The passing of the dog collar - religious religion, scientific religion and environmental religion

Before looking in more detail at how these discoveries played out in the public sphere it is worth looking at how the scientific and technological enterprise itself came to be viewed in the period since the emergence of modern science, a theme touched on in chapter 10. Traditional religion underwent something of a decline as the Enlightenment and subsequent Industrial Revolution took hold of national philosophy. However, this decline did not remove the apparent need for society to imbue some group of individuals with magical powers, authority or even ‘infallibility’. Maybe the first cultural enterprise to move into the gap left by the decline of traditional religion was science.

The transition from religion to science was a very long and at most partial affair - organised religion still had considerable influence in the 2010s. Sometimes the relationship has been oppositional, sometimes more harmonious. In 1543 Copernicus had publicised the theory of heliocentrism - that the sun, not the earth was at the centre of the solar system. When Galileo announced in 1610 his findings that Venus underwent a cycle of phases rather like the moon and that there appeared to be satellites circling Jupiter he set in train a sequence of events which saw the Catholic Church, through the Inquisition, declare heliocentrism as heretical. Galileo himself spent his last decade under house arrest to prevent his continuing promotion of ideas which challenged the place of man in the universe and indirectly the place of the Church in society. One suspects such treatment would only be meted out to climate change sceptics today, at least if Big Green had its way.

But the relationship was not always so fractious. In the later seventeenth century it became a common, perhaps even natural, notion that humanity could reach salvation through science. Many of the great thinkers of that time took it for granted that science was central to their sacred endeavour. Nature was God’s creation and to study it was simply one of the many ways to celebrate His glory. Such celebration was still understood to be the proper destiny of the soul, the meaning of human life. A stream of thinkers from Fontenelle through Locke, Voltaire and Kant to Franklin and Paine argued that humanity was, or could be, on a journey from barbarism to ultimate civilisation and that science, or ‘natural philosophy’, could provide the path. In the late eighteenth century, for example, Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, introduced his most famous work saying that it would seek:

to show by appeal to reason and fact that nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties; that the perfectibility of man is truly indefinite; and that the progress of this perfectibility, from now onwards independent of any power that might wish to halt it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us. This progress will doubtless vary in speed but it will never be reversed as long as the earth occupies its present place in the system of the universe and as long as the general laws of this system produce neither a general cataclysm nor such changes as will deprive the human race of its present faculties and its present resources.9

The Collins English Dictionary offers the following definitions of the word ‘religion’:

  • • belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny;
  • • any formal or institutionalised expression of such belief;
  • • the attitude and feeling of one who believes in a transcendent controlling power or powers;
  • • something of overwhelming importance to a person;
  • • the practice of sacred ritual observances, sacred rites and ceremonies.

To Karl Marx, religion was ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. In his view religion was the painkiller that made life bearable: people turned to religion to feel good and to anaesthetise the pain in their lives. However, it could only be a temporary fix and one that was often harmful, just like drugs. It clouded the judgment of the working class by giving them a false sense of happiness, thereby making it less likely that they would challenge the ruling bourgeoisie.

To Freud, religion was an illusion deriving its strength from the fact that it fell in with our instinctual desires. It represented an attempt to get control over the sensory world in which we are placed by means of the ‘wish-world’ which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. Among his many statements on religion are:

  • • ‘A religion, even if it calls itself a religion of love, must be hard and unloving to those who do not belong to it.’
  • • ‘It is humiliating to discover how a large number of people living today, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions.’
  • • ‘The different religions have never overlooked the part played by the sense of guilt in civilization. What is more, they come forward with a claim ... to save mankind from this sense of guilt, which they call sin.’

Bertrand Russell: ‘Religion is based ... primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly ... the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing - fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.’

Russell, writing between the wars, was among the many thinkers of the time who believed that the coming of science would relieve people of the need for religion.

In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by the help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the

Christian religion, against the Churches and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look round for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the Churches in all these centuries have made it.

The tone of Russell’s writing, and of other advocates for the replacement of religion with science, seems to imply that science can remove from us the source of our fear and uncertainty. Others, however, recognised that science might simply become another way of dealing with the fear that our lives are ultimately meaningless -a replacement religion rather than a replacement ‘for’ religion. Some thirty years earlier Nietzsche, in expanding on his famous aphorism ‘God is dead’, had expressed a fear that science and technology would simply take control and ‘be treated as the new religion, serving as a basis for retaining the same damaging psychological habit that the Christian religion developed’. For Einstein, science did not in any way obviate the need for a religious and spiritual connection to the universe. ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’ Also: ‘A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.’

There is no doubt that the practising of traditional religion did decline, and decline steeply, in many developed countries through the twentieth century. Baptisms into the Church of England, expressed per thousand births, fell by about three-quarters, especially after the Second World War, as shown in figure 11.2.

Clearly science is not identical to religion. While religion tends to defer to ancient authority and scholars who serve to interpret it but not to challenge it, science relies at least to an extent more on hypothesis, experiment and observation. In particular, the scientific revolution brought with it a concept of ‘progress’ which was much less prevalent in the philosophy of an unchanging God. For many philosophers from the time of Parmenides onwards there was a belief that reality was a unified whole and that change was impossible. Only the activities of our senses lead to the illusion of change. Society did change and progress in early periods, often in response to major events such as disease, war, religious conversion or invasion but also because of technological developments, say in agriculture, building or weaponry. However, the pace of change was such that a human lifetime would often pass without significant development of basic social, technological or economic circumstances. As novelist H.G. Wells says: ‘Through the long generations, the ancestor of all of us fought and bred and perished, changing almost imperceptibly.’ But as science emerged, each new discovery or theory

Baptisms per thousand births in UK, 1900-2010

Figure 11.2 Baptisms per thousand births in UK, 1900-2010

being based on and improving upon the one before, a new sense of ‘progress’ emerged and began to be applied to society as well. However, science and religion are both human activities for which cultural and psychological drivers are important and which share certain matters of tone. So it can be argued that science, like religion, tends to categorise people as ‘believers’ or ‘heretics’ and treat them accordingly. The fervour with which UK Darwinist Professor Richard Dawkins attacks those who do not accept the tenets of atheistic scientism has an unmistakeable religious tone. Individuals are vilified or, in modern style, refused research grants if their views, however well founded in experiment or observation, are too far from the accepted orthodoxy, or dogma, of the day, as explored in more detail in chapter 9. Science has its priesthood: figures who seek to take over from traditional religious figures as the unchallengeable wielders of holy knowledge. High- ranking scientists in the energy field, perhaps particularly with respect to nuclear power in the post-war era, could exercise a mesmeric influence over the political and public establishment of the day to the extent that it became very difficult to criticise them. This scientific priesthood reserves the right to decide which ideas are ‘scientific’ and which are not.

Philosophically evolution is no more ‘scientific’ than creationism - certainly neither can be ‘proved’. One suspects that Hume might argue that the scientific/technical world view is a self-consistent system with no external reference point to ‘reality’. Consider a reasonably typical scientific statement: ‘We know how oil came into being and we can tell with considerable accuracy how long the process took.’ There are at least three distinct ways in which any individual actually does not ‘know’ these things but takes them as articles of faith.

First, it is of course in principle simply impossible to check whether what we ‘know’ about oil is correct, as it is impossible to go back in time to check. Secondly, even if we could it would not be possible for any individual to check the theory about oil being laid down, as we are not given sufficiently long lives or the sensory apparatus to allow us to do this. And thirdly, in what sense could any individual personally ‘know’ such a thing? No single person can have done the fundamental scientific research which led to this conclusion, spanning as it would the sciences of geology, physics, biology, chemistry and doubtless a dozen others.

In effect, then, a lot of what a particular scientist ‘knows’ they have read in a book or heard by word of mouth. The people who wrote the book in turn will only have carried out a tiny proportion of the direct underlying research if any: they will have based almost all of their beliefs on things they read in another book or someone else has told them. And so on.

In any case the scientific and spiritual world views may not be inconsistent. There could be a creating God who set up the laws of physics, mathematics and logic and then allowed the universe to unfold according to those laws.

So science, like traditional religion, is a self-consistent system without an external point of anchorage. It is as consistent to argue that God created the world, including creating a fossil record, to imply that the world is much older than it really is, perhaps to keep us interested or to test how honest we can be with ourselves about what is fact and what is faith, as it is to argue that the fossil record ‘proves’ that oil was laid down millions of years ago by a particular chemical-biological process. In fact, one could even argue that since creationism has fewer steps in it (just the one) than evolution, applying Occam’s razor would imply that we should prefer the former. ‘The truth about physical objects must be strange. It may be unattainable, but if any philosopher believes that he has attained it, the fact that what he offers as the truth is strange ought not to be made a ground of objection to his opinion.’10 Traditional religion is certainly ineffable but at its heart the scientific approach is no less so.

The enthusiasm for science and the progress which it fuelled did not come through the two centuries following Condorcet’s optimistic pronouncements intact. In 1807, for example, Wordsworth published his sonnet, ‘The world is too much with us’, in which he attacked the ‘decadent material cynicism of the time’ and the effect of industrialisation on mankind’s relationship with ‘nature’:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

However, ongoing improvements in the quality of life as industrialisation proceeded served as a counterweight to the finer feelings of the (generally speaking) wealthy artistic classes. The discovery of radiation came at a time when many countries were fascinated by the prospect of many benefits that science and technology could bring into people’s lives. The ‘second industrial revolution’, characterised by electricity, early mass communication (notably the telephone), the private motor car, corporate governance of major industries rather than individual owners, mass production (Fordism and Taylorism) and the growth of trade unions, had very different effects on people’s lives from the first Industrial Revolution a century earlier, with its urban squalor and extreme unevenness in distribution ofwealth.11 Between 1900 and 1950 in the UK infant mortality fell from 140 per 1,000 births to 33; life expectancy grew from 45 years (men) and 49 years (women) to 65 years (men) and 70 years (women); and the country’s GDP per capita (in 2014 monetary values) rose from ?6,100 to ?8,800.12 The temptation to imbue science with the same awe and reverence as had once been bestowed upon the Church proved irresistible.

 
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