Atheists, look away now; scientists are not on your side. Or at least not as much as one might expect, according to recent evidence. In a study conducted by professor Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University, Texas, 1700 scientist were surveyed, along with 275 who were interviewed, as to their religious persuasion. Around 50% were admittedly religious in the traditional sense, and a further 20% were “spiritual” in a nonsectarian way. While religion amongst scientists is shown to be less prevalent in comparison to the population of the nation the data was collected in (the USA), this remains a surprising result.
Perhaps our image of the modern scientist, as the ultra-rationalistic antithesis to spiritual matters, is mistaken. Certainly, the founding fathers of the scientific revolution exemplify the kind of scientist Ecklund’s study unearths, where the empirical and mystical commingle. Isaac Newton is known to have been a painstakingly intricate Biblical scholar, even if in a highly methodological and precise way, such as his observations on the sacred geometries of the Temple of Solomon. After all, scientists, as presumably intelligent people, may be aware of the complexity of life’s “big questions” and the range of perspective used to tackle them. Or, if presuming scientists to be abnormally intelligent is indigestibly obsequious, scientists are people like anyone else, accepting guidance and meaning handed down through centuries of tradition, however mysterious it may appear.
What does intelligence have to do with it anyway? One might reasonably ask. The reason for its mention is that in an article for the Guardian website today, Nick Spencer, director of studies for theology think-tank Theos, interprets Ecklund’s findings from the perspective of the relative intelligences of the professionally scientific and the followers of religion. In the second shocking conclusion of the day (theists, it’s your turn to look away), Spencer freely admits that Christianity is ‘a faith for the simple’. Using Richard Dawkins’s vocabulary of the “scientific elite” back against him, Spencer reminds his readers that Christianity contains a principally non-elitist philosophy. Christianity, he explains, by design appealed to the less educated masses and social underclasses, something Christ and his apostles both relished and regretted, for it meant being continually misunderstood by the intelligent upper echelons of society. It is not surprising, to Spencer, to find that the Christianity is less represented in Dawkins’s elite than it is in the wider population.
Historically, however, one particular philosopher has read Judeo-Christian morality in the opposite way to Spencer. The German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, being no stranger to subversion and in spite of his open atheism, saw the move to Christian ideals of compassion, pity and meekness as a very intelligent move in the history of Western values, or at least the point where humans became intellectually interesting. According to his book The Genealogy of Morals published in 1887, the only way in which the powerless slave underclasses of Rome and Greece could inflict revenge for their oppression was by conceptually reorienting the brutish practices of the strong and beautiful aristocracy of nobles, introducing new moral considerations, such as choice, responsibility, conscience and guilt. By these notions the actions of the upper classes, characterised by unreflective and barbaric displays of aggression, violence and cruelty, were finally condemnable.
One thing Nietzsche and Spencer do agree on is that the upper classes could not make sense of the new teachings, but on Niezsche’s reading this is because the upper classes were intellectually below these crafty moral re-conceptions, not above them. In fact, in the same book, Nietzsche suggests that the will-to-truth contained in science (‘Wissenschaft’ in the German, which is more accurately translated as broadly any scholarly discipline) is a drive that has its origins in the Christian imperative to tell the truth, and eventually works to undermine Christianity as it, like all great systems of values, finally overcomes itself. Nietzsche, on his characteristic A-game in the role the prophet, seems to have been proved right once again about the overlapping (and conflicting) interests of science and religion.
Alan G. Padgett