From time to time, you’ll hear people declaiming on the differences between “science” and “religion”. Science, we are told, is reasonable, open-minded, and self-correcting. Religion, on the other hand, is supposedly irrational and dogmatic. People’s religious opinions may have psychological causes, but it’s not admitted that they might have reasons to believe those opinions true. They are only able to maintain their silly beliefs by persecuting anyone who doubts them. In fact, one might say that, for may people today, for a belief to be unreasonable and intolerant is the very definition of “religious”. So, for example, we hear new atheists dismiss communism as a religious perversion of atheism–not true atheism at all. The reason that communism is “religious” is that it enforces an orthodoxy and persecutes heretics, the opposite of the true “scientific” atheist mindset. On the other hand, one often hears Republican commentators dismiss the movement to counteract global warming as “religious”–meaning unreasonable and viscious toward unbelievers. Note well how our supposed friends use the word “religion” (as in “global warming religion”) as an insult.
Of course, it’s silly to say that there are no reasons to believe that some religion is true, or that some particular religion is true. Certainly, at least some religious believers hold their beliefs for intellectually respectable reasons, and most are very good at being accomodating to unbelievers. However, the basic claim, that the scientific community utilizes doubt (except regarding its basic methodological premises) while religious communities must discourage it, is true. The difference, though, has nothing to do with how “reasonable” either way of knowing is. The difference lies in the different social responsibilities of science and religion.
In Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas asks the question “what is the fundamental difference between primitive and modern religions?” She considers some standard answers, e.g. that primitive sects are ritualistic and superstitious while modern sects are ethical and skeptical, and finds them incompatible with the actual records of primitive peoples. The real difference, she decides, is that primitive religions are responsible for maintaining a social order–keeping people in line–while modern religions aren’t. This isn’t because we moderns are freer than our superstitious forebears. Rather, it’s because we are enmeshed in a much more pervasive and invasive network of social controls, organized with thorough bureaucratic and technological efficiency. Religion can afford to be tolerant and individualistic now, now that nothing important depends on it.
What does this have to do with science? Well, the fondest wish of our loudest science advocates is that science should have a stronger social presence, that its disinterested logic and open-mindedness would be allowed to inform public policy to a far greater extent. Far better, they say, that government should rely on science than on superstition.
Whether or not it would be better for society is one thing we could debate. I wonder, however, if anyone has thought about whether it would be good or bad for science itself. If scientists ever should assume the mantle of social responsibility, our famed open-mindedness, our happiness to be proven wrong, would be the first thing we’d inevitably sacrifice. As soon as some scientific theory becomes the main motive for a people’s collective action, skepticism towards that theory becomes a menace to society. Today, I feel perfectly free to publicly doubt the existence of dark matter or the Higgs boson, because whether or not those things exist doesn’t affect the legitimacy of the government or any of its policies. Consider instead the case of anthropogenic global warming. As one often hears it complained, doubts on this subject are not welcomed; in fact, they are regarded as immoral. Is this because, as alleged, this one part of science is becoming “religious”? Not at all; what’s happened is that this one part of science has become socially and politically important. There is strong evidence that the Earth is heating due to human release of greenhouse gases. Curbing this effect before its results become catastrophic requires joint action by much of the industrialized world. Well-publicized doubt threatens this joint action. Therefore, it must be countered, by character attacks if necessary. The reasoning here is perfectly valid. It is the reasoning of a statesman, not a scientist, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. In this case, scientists have been thrust into a position of importance. They must (and, I believe, they are) discharge these unwanted responsibilities as well as they can. Still, if science continues to become more “relevant” in the coming years, expect centuries hence a future Dr. Douglas to someday write that this was the time that science switched from its “modern” open phase to its “primitive” dogmatic phase.
As a scientist, I hope, pray, and expect that my own field of astrophysics will remain gloriously irrelevant to the practical concerns of mankind. I rather like it that I can feel free to propose a new explanation of short-duration gamma ray bursts without risking social anarchy.