Religion and Science’s Perceived Conflict

From Pew Research Center:

People’s sense that there generally is a conflict between religion and science seems to have less to do with their own religious beliefs than it does with their perceptions of other people’s beliefs. Less than one-third of Americans polled in the new survey (30%) say their personal religious beliefs conflict with science, while fully two-thirds (68%) say there is no conflict between their own beliefs and science.

Put the other way, very few people think that their own beliefs conflict with science:

Respondents who have no religious affiliation are the most likely to think that science and religion, in general, are often in conflict, with 76% expressing this view. But just one-in-six religiously unaffiliated adults (16%) say their own religious beliefs conflict with science.

I didn’t expect the perceptual gap to be that wide. Fascinating.

Write For Your Audience

One of the hardest things in writing is deciding who you’re writing for. A pat answer is to write for yourself, and that’s perfectly valid, but every writer wants to be read more broadly than that. But trying to write for a broad audience is probably always a trap. Andy Weir, the author of the Martian, describes in an interview how he wound up with both:

I had about 3,000 regular readers that I’d accumulated over 10 years of writing fiction and web comics and stuff like that. I was really writing it for them. I didn’t have market appeal in mind when I was writing the book. I was thinking, I have 3,000 hardcore nerds that are my readers, because I’m a hardcore nerd, and I’m going to write a story that they’ll enjoy. So that’s why it was pretty heavy on the math and the science and the show-your-work kind of stuff, because that’s exactly what my readers like. I had no idea that it would end up being popular in the mainstream, and still to this day I don’t know what I did right. I don’t know how this story that was basically a prolonged math problem ended up getting so popular among people who aren’t that interested in math!

I love his confession of not knowing what he did right. Whatever he did to appeal to a broad audience is nearly impossible to pin down, but I’d say that what he did right was knowing his audience and writing for them unapologetically. The rest was just gravy.

Elite Science and the Arts

Scientists who have an artistic or crafty hobby are more likely to be elite scientists:

The average scientist is not statistically more likely than a member of the general public to have an artistic or crafty hobby. But members of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society — elite societies of scientists, membership in which is based on professional accomplishments and discoveries — are 1.7 and 1.9 times more likely to have an artistic or crafty hobby than the average scientist is. And Nobel prize winning scientists are 2.85 times more likely than the average scientist to have an artistic or crafty hobby.

Pretty cool. There’s some good theories as to why that may be the case in the article. It’s always interesting to see a virtue like being well-rounded supported by data after it becomes less fashionable in practice.

Science is a Cultural System

In Mirror, Mirror: Religion Gets Explained, But Science …, we hear a pretty typical account of religion from scientific quarters:

A number of authors … have suggested that the human proclivity for acquiring and transmitting supernatural agent concepts is an incidental byproduct of cognitive mechanisms genetically adapted for other purposes. … have argued that religions are cultural systems that exploit such byproducts to adaptive effect.

In other words, religion is like a leech or a parasite, growing on human capabilities that have evolved to give us advantage in the world. And, scientists would be quick to add, there is no longer any evolutionary advantage for believing such nonsense.

There are a variety of angles from which that idea can be critqued, but Larry Gilman, the author of the aforementioned article, points out naivete about science itself by its practitioners:

But science, too, is “an incidental byproduct of cognitive mechanisms genetically adapted for other purposes,” as well as a “cultural system that exploits such byproducts to adaptive effect.” We didn’t evolve to do calculus, chemistry, and cognitive psychology; our ancestors evolved brains with a huge amount of built-in flexibility, and we have since found some remarkable uses for them. Science is a “cultural system” not in the sense that its narratives are arbitrary, but as a thing that exists only because human beings have figured out together how to do it, and whose standards, terms, and practices we have knocked together in social settings such as laboratories, journals, and universities.

There’s some more good insights in the article, including what this does and doesn’t mean for the truth of both science and religion.

Big is Better (For Thinking)

After saying that big is bad, one of the writers chiefly responsible for my opposition to all things large has to go and ruin my simple categories. This passage from Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle is to blame:

Freedom in both science and art probably depends upon enlarging the context of our work, increasing (rather than decreasing) the number of considerations we allow to bear upon it. This is because the ultimate context of our work is the world, which is always larger than the context of our thought… If we could faithfully commit ourselves to the principle that nothing whatever can safely be said to lie outside the context of our work, then artists and scientists would have to be ready at any time to see that they have been wrong and to start again, making yet larger the context of the work. That is true freedom. It means simply that beyond all error we can begin again; redemption is possible. From this principle also we can make our way to critical judgments of an amplitude beyond specialization and professionalism; Work that diminishes the possibility of a new start, of “making it new,” is bad work.

Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle (Washington: Counterpoint, 2000), 134.

The move Berry makes here is a key one. Although the modern world operates at a too-large scale, it paradoxically does most of its thinking at the narrowest possible scale, particularly when it comes to thinking through the consequences of a line of inquiry or a course of action.

Thinking narrowly is generally known by its sanitized moniker specialization—which I am against. Specialization is a mode of thinking and practice which eschews anything other than the circular logic of a field designing and enforcing its internal standards. This type of insular thinking is revealed by the term externalities in the field of economics. For those blessedly unenlightened of the tenets of the dismal science, externalities refer to the generally unsavoury by-products of “business as usual,” such as pollution, unemployment and shoddy workmanship.

I chose the example of externalities because it perfectly encapsulates the specialist mindset, which could be narrated like this:

We are aware that there are consequences to the mode of thinking from our field, but they lie outside of our field, so we cannot hope to understand them, much less be held accountable for them! Let’s sound intelligent and suitably humble by admitting that there are things that our field doesn’t have the tools to explain, while making it clear that these things are properly outside of our field. Let’s call these things externalities. That way, we can foist them off on other specialists, who have little to no power—over us, in any case.

If our world is to have a future, this type of thinking needs to come to an end, and none too soon. That each person will engage in work different from their neighbour is inevitable, but we must our specialization under some greater notion of what all those work is going towards. Wendell Berry comments so well on this that it justifies a lengthy concluding quote (to shorten it would be to make it much too narrow):

It used to be that we thought of the disciplines as ways of being useful to ourselves, for we needed to earn a living, but also and more importantly we thought of them as ways of being useful to one another. As long as the idea of vocation was still viable among us, I don’t believe it was ever understood that a person was “called” to be rich or powerful or even successful. People were taught the disciplines at home or in school for two reasons: to enable them to live and work both as self-sustaining individuals and as useful members of their communities, and to see that the disciplines themselves survived the passing of the generations.

Now we seem to have replaced the ideas of responsible community membership, of cultural survival, and even of usefulness, with the idea of professionalism. Professional education proceeds according to ideas of professional competence and according to professional standards, and this explains the decline in education from ideals of service and good work, citizenship and membership, to mere “job training” or “career preparation.” The context of professionalism is not a place or a community but a career, and this explains the phenomenon of “social mobility” and all the evils that proceed from it. The religion of professionalism is progress, and this means that, in spite of its vocal bias in favor of practicality and realism, professionalism forsakes both past and present in favor of the future, which is never present or practical or real. Professionalism is always offering up the past and the present as sacrifices to the future, in which all our problems will be solved and our tears wiped away—and which, being the future, never arrives. The future is always free of past limitations and present demands, always stocked with newer merchandise than any presently available, always promising that what we are going to have is better than what we have. The future is the utopia of academic thought, for virtually anything is hypothetically possible there; and it is the always-expanding frontier of the industrial economy, the fictive real estate against which losses are debited and to which failures are exiled. The future is not anticipated or provided for, but is only bought or sold. The present is ever diminished by this buying and selling of shares in the future that rightfully are owned by the unborn.

Berry, 130-131.

The Unholy Trinity

Jac and I are reading The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch very sporadically, but tonight’s session produced some particularly juicy food for thought. Hirsch contends that discipleship became very difficult during the modern period, as three powerful forces competed with the call of discipleship to Christ. These were:

  1. The rise of capitalism and of the free market as the mediator of value
  2. The rise of the nation-state as the mediator of protection and provision
  3. The rise of science as the mediator of truth and understanding

Hirsch makes this succinct point in a footnote: “The market has totally triumphed, eclipsing even the state through multinational capital and by reducing science to technology focused around the profit motive” (109). That is to say, the most powerful of the three is the first and the consumerism that drives it and calls for our allegiance.

What interests me is how much interest theology takes in dealing with science, while completely ignoring the more powerful two members of this trio. Perhaps theology’s neglect here has to do with the fact that the first two are matters of orthopraxy, which intellectuals have difficulty saying much worthwhile about…