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Religion and nanotechnology

Now this story is really weird.  Apparently, most Americans reject the morality of nanotechnology on religious grounds.

At least that’s the inference drawn by Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication. In addressing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on 15 February, Professor Scheufele presented survey results seeming to show the effect of religion on public views of technology in the United States.

In a sample of 1,015 adult Americans, only 29.5 percent of respondents agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable!

According to the story, similar European surveys that posed identical questions about nanotechnology produced a very different result. In the United Kingdom, 54.1 percent found nanotechnology to be morally acceptable. In Germany, 62.7 percent had no moral qualms about nanotechnology, and in France 72.1 percent of survey respondents saw no problems with the technology.

Scheufele is quoted as saying: “There seem to be distinct differences between the United States and countries that are key players in nanotech in Europe, in terms of attitudes toward nanotechnology.”

The reason that he gives is the role of religion:

“The United States is a country where religion plays an important role in peoples’ lives. The importance of religion in these different countries that shows up in data set after data set parallels exactly the differences we’re seeing in terms of moral views. European countries have a much more secular perspective.”

According to Scheufele, Americans with strong religious convictions lump together nanotechnology, biotechnology and stem cell research as means to enhance human qualities. These religious Americans see researchers “playing God” when they create materials that do not occur in nature, especially where nanotechnology and biotechnology intertwine.

If this research and the author’s analysis are accurate, the effect of irrational thinking on public perceptions of science in the United States is even greater than might have been feared. Admittedly, there may be misuses or hazards associated with nanotechnology as it develops, as with any powerful new technology, but that is not a good reason for holding that nanotechnology in itself is morally unacceptable.

More research surely needs to be conducted to confirm whether the basis for widespread moral rejection of nanotechnology in the US is primarily religious in origin, particularly whether it is based on fears of “playing God”. However, the reported research is certainly suggestive of such thinking. If that’s correct, we have another example of why popular US-style religion is incompatible with the development of a broad public policy based on freedom, reason, and the advancement of science. It’s not necessarily a matter of explaining the situation more effectively: the people interviewed were not ignorant, so it’s claimed, but morally opposed to something that they actually did understand.

It appears yet again that the ultimate solution is not more explaining, spinning, “framing”, or what have you, even if these are necessary. We need a direct, long-term, unremitting campaign to weaken the cognitive and moral authority of religion. We need to attack the root of the problem by doing whatever we can to create a more rational and sceptical ethos in Western societies, the US above all.

Even the figures from the UK, Germany, and France are worrying. About 45 per cent in the UK did not find nanotechnology to be morally acceptable. Almost 40 per cent in Germany. Almost 30 per cent in France.

Again, nanotechnology will surely create risks, but that does not make it essentially immmoral. So why, in those relatively secular countries of Western Europe, do we still find very large numbers of people who consider it so? Is the quasi-religion of an inviolable nature having an influence here, or is there some other factor that hasn’t yet been identified?

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.


First, I’m puzzled by the common position that technology is morally neutral. Applications are moral or immoral; technologies are so-called “neutral”.

More recently, though, I’ve pulled up short of saying that techs are amoral or neutral in this way, because I don’t like the possibility that that neutrality could “leak” into consideration of applications or development issues that actually do have moral and ethical relevance.

Instead, I think it bears saying that all applications of techs have moral value one way or the other, which is far from making the technology “neutral”, as a technology without applications is useless, and thus, not actually a technology.

If one then takes this path, and concedes that technologies have morally relevant values //based on how they are applied//, then one can see that people responding so easily to such a survey are probably evaluating the morality of modern //applications//,
instead of being puzzled over why people think “neutral” techs have moral value one way or the other.

So Americans tend not to like the way they see nanotechnologies being applied, in contrast to Europeans. Perhaps the justifications are the same, But I would stress that the applications are what make or break any technology in a moral dimension.

With a margin of error at only 3 percent, this drastic disparity requires some sort of explanation, Scheufele said.

“We found that people in the U.S. have attitudes about nanotechnology similar to other countries with high levels of religiosity,” he said.

Scheufele’s survey charted people’s relative levels of religious faith and their moral beliefs regarding nanotechnology. It revealed an inverse relationship between a self-assessed importance of God in the respondent’s lives and their belief in the moral acceptability of nanotechnology.

Full article:

“More aware people tended to be the ones who possessed less fear of nanotechnology,” he said. “But the key to how the public at large will understand nanotechnology has to do with what the first big applications are.”

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