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Science in a Post-Religious Society – Presentation of Prof. Tarmo Soomere at the EELC Jubilee Congress on 27 May 2017 in Tartu

Prof. Tarmo Soomere. Photo Tiit Kuusemaa

I believe that the organisers and probably many audience members would have preferred a presentation with the title “Religion in a post-truth society or in a society without scientific foundations”. However, it would have been a too easy topic. Furthermore, it would have been too personal for many members of our society. This is especially true considering the words of Jürgen Ligi, former Minister of Education and Research, on 23 September 2015 at the conference “Science as the Driver of Development in Estonia”. He made the following blunt observation about science:

“In truth, science is really not a driver of development in Estonia. Decisions in our society are not based on science. Our society is based on a completely different set of values, such as interests, opinions, tastes, myths or beliefs. But there is no place for scientific reasoning. While knowledge is an important benefit in itself and science creates future advantages for us, it does not mean that science plays any role in everyday politics. This is unfortunately not the case.”


Difference between scientific and religious approaches

While presented in a slightly peculiar context by Jürgen Ligi, the juxtaposing of scientific and religious approaches itself dates back nearly three hundred years. Its emergence is often associated with the philosophy of David Hume (1711-1766) who argued that religion is based of faith, while science is based on facts and arguments. I would prefer to omit today a discussion of the exact meaning of those words. Otherwise we could find ourselves in a very common situation – whenever a dispute lasts for a certain length of time, someone always ends up raising the question about the exact meaning of words.

Contrasting or, even more, polarisation based on worldview alone is rarely necessary and, more often than not, a dangerous approach. It is only simple in mathematics, which many see as a particularly complex science. For instance, placing a minus sign in front of number two results in minus two (for example, a debt of two euros). If we add another minus sign, we are back at the beginning with number two.

Things are not as simple in society. This is likely the reason why measuring various phenomena is significantly more difficult in humanities and social studies compared to the conventional logic of hard science. Even the phenomena that challenge common sense in the context of hard science can be encountered on a daily basis in real life. Only few people are able to understand the technical aspects and content of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, for instance, the slowing of time at ultra-high speeds. However, most of us have probably experienced the difference in the passage of time depending on which side of the toilet door we are. In real life, two minuses will certainly not make a plus. For instance, the older generation can recall the mandatory description “morally reliable” in the character descriptions issued upon graduation from university. If we were to add minus signs, the result would be “amorally unreliable”, which obviously has a different meaning than the original standard expression.

However, it is obvious that science and religion have been fighting like cats and dogs for many centuries. At least until the end of the past millennium, this contest even continued on the pages of such prominent scientific magazines as Science and Nature. In the 1990s, both magazines published a number of articles/comments under the general heading of “Science and Religion”; or in the other order “Religion and Science” (in Science); or “Understanding Religion” “(Nature). The typical attitude was brief scoffing, such as: “Religion has its place but don’t pretend it’s science” [Lewis Wolpert, Nature 404 (6778), 542 (6 April 2000), doi: 10.1038/35007251]. It is obviously a patronising approach to the subject matter, almost comparable to the worst Byzantine style.

This quarrelling with each other seems to go on and on. For instance, when Daniel Sarewitz [Daniel Sarewitz, Sometimes science must give way to religion: The Higgs boson, and its role in providing a rational explanation for the Universe, is only part of the story. Nature 488 (7412), 431 (23 August 2012), doi: 10.1038/488431a] claims that we need “to have ways of understanding our world beyond the scientifically rational”, Andrew Blight immediately responds by writing: “Our species has derived many things from its various religions – some fair and noble, others foul and destructive – but understanding is not one of them” [Andrew Blight, Rationality: Religion defies understanding. Nature 489 (7417), 502 (27 September 2012), doi: 10.1038/489502f]. As if anticipating this, Daniel Sarewitz comments: “For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs [boson] is an act of faith, not of rationality” [Daniel Sarewitz, ibid.].

These comments include little rationality. They are rather characterised by labelling and peering each other with suspicion – as is usual when someone suddenly sees an unknown, and therefore frightening, object. Or when a strong competitor appears. Or when recently divorced people meet again. In other words, it means that the two categories in question generally have no communication and no kind of a relation, even at the highest level. The only exceptions perhaps include purely ceremonial acts, such as the president going or not going to church.

This situation is somewhere between comical and extremely pathetic. Because both categories are part of modern society. Both position themselves at the roots of modern social order, culture and ethics. The only small difference may be that religion tends to look back and inside human beings and at the same time beyond time and space, leaving science to explain the present spacetime and to interpret tangible or otherwise measurable phenomena. Science is also largely reliant on the past (either proven or disproven facts), but is increasingly operating with statistical categories. However, it means that, in many situations, reliable statements can only be made about probability of things, but not about the present or future factual state. In other words, even when an overwhelming majority of things behaves in a certain way, exceptions are sometimes possible. Interpreting them is a challenge to the maturity of both science and church.


Post-truth world is here to stay

The current fad, post-factual or post-truth approach to the world, is a problem for both sides. Many people have tried to find reference points for describing it and to offer solutions. Historian of religion Marju Lepajõe reduced the issue to a simple and clear image based on the experience of the past. The post-truth world is a world where unproven facts and conclusions and simply baseless opinions have been declared as worthy of being taken seriously. Marju Lepajõe noted that, in fact, it is simply a world were gossip is no longer spread by blabbermouths and rumourmongers drinking strong beer, but perfectly competent educated people.

We should also not forget other modern influences. In terms of worldview, science and religion are competitors, for instance, when it comes to seeking and interpreting truth. In this context, science is veering off the course. In many parts of the world, including Estonia, science is hardly any more focused on the search for truth and is largely neglecting this function. Science is increasingly becoming a competition with other scientists for the next grant (research funding). The opinions of reviewers and the evaluation panel constitute the criterion of truth and truth value is measured by the amount of money awarded [Leonid Schneider. Online comment to: Denis Alexander, Bob White, Science and religion are wise to talk. Nature 471 (7337), 166 (10 March 2011), doi: 10.1038/471166b] or, alternatively, the number of published articles or the number of references to those articles.

In the cultural weekly “Sirp” of 12 May, Linnar Priimägi drew a parallel, in a similar context, between the Academy of Sciences and the [Lutheran] church, emphasising that fervent astrologists are now more influential than either of them. The truth value of his conclusions is irrelevant; what is clear is that both institutions have a clear place in the modern society; both are visible in this society and both have suffered devastating losses to their formal influence in the last decades.

It seems hilarious then that, even in this context, it is so hard for them to find an understanding, and solutions that would be mutually beneficial are often rejected. Polarisation (and its younger brother called labelling) should not be acceptable forms of behaviour in our time. Unless the goal is to demonstrate that the other side proposes a wrong or simply useless solution. But even this does not help. Germans like to say that nobody and nothing is completely useless. If nothing else, they could be used as an ideal negative example. This is exactly what some fundamentalist supporters on both sides have often impolitely done. For example, there is the famous, though probably anecdotal, story about the person who, according to the aforementioned philosopher David Hume, was the best theologian he ever met. It was an old lady from Edinburgh (the capital of Scotland) who recognised Hume as an atheist. She refused to pull him out of the bog until Hume declared he was a Christian and recited the Lord’s Prayer.


Points of contact

Theology is the classical point of contact between religion and science. Not so much in the sense of reasoning for the necessity or inevitability of religion or faith or creating a vision of paradise or hell, but rather as a study of the history of humanity, faith and religiosity, which is an extremely fascinating dimension of human nature. In the context of society, it is the study of the development of human being as a social creature; an account of the creation of social structures and norms, which we are currently using and the limits of which we are often testing. Reasoned, comprehensive knowledge of these aspects, based on standard scientific methodology, is essential if we want to understand the functioning of society as a whole; and this inevitably also includes the reasons for the perseverance of false or pseudoscience, i.e., why and how is it possible that ‘alternative facts’ (opinions that contradict reality) are so persistent.

Mainstream science has approached the study of those aspects more or less in the same way as that lady from Edinburgh behaved with David Hume. Only in the past decades have the, I would say, core texts of this field gained a right to exist on the landscape of the classical high-level science. It is gradually becoming clear that without cultural history, and especially the history of religion, we might not be able to understand anything about the formation of modern society. It is certainly much more than simply the sum of all individuals, in the same way as a whole is in most cases fundamentally more than the sum of its constituent parts.

A couple of examples. We may not like the practice of human sacrifice in many older religions, which have now disappeared from the face of the earth together with their ideology. However, from the impassive and unbiased perspective of a scientist, which is generally represented in the publications of such prominent magazines as Nature and Science, it may seem that such norms, even though they would be completely unacceptable nowadays, have left a very important heritage. It is possible that they served as prerequisites for the creation of modern social structures and norms. It is likely that we would not be able to comprehend this at all without studying the history of culture and religion [Joseph Watts, Oliver Sheehan, Quentin D. Atkinson, Joseph Bulbulia, Russell D. Gray, Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies, Nature 532 (7598), 228–231 (14 April 2016), doi: 10.1038/nature17159; Indeed, our hierarchical society is not the only model possible. History includes examples of rather fraternal societies. The authors of the above article argue that religious sacrifice was probably the mechanism that led to the evolution of hierarchical societies. A hierarchical society is usually stronger and more enduring, even though the path of its formation may seem strange to us.

Or another example. A study that appeared four years ago [Dan Jones, The ritual animal – Nature 493 (7433), 470–472 (23 January 2013), doi: 10.1038/493470a;] proposed the idea, accompanied by very strong arguments, that religious rituals generally facilitate the evolution of complex societies. In other words, without such a component we might still linger in the Stone Age or in the Bronze Age at best. There are obvious parallels with the modern world. Many rich people are openly empathetic and donate large sums to charity. However, we know that you cannot become a millionaire by helping old ladies cross the street or only doing good deeds. The initial accumulation of capital tends to be an extremely sordid period.


Relations are possible and necessary

Let us return to the complicated relationship between science and religion. It is not important how problematic it seems or actually is. Emphasising the conflict between the two categories and, in particular, artificial polarisation of their practitioners contributes to the vulnerability of scientists, the religious community and the entire society. A division always starts from small differences. The communities that stay together and grow stronger are those that can take advantage of the minor variances in the process of evolution.

For some reason, placing church and science on the opposite sides of society seems to be a particularly panful and black-and-white process in Estonia. This makes it harder to find a common ground between them, so that they would be able to serve society together on occasions. As a result, the skills and experiences that are found in the church are often underutilised in society or are pushed to particularly rough areas, such as social work or hospice care – something that ‘successful’ people are not willing to touch.

Scientific landscape and church practice are based on different foundations and, as a result, they have different limits to their capabilities. For example, a discussion of pseudoscience or superstition is extremely difficult within a strictly scientific framework. There is simply no appropriate channel of communication with people who do not care for rational arguments. In the context of the modern post-truth world, the church as an institution has an extremely valuable treasury of techniques, experiences and competences in the field of missionary work, for instance. It is essentially experience in how to approach communities based on other religions, how to establish relations with them, how to initiate and maintain dialogue. It includes skills of communicating with self-absorbed and sometimes even hostile echo chambers where the people inside believe that scientific information is a trick or simply a lie. This can include supporters of the flat Earth theory, believers in magical healing properties of chlorine dioxide, those opposed to vaccination, and zealous creationists.

The basics of missionary work include learning how to avoid labelling when communicating with such communities, how not to push them away, how to find at least a smidgeon of common ground and, more generally, how to engage in a constructive dialogue with fellow human beings who have a radically different worldview. Many churches have dedicated channels and trained personnel for communicating their messages in the context of a different worldview and sometimes even in a physically hostile environment. The Catholic Church has used this channel to some extent in the field of environmental protection where the positions and aspirations of church and science have a rather good overlap.


Post-truth mentality spreads in society like the cancer of science

In this way, as a result of our entry into the post-truth world, science and church have suddenly found a somewhat unexpected, but a large and important common ground. Both are faced with the need to differentiate ‘fake’ from ‘real’. Consequently, polarisation and mutual distrust have to be transformed into responding to very similar challenges from different perspectives. Distinguishing and isolating a religious dimension within a scientist is no longer a problem. Religious scientists managed to do it quite well even during the Soviet period. The current problem is distinguishing fake science from real science and superstition from real faith.

This is where both institutions should look carefully in the mirror. If we as scientists have unreasonably dismissed many things that have actually influenced the evolution of our society, then we do not have the right to pretend that we have considered everything. Rather, we have selected those facts that originate from a background that suits as. A mirror for this tendency can be found in a story, which was published a few years ago in the prominent Nature magazine. Namely, a US university (University of California, Northridge) fired an ardent supporter of creationism Mark Armitage. The alleged reason was his attempt to prove in an article that the extinction of dinosaurs occurred only a few thousand years ago. His argument was based on finding some soft tissues in fossils found from Montana [Christopher Kemp, University sued after firing creationist fossil hunter. Microscopist’s wrongful-dismissal case faces long odds. Nature, 515 (7525), 20 (06 November 2014), doi: 10.1038/515020a;!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/515020a.pdf]. This resulted in a serious debate about whether science can ignore facts, which are not consistent with the mainstream view. The reality is more complicated. Modern science operates by raising a certain hypothesis – about how things might be –, which is then tested against ALL available possibilities, using all known facts. It is quite common to find some aspects that are not consistent with others. They are then examined separately in the hope that they serve as pointers to new knowledge. The problem emerges when researchers only select those facts that support their position. This was the reason for firing Mark Armitage – a severe breach of scientific ethics.

Pseudoscience is born whenever, instead of checking the facts, only the facts that support one’s own hypothesis are selected. It is a tiny difference but it leads to a major error. This tendency to look only for compatible facts acts as a cancer of science. We can see its seeds in society in the form of the flat Earth theory and other similar phenomena. This is one of the main factors that undermines the legitimacy, internal dignity and trustworthiness of science; in essence, it can be compared to the Christian concept of original sin and, like original sin, it is extremely difficult to identify and quantify.

Thus the modern society has created the means for almost instantaneous communication of facts all over the planet, but also accepts the possibility that groups of like-minded individuals may secede into virtual micro-worlds, which are built on extremely questionable statements. Even though science and religion use similar tools and rhetoric to compete for the attention of society and certain polarisation on the worldview axis is inevitable, they also have many shared concerns and a shared responsibility for preserving social cohesion and reducing vulnerability of communities.


Prof. Tarmo Soomere, President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences

EELC Church Congress, 26.–27.05.2017, Tartu