minds of human being get power that don't deserve to hold and do not exercise responsibly.
Andrew O'Hehir, in a review of Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science (2005), gives a good analysis of the anti-scientific inclinations of the misguided version of Christianity we see thriving today as the Christian Right: The know-nothingsSalon 09/14/05. And he reminds us that it has become so powerful because these Christians struck a political alliance with the most shameless worshippers of Mammon:
"The Republican War on Science" is nothing short of a landmark in contemporary political reporting. Mooney compiles and presents an extraordinary mountain of evidence, from several different fields, to demonstrate that the conservative wing of the Republican Party has launched an unprecedented and highly successful campaign to sow widespread confusion about the conclusions of science and its usefulness in political decision making. Using methods and strategies pioneered under the Reagan administration by the tobacco industry and anti-environmental forces, an alliance of social conservatives and corporate advocates has paralyzed or obfuscated public discussion of science on a whole range of issues. Not just climate change but also stem cell research, evolutionary biology, endangered-species protection, diet and obesity, abortion and contraception, and the effects of environmental toxins have all become arenas of systematic and deliberate bewilderment.
Mooney quotes an internal strategy document from the tobacco company Brown and Williamson, written around 1969: "Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy." B&W and the other tobacco giants achieved no better than a stalemate in their long battle against government regulation, but whatever chain-smoking, skinny-tied executive wrote that memo ought to be beatified by the conservative movement. With those two sentences he became its accidental Karl Marx, launching an antiscientific counterrevolution that rages around us today.
No matter how much you think you know about Republican distortion and misuse of science, Mooney's account will startle and perhaps terrify you. Many conservatives, he argues, have stopped regarding science as an objective search for truth (conditional as that truth necessarily is). Instead, they see it as just another realm of naked power politics or, less cynically but more ominously, as a contest between a pseudo-socialistic, tree-hugging worldview and one that is avowedly pro-Christian and pro-capitalist. Furthermore, right-wingers have mystified this conflict almost completely, cloaking it in self-defined terms of "sound science" (i.e., science that agrees with them, or reaches no conclusions at all) versus "junk science" (anything that might impinge on corporate profits or conflict with the most extreme version of Christian morality).
This is an important observation also because it hones in on the core of the strategy of the "creationist" anti-science position: to create "doubts" that are based on sophistry, not on real investigation or serious critical thought. Doubt science, the argument pleads, so that you can accept on faith the biggest scams of corporate pirates, war profiteers and imperialist-minded "neoconservative" adventurers. And pretend it's all the will of God.
O'Hehir's article is a strong reminder that although the flat-earthers may attract the most attention in these matters, its the unscrupulous business bandits who are making the cash - and doing the most immediate tangible harm - using this anti-science script as a vehicle.
And he makes a valuable observation about the need for meaningful critical thought based on understanding the empirical world:
Mooney's litany of conservative assaults on science goes well beyond a listing of interlinked but essentially ad hoc right-wing positions. Rather, this is a well-coordinated campaign, perhaps most noteworthy for the canny and cynical way it manipulates contemporary public doubt about the meaning and value of science. As Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank, puts it, "What's intriguing about the Bush administration, given their views on most issues, is that they have a postmodern take on science. It's the first postmodern science administration we've ever known." ...
... Whether knowingly or not, the Bush administration and its allies have cashed in on the findings of the contemporary academic field known as science and technology studies (also as the history and/or philosophy of science). Following such philosophers as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault and Paul Feyerabend, this field has explored science as a cultural phenomenon, arguing (for instance) that even when scientists deal with near-certain facts, the understanding of scientific knowledge and the social uses to which it is put are always culturally specific.
He notes that until relatively recently, there were "moderate" Republicans who ridiculed such anti-science posturing and who considered such crackpottery a menace to responsible conservatism. (I'm referring more hear to the typical Republican flat-earther verion; the philosophers he mentioned were working in a more serious vein.)
But today's "moderate" Republicans seem to be moderate in the sense that Southern segregationists who said "nigra" instead of "nigger" were considered to be moderate. Do you hear Maverick McCain taking on these people in either their corporate or witchdoctor versions? Dick Lugar? Chuck Hagel? They just don't make "moderate" Republicans like they used to.
I also think O'Hehir is right in pointing to a general lack of scientific education and understanding as being a big part of the reason for this phenomenon's current success. And some of it really has been the fault of some more liberal- or progressive-minded thinkers and activists, or at least of a bastardized understanding of some of their more sophisticated complaints:
Conservative contempt for the intellectual and scientific elite is closely akin to the left-leaning, postmodernist spirit of science and technology studies; both reflect the realization that science is a human endeavor and as such prone to errors, blind spots and both ideological and economic manipulation. With Hiroshima, the Holocaust and Chernobyl in the rear-view mirror, the planet poisoned by toxic chemicals and a new frontier of cloning and genetic engineering lying just ahead, it's reasonable to view the scientific project in toto as a morally cloudy exercise.
Furthermore, doubt is an essential element of scientific inquiry, as any honest scientist will tell you. The great strength of the scientific method lies in its production of testable and falsifiable hypotheses, but it yields absolute truth only gradually, if at all. If our certainty about such things as heliocentrism and the basic laws of earthbound physics now approaches 100 percent, it's only because they have survived decades or centuries of ruthless inquiry and no better explanations have emerged.
Getting back to Dave's point, we can't look at the current wave of superstitition and anti-science gullibility as simply an excess of Christian religiosity. It's occurring as a part of a larger social context, and the real driving force of this phenomenon is the "free market" run wild, with the connivance of elected officials who take the contributions of lobbyists more seriously than their obligations to the ordinary people in their districts.
A sensible and responsible Christianity has some very positive things to contribute to countering the flat-earthers in defense of humanity. Science is a method of understanding the world, and the applications of science, i.e., technology, are based on very human decisions.
Religion is not essential for ethics. And many scientists - like those one finds writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, for instance - have been at the forefront of raising critical issues about the usages of science and the directions of scientific research based on well-developed ethics and a commitment to science.
Religious thinkers and activists also have a lot to contribute in this regard. As an example, I'll close with a quotation from one of the most influential American Catholic writers of recent times, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. He wrote in 1962:
We must judge and decide not only as individuals, preserving for ourselves the luxury of a clean conscience, but also as members of society taking up a common burden and responsibility. It is all too easy to retire into the ivory tower of private spirituality and let the world blow itself to pieces. Such a decision would be immoral, an admission of defeat. It would imply a secret complicity with the overt destructive fury of fanatics.
Moral decisions have to be based on adequate knowledge. The scientist must tell us something reliable about the behavior of bombs and missiles. The political commentator must keep us in touch with the developments of strategy and with the plans that are being made for our defense or for our destruction. He must tell us what underlies the fair assurances we read in the mass media or hear in the speeches of the statesman and publicist. We must be informed of what goes on in the rest of the world, what is hoped and feared by our opposite numbers in the land of "the enemy." We must try to remember that the enemy is as human as we are, and not an animal or a devil.
Finally, we must be reminded of the way we ourselves tend to operate, the significance of the secret forces that rise up within us and dictate fatal decisions. We must learn to distinguish the free voice of conscience from the irrational compulsions of prejudice and hate. We must be reminded of objective moral standards, and of the wisdom which goes into every judgment, every choice, every political act that deserves to be called civilized. We cannot think this way unless we shake off our passive irresponsibility, renounce our fatalistic submission to economic and social forces, and give up the unquestioning belief in machines and processes which characterizes the mass mind. History is ours to make: now above all we must try to recover our freedom, our moral autonomy, our capacity to control the forces that make for life and death in our society.
The fact remains that we may lose both, through our own fault, and forfeit our heritage of civilization and of humanity to enter a post-historic world of technological animals. There is no guarantee even now that reason can still prevail. But we must do what we can, relying on the grace of God for the rest. (Quoted from Thomas Merton on Peace ; my emphasis)
The Christian Right have assumed "the destructive fury of fanatics" and embraced "the irrational compulsions of prejudice and hate." And by devoting themselves to authoritarian government in service to greed of the wealthiest and least responsible, they have shirked their Christian responsibility to defend freedom and moral autonomy.
I won't say theirs isn't "true Christianity." That's an age-old Christian cop-out. The Christian Right is no doubt promoting a brand of Christianity.
But the Christianity that defends the dignity of the poor and the powerless along with the freedom of all to embrace life and the responsibility of all to our common human community still has a lot to say about these issues as well.