Scientists, Unplugged

Feeling inferior is common among religionists. When cultures list their brightest and best, scientists often top the list and those who specialize in religion are nowhere to be found. This situation gives the lie to the fact that many scientists think about, and are influenced by, religion. That became clear to me in reading Stefan Klein’s We Are All Stardust. Not Klein’s best-known book, this is a collection of interviews with well-known scientists, unplugged. There are many big names in here, such as Richard Dawkins and Jane Goodall, as well as some less familiar on a household level. Klein, himself a Ph.D.-holder in physics, asks them somewhat unconventional questions, with the goal of bringing a more human face to scientists.

When asked directly, scientists admit to thinking quite a bit about religion. Of those interviewed, several are hostile to it while others accept some tenets of one faith system or another. Most of them indicate that either religion or morality plays an important role in society, if not in science itself. The sad part is almost none of them seem to realize that the study of religion can be (and among the university-trained, generally is) scientific. In academia, religious studies is often vaguely tossed in with the humanities, while others would suggest it fits under social sciences—as a sub-discipline of anthropology, for example. Few understand the field, in part because many specialists enter it for initially religious reasons, somehow tainting it.

While I enjoyed the book quite a lot—it was a quick read with plenty of profound ideas—it also had a disturbing undercurrent. The explanation that many of the interviewees gave for why they went into science was “curiosity.” The implication was that those who can’t stop asking questions, and have intelligence, go into science. Again, this feature is true of most academic fields, if they’re understood. Greatly tempted to go into science myself, I simply didn’t have the mathematical faculties to do it. While I took advanced math in high school I wouldn’t have gotten through without my younger brother explaining everything to me. My real concerns lay along the line of ultimates. Learning about Hell at a young age, it made the most sense to me—very curious and scientifically inclined—to avoid going there. To do so, the proper target of my science should be religion. While many scientists in We Are All Stardust are friendly to philosophy, religion is considered a far less worthy subject by not a few. True, religion often behaves badly in public. It doesn’t bring the money into universities that megachurches reap. But unplugged even scientists still think about it.

3 thoughts on “Scientists, Unplugged

  1. Ignorance of religion scholars’ use of the scientific method is probably present in most laypeople, not just scientists. Bart Ehrman detailing the scientific rigor of seminary-grade Biblical scholarship was certainly a revelation to me. I don’t think many of the Christians around me know that their pastor is likely fully trained in the historical-critical method and could tell them a thing or two about inconsistencies or redactorship or other fascinating topics.


  2. Your post though reminded me of a line of reasoning I was pursuing the other day. I was thinking about Dr Danah Boyd, e.g., whose research suggests that, contrary to a lot of people’s hopes, education in media literacy and critical thinking does not—cannot even—serve as some kind of antidote to consumption of conspiracy theories or fake news (I loved her “A Few Responses to Criticism of My SXSW-Edu Keynote on Media Literacy” article).

    I was glad her research corroborated something I’ve come to believe, and maybe can run by you: authorship and stewardship of fake news, conspiracy theories, millenarian religions, when not purely commercial, all seem to suggest people today are regaining the democracy that was inherent in (folk) religions before modernity. I mean, since the beginnings of our species (and likely before it), anyone could make new gods or new ways to worship them: you didn’t need permission to engage in such priestly/prophetic activity (even though universal religions like Christianity and Islam certainly tried, and largely failed, to quell the steady stream of “heretical” movements), and this could often grant the priest/priestess some power over friends and family who came to appreciate their way of doing things.

    Today, though, you have to be credentialed to contribute to our collective narrative of the natural world (I love Stephen Asma who said, “As a prescientific way of thinking, folk religion is not opposed to science but rather is a primordial version of it”). You need postdoc training and grants and microscopes and statistical tests of significance, which is a big difference from how it’s been for most of human existence. And it’s not surprising that many are tired of this brave new world, and thanks to the internet, can once again participate in priestly/prophetic activity—creating and spreading new gods, conspiracy theories, fake news. People want to live in a world populated with elves, faeries, trolls, demons, reptile men, secret societies, flat earths—people want to be free to create and innovate new beliefs, and now they can.

    So to me it’s clear that the fake news horse is out of the stable (in fact, it was in the stable only for a brief period, bullied in by Enlightenment ideals). Scientists should relish this time that they’ve held monopoly over the natural order, and we should all expect more state-grade fake news on the order of Lysenkoism, Trump-era climate denial, and the like. Religion is back and kicking.


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