How Science and Religion Became the Hatfields and the McCoys

Connor Wood has a compelling post on the history, and the future, of the ongoing slap-fight between science and religion. There are a lot of quotable parts, so I’m going to quote a lot:

since the 19th century, the religion-science divide has been encouraged by the popularizers of Science for the sake of their profession. What do I mean? Here’s what T.H. Huxley, a fierce advocate of evolution during Darwin’s era, had to say about religion:

Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules.

Huxley, the grandfather of Aldous (the guy who wrote Brave New World, which you never finished in high school), was doing something clever when he said this. By pitting science against religion in the public’s eyes, by making it seem as if we had to choose one or the other, he was actually carving out a new space for professional Science as a stakeholder in the public arena.

You see, prior to his era, science was not an institution, nor was it even a profession. Science was a pastime for aristocrats and priests.

Yes – and priests. Before Huxley’s age, a lion’s share of the holders of seats in the Royal Academy were clergymen. Huxley and his friends knew that, if science was to become a profession on par with medicine and the law, there would have to be, um, professional positions for scientists to occupy. There would have to be seats in the Academy for the graduates of brand-new doctoral programs in physiology, biology, geology. How were they going to make space for  those seats? By getting the clergymen to vacate them, of course. By pitting the new scientists against the old clerics.

And so the religion-science “battle” has always benefited the science as a profession, by helping to open up a power vacuum which scientists could conveniently rush in and occupy. This coup has succeeded; these days, scientists are now looked to as the de facto priests of our modern cosmology, telling us what the universe consists of, how it was created, and what it means. They have largely completed Huxley’s quest to drive religious leaders out of the captain’s chair of culture.

…scientists, in their role as society’s new priests, often tell religious and metaphysical stories that actively alienate a lot of people and are not scientifically justified. It is justifiable, scientifically, to say that the universe is 13.6 billion years old, or that humans evolved from proto-anthropoids. It is not justifiable, scientifically, to say that the universe is meaningless and there is no hope for an objective purpose to life.

This is only my opinion, and I’m sure many readers will disagree. But consider this: there was no fundamentalism in Christianity before the 19th century. Virtually no sociologists of religion will disagree that fundamentalist Christianity – exactly the kind of absurd, wacky nonsense Bill Nye was so valiantly crusading against last week in Kentucky, little bowtie and all – is in part actually a reactionary product of science’s overreach into spheres of meaning.

I think it’s important that this war come to an end. Like, soon. Because unlike Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Sam Harris or other Important Public Men of Science, I believe that the human need for meaning is much stronger than the human need for the National Science Foundation. If we keep pressing this sore spot, if we keep insisting as a culture that you can either have meaning or knowledge but not both, people will by and large choose meaning, and science will become nothing but a plaything of aristocrats once again.