The Danger of Spin—Science vs. Religion

I grew up listening to the Great Science vs. Religion debate. I couldn’t quite believe it at the time. So why am I still listening to it today?

My father is a theologian, so our dinner table conversations often turned to questions of philosophy, history, religion and social justice. One of these questions always struck me as odd: Can science and religion coexist?

When I went to graduate school in social ethics, the same question was still raging in theological circles. I hear it again today as well—still unsettled, perhaps forever so.

A friend once proclaimed that Western Civilization had shed the threat of religious tyranny thanks to the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Because we have science, she said, civilization will never fall backward into ignorance, or be driven by religious zeal. I think she misunderstood the nature of both science and history.

At its core, science is a way of exploring how the mechanisms in nature operate. That’s it. Science is incredibly useful, and discoveries have challenged many of our beliefs. But science simply cannot answer our deepest questions about the meaning of life, what happens after we die, and how we should treat one another. These questions about meaning are the purview of religion, philosophy and the arts.

When cosmologist Robert Kirshner was giving interviews about his book, The Extravagant Universe, he said people would often ask him what the universe was like before the Big Bang and why the universe came into being. These, he said, are not things that science can examine. There is no physical evidence of what came before the Big Bang, nor can science reveal cosmic motives.

As it happens, this might be a crux in the unending conflict between scientific and religious thinking. As my friend’s comment suggested, we like to imagine that we are headed somewhere. Civilizations might rise and fall, but we like to think that history progresses with intention, direction and purpose. We like the idea of progress. If we are taking steps on a path, then our actions have meaning.

But the mechanisms that science studies are simply that: mechanisms. Take evolution, for example, which based on replication errors called mutations. A mutation occurs when DNA makes an inexact copy of itself. The resulting offspring has a difference. If the offspring survives and reproduces, future generations will have the same mutation and it will become part of the gene pool. If the offspring does not reproduce, the mutation is not passed on.

This is a mechanical process. At the molecular level, it does not involve judgment, morality, or intention. If we choose imbue the process with meaning, we are no longer talking science, we are talking about something else.

Is science hostile to a sense of purpose in life? I can’t imagine why that would be. Process and meaning are two different things. After all, many great scientists are also deeply religious people.

Of course, science rests on the premise that objective patterns can be found in natural processes. If you separate these processes from your questions about the meaning of life, then science and religion coexist quite easily.

On the other hand, some people believe that God interacts with natural events at will in order to influence history and individual lives. If you believe that God actively steers natural processes, then objectifying natural processes could be very troubling.

So it goes. The religious right and the fossil fuel industry seem to have found common ground on this point. Ghosts and magic were banished from rational conversations a long time ago, but they might be coming back.

The climate denial campaign is trying to discredit the scientific worldview altogether by convincing us that climate science is just another form of manipulation. They say climate research is not objective. They’ve attacked individual researchers and science institutions with charges of bias and corruption. They’ve even called climate science a global conspiracy.

If Naomi Oreskes is right, and today’s university students truly do believe that everything—even science—is just spin, then the Dark Ages might be headed our way once again.

There is a great deal at stake in the climate debate in addition to crops, water supplies, energy, violent weather, and health. If ideology triumphs over reason, and objective facts are treated like opinions—then we will lose both our capacity to make informed, rational choices about the risks we face, and our freedom to explore the meaning of life freely.

Science is important and worth protecting against this ideological and commercial onslaught. We can make what we wish of the data, but objective facts are vital to whatever future we choose.

If we lose sight of this truth, we will lose our ability to manage the future. This truly is something to fear.

PHOTO CREDIT: Galileo before the Holy Office by Painting by Joseph-Nicolas, 1847.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.