The Godification of Science
For as long as I can remember, I’ve viewed science and religion as competing, polar opposites.
Science said that the world is more than 6,000 years old and that evolution … ya know … happened. Meanwhile, religion said there was a white-bearded man in the sky who created everything with lightning bolts flung from his fingers.
People who viewed the world scientifically had a method: they questioned, they tested, they observed. If the data led them to one, they reached a conclusion. Religious people, on the other hand, had a one-word answer for all: God.
When there was a natural disaster, science could explain that a low-pressure system had left the coast of Africa, picked up spin from the Earth’s rotation, gathered strength over warm ocean waters, and become a hurricane.
Religious folks seemed to offer a mere, “God has a plan. Trust in Him.”
Above all, religion demanded blind devotion from billions of people who had no background in religious study, and probably never even read the Bible. Those people proudly referred to themselves with a term that was the last thing I wanted to be: a follower.
So imagine my shock when, during this global pandemic, I’ve seen people with no scientific background at all write, “Trust the scientists” and “follow the science.”
I wonder how, exactly, these “science followers” believe science is conducted. It must be something like this: Every so often, all the world’s scientists gather in a big room, deliberate for a while, reach a consensus, then send up white smoke and hold a press conference to announce what the “science” says.
In reality, of course, there’s almost never a consensus among scientists. And when there is one, it takes decades, if not centuries, to develop. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has had to withstand more than 150 years of close scrutiny. The notion that the world is round first emerged in the 5th century BC. And yet, as we all learned in elementary school, people thought Magellan would “fall off the face of the Earth” when he tried to sail around it a full 2,000 years later.
What does a real science conference look like? I‘ve attended economics conferences, and I’ve followed sports analytics conferences online. If science conferences are anything similar, they involve PowerPoint presentations full of hypotheses. If they’re anything similar, there are many attempts to convince the audience of ideas. But most of all, there’s disagreement. In the words of my high-school biology teacher, “No one disagrees with each other more than biologists.”
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To be clear, science is a superior method of studying how the physical world works. Almost no one refutes that (when religious people—even the most devout—break their legs, for example, they no longer tend to throw their hands up and pray, as they might have done 1,000 years ago. They go to the damn hospital.) But “Trust The Experts” is not superior to “In God We Trust.” It’s the same, credibility-killing, blind appeal to authority.
Perhaps, though, as with most dichotomies, it’s not so simple. Perhaps science and religion aren’t competing, polar opposites.
Perhaps at its core, each is an evolving inquiry into the nature of things. At their best, in the hands of trustworthy leaders, perhaps they’re more similar than they are different: One an attempt to understand the physical world, the other an attempt to understand how to act in it.
We’re seeing now that they’re similar at their worst, too. In the hands of the ignorant and the power-hungry, both science and religion proclaim certainty and everlastingness in a world that has neither.
If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.