One of the more irritating (and ignorant) statements of our time, is when some ignoramus says, “Science is the new religion.” It rankles me as much as the codswallop that the statement ‘we all create our own realities’ does, inasmuch as both are statements that reveal the utter cluelessness of the speaker.
So imagine my chagrin, when Andrew Brown announces,
John Sulston is one of the smartest men I know – well, he ought to be, as a Nobel prize winner – and last week I got him talking about religion in front of an audience for the Westminster faith interviews.
One of the things that came up in this, as so often before, was the definition of “religion”. Sulston was brought up as a low church Anglican, and still feels that religion must involve God and a belief in the supernatural, and that ritual is secondary to theology.
I came up with my usual counter to this – that there are atheistic religions; that there was ritual long before there could be theology and that we ought to take scientists – even social scientists – more seriously than dictionaries. This last point because Sulston had gone to the trouble of looking up and printing out one of the OED definitions of religion, which he felt proved his point.
“Belief in or acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers (esp a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, esp as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement.”
I can see that it must be frustrating, if you have such a definition in front of you to get some slippery Durkheimian answer about religion being actually the way that society understands and defines itself. You might, if pressed, agree that Americans treat their constitution as a sacred scripture, of universal application to the world. But it doesn’t seem properly supernatural.
He gets some of these things right – there have been atheistic religions (Buddhism and Raelism spring to mind). The problem here, is that he’s picking his own definition of the term. This is what is usually defined as religion:
Religion is a collection of belief systems, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.
Many religions may have organized behaviors, clergy, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, holy places, and scriptures. The practice of a religion may also include rituals, sermons, commemoration or veneration of a god, gods or goddesses, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, initiations, funerary services, matrimonial services, meditation, prayer, music, art, dance, public service or other aspects of human culture. Religions may also contain mythology.
So he goes on to a sloppier way to prove his point:
This is probably an argument that is impossible to resolve. But every serious thinker about religion has ended up with a definition as baggy as Durkheim’s. There are just too many modes of belief and behaviour that can function as “religious” for this to be a simple category. And if the dictionary says different, then the dictionary is wrong.
No, one cannot declare that it’s an open-ended conundrum and then self-identify like that. It’s fairly cut and dried: belief in the supernatural. And spare me the theatrics of the “dictionary atheist” – I use that mostly when I get tired of parroting my talking points endlessly to an audience that is more interested in ‘saving my soul’ than listening.
Brown then goes on to say:
The same holds true, of course, for things like evolution: if I want to know what evolution means, I ask biologists, not dictionaries. The meaning that scientists use may not be more correct than the popular one – how would you measure that? – but it is going to be much more useful for investigations of the subject. So, I am quite happy to say that science could function as a religion, in some modes and in some societies, while at the same time functioning as science. And it ought to be perfectly possible to distinguish between the two uses.
As most authors go, they tend to veer off course without supplying both sides. In this case, Brown doesn’t bother with the definition of science. Hey, we all know what it is right? WRONG. I am shocked at how many people I talk to in real time can’t begin to provide a definition when quizzed. It’s usually my first response to ‘science is the new religion’. Next time you hear that idiotic statement, pin the declarer down by demanding the definition. The blank looks are startling. Here’s the basic definition:
Science (from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. In an older and closely related meaning (found, for example, in Aristotle), “science” refers to the body of reliable knowledge itself, of the type that can be logically and rationally explained (see History and philosophy below). Since classical antiquity science as a type of knowledge was closely linked to philosophy. In the early modern era the words “science” and “philosophy” were sometimes used interchangeably in the English language. By the 17th century, natural philosophy (which is today called “natural science“) was considered a separate branch of philosophy. However, “science” continued to be used in a broad sense denoting reliable knowledge about a topic, in the same way it is still used in modern terms such as library science or political science.
Then Brown goes on with an interesting, if somewhat broken analogy:
Scientific and religious explanations come together in an odd way at Stonehenge and similar monuments. They can be interpreted as megalithic calendars, or devices for astronomical prediction, as well as ritual burying grounds – and the reason we can reconstruct them as gigantic observatories is precisely that we can calculate today exactly what would have emerged from calculations done 4,000 years ago.
Yet to call Stonehenge a purely scientific enterprise is clearly wrong. When you consider the immense labour and complex social organisation required to put all those stones in place, you could be inspired to ask “where would the sun have risen at midsummer 3235 BC”. But surely the much more interesting question is why this question should have been thought so important in that culture.
That seems to me a question that only historians and sociologists of religion can answer. What’s more, although the scientific question and its answer are independent of any particular cultural and religious matrix, they can’t be independent of all of them.
First, he is right about Stonehenge being a product of the cultural and religious dynamic of that particular time period. But incorrect to bring that analogy to anything present day. The ‘scientific question’ (as he so obliquely phrases it ) should most definitelybe independent of any matrix whatsoever. Objectivity is and should be the defining principle of any scientific endeavor. Otherwise confirmation bias creeps in, and the facts are obscured by the preferred societal approval.
And he tops it off with this:
To come back to Sulston – anyone who had sequenced the same material as he did would have come up with very similar results. That’s the scientific question and it’s the one that interested him. But the money and the resources that made it all possible were not raised by an appeal to intellectual curiosity and probably could never have been. They were raised partly in the expectation of profit, and partly by politicians using a largely religious rhetoric about “The book of life” which all the scientists involved could have explained was nonsense and which would certainly be impossible for an alien archaeologist to reconstruct. Yet the funds would never have been voted without it. So: is the Genome Centre a scientific factory or a ritual centre? It’s both, and that’s why the dictionary is wrong.
It’s this constant conflation of structure with ritual – one is contingent on the other, but they are not synonyms, nor are they interchangeable. Structure is a building block, by which we as a species build our habits, our lives, and our perceptions. Ritual, however is defined as:
a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, including a religious community. The term usually refers to actions which are stylized, excluding actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers.
So mostly this article is pandering to the intellectually vacant, a long and vapid series of compositionerrors that presumes too much that all definitions are easily as loosely defined as the erroneous one the author provided.
So, in short, Brown is wrong, and the dictionary is right.
That, dear readers, is my nickel’s worth: spend it as you like.
Till the next post, then.