IEET > Rights > Fellows > FreeThought
Priestly “Science” and Democratic Politics
Dale Carrico   Jul 18, 2007   Amor Mundi  

Given all the atheist militancy raising a ruckus lately, I suppose it isn’t too surprising that I am stumbling upon more regular and more baldly dismissive declarations these days about the ineradicable incompatibility of science and religion among Science’s self-appointed Elite Champions online.

I’ve been a perfectly convinced and rather cheerfully nonjudgmental atheist for well over twenty years at this point, but I must say that I think it is arrant nonsense to claim that scientific and religious practices or scientific and religious beliefs are incompatible, given the overabundant evidence of people who weave them together in their lives every day so conspicuously. A little respect for the facts you claim so to cherish, people?

I suspect that it is especially when one assumes an essentially religious attitude toward what one has construed as “science” that “science” so construed is invested with such ferocious incompatibility with its religious competitors. As far as I can tell, plenty of people have essentially aestheticized their religious faith and practice, or mean to indicate through their declarations of faith that they like to think of themselves as “decent” people in some undercritical sense of the word, or to designate the straightforward sociological fact of their membership in some moral community that matters to them. None of this is any more incompatible with science than being a music lover, a foodie, a druggie, or a promiscuous pervert is “incompatible” with science. One expects Priests (including the self-appointed Priests of Science) to think otherwise than this, however.

This matters, among other things, because the last thing the world needs these days is another mode of fundamentalist religiosity (this time in the name of a Priestly and too-authoritarian “science”) encouraging True Believers that if only they’ll be intolerant and pure enough in their moral fervor they will prevail over all difference and sweep the world.

Secularism is a political attitude, and more particularly a democratic political attitude, that seeks to proliferate the moral and esthetic lifeways that can reconcile themselves to peaceful co-existence but without renouncing the indispensable edifications of their personal perfections. This attitude has the benefit, to the extent that it succeeds, of facilitating collaborative problem-solving among otherwise incompatibly differently-identified people (something science-minded folks should be especially enthusiastic about), of minimizing the civilizational energies wasted in bloodyminded disputation, and of making the world safer for the idiosyncratic personal creative expressivity that expands the space of freedom available for all.

I am enormously encouraged at the courage of the new atheist militants who publish unapologetic declarations of their own personal paths to perfection. And as an atheist myself I am well pleased to discern a trace of the strange path I myself am on in reading of theirs.

But I have no doubt whatsoever that the secular compromise will function to protect my own idiosyncratic freethinking primarily because the variously faithful have learned the hard way that they need protection from one another. The overabundant majority of Believers benefit from secular tolerance and it is an appeal to this common sense that will best ensure that a separation of Church and State is re-instituted and subsequently thrives, not some false identification of secularism with the needs of a small minority of atheists demanding protection from the variously faithful.

And as for the ascetic idealism of our eliminative materialists, as for the eager or reluctant technocratic attitude that technoscientific complexities or technodevelopmental urgencies demand the circumvention of democratic deliberation among the “ignorant” and “unintelligent” herd, as for the palpable desperation with which our statisticians and bomb-builders cling to their pet methodologies with all the hysteria of dot-eyed fanatics contemplating the One True Way, denying the historical indebtedness of science to practices of esoteric mysticism, denying the ongoing life of religiosity and estheticism in science’s invigorating metaphors, denying the unpredictable passions that drive scientific agency, denying the absolute imbrication of scientific practice and political practice, as for the facile Providential and Apocalyptic tonalities in which our Superlative Technologists discuss Progress, as for all that one honestly would expect atheists of all people to know better than to fall for all that crap.

Fundamentalism is an anti-democratic political formation derived from a moral one. It is essentially anti-democratic. I can empathize with the human frailty that renders this move appealing to some, I can celebrate the underlying idiosyncratic pleasures that this move seeks to protect, I can cheerfully treat the differences on the basis of which the various fundamentalisms derive their identities as differences that don’t make a difference to my sense of sharing the world with a peer so long as the fundamentalist extends the same courtesy to me or, sadly incapable of this, withdraws from the world altogether to contemplate her personal perfection in private. But where democracy is threatened by anti-democracy one must struggle against it, one must agitate, educate, and organize to facilitate democratic outcomes. The defense of democracy actually demands the democratization of anti-democracy, not the tolerance of anti-democracy in the name of democracy.

No doubt the fundamentalists will sneer that this is hardly a “cheerfully nonjudgmental” attitude, this is hardly an expression of “secular tolerance”—but one must understand that the constitutive gesture of fundamentalism is its substitution of moral for political belief: Fundamentalism is an essentially anti-democratic or pre-democratic attitude, and one no more properly applies democratic attitudes like secular tolerance to fundamentalist moralizing than one would to a hurricane or a pandemic or an art fad.

For fundamentalists, of course, it would only be with the obliteration of political contestation altogether and the presumed prevalence of their signature moral monoculture that they would affirm that, at last, they were “tolerated” in the measure proper to them. To extend democratic considerations to fundamentalist formations is to misconstrue democratic politics as fundamentally as fundamentalists do themselves.

The proper democratic attitude to take with fundamentalists is to insist that their fundamentalism must be democratized, the texture of their faith privatized or estheticized and then celebrated as an expression of diversity, their authoritarianism discouraged where possible and domesticated into harmlessness where impossible. Do please read that sentence carefully before any of you foolishly start crowing about how tyrannical democracy truly, secretly is in its deepest heart compared to your own fundamentalist piety or incumbent elitism or parochial bigotry or market idolatry or what have you, all you lurking anti-democrats out there. Democracy doesn’t democratize “by any means necessary” precisely for fear that a false democratization will be anti-democratizing. We’re way ahead of you. Democrats are quite as aware of their own vulnerabilities and of the anti-democratizing pathologies of power as any critic who claims to have arrived at an anti-democratic viewpoint through a hardboiled contemplation of such vulnerabilities and pathologies (always, one discovers, the better to rationalize their indifference to the unearned suffering in the world that facilitates their own unearned privileges).

Be that as it may, this attitude that fundamentalism must be democratized else it will surely undermine the democracy most of us cherish seems to me to be precisely the same attitude democratically-minded people should take as well with those who would rewrite science in the image of authoritarian religiosity. Such projects—whatever their own honest assessment or retroactive rationalization that theirs is the only way technoscientific practices may be protected in a world that tragically disdains them too easily—finally look to me to be all too often little more than the typical and distasteful effort of some fundamentalistically-inclined folks to spoil a perfectly good and reasonable collaborative practice (through which indispensable powers of prediction and control are acquired in the service of the solution of shared problems) by turning it into yet another occasion for Priestly moralizing elites to demand reverence and awe from everybody else.

Dale Carrico Ph.D. was a fellow of the IEET from 2004 to 2008 and is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

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