Posted by: CJ | May 7, 2010

Two Religions, Two Imminent Crises

I often consider a more or less secular belief in science and technology to be a form of religion. It just makes sense to me. There’s a creation myth (big bang), various local preachers (engineers and scientists), saints (Newton, Einstein, Turing, Pasteur, etc.), a view that it explains the universe, ideologues that take it too far (especially when you include biologists and psychologists in the same room), etc..

This all makes sense to me, despite the supposed lack of hocus pocus in science, because fundamentally I view religion as a sociological phenomenon. In contrast to, say, a worldview with a supernatural deity or deities, and encompassing both practice and your relationship with the deity or deities.  For ease of discussion I’ll broadly call this view of science and technology “Scientism”, even though I think that’s a bad word for what I mean. If it helps, view the -ism ironically.

I also don’t consider Scientism and, say, Christianity incompatible. I’ve known atheist Quakers and Native Americans who practiced Christianity alongside their tribe’s traditional religion. Sure, St. Augustine would probably disapprove, but he disapproved of everything. (After he’d done it to give it a try, of course.) Here’s the easy way I conceptualize this: believing in a religion is a lot like being in a relationship. Some people are poly with multiple stable relationships, other people are monogamous, others are usually single, some people are serial monogamists, some people use the religion/relationship as an anchor for their entire life, others don’t use it as an anchor, and in general one’s religious beliefs are so personal that people can have all sorts of combinations.

The point of all that throat-clearing is that in terms of social phenomena, I consider scientism to be a sort of religion, like christianity.

When I think about it that way, I sometimes feel like both communities have their very influential subgroups clamoring saying we have imminent crises that must be dealt with NOW! Because the consequences are so severe that waiting is simply not an option.

On the science side, the issues (at least as I see them) are primarily about resource management. On the natural resources side there’s climate change, water usage, and energy. And on the social resources side there’s good governance, economic management, and encouraging technology generation. And these have, essentially, been the same issues and goals over the past 30-50 years. Natural resource management has always been a big issue, it’s just that it’s considered an immanent crisis now.

On the conservative evangelical christian side, the crisis changes from decade to decade. But it usually boils down to a feeling that they’re under siege, that their values and way of life are under assault, and Evil is Afoot. The enemy used to be communists and their tools in the US (including too-liberal politicians, feminists, and civil rights activists). But then we won the Cold War, and we didn’t have a catch-all enemy even though the mindset was firmly implanted. But now we have terrorists and liberals (including immigration activists, gay-rights activists, and climate change activists). As my description betrays, I don’t understand this viewpoint terribly well but distrust it simply because the fundamental problem keeps changing every generation.

I wish I could say this viewpoint gives insight or suggests solutions. But it doesn’t, at least not really. All it does is make me think that Robin Hanson is on to something when he talks about underlying reasons for actions that play into group politics more than group policy. And that we should probably take that into account when thinking about policy.

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