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The Church of Science: Losing Our Religion?

Slate startled us the other day by publishing an insightful essay asking whether political and worldview presuppositions drive the debate over climate change on both sides — not only for those on the Right, but for combatants on the Left too, including scientists (who are mostly on the Left). It’s an elementary observation that should be evident to anyone who follows the evolution debate, but of course a welcome surprise coming from a venue like Slate.
Author Dr. Daniel Sarewitz worries that because the ranks of scientists are so politically skewed, that threatens the trust that scientists currently enjoy among the public:

This exceptional status could well be forfeit in the escalating fervor of national politics, given that most scientists are on one side of the partisan divide. If that public confidence is lost, it would be a huge and perhaps unrecoverable loss for a democratic society.

I wonder, though, whether the loss of confidence isn’t already happening and whether that might be a healthy development.
Recently a pair of scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, considering various published news sources, tabulated the increasingly common use, by reporters and other writers, of authoritarian phrases like “science says we must,” “science says we should,” “science dictates,” and “science commands.” Typically, the phrases introduce a doctrinaire insistence that “science” demands our belief in catastrophic global warming, Darwinian evolution, assorted dietary or other health practices, and so on.
Science is seemingly so confident in itself that it now dictates belief in areas — from morality to eschatology — once deemed to be the special domain of religion. Once, it was religion that dealt in narratives of global apocalypse, life’s origins, and taboos on assorted foods and unclean practices. Now it’s science that tells us, for example, that the perception of ourselves as possessing free will is only an illusion. It’s our “selfish genes” that manipulate us through the meaty computer of our brains. Alternatively, science can tell us how to distinguish right from wrong based on considerations of human “flourishing.”

Surely only an extraordinarily confident secular priesthood, that of scientists, would venture so far from its traditional role as mere describer of physical reality. The fact that specifically materialist science takes on trappings of faith — a Church of Science — demonstrates how secure the place of that science in our culture really is.
Or could the opposite be true? Considered from a different perspective, the dogmatism of the Church of Science looks like desperate frustration, the increasingly strident, screechy insistence of a parent unable to govern his children. No less a cultural observer than President Obama lamented recently that voters were hostile to and unappreciative of “facts and science,” represented by himself and his Administration, due to quirks in our evolutionary “hard-wiring.”
A writer in Wired magazine, disturbed by increasingly widespread doubts about climate change, advocates a massive (and pathetic) PR campaign:

Assemble two groups of spokespeople, one made up of scientists and the other of celebrity ambassadors. Then deploy them to reach the public wherever they are, from online social networks to The Today Show. Researchers need to tell personal stories, tug at the heartstrings of people who don’t have PhDs. And the celebrities can go on Oprah to describe how climate change is affecting them — and by extension, Oprah’s legions of viewers.

Actually, far from confidence, the Church of Science evidences much of the brittleness of the ancient pagan religion of Rome before the rise and spread of Christianity. In the first centuries of the Common Era, some Roman intellectuals mercilessly picked apart the traditional pagan religion, holding it up for mockery. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon recounts how this culture of doubt trickled down to ordinary people, undermining their confidence in the old gods.
The traditional form of worship was respectable. But it was like a house held up by beams that have rotted from inside. In the end, most people only half-believed, at most, in the old religion. Even the defensive priests sleepwalked through it.
No one in the first century would have predicted the precipitous collapse of paganism and its replacement by the once obscure Greco-Palestinian religion of Christianity, all within the space of a few centuries.
In our own day, doubts and apprehensions about materialism are barely suppressed, as the debate about Darwinian evolution illustrates. The rustling, nervous tension emanating from the Church of Science may foretell the coming retreat of materialist dogmatism and the resurgence of genuine science. Dominant paradigms and worldviews seem permanent. Yet they have a way of shifting — not overnight but with what is still, seen in retrospect, an amazing speed.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.