Faithful to Science

blog on science and religion

Science, religion and tribalism

The blog is intended to give people a way in, in a briefer format than is typical for a book. I have already given some book-length thoughts, and I intend to discuss some issues at greater length eventually in another book, but here I will offer an introductory comment on the two activities called science and religion.

Science is easier to describe. It is about a shared activity in which we come to understand better and better the patterns which natural phenomena fall into, and the physical structures which underpin physical objects, which both constrain and permit the behaviours they show. There is a lot more that could be said, but this will do for now.

Blogs are, as I understand it, subjective. We just say what we think (but nothing I say here has been arrived at quickly or carelessly). So let me say that this blog is written by someone who thinks that science is a great good. The ideas which are at its foundation–the idea of testing things empirically, and of listening to new ideas with a dose of scepticism but willing to be persuaded, and of taking the trouble to think through whether or not you could be mistaken, etc. etc.—this set of inspired ideas is, in my opinion, one of the greatest gifts the human race has received. There is no need to be in the least afraid of science as such, nor suspicious of it.

There is a note of appropriate caution, however. Science leads to greater ability by humans to influence their environment, and to influence other people. In other words, it leads to power. And power is always in danger of being abused. Also, sometimes people get the idea that science can somehow answer all questions, but in fact it cannot furnish answers to moral dilemmas, nor tell you what a person is (I say more about this in my book). Also, the narratives that people attach to science can and should be questioned just as forcefully as one would question any other idea. One such narrative, which I do question, is the one which says that evolutionary biology, when it is done thoroughly and well, is inevitably corrosive to reasonable theism. Again, there is more that could be said, but the bottom line is, for me, the following:

Willingness to trust the absolute reality which holds our lives—the reality that Jesus of Nazareth invited us to respond to as one would respond to a good parent—is no more threatened by evolutionary history than it is by the fact that trees grow from seeds.

Now to religion. “Religion”, as a phenomenon, is too varied and too vast for any simple overall statements to be made about whether or not it is a good thing. “Religion” is like “human aspiration”I can’t sign up to any sweeping statement that announces it to be either good or bad. There is good human aspiration, and there is bad human aspiration. Some aspire to be teachers, some aspire to be dictators. Similarly, there is good religion and there is bad religion. But it is always compromised. The word “religion” is a bit like the word “sinner”a word which conveys, or is meant to convey, the idea that people are precious and to be treasured, but they are faulty nonetheless.

One aspect of good religion is that it has a mature, healthy, positive grasp of what science is and what it can do. Science is not an alternative to good religion, but a part of it.

Religion is basically about the attempt by human beings to make a wholeto get some sense of what we are for, what life is about, and to live out of that. It is, characteristically, willing to interpret the widespread hunger for infinity in the human heart as a thing which can be seen positively, but which needs careful handling. Again, there is a lot more which can be said, but here I will discuss further the dangers of religion.

The word “religion” is often used in connection with nasty, small-minded, irrational and violent behaviour. So you can see why most reasonable people are leery of the word. However, we do need to recognise and discuss the fact that religious commitments can also lead to massive good—to open-ended education, to reform of working practices, supportive communities amongst the oppressed, and so on. In the interests of clear thinking, and truthfulness, we need to use words and labels in a more precise way. An appropriate word for the obnoxious activity which sometimes takes a religious form is tribalism. Tribalism is the idea that one group of people can claim the right to lord it over another, or even forcefully suppress another, not for any reason of justice and hope that we can see and agree, but only for the sake of intangible things like beliefs and nostalgia. This is not easy to unpack, because some of those beliefs might be quite important, such as a belief in the rule of law and the right to be tried by ones peers. But tribalism is the instinct to hear other people’s ideas and hopes only in terms of the threat you suspect they pose to your own; it is the instinct to see other humans, the ones not in your tribe, as, effectively, sub-human, as ones who can be treated with a kind of contempt or violence that you would not show to fellow members of your own tribe, not for anything specific that that individual person has done, but because of the crimes you ascribe to their tribe. This is the noxious idea that is at the root of so much conflict in history and in the world today. This tribalism could take a political form—the “workers” against the “bourgeoisie”, or a totalitarian form—the “intelligentsia” against the “lower classes”, or a religious form—the “catholics” vs “protestants”, “Sunni” vs “Shia”, “Christianity” vs “Islam”, “Hindu” vs “Muslim”. The element of tribalism going on in some versions of  “theism” vs “atheism” is harder to classify, but it involves the same combination of impatience and fear. The widespread suspicion at the very idea of religion is, I think, largely owing to the fact that religious tribalism is the worst kind of tribalism.

The worst tribalism does violence to people in the most complete way: it kills them. However, this same tribalism can also be at work in the territory of ideas and intellectual life. I detect it in many of the sites you can find on the world wide web. There are whole forums awash with it. It is characterised by a readiness to caricature your intellectual opponents, and a readiness to speak before you have listened. It involves characterizing a whole by one of its parts, or denouncing a group because of the behaviour of a minority. It tends to show insufficient signs of doubt. It readily indulges in juicy insults.

By this I don’t mean to imply that no one should ever use strong language (someone I respect very highly used some juicy language to put down oppressive small-mindedness where he found it). I mean merely that before aiming a verbal missile at a group, we should consider carefully whether we intend to oppose the attitudes that fairly characterize that group as a whole, or whether in fact it is a vocal sub-group that is the source of the problem. If we can’t be bothered to exercise this sort of care, then we will be making unjustified attacks on innocent people.





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