Authentic Religion, Authentic Science

February 25, 2013 | 35 comments
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My previous post centered on the special place religious institutions have historically held in human society. I argued that since religions couldn’t reliably provide public, objectively observable miracles or verify any of their claims about an afterlife, the only plausible explanation for their social capital was their ability to bridge the gap between deeply rooted human longing for meaning and the world’s absurdity.

Suppose we fix that as our definition of religion. Any belief system (with accompanying formal and informal social institutions) that attempts to aid us in our quest for meaning is a religion. The interesting thing about such a definition is that it has very little to do with what we might otherwise typically associate with religion, including God, faith, miracles, and the supernatural. According to this definition, otherwise ostensibly secular belief systems could in fact be viewed as religions. Whether or not this is a correct view hinges on definitions, but I think it’s an undoubtedly useful way of looking at the world.

In addition to The Big Bang Theory, Tyson has appeared on Stargate Atlantis. He also discovered Superman’s home planet in Action Comics #14.

Consider noted astrophysicist, committed atheist, and pop-culture icon Neil deGrasse Tyson. On the one hand when it comes to religion, he has said: “I want to put on the table, not why 85% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject God, I want to know why 15% of the National Academy don’t.” On the other hand, when answers Reddit AMAs (of which he has 3 of the top 10 most popular) such as “What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?” he seems to be operating outside the realm of science, strictly construed. And yet one of Dr. Tyson’s oft-repeated, non-scientific mantras “The universe is within us,” is presented as emerging from a scientific perspective. For example:

Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.

This is a live example of what I mean when I talk about secularism as religion: it’s a statement by a scientist, grounded in scientific observation, making what is essentially a religious claim in response to an essentially religious concern (our need for a meaningful relationship to the world around us). Secularism, as a category, is of course not a religion. But most secularists are more than just non-religious. They have a particular belief system that takes philosophical positions on epistemology (empiricism) and ontology (materialism, and reductionism). They also make specific, affirmative claims on religious topics. For example, they believe that faith in God is irrational, probably unhealthy, and possibly dangerous. They also believe that  science, and science alone, should be used to answer the existential questions of life. This is a cohesive belief system, and when it attempts to shed light on the meaning of life or offer some answer to transcendental longing it’s functioning as a religion. In an attempt to find terminological clarity, I’ll denote this religion “scientism” and consider it a subset of secularism.

Is scientism a large enough movement to even be considering? I believe that it is, although I’ve done nothing more than quick back-of-the-envelope calculations. According to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life there are about 13 million atheists in the United States (6% of the population), so if half of them fall within scientism, that represents a larger religious denomination than Mormons. Even if only 10% fall into this category, leaving 1.3 million in the new religion of scientism, it’s worth pointing out that this is a disproportionately well-educated population. In addition, atheism is more prominent in Western Europe and is on the rise in the United States, so even a lowball estimate of the current population must still concede that it is growing rapidly. Seen as a religion, these are significant numbers.

This is about much more than labels however, and I’d like to illustrate with a few of examples. Since, from a socially functional perspective, scientism is a religion it is subject to the same pitfalls as all other religions. In fact, it’s just the most recent incarnation in an ongoing religious arms race.

At the time of Christ, the Mediterranean region was dominated essentially by local cults. Along come Christianity and Manichaeism, and the existing faith traditions simply can’t compete. Borrowing from Kuhn a bit (why shouldn’t the secular/religious confusion go both ways?), the new contenders broke the paradigm of the old. It’s not that when Paul’s successors came to down you rationally compared the truth claims of Christianity with your traditional family deity. Christianity offered you a God who created everything. Manichaeism told of an all-encompassing battle between ultimate Good and ultimate Evil in which you were invited to take part. The existing religions had not conceived of this kind of universalism, and so they had no response. Consequently, they were swept away.

Scientism represents the next advance in this arms race. What good is intangible revelation of subjective miracles when contrasted with science? Scientific findings are quantifiable, objective, and repeatable, and they lead directly to the creation of useful inventions all of us rely on every day. The validity of science is thus universally accessible, and scientism taps into that credibility to overwhelm the current generation of religions with a new round of paradigm-altering universalism. To the extent that science can be bent to make inroads into traditional religious domains (e.g. “the universe is within you”) it has a clear advantage of traditional religions. As people come to rely more and more on scientific claims and scientific experts, we’re not witnessing Western civilization abandon religion for secularism. We’re witnessing Western civilization convert from (largely) Christianity to scientism.

And, along the way, scientism faces the same subversive forces that have tended to warp religion from the authentic version to the inauthentic version. The world has never loved and will never love authentic religion because authentic religion has nothing to offer the world. It profers only the promise of fruitful toil. Authentic religion empowers us to be responsible to answer life’s existential questions for ourselves, working out our own salvation. The world wants none of this. Inauthentic religion, on the other hand, is willing to trade easy answers and false hopes for social capital. The bargain inauthentic religion offers is this: Bow down to our graven image and we will intercede on your behalf. Nevermind that it is a false and hollow intercession. The lure of worldly riches–fame, prestige, and power–is too great for religion to exist on this earth without being attacked by hijackers intent on liquidating theology, and the same is true of scientism. Authentic science is self-correcting and unbiased, but humans and their institutions are not.  The global warming debate spells the death of science, because no matter how correct the science or noble the intentions, the deployment of scientific credibility in the pursuit of political ends is a corruption from which the scientific establishment is unlikely to ever recover. One cannot divide loyalties between science and mammon any more than between God and mammon.

Originally included with this comic was the text: “You don’t use science to show that you’re right. You use science to become right.” It’s a noble sentiment that only illustrates the extent to which science is put to uses that are not strictly scientific.

That’s why battles like the current one over evolution are so fractious. I cannot take seriously the idea that Biblical literalism would exist in the form it does other than as a pretext for seeking to halt the social decline of religious institutions. I similarly cannot take seriously the idea that scientists would rigidly adhere to 19th century Darwinian evolution against even reasonable questions if it weren’t for the fact that their primary opposition was religion. This isn’t a contest of ideas. It’s a turf war.

Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître was the first person to propose the theory of the expansion of the universe. He was also a Catholic priest.

It’s not the first, either. Back when the Big Bang was still a derogatory term, that was also seen as a science-v-religion grudgematch. The Big Bang, conceived by a Catholic priest, was considered such an absurdly thin veneer over “Let there be light” that it was basically a proxy for Genesis 1. As an obvious moment of creation, it implied a Creator. The secularists maintained an opposing view: the static universe model which had no beginning and therefore allowed no creator, and nevermind that it required the introduction of arbitrary positive constants into the equations (wheels within wheels). This was seen as a definitive struggle of religion-vs-science until the Big Bang was empirically validated to such a degree that the scientific establishment embraced and it simultaneously dropped their prior arguments linking it inextricably to theism.

These struggles remind me of the false polarity from Nibley’s “Prophetic Book of Mormon”, in which he pointed out that in the last days of the Book of Mormon account the feuding Nephites and Lamanites were basically mirror images of each other, just as fundamentalists Christians and the New Atheists are perfect complements. The real struggle is between the authentic attempt to answer questions reasonably and the inauthentic questions to read off someone else’s test.

This implies that two people of the same faith might actually not have much in common if one of them believes authentically and the other does not. The content of their beliefs might closely align, but their method of belief would be widely divergent. This also implies that an atheist and a theist who are both reacting to evidence they have seen with integrity could be in close harmony. It’s not what you think about God’s existence that really matters, but why you think it.

This in turn implies that maybe Mormons ought to reconsider who are ideological neighbors are. Not to shortchange the important work of bridge building to other theists, but we might be missing some valuable connections to atheists with, for example, a comparison of Joseph Smith’s radical monism and materialism.

And, last of all, if it’s possible for an atheist and a theist to see eye-to-eye (or at least pretty close), what lessons can we then apply at the individual ward level to foster unity within the diverse community of Mormons who lack any formal creeds or technical theology?

Perhaps none of the implications I’ve outline here rely entirely on redefining religion, but for me at least the redefinition helped bring them into focus. If there’s one simple message I could reduce all of this too, it would be that authentic believers can be united no matter what they believe, and those who view belief as a means to an end can never see eye-to-eye.

I will have one more piece on this series next Monday in which I’ll talk about some immediate and practical implications.

35 Responses to Authentic Religion, Authentic Science

  1. log on February 25, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    This implies that two people of the same faith might actually not have much in common if one of them believes authentically and the other does not. The content of their beliefs might closely align, but their method of belief would be widely divergent.

    Very astute.

  2. mapman on February 25, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    I’ve long thought that it would be more fruitful to spend more of our resources in reaching out to secularists instead of Evangelicals.

  3. WalkerW on February 25, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Great stuff, Nathaniel. Keep it up.

  4. Aaron on February 26, 2013 at 7:12 am

    You lost me with your somewhat crude smackdowns of global warming and evolution.

  5. Rachel Whipple on February 26, 2013 at 9:47 am

    You seem to accept as laudable the pure pursuit of scientific knowledge, but deny that we should do anything with it, or even allow scientists to make their findings known, because to do so would be to corrupt the purity that pursuit. If any human project is doomed to fail because of our natural man weaknesses, do you think that we ought not to pursue anything at all? Ought we not instead to recognize our limitations but still push forward, seeking knowledge?

    Some scientists have certainly declared a turf war. You have a point there. My problem is that in your examples of conflict, global warming and evolution, you seem to reject all the evidence that the scientific community is right, despite their personal views or the way their work has been used by others who have a political agenda.

    I doubt most evolutionary development biologists “rigidly adhere to 19th century Darwinian evolution against even reasonable questions”. The theory is refined as new data is gathered, true to the scientific method. The Biology Department at BYU is actually an department of evolutionary biology, but it’s not called that for political reasons, perhaps because there is a widespread belief outside of the department but within BYU management that evolution is opposed to religion.

    Scientism is the new bugaboo, the straw man constructed by non-scientists to discredit them. It is a pejorative term not applied by the scientists about themselves. It seems to me that this new construct won’t even last as long as logical positivism did.

  6. hplc on February 26, 2013 at 10:25 am

    I almost agree with Aaron. I think I agree with where this piece ends but I think you are inaccurate in describing the science or scientists involved in the global warming debate and evolution.

    “The global warming debate” is a manufactured debate. In the late 1980s, global warming science began to be accepted by politicians in a bipartisan manner (George Bush was on board and recognized the need to address it). Right-wing think tanks became concerned that the science would lead to a slippery slope of increasing regulation of industry. They began a campaign of doubt to increase skepticism of global warming science. And, seriously, “The global warming debate spells the death of science?” Science isn’t going anywhere.

    I don’t know any scientists (and I know quite a few) who “rigidly adhere to 19th century Darwinian evolution against even reasonable questions.” First, When getting technical, evolution has more than one camp. For example, note that in the more contemporary debate between neo-Darwinism and Goldschmidt, even Darwinism has been modified to the point that it gets a “neo” prefix. (I will note that I have heard of one old-timer who had difficulty accepting some aspects of current epigenetics that appear to run counter to Mendelian genetics and that is the closest you are going to get to someone rigidly adhering to 19th century Darwinian evolution.) Like the “global warming debate” the “evolution debate” is a manufactured one. The strategy of doubt was designed to decrease public trust in science and materialism so that religion could [re]gain a prominent place in public society.

    As an aside, I am curious to know what the reasonable questions against evolution may be.

    This is not to say that scientists have not been at fault in the antagonistic relationship of science and religion. The attitude of mockery toward religion that some [vocal] advocates of evolution continue to show has not helped matters. However, when the “turf war” is religion invading the science classroom, that’s not a turf war, that’s an invasion.

    As I stated, I like where this piece ends but I think the authentic/inauthentic brush is swinging to wildly (on both sides) and not an accurate descriptor of how science and religion came to be where it is today.

  7. TMD on February 26, 2013 at 10:37 am

    To me, one of the more striking elements of scientism and the new atheism is that its main impulse seems to contradict basic tenets of the philosophy of science. Popper and Lakatos, after all, stress that science cannot prove anything. Its dominant mechanism is falsification; the strongest positive result it can give is corroboration, not proof. Thus the phrase ‘scientific proof’ is itself a contradiction. Scientistic types and the new atheists in their rhetoric often mistake phenomena and empirical regularities for science. But this is a fundamental mistake: science is about theories explaining phenomena, not the phenomena themselves. Accordingly, gravity exists (a fact which is evidence of nothing at all), but theories of why gravity exists and how it works have changed a number of times over the past few centuries. The latter, but not the former, is science.

  8. TMD on February 26, 2013 at 10:43 am

    FWIW, my comment should not be interpreted as an attack on science per say, in any way. Rather, it reflects the tendency of some who identify with ‘science’ to extrapolate beyond what science (which is after all an epistemology, not an ontology) says or does. In essence, philosophers of science have stated that as an epistemology, it cannot confirm or prove ontological positions, only provide evidence which may be consistent with some number of current or future ontological positions.

  9. TMD on February 26, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Also, there are some quite interesting questions about evolution. For instance, some biologists are now advancing some (partially) neo-Lamarkian arguments, which Darwin had entirely excluded.

  10. hplc on February 26, 2013 at 11:23 am

    “Neo-Lamarkian” is covered in the field of epigenetics. We are still learning a lot about this. While epigenetics expands the variety of traits a genome can produce, it is still limited by Mendialian genetics (although there may be some interplay, Mendelian genetics remains the major player) and does not escape natural selection. Epigentics has a long ways to go before it gets to use the term “Neo-Larmakian.”

    Also, to be technical and accurate, Darwin disagreed with Lamark, not neo-Lamark. I point this out because this sort of thing is addressed in the OP. The new field of epigenetics is exciting, it is cool, and scientists are more likely to say, “Wow, that is fascinating!” than they are to say, “No! This runs against my rigid adherence to 19th century Darwinian evolution!” We don’t know how it is going to turn yet, but it will be included in our ever-solidifying Theory of Evolution.

  11. TMD on February 26, 2013 at 11:57 am

    There’s nothing to disagree with in your comment at 10 except to say that your last clause seems a little teleological for my taste.

  12. demon butterfly on February 26, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Christianity became the dominant religion in the Medditeranean in the 300’s because the Emperor Constantine adopted one form of it, which it soon became the state religion of Rome.

    Dr. Tyson’s claims about our composition are factual. We are made of star-stuff. He then expresses an opinion that it’s kinda cool. Does the statement “It’s kinda cool” actually amount to some sort of religious dogma? I think not. I don’t quite understand why his innocent comment gets the belittling designation “scientism”.

  13. Nathaniel Givens on February 26, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Aaron, Rachel, and hplc-

    I hope you don’t mind being lumped together, but your responses bear some common misunderstandings of my post. Since all three of you share them, I of course accept repsonbility for explaining myself poorly, and I’d like to try and rectify that. It may be a bit involved, but I think it’s very important and I hope you’ll stick with me.

    First let me define the scientific theories of global warming and evolution. The scientific theory of global warming is basically that global warming is real and that it is caused by human intervention. The scientific theory of evolution is that species gradually change via natural selection and that this is the origin of all life on earth. Neither one is science according to some very strict definitions of the term (e.g. no repeatable experiments), but both are the best possible explanations of existing data and our best understanding of natural law.

    Now let me contrast these scientific theories with what I’ll call the social constructs about those scientific theories. The first thing to note is that the social constructs go farther than the scientific theories. For example, most people wrongly assume that evolution implies some sense of progress, that “highly evolved” is in some way superior. This is not true, because natural selection is not an objective optimization process. (It is not objective because it targets a specific environment which is both relative and also subject to modification by the organisms whose traits are being naturally selected) and it is not an optimization process (because you only have to outrun the other guy, not the bear, and this is a satiation process.) Global warming is also virtually inextricable from the claims that the results will be catastrophic, that the process is reversible, and that the cost of mitigation strategies is less then the benefits. Each of those claims decreases in scientific rigor.

    The second is that these positions (evolution and global warming) convey a host of non-scientific data (e.g. disbelief in evolution is associated with right-wing politics, fundamentalist Christianity, living in rural areas, and being less-educated) while fervent belief in evolution is associated with the opposite of those traits. As such, the social constructs of evolution and global warming are powerful social signals and are used in ways that have nothing to do with their scientific content: as methods of signalling membership in different groups, for example.

    Most importantly, scientific theories exist only in relation to the evidence. But the social constructs that have grown up around them exist in an adversarial relationship with their opposing social constructs. Scientifically speaking, one can criticize evolution’s ability to explain the relevant data without ever having heard of the term “creationism” or “intelligent design”. Socially, however, the moment one criticizes the theory of evolution it is assumed that you’re playing for the other team. Scientifically, someone can propose alternative theories to anthropic global warming purely because one doesn’t understand the data. These alternative theories might be bad or good, but each is considered on its own merits, not as an instrument in some personal or social narrative.

    Contrast that with the high degree of fervence with which a lot of humanities grad students proclaim their devotion to evolution, a topic about which they likely know very little. They are not embracing a scientific viewpoint. They are deploying a social construct.

    The main point that I’m trying to make is that if you take a scientific principle–something that is absolutely true (let’s just say gravity)–and you then treat it as a social signifier and use acceptance or rejection of it as a strong signal of your own in-group status, you’ve converted science into dogma. Even if it’s true. We shouldn’t be distracted by labels, but should focus on a functional analysis of the way these terms and labels are used.

    In short: It’s not what you believe, but why you believe it. I’m not critiquing the content of evolution or global warming. I’m critiquing the way they function in society.

    A couple of individual responses follow:

    You seem to accept as laudable the pure pursuit of scientific knowledge, but deny that we should do anything with it, or even allow scientists to make their findings known, because to do so would be to corrupt the purity that pursuit. – Rachel

    I don’t think that at all, but I think a much more clear distinction should be drawn between science and policy. Science can and should inform policy, it absolutely can’t dictate or suggest specific policies, however, and whenever you see the credibility of science used to do so you’re seeing science eroded.

    As an aside, I am curious to know what the reasonable questions against evolution may be. – hplc

    I’m pretty baffled by the Cambrian Explosion. Please note, hwoever, that I don’t deploy this criticism in favor of something other than evolution. I have absolutely no alternative to suggest in evolution’s place, but as a matter of science I don’t need one. I also realize that I’m not a biologist, and so some of my lack of understanding is my own deficiency rather than evolution’s.

  14. Nathaniel Givens on February 26, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    demonbutterfly-

    Christianity became the dominant religion in the Medditeranean in the 300?s because the Emperor Constantine adopted one form of it, which it soon became the state religion of Rome.

    So what helped it spread so effectively for the first 300 years–despite vicious and entrenched opposition–that it was around as a viable alternative for Constantine in 300? Your explanation itself requires an explanation, and so is not really an explanation at all.

    Dr. Tyson’s claims about our composition are factual. We are made of star-stuff. He then expresses an opinion that it’s kinda cool.

    His statement “the universe is within you” is not just “it’s kinda cool”. He’s talking explicitly and forcefully and clearly about transendence. That’s religious.

    Keep in mind I’m not even saying scientism is necessarily a bad thing. I’m just saying it’s no longer science. It’s functionally equivalent to a religion, despite the rhetorical trappings of secularism.

  15. demon butterfly on February 26, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Christianity? Constantine’s mother belonged to one of the more obscure sects of Christianity – the dominant one at the time was Arianism. It’s core belief was that Jesus was a man that was raised from the dead, and you could be too, and soon. Constantine’s mom belonging to an obscure offshoot of a sorta popular sect was just happenstance.

    As to the universe being within you, I think you misunderstand. Roughly 35% of the human body was created within a star, initially. It’s a fact. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Composition_of_the_human_body

  16. Nathaniel Givens on February 26, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    demonbutterfly-

    The point I was making was that you can’t explain the success of Christianity by pointing to Constantine because Christianity had already managed to spread widely–across many cultures and political entities–despite severe opression. That needs to be explained. And I don’t think that “They promise you an afterlife” does much in that direction, for reasons I went into in my first post.

    As for Tyson’s statemet: the facticity is not in dispute. Except for hydrogen and a couple other light elements, all elements are made by stellar nuclear fusion. That’s basic, right? We all learned it in high school, didn’t we?

    But a statement is more than just its informational content, and in this case the observation “we are stardust” (not originally Tyson’s, by the way) goes beyond scientific fact, and becomes an argument or explanation for meaning, connection, and transendence.

    Keep in ming that I’m not criticizing the statement. I think it’s lovely and it’s obviously true. What I’m doing is categorizing it. And it’s clearly not (just) scientific.

  17. Kevin L on February 26, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Demon Butterfly – Nathaniel’s not arguing with you about the truth or validity of Dr. Tyson’s claims. The issue is Dr. Tyson’s judgment call that “That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. He’s making meaning out of his facts. That’s okay. We all do it. Every day. Constantly. But the meaning part is not science. It’s spirituality; it’s a system of belief. When those beliefs are shared within a common culture and develop into a system of language, metaphors, stories, practices, and community through which a particular people approach the spiritual, that’s religion. Good or Bad. True or False.

  18. Kevin L on February 26, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Rachael (5) – I didn’t get the same message from the OP. The problem is not science, publishing science, or using those results. The problem is that so many people are willing to abuse science, like Nathaniel says, using science as a source of meaning or values. Science as an epistemology absolutely absolves itself of all moral authority. Yet how often do we hear people use scientific findings as a justification for action?

  19. hplc on February 26, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    I got the same message as Rachel. Nathaniel’s explanation in #13 is helpful. It would be helpful if there was similar clarity throughout the discussion. Unless I am mistaken, Nathanial is talking about science, religion, social constructs, and policy but it often is not clear to which of those he is referring.

    I now get what has been said about the social construct that has grown up around the evolution/creation debate. However, if humanities students proclaim devotion to evolution, why is that a social construct? I can’t be an expert in everything. Are you saying that on my one narrow area of expertise, I can embrace a scientific viewpoint. For everything else, I deploy a social construct?

    As I said before, I agree with where the OP ends, but on the way there it often comes across as unreasonably critical of the science and not the social construct.

    For example, the OP states that there are “reasonable questions against evolution” that scientists should entertain. What are the reasonable questions? I don’t see the Cambrian Explosion as a reasonable question against evolution. It is something unusual that requires a significant level of expertise to understand and address. Currently, the questions it poses do not stand against evolution. If you cannot list any reasonable questions against evolution, your statement in the OP is unreasonably critical of science and scientists. The statement implies that we have reason to believe that the science is less than it is. I read it as in incorrect and unfair statement.

  20. Nathaniel Givens on February 26, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    I got the same message as Rachel. Nathaniel’s explanation in #13 is helpful. It would be helpful if there was similar clarity throughout the discussion.

    Just wanted to say that I appreciate the helpful criticism about where my presentation lacks clarity, and I’m definitely working to improve it based on feedback.

    Are you saying that on my one narrow area of expertise, I can embrace a scientific viewpoint. For everything else, I deploy a social construct?

    No, of course not. As a matter of practice, we all have to accept the authoritative word of experts on areas where we lack expertise. But I think there’s a qualitative distinction between provisionally accepting the apparent consensus and a zealous effort to defend that consensus which far outstrips expertise.

    When you see a liberal humanities major browbeating ignorant fundies for their refusal to accept global warming and you contrast that with the incredible complexity and uncertainty of long-range climate-projection models, it’s pretty clear that we’re dealing with a social construct. And, as I hope I made clear in the original post, I think the same thing is happening in reverse: fundamentalists who attack evolution based on a peculiar reading of Genesis aren’t sincerely representing religious concerns, they are adopting a pose for the sake of a turf war.

    The statement implies that we have reason to believe that the science is less than it is.

    Two points here. First of all: the Cambrian Explosion doesn’t make sense to me. Given that most mutations are likely to be harmful rather than beneficial I have a hard time understanding how so many new species could appear so quickly. But my point is not “therefore evolution is wrong”. I’m well aware that I’m out of my expertise here. That’s the point: I’m saying that to a non-expert there can be perplexities, and that this doesn’t imply I’ve got some secret agenda up my sleeve.

    What matters then is the response. You say that to someone who has expertise, there’s no problem. That’s a good response. But a lot of people would immediately attack my motivations for even raising the issue (it happens frequently), and that’s not a valid response. So how you defend a scientific claim defines if you’re engaging in science or a social construct built around it. (The fact that I’m probably wrong actually helps my case, since I’m trying to separate the veracity of a scientific claim from the utility of a social construct.)

    A second point, which I didn’t raise in the article, is that I think it is valid for non-experts to weigh incentives when deciding how much to trust experts. It’s frequently treated as a given that if the energy industry funds a study into global warming it’s junk science, but the reality is that climate science as a discipline depends on the truth of the basic global warming claims and this creates a very powerful system incentive for the other side of the issue.

    Again: I’m not contesting global warming here, but I am saying that there are reasonable justifications for some degree of skepticism.

    Science is self-correcting. Scientists are not. The history is replete with examples of prominent scientists using their authority and reputation to stand in the way of challenging new discoveries that were true. The peer-review process is shot through with errors and problems, and the simple application of p = 0.05 as the standard metric of significance implies that roughly 1 in 20 articles could be erroneous. In fact, however, studies indicate that the error rate for peer-reviewed studies is significantly higher. And then there’s fraud…

    In short, there’s the level of certainty that we should reasonably have in the scientific establishment, and there’s the level we actually have. I think there’s a pretty significant gap, and I think that gap (the degree to the general public over-relies on science) is due to science being treated as a social construct.

  21. Nathaniel Givens on February 26, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    Oh, just an example of the kind of wild inaccuracy I’m talking about:

    That question has been central to Ioannidis’s career. He’s what’s known as a meta-researcher, and he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. [emphasis added]

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/308269/

  22. Andrew S. on February 26, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    I argued that since religions couldn’t reliably provide public, objectively observable miracles or verify any of their claims about an afterlife, the only plausible explanation for their social capital was their ability to bridge the gap between deeply rooted human longing for meaning and the world’s absurdity.

    Suppose we fix that as our definition of religion. Any belief system (with accompanying formal and informal social institutions) that attempts to aid us in our quest for meaning is a religion.

    I don’t understand why this should be fixed as the definition of religion. One thing (that I will note is a major part of your series, I guess) is that it just balloons the number of religions — *everything* becomes religious or becomes prone to having religious counterparts.

    And I mean, ok, ok, so who cares if that’s what happens? Well, I think the issue is that you’re really not capturing what “religion” is in a common sense usage. So, people are chafing at your labeling of various social phenomena as being religious.

    I guess one thing I would say is this: humans make meaning. That’s what we do. But if religion is defined as any belief system that attempts to aid us in our quest for meaning — then everyone, no matter what, becomes religious. And you might be making that point. But you know, this is just not going to fly for many people — because it’s not going to capture the colloquial sense in which we use the term religion.

    In other words, I think I understand your point that people take the scientific data beyond the mere facts and try to interpret, project, or create “meaning” out of it. In the extreme cases, I can see why that might be called religion (e.g., “scientism”.) But…in the sense that meaning is a means of communicating significance, then I don’t think that it’s fair to say that “science proper” isn’t seeking after meaning. And I don’t think it makes sense to say that because it is seeking after meaning, then it’s a religion and/or religious.

    I think you’re going to have to narrow religion down, perhaps to a particular kind of meaning creation.

    Unfortunately, my gut reaction to doing this inadvertently (or perhaps not so inadvertently ;3 ) paints religion in a pretty negative tone. Like…the thing that’s common about “scientism” and “new atheism” and “fundamentalist Christianity” as being religious isn’t that they “aid us in our quest for meaning,”…rather, it’s that they provide hard, solid answers for meaning that are resistant to change.

    …where I see you distinguishing “science” from “scientism” is that “science” is fluid to change (“self-correcting”, willing to change the conclusions it does make, and not willing to make a whole lot of conclusions to begin with) whereas scientism is not (or, scientism are the elements that are not.)

    …so, can you see how this doesn’t really paint religion in favorable terms? Rather than “inauthentic religion” being defined as rigid…nope…religion itself is the aspects of meaning creation or promulgation that are rigid, sticky, resistant to change, overreaching in scope, etc.

  23. Jordan on February 26, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    love this discussion. i also enjoyed what i read from your series on epistemic humility. i think this kind of approach represents a critical way forward and could be considered a common ground across cultural domains (religious, scientific, political, etc).

    this post reminds me especially of Paul Feyerabend. A somewhat controversial philosopher of science who was a student of Popper and later wrote “Against Method” where he argues that science becomes religion as soon as it is supported by or aligned with the state. It begins to take on socio-political properties that make it more dangerous that even a state sponsored religion. very fascinating stuff.

  24. Nathaniel Givens on February 26, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    Andrew-

    I think you’re going to have to narrow religion down

    I think it’s actually relatively narrow, but it’s a definition that sort of runs orthogonal to what people usually think of. It also doesn’t categorize people per se.

    Unfortunately, my gut reaction to doing this inadvertently (or perhaps not so inadvertently ;3 ) paints religion in a pretty negative tone.

    That’s not because I think ill of religion. It’s cause I think ill of people. ;-)

  25. Nathaniel Givens on February 26, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    Thanks, Jordan. I’ll definitely look into Paul Feyerabend’s work.

  26. Andrew S. on February 26, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    re 24,

    NG,

    I think this is coming pretty close to “Communism works well on paper; it’s just never been implemented well by people” territory.

  27. DLewis on February 26, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    The “liberal humanities grad student” brow-beating the climate-change denier is a red herring, and it’s hard to figure out how that fits in to this piece at all. Of course that grad student should know the basics of climate science and not merely latch on to the topic for social/political reasons. But is that problem the fault of scientists? It’s easy to criticize dogmatists, but it is also a distracting technique that insinuates that all opinions or “worldviews” are valid, or that all scientific debates are really political.

    “The global warming debate spells the death of science, because no matter how correct the science or noble the intentions, the deployment of scientific credibility in the pursuit of political ends is a corruption from which the scientific establishment is unlikely to ever recover. One cannot divide loyalties between science and mammon any more than between God and mammon.”

    I’m curious if you’ve ever talked to climate scientists, or other scientists, who feel this way. Most of the scientists I know interested in issues of sustainability, even at a political level, are very hesitant about prescribing any sort of solution, and most scientific reports summarizing climate science go to great lengths to 1) be conservative in their results and 2) not to make any political declarations or recommendations. Nothing which you said above resonates with any of my experience following the climate change issue. Also, vague insinuations against the credibility of people’s work (“And then there’s fraud…”) and suggesting the incentives for an oil company to raise doubts about climate change is comparable to a scientist’s incentives for their work are below the level of intellectual debate you are trying to achieve in this post.

  28. co2...? on February 27, 2013 at 12:46 am

    27. I know you’re not asking me but I spoke to my first climate scientist (retired now) a couple of weeks ago and got a different answer than I was expecting. His claim is that there is not enough evidence to support theories of extreme climate change and that CO2 levels are increasing at lower levels than projected. Most interesting to me was that he said that CO2 increasing would be a good thing as it increases the productivity and yield of plants. He directed me to his website.

    http://www.co2science.org/

    I was a bit suspicious of his possible biases as this was certainly not what I was expecting to hear from the first climate scientist I would ever come across. (My biases kicking in I spose)

  29. Carl Youngblood on February 27, 2013 at 4:06 am

    I just wanted to mention that this discussion gets at the heart of some of our favorite discussions in The Mormon Transhumanist Association, namely the function of religion and how it is morphing in the secular age. If you’ve enjoyed this article and the ensuing discussion around it, I would really recommend you check us out and consider joining the group. Thanks so much, Nathaniel, for sharing these insights.

  30. Jettboy on February 27, 2013 at 10:17 am

    For those who are concerned about the word “Scientism” as a slur, just remember that “Religionist” or “Christianist” came about long before. Call it sticks and stones if you like, but scientist types started the fight.

  31. Mark on February 27, 2013 at 1:20 pm
  32. Nathaniel Givens on February 27, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    Mark-

    That’s a really interesting link, and I think it makes a compelling case.

  33. Nathaniel Givens on February 27, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    Speaking of links, I found this one and thought it was worth posting:

    Science, Religion, and the Great Stagnation

    The article (by Bleeding Heart Libertarians) cites analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga who wrote that:

    There is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.

    The definition of “naturalism” here is closely equivalent to my definition of “scientism”:

    For Plantinga, naturalism is the view that there is no God or anything like God but what most naturalists affirm is that all that exists and all that can be known is ultimately describable by science and, probably, by physics.

    I think a lot of the main points I’ve tried to make here are presented in a fresh way there, so I highly recommend giving it a read.

  34. Mtnmarty on March 4, 2013 at 12:21 am

    Here are a few comments from a non-practicing atheist. As a matter of belief, I am an atheist (or more precisely an a-religionist) in the broad sense of your definition of religion. That is, I don’t believe life has a meaning. It is obviously absurd. One of life’s absurd features in that many people feel a need for meaning or have an absurd belief in meaningfulness. Despite my fervent a-religionism, I occasionally lapse and find myself having a belief or acting on a belief or seeking a belief. Among this lapses to a meaningful state are beliefs in romantic love, the importance (even transcendence) of BYU sports, manifest destiny, that knowledge is power, that its bad to drown puppies, that Orwell is a better writer than Camus, and that I have free will.

    Although I find your belief that the human desire for meaning is “deeply rooted” overstated, it is probably at least “rooted” so I will engage your argument.

    1. I find it a bit odd that you state without evidence “that since religions couldn’t reliably provide public, objectively observable miracles or verify any of their claims about an afterlife”. Why do you believe this to be true? Its begging the question. Obviously any authentic religion worth believing in could do these very things.

    2. Further, I find your touchstone of authentic religion odd. “Authentic religion empowers us to be responsible to answer life’s existential questions for ourselves, working out our own salvation.”

    Its like saying all real cookies are not only home made but that even the recipe must be your own. This is taking the DIY movement to perilous extremes.

    How could our beliefs be anything other than our own? Can we outsource the believing? I mean indulgences outsourced the prayers but still the belief in their efficacy would seemingly be personally authentic enough.

    By analogy, am I still not an authentic consumerist materialist, if I don’t believe Louis Vuitton handbags to be elegant, but purchase them because others might?

    3. Lastly, I would offer a New Testament critique to the following: “This in turn implies that maybe Mormons ought to reconsider who are ideological neighbors are.” Well, the bible teaches that our ideological neighbors are those whose Samaritanesque ideologies are laying in the street beaten and in need of aid.

    Shorter version: “Authenticity is over-rated. David Lynch and the Sermon on the Mount are not.”

  35. chris on March 4, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    The fact that you get so much push back on global warming and evolution pretty much proves your point. These concepts are so loaded that any hint of criticism promotes “us vs. them”.