Our Religious Drag on Scientific Discovery

I talk chatting it up with The Other Mike the other day when we got talking about great spirits encountering violent opposition from mediocre minds. The context of this was over-confident, under-qualified meteorologists who posses strong, influential, but underinformed opinions about climate change.

Mike challenged me to take a shot at discussing this topic here. An angle that interest me in this is: Who are the great spirits that are taking the most heat from mediocre minds these days?

The first person that came to mind was Craig Venter.

Venter is one of the most innovative genomic researchers in the world. He played a pivotal role in the first sequencing of the human genome. He and his company’s employees will probably set the world record for documenting the most species on Earth (if they haven’t already). He’s been doing this by sailing around the world while scooping water samples out of the ocean at regular intervals, then sending them back to his lab to have the life forms found in the water analyzed. It turns out that the diversity of the oceans dwarfs what we previously realized.

Venter’s company also recently created the first synthetic life form by programming a new bacteria using something called a genetic sequencer that essentially builds genes from scratch.

It comes as no surprise that scientific research as cutting edge as this runs up against some strong opposition. For example, The Guardian’s article on Venter’s first creation of a synthetic life form mentioned criticism of the work before they bothered explaining what was accomplished. The first paragraph wasvery high level. The second led by saying that it as controversial. This third explained Venter’s background, and the forth is this:

However critics, including some religious groups, condemned the work, with one organisation warning that artificial organisms could escape into the wild and cause environmental havoc or be turned into biological weapons. Others said Venter was playing God.

To me, it’s fascinating to see religious groups come up with explanations such as those thrown out above. The playing God game is easily dismissed by those who worship different gods or no gods at all. The ones that I get a kick out of are the attempts by non-scientists to explain the risks of this type of research. In this case, the organisms could escape or be used to create biological weapons. If you have 12 minutes, watch Venter’s interview on The Guardian. Near the end of it, he explains how impossible it would be for the synthetic life form he created to escape Essentially, the only place it would be able to survive is in the gut of a goat. Yep. The guy of a goat.

The bio-weapons argument is even more absurd to me. The same arguments were made in the stone age, bronze age, and iron age. You know what can be used as a weapon? Things of value. How can “religious groups” worth citing in The Guardian be so ignorant of the history of innovation? Yes, new innovations bring the potential for new ways to kill people, but they tend to have more than enough upside to out-weigh the downsides.

This is the type of opposition Venter likely has to deal with on a daily basis while concurrently trying to invent a new field of science that’s capable of generating new forms of cleaner energy, new pharmaceuticals, and many uses that we haven’t even dreamed of yet. While driving science forward with one hand, he has to fend off people to want to shut down his field of research with the other. That has to be exhausting.

This, of course, isn’t a new issue. Scientists have faced religious persecution for as long as they’ve been describing the world in terms outside of the world view of people in religious power. One text on the topic, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, by Andrew Dickson White of Cornell University took a look at the historical beat down scientists have faced in pursuit of innovation. The introduction to the book includes a look at the push-back Cornell University received when they attempted to found their secular school:

We had especially determined that the institution should be under the control of no political party and of no single religious sect, and with Mr. Cornell’s approval I embodied stringent provisions to this effect in the charter.

It had certainly never entered into the mind of either of us that in all this we were doing anything irreligious or unchristian. Mr. Cornell was reared a member of the Society of Friends; he had from his fortune liberally aided every form of Christian effort which he found going on about him, and among the permanent trustees of the public library which he had already founded, he had named all the clergymen of the town – Catholic and Protestant. As for myself, I had been bred a churchman, had recently been elected a trustee of one church college, and a professor in another; those nearest and dearest to me were devoutly religious; and, if I may be allowed to speak of a matter so personal to my self, my most cherished friendships were among deeply religious men and women, and my greatest sources of enjoyment were ecclesiastical architecture, religious music, and the more devout forms of poetry. So, far from wishing to injure Christianity, we both hoped to promote it; but we did not confound religion with sectarianism, and we saw in the sectarian character of American colleges and universities as a whole, a reason for the poverty of the advanced instruction then given in so many of them.

It required no great acuteness to see that a system of control which, in selecting a Professor of Mathematics or Language or Rhetoric or Physics or Chemistry, asked first and above all to what sect or even to what wing or branch of a sect he belonged, could hardly do much to advance the moral, religious, or intellectual development of mankind.

The reasons for the new foundation seemed to us, then, so cogent that we expected the co-operation of all good citizens, and anticipated no opposition from any source.

As I look back across the intervening years, I know not whether to be more astonished or amused at our simplicity.

112 years later, I think we’ve made some progress, but continue to fight the same battles. Churches don’t have the power they used to have to directly hinder scientific innovation. But we still have plenty of people holding powerful political positions who are perfectly willing to hinder innovation. Yet, at the same time, they’re more than willing to reap the benefits of the innovations they opposed.

3 thoughts on “Our Religious Drag on Scientific Discovery”

  1. Not just religion. Check out the book “The Republican War On Science”.. stem cell, intelligent design, cloning etc…

  2. @Sank, thanks for the book recommendation. The GOP seems to be on the wrong side of innovation on many of these debates, but they don’t have a lock on it. The Dems prefer to oppose nuclear energy and GMOs.

  3. Not just religion, not just republicans, and not just in our time. There is this defensive response that instinctively kicks in on most people…sometimes they freeze in the present, hoping their immobility will hide them from the change. Like rabbits, sometimes the change passes them by without harm (or improvement)…and sometimes the change grins and draws a bead, and takes them out in a single shot.

    Instead though mostly I was curious about the geniuses, who did try to change things, and were met with furious resistance, and like Einstein were able to find ways around these mediocre minds. And at first I tried to say these days have no great minds like Einstein…or that the ways around mediocre minds have been blocked or funneled away.

    But then I figured that cannot be entirely true, that I must just be too close in time and maybe too closed in mind to recognize today’s genius(es). Still, I wonder who is there to represent genius today?

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