February 10, 2006
The divide between modernists and medievalists
The current attacks on science in the US are often portrayed as a battle between religion and science but that is not really the case. The widespread beliefs about the rapture (taking seriously the claim that 44% of Americans believe that the rapture will certainly or most probably occur within their lifetimes) and the attempts at overthrowing evolution by natural selection because of religious reasons signals something more serious.
When these beliefs are coupled with the fact that 53% reject common ancestors for humans and apes and that 45% of Americans can still, in this day and age (according to a Gallup poll in November 2004), believe that "God created man in present form within the last 10,000 years," indicates that what we have here in the US is a far deeper and more disturbing phenomenon. I think that it is fair to say that it pretty much represents a rejection of modernity and a yearning for an almost medieval, pre-Renaissance way of thinking.
The great divide in the current culture wars in the US is not between religious people on the one side and scientists on the other. It is between those who are modernist and those who are medieval. The modernist camp contains both religious and secular people. Religious people who are modernists believe that god somehow works in the world and in their lives, but don't seek an explicit mechanism. They leave god out of the secular world and science. The medievalists on the other hand are rejecting almost entirely the modern worldview, arguing that religious doctrine must take precedence over everything else and that whenever science and religion are in opposition, it is religious beliefs that must take precedence.
It seems (to me at least) that if post-renaissance life reveals anything at all, it is that we are more likely to get useful information and results from putting our faith in science to make progress and solve problems than in praying for solutions. This is not to promote science triumphalism. Science and scientists can and do make mistakes and one should not yield to them sole decision making power, even over important and esoteric scientific questions.
What I am saying is that is absurd to reject those scientific theories and methods that have brought us to where we are because of religious objections, which is what the opponents of modernism are essentially advocating.
The rejection of modernity represented by these religious beliefs seems to me to be similar to the attitudes of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In both cases, these groups identified the current state of life as morally iniquitous and identified social and moral well-being with a return to "traditional values." They did this by rejecting all the trappings of modernity (TV, clothing, films, popular music, etc.) and tried to return their countries to a more primitive lifestyle, seeing that as somehow morally superior. In the case of Afghanistan this was driven by religion and in Cambodia by ideology, but the end result in both countries was similar - "back-to-basics" on steroids.
This rejection of modernism by about 150 million Americans (i.e., the people who believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis) is disturbing because it means that the foundations on which US society is built is shaky. What may save the situation is that in the US, the rejection of modernity, unlike in Afghanistan or Cambodia, is somewhat contradictory in practice. While appealing for a return to "traditional values," the groups advocating this show no indication whatsoever of giving up all the trappings and luxuries that modernity provides. They want to be worthy of heaven, but will hold onto their iPods until they are pried from their "cold, dead hands" as Charlton Heston famously said about his right to have guns.
Take for example stem-cell research. Currently, religious objections in the US have resulted in other nations taking the lead in this area. Since no major breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases using this new technology have yet been achieved, it seems like it costs nothing to reject this technology. But as soon as it produces a treatment or cure for a major disease, I predict that religious objections to this research in the US will collapse. Whatever their religious objections, people who have the disease will demand the treatment and the authorities will have no choice but to acquiesce.
With the Taliban or Khmer Rouge, they would have just said "tough." If the price for moral purity is a primitive lifestyle and early death, then so be it. But somehow I cannot see the members of the fundamentalist Christian community in its suburban megachurches in affluent communities, people who think that having a long, materially rich life is a sign of god's favor, being willing to accept that tradeoff.
But can you essentially reject the premise of the scientific approach while clinging to the fruits that science provides? I don't think so, at least not over the long run. Collisions between those two sets of values is inevitable and whether we like it or not, scientific advances always trump religious objections.
And ultimately, this is why science always wins in the end. Not because it is obviously true or always correct or aesthetically appealing or emotionally satisfying but because it is just too useful and practical to reject.