Science As Religion
I live in a country founded on the precepts of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and freedom of faith. And yet, the things most important to me are continuously under attack.
Those things include my family and my faith.
I’m gay, so the issue of my family coming under barrage after barrage of legal and religious assault is pretty clear to anybody who pays attention to the so-called culture wars.
But my faith? That’s a harder problem to define for those who do not share it.
Let me try anyway. I believe in a universe in which the rational holds sway; a universe that is at once majestic and mysterious, and yet rigidly and inerrantly consistent, a place where miracles, in the classic sense of the word, are not only unnecessary but downright impossible. In this I am not alone; St. Augustine, a highly regarded Catholic theologian, stated that nothing happens in violation of nature’s laws; what may look like a miracle to us must be an event in accordance with the ordinary physical characteristics of reality. We might simply have to look a little closer and dig a little deeper to see beyond surface appearances and understand nature’s deeper laws.
Indeed, taking science as one’s faith is not necessarily atheistic. (Though, as my cousin Dieter likes to say, "It is my God-given right to be an atheist.") Rather, I find it vastly more reassuring to contemplate a God capable of generating this entire cosmos, with its tremendous scales of time and dimension, and with its coherent system of necessary and consistent natural laws, than to think about God as the bipolar, violent, and all-too-anthropomorphic deity that the Old Testament describes. In any case, I regard my faith as personal, private, and -- in the sense of that which is closely guarded and cherished -- sacred.
But the dominant religious sentiment has turned invasive, virulent, and wishful, an extremely dangerous combination to the very idea of religious liberty, not to mention to the rule of secular, fact-based law. That wishful thinking -- which assumes that the universe is ordered to our convenience, and imagines that a super-powered but essentially humanlike God will intervene to punish some, reward others, correct even our most grievous errors and neglect, and therefore save us from the consequences of our own reckless conduct -- has paved the road to bitter loss and regret. We’re speeding down that road right now, and the consequences will be grim. God will not appear on a white stallion, cavalcade of angels in tow. We’re going to have to clean up the mess we’ve made all by ourselves... and, in the meantime, try to live in the midst of the wrack and ruin of everything we’ve spoiled and besmirched.
My faith centers not on a deity that dispenses rewards and penalties, but on the reliable, infallible character of physical law. I don’t worship a savior (though I fervently hope for one); for me, history’s prophets and saints are those who dared to confront the evils of ignorance and blustering, pig-headed obtuseness. Aristotle and Archimedes; Lucretius and Nicomachus; Galileo and Newton; Leeuwenhoek and Lavoisier; Mendel (the father of genetics, and himself a Catholic monk) and Minkowski; Darwin and Salk. The men and women who made knowledge part and parcel of the world we live in -- true, practical knowledge with profound applications that transformed the world and in the process lifted huge numbers of human beings out of hardship and misery the likes of which hardly anyone in this most privileged of nations has known. Knowledge gave us the power to improve our lives vastly... and now we spurn it.
It astonishes me how many people reflexively dismiss the wisdom and warnings of scientists, but just as reflexively take the opinions of their priests and pastors instantly and ineradicably to heart, no matter how incoherent those opinions may be or how divergent from demonstrable truths.
I understand the urge for blind and hopeful faith, but there’s something to be said for having faith in things are truly certain. I have faith that if I step off a cliff, gravity will bring me plummeting down to the bottom of the ravine, and do so at a known rate of acceleration. I have faith in the charge on any electron being "e," a known quantity: 1.6021765 × 10?19 coulomb, no more and no less. I have faith in the constancy of the speed of light, "c," roughly 186,282 miles per second -- a speed that never changes, and cannot be exceeded. I have faith that when I add two eggs with two more eggs, I will have a total of four eggs. The universe, and the nature of reality itself, is comforting in that there truly are right and wrong answers, and there truly are objective yardsticks against which to measure ourselves.
But how often we now place our own egos and preferred belief systems before the truth. It’s ludicrous that even now, evolution has to fight for a place in science texts and creationism is taught with a straight face. Evolution, like cosmology and genetics, may be regarded by science as a "theory," but then again "theory" is the word applied to just about everything in science. Evolution, unlike creationism, matches the observable, external, and objective conditions that we used to agree to call "reality." Now, reality, like so many other things, has all but been complained and special interest grouped to the margins.
When I set out to measure the charge on the electron in a college science class, I got the wrong answer. This taught me something: I am free to hold to any belief I like, but opinion and fact are two different things. Imagine if I had mounted a shrill and persistent campaign to promote my own erroneous findings over the objectively true value of an electron’s charge. Imagine if I had declared the professor’s response to my "wrong" answer to be a kind of persecution against me based on my religious faith. It’s not as silly as it sounds; that’s pretty much what’s happened in our schools, where Bible stories have replaced scientific facts not only in biology and cosmology, but courses with everyday practical application and health impact, classes like sex ed -- a socially sensitive topic, but also a dangerous subject in which to teach made-up "facts" in lieu of objective and observable truth.
In this scenario, as in the real-life situation that finds comforting fables replacing cold, straightforward facts, it’s the deluded (and those bullied into quiescence by them) that are the eventual losers. No matter how harsh or persuasive my rhetoric in pursuing my fallacious claims, no matter how many preachers I might recruit to my cause to thunder from the pulpits, or how many legislators I influence to declare my answer for the charge on the electron as universally and timelessly correct, that erroneous answer is meaningless to the mechanics of nature.
In a rigidly uniform reality like the one we live it, rigid human systems of belief are doomed. If we place ourselves on a collision course with objective reality, we set ourselves up to be smashed to smithereens. We either adjust our thinking to align with reality, or we come, eventually, to a place where our cherished notions shatter against the boundaries of reality. In other words, had I appeared on Fox News and MSNBC or launched ballot initiatives to bolster my erroneous experimental results, I might conceivably have been able to bask in political affirmation, but I still would have been wrong. Not a single electron would have changed its fundamental properties to please me.
Getting the wrong answer in that experiment was, in fact, the educational heart of the exercise. Understanding that fact that the value I had arrived at was wrong, owning up to it, and accepting that I do not change the nature of physics through sheer will or belief, taught me that I’m part of nature, not its absolute master and commander, and while false beliefs might be comforting or bolster one’s self-esteem, they don’t serve one well.
But who actually understands any of that now? As a nation, we’re so uninformed about the way the world works... the real world, not the social or economic world... that we’re easy marks for anyone with a loud voice and the wealth to broadcast it. Here’s just one example from a plethora of ways in which big money has bought public discord and confusion: Corporate cash has underwritten "grassroots" campaigns to discredit consistent and fact-based science showing that climate change is a real problem, worsening year by year and driven by human activity. Millions upon millions of dollars have been spent to color public perception and sway public opinion that the "science is not settled" as to why the Earth is getting hotter and the weather is getting more severe.
But the planet is heating up, and we’re to blame for it; no amount of money can change the trend. Only rational and disciplined action can do that, and we’ve forsaken any such undertaking because it’s easier and more politically expedient to engage in a massive game of make-believe. Richard Feynman, commenting on the failures that led to the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger, famously said, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."
You cannot fool nature; that’s true. And neither can you buy nature off. Big money funds massively effectual and widespread campaigns that promote lies, but those lies, while comforting and contrived to offer political affirmation to the angry and the fearful, are not helping us. They are hurting us. They are, in fact, killing us.
But we seem to be willing, as a culture, to keep the blindfold in place and chant vivacious songs of solidarity with those who deceive us, even as we allow ourselves to be guided to the brink of the abyss. And it’s not like there aren’t rational, informed people in possession of the facts who are trying to warn us of our folly. There was a "Frontline" episode, "Climate of Doubt," that aired just a few nights ago that explored this topic in depth. Like the war of truth waged by the tobacco industry, and like all such wars on fact and reason, the insane efforts to lull us into suicide have roots as deeply buried in ideology as in economics. No wonder Republicans have been trying to kill PBS since the 1990s; why would politicians and political tacticians who rely on fear, obstructionism, falsehoods, and misplaced populist rage want the public to hear anything resembling factual, critically analytical news?
A similar campaign of disinformation and fable has been waged with respect to gays and our families. The idea that to be gay is somehow a choice is the single most effective weapon that bigots have in their arsenal, and they have used it to relegate us to second-class status in the 32 states where our rights have been put to popular vote, with constitutions being re-written to exclude us from the fundamental right to legal family relationships.
The problem with that opinion is that it’s completely false. Being gay is not a choice; being gay is an innate and unchangeable part of a gay or lesbian person’s identity. There’s a mountain of scientific evidence to support this fact. But none of that matters when a homophobic preacher opens his mouth, Bible in hand, and calls us "sinners."
Yes, the world would be a simpler place, and easier to understand, if heterosexuality were universal and exceptions to it were strictly elective. But that’s not the world we live in. Pretending otherwise doesn’t "protect" anyone, but it does harm countless families and swaddle homophobic true believers in blankets of delusion that, in the end, only diminish them (even as they diminish us socially and legally).
The narrative of the persecuted Christian has similarly taken hold; when "Christian" groups pursuing decidedly unchristian goals are frustrated in the civic and religious arenas, they cry discrimination. But how is it discrimination to protect the body politic from unreasonable and fiction-based laws and policies? How does it serve children to teach them in public schools that the universe was created in six days and the planet is a mere 6,000 years old, when every single branch of science exposes these ideas as mere poetry, with absolutely no connection to the real world? And how is asking for public policies to be grounded in fact, rather than dogma or end-times hysteria, any form of "persecution?"
It’s factual truth, if anything, that’s now being persecuted in the name of "moral" or dogmatic "truths." We’ve always had a breadth of opinion that included defiantly deluded world-views, but we now seem to have entered a post-factual age in which hazily defined "values" matter more than demonstrable realities. Politicians claim that rape can be "legitimate" or not based on whether pregnancy results from sexual assault; or, they declare essential scientific disciplines like cosmology and reproductive medicine to be "lies from the pit of Hell." This isn’t just politics as usual. This is terrifying, toxic stuff.
It’s also hard to counter. No rational person can take those arguments on at the same level where they are generated, because they are generated in the realm of fantasy. Sadly enough, widespread scientific illiteracy and a confusion of ego affirmation with the democratic process has brought us to a place in our national history where an alarming number of people just don’t know the difference.
We rely on the hard sciences every single day. Physics and biology -- not tribal poetry, not mystical lore -- brought us high definition flat screen televisions, jet airplanes, automobiles with crumple zones, medical imaging devices, transgenic crops, antibiotics, and the ability to mass produce goods of every sort.
Hard science -- not seething vitriol from pulpits or idiotic proclamations from deeply ignorant, or deeply cynical, elected officials -- brought us the microwave oven, smart phones, Facebook, computerized systems that govern traffic lights and commercial delivery schedules.
Numbers, not opinions, brought us to a level of prosperity never matched or even imagined in all the history of our still half-savage race, and yet here we are, letting the hard-won progress of the Enlightenment, and the sacrifices of our own fathers and grandfathers to preserve our freedoms, dribble away. Why? Because we can’t man up, get smart, take charge of our lives in a way that literally makes sense by relying on facts and not on wishes, whims, or opinions?
Science is my faith. But I see the tenets of that faith under relentless attack every single day. I see superstition, political rancor, and a completely unearned sense of personal entitlement (not the same thing as personal responsibility, by the way) eroding the very idea that there are deeply abiding, universally constant laws of nature that we cannot, by fiat or mass delusion or talk radio, or by any other means, re-write.
But as Feynman pointed out, you can’t fool nature. We can ignore the laws that govern reality for only so long before we really do walk off a cliff and gravity, along with all the other facts by which nature operates, brings us crashing down.