Wilson wasn’t saying science IS a religion in the sense that there’s no real underlying objective reality, everything’s all taken on faith, and we all get together and worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster at Friday seminar. But Jesus Christ, I was a grad student once, and I’ll be damned if there weren’t aspects of that experience that weren’t more than a little bit like being indoctrinated into some sort of crazy cult worship. There was a brilliant Chronicle piece some years ago by Thomas Benton analyzing the correspondence between grad school and religious cults. He was speaking about humanities students but, as I recall, it was all the rage with science and engineering students as well. Read it and see if you don’t find it chillingly applicable. My point is: what we do at the lab bench is Science. What we do socially, to each other, when we are not at the lab bench (and sometimes even when we are) can sometimes take on characteristics that very much feel like Science as a Form of Religion.
A thousand years ago, when I was a graduate student, we often used to grumble and joke amongst ourselves about the “sacred priesthood of science”. How you basically had to give up your whole life (including sex, because when did you have time for that?), and take a vow of poverty, to pursue your work. How you had to demonstrate your undying devotion to Science above all other things. And, of course, for us women, the sacred priesthood joke had special resonance, because damn, there were just so doggone many priests running the show and precious few priestesses to be found anywhere in the temples.
Imagine my surprise and amusement, some years later, to discover that our long-running joke had real roots in the way that Western science itself grew out of the ascetic tradition of the medieval Latin church – see: David Noble, A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science. There I was in grad school, joking about being inducted into the sacred priesthood of science – and here came David Noble to explain how Western science was shaped by and formed on a monastic model, designed in part specifically to exclude women.
Noble goes beyond this thesis of science as a religious calling in The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.
For social historian Noble…Western culture’s persistent enchantment with technology finds its roots in religious imagination. Despite their varied guises and pursuits, science and technology suggest nothing more than our “enduring, other-worldly quest for transcendence and salvation.” The pearl of great value is Noble’s contention that science and technology aren’t guilty of amorality: that was never the intent. Rather, he claims, new technologies aren’t about meeting human need; they transcend it. Salvation through technology “has become the unspoken orthodoxy.” Such is the new Gnosticism. This is a dense, fascinating study of technology and Christianity. Not satisfied with easy equivalencies, Noble challenges the idea of post-Enlightenment science as a secular brave new world and quietly offers that what we’re really hoping for is our reentry into Eden.
Noble is hardly the first historian of science to delve into the ways in which science functions as a religion (though no in the way those crazy Intelligent Designers like to think). But I particularly love what he does in exploring how the ways in which Western science’s birth in the monastic tradition has had long-lasting effects for women’s participation in science.
There are many reasonable, sound, scholarly bases for examining the idea of how science might function as a religion functions, or how it might work to meet needs and fill roles that are in other cases met and filled by what we more normally think of as religions. It might seem scary to ask those sorts of questions in a time where people who have decidedly, virulently anti-science agendas (and deep pockets to help carry them out) wish to put forth their own poisonous notion that science is just another religion so that they can pour their religion into science classrooms and control the agenda of science. But I’d like to think that at least amongst scientists, we can have a conversation about science as science, as cultural practice, as an institution. That we can step back and critically examine what it is we do day in and day out.
If you think the concept of science as a religion is just sooooooo unbearably stupid, high school debate, not-worthy of ScienceBlogs, it may not be the concept that’s ignorant. Just possibly, there’s a whole wealth of information out there to ponder that you are completely unaware of.
Take a look!