Adoration of science

Vic Stenger has a very nice slogan: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

It’s nice and catchy. Memorable. It inspires my envy, because I’ll never come up with anything that good. It’s too bad I find myself in such disagreement with what it actually says.

I guess a common objection might be to ask whether it’s fair to blame religion in such a blanket sense. But that’s not my gripe. In context, Stenger is saying that it takes something like a set of beliefs in religious martyrdom, an afterlife, complete moral certainty and so forth, in order to do something as spectacularly violent as flying airplanes into buildings. That’s a good point, though I’m not convinced religion (some sub-variety of religion, really) is unique in encouraging spectacular violence. If Stenger is wrong here, it’s because to make it accurate, you have to drown “religion flies you into buildings” in a thousand qualifications. And you end up with something useless as a slogan.

Right now, I’m more worried about the “science flies you to the moon” bit. That is an impressive achievement, yes. And it is certainly an achievement enabled by scientific knowledge. But surely it’s the engineers who should get most of the credit here. And if you look at a moon landing as an icon of applied science, you can quickly turn Stenger’s slogan on its head. After all, if science-based technology enables us to get to the moon, if that is what we want, then science-based technology also allows us to build airplanes—which we can then slam into buildings, if that is what we want.

Well, maybe this is all politics, science is value-neutral, and you can’t blame scientists and engineers for the fanatical purposes their work may be used for. But if so, it’s hard to praise science for getting us to the moon. If religion can take some blame for being a key motivator in spectacular violence, then we should also look at the ideological motivations in getting us to the moon. Let’s not praise science, but . . . what? Cold War politics that underlay a “space race” that poured resources into manned space missions that were scientifically of dubious value but did wonders for nationalist prestige?

Actually, if we go in that direction, the scientific and engineering efforts that brought us the moon landings can start looking very ambiguous indeed. After all, any historian of technology worth her salt can tell you that warfare is a leading driver of technological progress. We landed on the moon as a byproduct of a way of organizing scientific and technological institutions in the service of mass warfare. And this has been far more destructive of human life than small groups of religious terrorists. A plausible way of rewriting Stenger’s slogan would be that the institutions of modern science and technology gave us Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that a group of marginal Islamic extremists gave us 9/11.

But if now our attention is diverted to body counts, that is not my intention. I think that we—those of us enamored of modern science and technology and an Enlightenment political and moral outlook—too easily lose sight of the large amount of blood we have on our own hands, historically speaking. A slogan like “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings,” especially when taken without context as slogans invariably are, paints us as paragons of laudable achievement while the religious come out looking irrationally destructive. That is the sort of thing you expect from the micro-nationalists of Balkan and Near Eastern ethnic groups, who are careful to remember every atrocity committed by their neighboring groups while playing down all the righteous acts of justice and retribution engaged in by their own.

Indeed, the use of such slogans makes me want to distance myself from the more recent, more robust form of atheism. Things get even worse when we fail to acknowledge how examples like Stalinist persecution of religion are connected to Enlightenment-inspired politics. If we think life would be better for most of us if fundamentalist styles of religion had less influence, I think we should be more careful not to appear like their mirror image. It is strange to see echoes of the monotheistic inclination to imagine ideologically defined groups of moral purity and depravity in the rhetoric of nonbelievers. But then, perhaps we remain a lot closer to our religious cultural inheritance than we might like to think.