[Paleopsych] New Scientist: Fundamentalism: Descent into the new Dark Ages
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New Scientist: Fundamentalism: Descent into the new Dark Ages
5.10.8 (four articles)
After two centuries in the ascendancy, the Enlightenment project is under
threat. Religious movements are sweeping the globe preaching unreason,
intolerance and dogma, and challenging the idea that rational, secular enquiry
is the best way to understand the world.
Over the next 12 pages, we report from the front line of this conflict. We
investigate the roots, the aims and the capabilities of the religious
fundamentalists and examine the likely consequences for science, culture and
the environment. And we ask what can be done to halt the slide into a new age
End of the Enlightenment
With new, radical religious movements on the rise globally, why is so much of
the world bent on rejecting reason?
Fundamentalists are just like us
We are all capable of thinking fundamentalist thoughts. It's when like-minded
people get together that the trouble starts.
Enemy at the Gates
The campaign against science is well funded and meticulously organized. No
wonder it is already winning battles.
Blind Faith in Science
Scientific fundamentalism is the belief that the world is accessible to and
ultimately controllable by human reason...a profoundly unscientific view.
End of the Enlightenment
by Debora Mackenzie
ACROSS the world, millions of people feel threatened. They sense a
dangerous enemy at the gates, committed to values and beliefs they
fear and despise, and ready to impose its alien ideology on their
government, their life and their children's futures.
Is that a threat you recognise? If so, then you know how religious
fundamentalists feel. To them, the secular world of the early 21st
century is a threat to all they hold most dear. In response,
increasing numbers are joining militant religious groups and living,
voting and battling for their beliefs. Like it or not, they already
outnumber the secular rationalists whose thinking underpins today's
western urban societies. And their numbers are growing by the day.
What will that mean for the world as the 21st century unfolds?
Much of the past century was characterised by a widespread belief, at
least in the west, that as the world developed materially, religion
would dwindle in importance - what sociologists called "secularisation
theory". But the opposite has happened.
Fundamentalist Islamic movements are gaining strength across the
Muslim world and beyond. In the US, Christian fundamentalism holds
more political and cultural power than ever before. Fundamentalist
movements have also arisen within Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Almost everywhere you look - with the possible exception of western
Europe - fundamentalist religions are on the march. The world, in
short, is witnessing an explosion of movements that reject rational
enquiry as the best way to explain the world, and empirical evidence
as the best way to formulate policy.
On the face of it these various movements would seem to have little in
common. Indeed, Islamic and Christian fundamentalism are often
portrayed as being on opposite sides in a "cosmic struggle" of good
against evil. But they are the same.
Fundamentalist religions are driven by a desire to get "back to
basics", to turn the clock back to a supposed golden age when their
religion was untainted by secular influences. They fervently believe
that they alone are in possession of the truth - usually an overtly
literal interpretation of a sacred text - and an equally fervent
desire to impose that truth on others. And, unlike mainstream
religion, they cannot tolerate dissent. As cultural theorist Stuart
Sim of the University of Sunderland in the UK puts it: "You're either
in the charmed circle of believers or you're the enemy".
What is driving the growth of such intolerant belief systems? And what
does it mean for "Enlightenment values" - reason, pluralism, democracy
and freedom of thought? There is palpable unease that fundamentalism
represents a mortal threat to the accomplishments of modern society;
that the achievements of the Enlightenment are in danger of being
rolled back. Does religious fundamentalism really pose a threat to the
scientific world view?
It was in the 1990s that secular society started noticing a strange
and unexpected religious phenomenon that seemed to be replacing
Communism as a threat to western civilisation. In 1995, Scott Appleby
of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and dozens of collaborators
completed the Fundamentalism Project, an exhaustive five-volume study
of these religious movements across the world. One of its goals was to
discover the root causes of fundamentalism. The conclusion was that
the very force that was once expected to render religion obsolete was
in fact causing it to mutate and gather strength.
That force is modernity, a mode of thinking that is exemplified by
science. It focuses on change and progress, empirical evidence rather
than "revealed" truth, and scepticism of traditional (including
religious) authority. And it has proved enormously powerful. The
success of scientific explanations has replaced religious ones in many
It is nothing new, of course, to assert that modernity poses a direct
challenge to traditional religion. What came as a surprise was the
ability of religion not only to fight back but to spawn an entirely
new way of looking at the world.
What characterises traditional religions, says Karen Armstrong, a
British writer on religious affairs who is an expert on
fundamentalism, is that they are geared to the needs of people in
traditional agrarian societies. They focus on the permanence of
mythical truths behind superficial reality, and the divine will behind
apparent injustice. They see life as cyclical, not progressive, and
offer an understanding of the cosmos and a system of morals which
provide rules, reassurance and meaning people in such societies need.
Against this background, modernity can be deeply unsettling. It
"undermines all the old certainties," writes Peter Berger, a
sociologist of religion at Boston University. It also confronts people
with new and alien ideas: what Malise Ruthven, a British writer on
Islam, calls "the scandal of difference". Traditional societies are
culturally uniform, but as people from this background are drawn into
industrialised urban life, they come up against others who believe
different things. This was a widespread experience as recently as the
1950s for many in the west, especially in North America. In other
parts of the world it is happening right now as millions make the leap
What scandalises people is startlingly similar across countries and
cultures: pluralism and tolerance of other faiths, non-traditional
gender roles and sexual behaviour, reliance on human reason rather
than divine revelation, and democracy, which grants power to people
rather than God. (Even in the US, Christian fundamentalists struggle
with the concept of democracy, calling, for example, for the
separation of church and state to be abolished and for the
constitution to declare the US a "Christian country").
When God is dead...
Many people faced by such an assault are terrified, for themselves and
their children, by what they see as the social and moral chaos that
has followed the rejection of religious authority. Albert Mohler, head
of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky,
quotes Dostoyevsky: "When God is dead, anything is permissible."
According to Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State
University, people from a traditional background go one of two ways
when confronted with modernity: they either embrace reason and
progress, or make faith the focus of their world view.
The latter reaction often entails reasserting aspects of traditional
religion that modernity explicitly rejects: the infallibility of the
sacred text, the superiority of one belief system (their own) over all
others, the inadequacy of reason, and the subjugation of human freedom
to God, or his followers. In other words, a retreat into
fundamentalism. Another common reaction is to see rationalism as a
competing and opposed faith. "Every individual is a person of some
faith, even if that faith is secular," says Mohler. "All persons
operate out of some basic framework of beliefs and understanding of
In an uncertain world, such ideas find a steady stream of adherents.
"Uncertainty is a condition that many people find very hard to bear,"
Berger says. "Any movement that promises to provide or to renew
certainty has a ready market."
It is this that makes fundamentalism more than simply a return to
old-time religion, Armstrong argues. To fight the secular enemy, she
says, fundamentalists reduce complex faiths to streamlined ideologies
and, above all, try to recast old mythical tales as modern, literal
truths. In the process, they can lose the compassion Armstrong
believes is the mark of balanced religion.
"It is important that we understand the dread and anxiety that lie at
the heart of the fundamentalist vision," Armstrong adds. "Only then
will we begin to comprehend its passionate rage, its frantic desire to
fill the void with certainty, and its conviction of ever-encroaching
Fundamentalists feel they are on the defensive, but the fear of
secularism's cultural dominance leads fundamentalist movements to go
onto the attack and call for the imposition of their vision of
morality and law on society at large - believer and non-believer
alike. Hence, for example, Islamic fundamentalists demand the
imposition of sharia law in place of secular legislation. In the US,
Christian fundamentalists seek to change the abortion laws, promote
sexual abstinence, ban gay marriage, force doctors to keep terminally
ill people alive against their wishes and impose the teaching of
No wonder it is now secularists who feel under attack. But should
those who embrace modernity really feel threatened? The answer, it
seems, is both yes and no.
Not everyone who holds fundamentalist religious views can necessarily
be characterised as anti-science or anti-progress. Last year the Pew
Forum on Religion and Public Life, a politically neutral think tank
based in Washington DC, found nearly half of Christian fundamentalists
in the US (although they would describe themselves as "evangelicals" -
see "What's in a name") opposed banning stem cell research; what's
more, their views on abortion and homosexuality differed little from
those of the general population.
But that's not to say that those who hold to secular values have
nothing to fear. In the US, evangelical Christians have successfully
fostered a belief that science, is somehow anti-religious, and that
this imbalance must be redressed. Only 26 per cent of Americans are
evangelicals, but in a survey in November 2004, 37 per cent of
Americans, fewer than half of them evangelicals, wanted creationism
taught in schools - not just alongside evolution but in place of it.
Erosion of popular support for scientific research has other
ramifications, for example, by making it easier to sell politically
motivated denial of scientific discoveries such as global warming.
George W. Bush has talked openly of running a "faith-based
presidency", and a member of his inner circle has been quoted
referring disdainfully to the "reality based community" - that is,
people who believe that policy should be based on empirical evidence
rather than faith. One senior US politician even went as far as to say
"George Bush was not elected by a majority of voters in the United
States. He was appointed by God."
What is more, as political commentator Thomas Frank has argued, by
allying itself with evangelical beliefs, the US Republican party has
managed to dupe poor people into voting for economic policies that
damage their interests, such as tax cuts for the rich. More subtly,
people conditioned to accept a religious ideology unquestioningly, and
to believe the universe is founded on simple truths, lose the critical
habits of thought considered indispensable for science.
Fundamentalist Islam poses no less of a threat to science. Ziauddin
Sardar, a British writer on Islam, says a rise in literalist religious
thinking in the 1990s devastated science in the Islamic world by
promoting the idea that all knowledge could be found in the Koran.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist at Quaid-e-Islam University in
Pakistan, who also writes on religion, describes a prominent Pakistani
physicist who used a verse in the Koran to calculate that heaven is
receding from Earth at 1 centimetre per second less than the speed of
light. A similar forcing together of religious literalism and
"science" underpins creationism.
Not everyone, however, sees fundamentalism as inherently damaging.
Some scholars believe that, by offering psychological security and
social identity to people otherwise adrift, it offers the best hope
for a stable future. "A case can be made that someone with a strong,
confident religious identity is better qualified to survive in a
globalising world of shifting and collapsing identities," says
historian Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University.
Some scholars even argue that fundamentalism is religion's last
hurrah. Jenkins says the history of movements such as Calvinism
suggests that fundamentalist movements eventually become secular.
Fundamentalism, he suggests, may be a "necessary way station on the
road to enlightenment".
Whether or not that turns out to be true, it is clear that in the
short term at least, the secular world is going to have to come to
terms with fundamentalism. If fundamentalism is a reaction to
modernity, then we can expect a lot more of it. "The 21st century will
be religious," says sociologist Grace Davie of the University of
Exeter in the UK. In the US the process may have stabilised, and
Europe seems relatively immune. But fundamentalisms of all kinds are
exploding in the fast-urbanising developing world. In many parts of
sub-Saharan Africa, fundamentalist Christian churches are enjoying
explosive growth. Around 10 per cent of the traditionally Catholic
population of Latin American now belong to home-grown fundamentalist
Pentecostal churches, and in Chile and Guatemala the figure is as high
as 25 per cent.
Even in communist-ruled China, fundamentalist movements are gaining
adherents fast. "China is the one we're all watching," says Davie.
Miikka Ruokanen, professor of dogmatics at the University of Helsinki
in Finland, estimates that 2 million Chinese a year convert to
evangelical Christianity. Estimates of the eventual number of Chinese
Christians run to 300 million - a fifth of the population.
Fundamentalist strains of Buddhism are growing too. The converts, like
those throughout the developing world - the 9/11 attackers are a good
examples - are mainly young, affluent, educated and urban. These
people are just the kind to feel the spiritual impact of modernity
The challenge for the secular inheritors of the Enlightenment is to
remain true to their values and be tolerant and pluralistic - even in
the face of an opponent that can never reciprocate. That means
understanding fundamentalist mentality, and at least not adding to the
alienation that inspires the more extreme among them. "We must accept
seriously held public belief as a normal part of modern living," says
Davie. "The more you deny and attack it, the more defensive it gets."
What's in a name?
Every scholarly work on fundamentalism starts out by admitting that
the term itself is a problem. It can imply uniformity among vastly
different movements - or, worse, be adopted simply as a pejorative
word for any religious movement the user dislikes. But most authors
conclude that there are "family resemblances" among beliefs labelled
fundamentalist, and use the term anyway, for want of a better one.
Its origins can be traced back to 1910, when a group of Presbyterians
at Princeton University decided to speak out against the modernist
drift of some churches, especially efforts to understand the Bible as
a historical document. They wrote a series of pamphlets called "The
Fundamentals" and sent them to Christian officials worldwide. The
fundamentals they espoused were the inerrancy of the Bible - that it
represents the literal and infallible truth - the direct creation of
the world and humanity by God from nothing, miracles, and the life of
Jesus: his virgin birth, his death to atone for human sin, his
resurrection and imminent return. In 1920, a US Baptist editor coined
the term "fundamentalist" to describe those beliefs. Nowadays,
Christians who hold such beliefs prefer the label "evangelical".
The term was first applied to Islam in 1937, when a British official
described the king of Saudi Arabia as a "fundamentalist" for
condemning women who mixed with men. Then as now, it described the
rejection of modern notions of progress.
Fundamentalists are just like us
by Michael Brooks
SCOTT ATRAN knows a thing or two about fundamentalists, and as far as
he's concerned, they are nice people. "I certainly find very little
hatred; they act out of love," he says. "These people are very
compassionate." Atran, who studies group dynamics at the University of
Michigan, is talking about suicide bombers, extremists by anyone's
standards and not representative of fundamentalist ideology in general
(New Scientist, 23 July, page 18). But surprisingly, much of what
Atran has discovered about suicide bombers helps to explain the
psychology of all fundamentalist movements.
Ideas about the nature of fundamentalist belief initially drew heavily
on work from the 1950s, when psychologists were trying to explain why
some people were drawn to authoritarian ideologies such as Nazism.
Guided by that research, psychologists focused on individuals, looking
for personality traits, modes of thinking and even psychological flaws
that might mark fundamentalists out from other people. The conclusion
they came to was that there is no real difference between
fundamentalists and everybody else. "The fundamentalist mentality is
part of human nature," writes Stuart Sim, a cultural theorist at the
University of Sunderland in the UK. "All of us are capable of
exhibiting this kind of behaviour."
Attention has now turned away from individual psychology to focus on
the power of the group. "We evolved to have close and intimate group
contacts: we cooperate to compete," says Atran. The psychology of
fundamentalism is, literally, more than the sum of its parts; taken
individually, fundamentalists are rather unremarkable. "The notion
that you might be able to find something in a fundamentalist's brain
scan is a non-starter," says John Brooke, a professor of science and
religion at the University of Oxford.
Much of the research in this area has been done on Christian
fundamentalists in North America. A study by Daniel Batson of the
University of Kansas and Larry Ventis of the College of William and
Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, for example, showed that
fundamentalists do not have an abnormally high regard for, or
willingness to acquiesce to, authority figures. Studies also show no
general inclination towards prejudice, at least in areas where
people's behaviour does not conflict with their moral values. Racist
they are not; homophobic is a different matter.
And despite the fact that fundamentalist thinking is often portrayed
as simplistic, this too is not borne out by research. Measures of
cognitive complexity, which describes how an individual combines,
classifies and processes information, show that fundamentalists are no
different from the wider population. In general they operate solid,
logical and sophisticated chains of thinking, albeit thinking that is
based on non-negotiable articles of faith. "There are some very
sophisticated attempts to defend what to most of our eyes are very
unsophisticated positions," says Brooke. "They have a world view that,
within its own frame of reference, has a degree of rationality."
In general, fundamentalists seem to be well-balanced people. They
score highly on subjective measures of marital happiness, optimism and
self-control, and have a low incidence of depression and anxiety.
An obvious explanation for this is that fundamentalist belief is
fulfilling some hard-wired psychological need for certainty and
security in a world where such comforts are hard to come by. But this
cannot be the whole story, because fundamentalists do not choose to
become ardent believers simply because of the psychological benefits
this brings. They belong to the much larger group of people that
psychologists class as "intrinsically" religious: they absorb a creed,
believe it is the right thing to believe, and do their utmost to work
out its implications in their lives. "Extrinsically" religious people,
who join a faith movement for the spin-off benefits, are different,
and tend to be more racially intolerant, for example.
Sense of identity
Fundamentalists, then - at least those of the Christian variety - tend
to be happy, sincere and healthy. According to Sara Savage, who
researches the psychology of religion at the University of Cambridge,
that may be because they believe they are playing a role in the
greatest story ever told. "Story is probably the biggest form of
security we have as humans. It's very powerful in giving you
Secular western culture, on the other hand, doesn't provide a "grand
narrative" to participate in, Savage points out. It offers multiple
options for making sense of the world around us - a mess that most
human minds struggle to deal with. In evolutionary terms, it's really
new to us. "I don't think we're that comfortable with it," Savage
says. This, she says, is why the kind of world view contained in a
religious text resonates with people, and why they are inclined to
stick with it at all costs.
Savage suggests that humanity's ways of thinking, of organising,
recording and processing information, matured during a period of
history when people only had to deal with one world view: a theistic
one. This is reflected in most sacred texts, which were written during
this period. "Having one world view feels quite natural to human
beings," she says.
But while a rigid adherence to a religious world view may be
psychologically unremarkable, when a few of those minds get together
in a group, things start to happen. "It's mostly small group dynamics
rather than personal psychology or indoctrination," Atran says. He
portrays human psychology as having evolved an array of buttons just
waiting to be pressed by environmental conditions. Group psychology,
Atran thinks, is a particularly responsive set of buttons because
group activity, especially in the family, has been so important in our
However, the group response can be triggered by things that have
nothing to do with the evolutionary pressures that formed them: a
shared ideology, for example. The group's activities push the "family"
button, Atran says, and loyalty to the new group becomes paramount.
"By the time the group is formed, they are emotionally felt to be
family," he says. "Somehow the same wiring is triggered." In the end,
members of the group do anything to maintain the bond and to reinforce
the centrality of their group's beliefs.
So what happens next? Because fundamentalist groups are at odds the
dominant culture, maintaining the group's fundamentalist world view
demands isolation from that culture. The first casualty is tolerance
of diversity. But even then it is hard to make the isolation total,
with the result that Christian fundamentalists living in the US, for
example, compartmentalise their experiences of the world. And that
inevitably leads to inner conflict. "All humans do it, but the more we
do it, the worse the psychological outcomes," Savage says.
But how does this kind of conflict translate into a social war, like
that being waged over the role of science? Part of the answer lies in
fundamentalists' need to bolster group identity by reframing their
beliefs in the terms of the dominant culture. In a secular, scientific
culture, Savage points out, a certain level of evidence is generally
required in order for knowledge to count and for individuals to act on
it. Fundamentalists respond by attempting to "prove" their core
beliefs: they "science-up" their faith, framing it in a way that they
think ought to make sense to a scientific culture. Their claims then
become, in their eyes at least, as valid as science's claims. No
wonder scientists find fundamentalists' claims so infuriating: they
are operating on patently false credentials.
However, this tactic has backfired, with damaging consequences.
According to James Barr, professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt
University in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of a number of books
critical of Christian fundamentalism, these false credentials have
produced a "deep intellectual self-distrust" that shows itself in an
insatiable craving for intellectual credibility. That is why
creationists strive to have a debate with scientists, and why they
trumpet any academic qualifications they might possess. It may also
explain why, for instance, George Gilder, a senior fellow of the
fundamentalist Discovery Institute in Seattle, invokes the uncertainty
principle of quantum theory to shore up a faith-based philosophy.
But to no avail. According to Barr, fundamentalists have failed to
gain intellectual acceptance even within mainstream Christian
scholarship. Because the fundamentalists come to the Bible with a
partisan agenda, they are unable to offer any striking insights. As a
result, fundamentalist biblical scholarship is "sterile", he says.
Fundamentalist Christianity is widely considered as irrelevant to
modern theology as it is to modern science.
And that, for the fundamentalists, is a terrible blow. Irrelevance is
not something that people with this group psychology can tolerate. A
movement that considers itself a key player in the greatest story ever
told can't afford to be perceived as peripheral.
At this point, the desperation sets in.
Today's struggles are only the latest manifestation of this
psychology. A glance at the history books shows it is not difficult to
make a link between fundamentalist Christian groups' sense of
participating in a story of cosmic significance and the rise of
Islamic extremism. In fact, Atran says, it can be argued that the
group psychology of fundamentalist Christians, their struggle to
fulfil the prophecies of the Bible and thus to validate their
cherished beliefs, has ignited a global holy war. "People attribute
Islamic fundamentalism to Islam, but I think it has as much - or more
- to do with Christian fundamentalism," Atran says. "You'll find no
apocalyptic visions in Islam; it comes from the book of Revelation.
That's what is being played out today."
Enemy at the gates
by Mike Holderness
THEIR aim is to destroy science. They seek "nothing less than the
overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies". Who are they? The
words come from a think tank called the Center for the Renewal of
Science and Culture (CSC) in Seattle. But they reflect the ideology of
a much wider network of funding foundations and lobby groups dedicated
to overthrowing "scientific materialism".
Science has always been good at making enemies; it's an occupational
hazard of success. But never before has the enemy been so devious and
dangerous. These plans to reverse the march of science come not from a
group of backwoods zealots, but from an orchestrated, clever and
well-funded campaign. Whether or not scientists relish the prospect,
they have a fight on their hands.
Any serious attempt to understand the campaign against science starts
with a manifesto entitled "The Wedge Strategy", which was leaked from
CSC's parent organisation, the Discovery Institute, when CSC was
founded in 1996. The document sets out a method for undermining
secular scientific thinking. "If we view the predominant materialistic
science as a giant tree," the document says, "our strategy is intended
to function as a 'wedge' that, while relatively small, can split the
trunk when applied at its weakest points."
One of the leading exponents of the strategy is William Dembski, a
professor of theology and science at the Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and a senior fellow at the Discovery
Institute. In 2003 he gave a series of lectures decrying the power of
science over faith. Science, he said, "has a track record of taking
young Christians and derailing them when they go to the academy and
they lose their faith". He has vowed that the undermining of faith "is
going to stop".
The weak point in the trunk, according to Dembski, is Darwinian
evolution, and the wedge that will split it asunder is the concept
known as intelligent design. ID is founded on the proposition that the
evolution of complex structures, from the flagellum that propels many
bacteria to the human eye, is mathematically impossible and can only
be explained by invoking a designer. Cunningly, this opening gambit in
the battle for minds doesn't even play by the rules of fundamentalism:
no holy book explicitly mentions the mathematics of complexity, let
alone rules on its correct application. Indeed, the strategic value of
ID is its claim to be rooted in the straightforward scientific process
of a free exchange of ideas.
Dembski is working to dismantle science's foundations block by block,
starting with evolution. "ID is going to clear the ground of this
suffocating naturalistic theology," he says, and it has already made
huge headway in the US. Dembski gleefully points to opinion polls
which he claims show that just 7 to 10 per cent of Americans hold with
New world order
If ID is just the thin end of the wedge, what's coming next? According
to the document, nothing less than a new world order in science, built
around a faith-based form of reasoning. "Design theory promises to
reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist world view, and to
replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic
convictions," it says.
No one should be in any doubt that this is a serious goal. At least
one of the Discovery Institute's senior fellows thinks progress is
impossible without a new, faith-based science. In a 1999 article in
The Wall Street Journal, George Gilder wrote that belief is "entirely
essential to human achievement". And he left no doubt about where he
was coming from. "What the nation needs is a renewal of the faith that
sustained our forefathers at a similar time of change and opportunity
on the frontiers of 19th-century America...Our previous
accomplishments as a nation were based on faith, the faith of our
fathers, the belief in things hoped for and unseen." Therefore, he
suggests, faith must be put in charge. "An economy of ideas and
innovations ultimately means an economy ruled by spirit and faith,"
One of the fruits of a faith-based approach to science will be a
dismissal of what Gilder calls the "chimeras of popular 'science'":
ideas such as global warming, pollution problems and ozone depletion.
And that, unsurprisingly, has political ramifications, including
climate-change denial and the pursuit of ruthless free-market
economics. Gilder claims credit for formulating the "supply-side
economics" embraced by the Reagan administration.
The Discovery Institute is not alone in aggressively promoting such
views. It is backed by organisations that also support many other
think tanks with fundamentalist ideologies.
The institute would not divulge information about its funding sources
to New Scientist, but it is possible to trace some of them through
watchdog websites such as www.mediatransparency.org and
www.sourcewatch.org. In 2003, for instance, the Pittsburgh-based
Carthage Foundation made a donation of $40,000 for "project support",
according to mediatransparency.org. Other recipients of Carthage money
include the Free Congress Foundation (FCF), a Washington-based
institution with the mission of returning the US to a Judaeo-Christian
culture. The FCF, which received $10 million from the Carthage
Foundation between 1985 and 2003, argues that the Ten Commandments
should be posted in schools and courtrooms as "a reminder...to act
responsibly and morally". In 2003 the Carthage Foundation also gave
$35,000 to the Foundation for Research on Economics and the
Environment, which seeks to apply free-market principles to
The most generous of the Discovery Institute's donors to date is
philanthropist Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson, who in 1999 pledged $1.5
million over five years. Ahmanson also funds the Washington-based
American Anglican Council, whose vice-president is Bruce Chapman,
president of the Discovery Institute. The AAC's most visible recent
campaign was against the ordination of homosexual clergy in the wake
of the controversy surrounding the appointment of openly gay canon
Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. Ahmanson has also made
donations to the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), whose
focus is on socially conservative intervention in the influential and
rich Episcopalian Church, and in the United Methodists, to which
George W. Bush belongs. Ahmanson's wife Roberta, who sits on the IRD
board, believes that the church should be giving equal weight to the
views of dead Christians when it makes policy decisions. "If you take
the weight of Christianity for 2000 years, all that weight is on the
orthodox side," she told The New York Times last year.
An internal strategy document leaked in 2003 from the IRD to a church
activist (who prefers not to be named) identifies its third priority,
after issues of sexuality and the plight of Christians in Cuba and
elsewhere, as discrediting "liberal legislation that relies on the
Kyoto accords and unproven apocalyptic suppositions".
Ahmanson has other fingers in the climate-change-denial pie. He has
also donated to the George C. Marshall Institute, which shares many of
its board of directors with the Science & Environmental Policy Project
(SEPP). Founded with the support of the Korean cult leader Syung Moon,
SEPP is one of the most vociferous campaigners against climate action
in the US. And his influence now extends to the UK: in January, Robert
May, president of the Royal Society, warned that the George C.
Marshall Institute had teamed up with a climate-change sceptic group
in the UK, The Scientific Alliance, to publish a document entitled
"Climate Issues & Questions", which serves as an important information
source for many lay climate-change deniers.
It is clear that the anti-secular movement has science in its sights.
But should reasoning people fear for the future? So far, their
victories have been modest. With a diverse range of allies, they
obtained a ban on US federal funding for most stem-cell research. But
they wasted about $400,000 - nearly half contributed by Ahmanson - on
a failed bid to oppose California's support for such science. They
have also failed in their attempts to get ID formally taught in US
David King, chief scientific adviser to the British government, says
he is not overly worried. "What influence do they really have?" he
asks. Barbara Forrest, professor of philosophy at Southeastern
Louisiana University and a vocal critic of creationism, concurs.
"They're no threat to science at all," she says. "They've had no
effect on the way science is done - they don't do any science
But Forrest and King may have misunderstood the enemy strategy.
Dembski talks not of political or scientific successes; he is under no
illusion that he can change mainstream scientific opinion. He talks
only of "cultural engagement" and claims that the fact that science is
biting back - as in Forrest's book Creationism's Trojan Horse - "is
itself confirmation that something important is going on". Indeed,
almost all the debates that Dembski's people have stirred up use the
"no smoke without fire" principle and raise the idea that science has
something to hide. And, for its slow-burning campaign against science,
that's all the "wedge" strategists need.
Sometime in the past few years, those who question the findings of
mainstream science ceased to be laughable luddites and, to a
significant number of people, became an accepted voice in public
debate about science. And when that voice's opinion is not only
accepted, but also suits voters' prejudices, Dembski's work is done.
As veteran liberal broadcaster Bill Moyers said when accepting the
Global Environmental Citizen Award at Harvard Medical School: "The
delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to
sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress."
The campaign to stop science has scored significant successes. If
you're a fan of reason, you have good reason to be concerned.
Blind faith in science
by Bryan Appleyard
RELIGIOUS fundamentalists frequently inspire mockery or fear in the
secular-minded for their reliance on faith and rejection of reason. In
response, the fundamentalists argue that secularism is underpinned by
a faith or world view far more groundless or arbitrary than their own.
That faith may be said to be liberalism, democracy or progress, but,
most commonly and most correctly, it is identified as science.
Science is indeed the faith, system, theory, methodology - choose your
own term - that sustains liberal democratic secularism. There are two
primary reasons for this. The first is the effectiveness of science,
specifically as expressed through technology. Nobody prayed their way
to the Pentium 4 chip or the Boeing 747. The second is the uniquely
cumulative nature of scientific knowledge. Ethically we have not moved
beyond Jesus Christ, artistically we have not moved beyond Titian, and
politically we have not moved beyond Jefferson. Scientifically,
however, we are moving forward all the time. Newton may be the
greatest of all scientists but Einstein is more important now for the
simple and unarguable reason that he knew more.
So the secularist may reply to the fundamentalist: "I do indeed have a
faith but, unlike yours, it works and gets better all the time." The
fundamentalist may retort: "We did pray our way to Pentium 4s; you
were just deluded in thinking you could make them yourself." You may
find his argument implausible, but it is at least complete. If God
really does work in mysterious ways, then guiding us to the
fabrication of silicon chips may well be one of them. He doesn't
necessarily have to restrict Himself to parting the Red Sea.
At this point the secularist/scientist would be well advised to shut
up, because almost anything he says to strengthen his position will
topple him over into a fundamentalism of his own. For there is a
scientific fundamentalism, too, and it is, in its way, just as
dangerous as the religious version.
The secularist is on solid ground only when he says that science works
- at least in achieving the aims to which it reasonably limits itself
- and that it accumulates. The fatal extrapolation to make from this
position is that it must, therefore, potentially be omnicompetent and
omniscient. Scientific fundamentalism is the belief that the world is
accessible to and ultimately controllable by human reason.
This is a profoundly unscientific idea. It is neither provable nor
refutable. Obviously it is a leap of faith to insist that human reason
is capable of fully understanding the world. We seem to have some
access to its workings, but it would be wildly premature to believe
that the human brain is capable of comprehending all reality. The idea
that it is up to such a task is an arguable hypothesis based on a very
optimistic view of human rationality, but that is all.
Yet the belief in the possibility of human omniscience has been as
strong in recent years as it was in the 1930s, when scientistic
fantasists dreamed of a world run by a collection of hard-headed
scientist-oligarchs. This is, in large part, a result of the successes
of biology. Genetics offers the possibility of direct effects on our
species in terms of disease, behaviour, life choices and so on. It
offers, in short, precisely what previous disciplines like psychology
and sociology have failed to deliver: an effective scientific analysis
and intervention in the human world. Thus, via biology, the dream of
omniscience has become the fantasy of omnicompetence. We could control
the world and make people better, perhaps even perfect.
Philosophy and magic
Now obviously I know - and I need to make this very clear - that most
scientists do not hold this view. Indeed, the majority would see that
it is a view that gets in the way of good science and offends against
one of the most obvious characteristics of all science, its
provisionality. We know - or should know - that all contemporary
science will be modified or overthrown by the science of the future.
This is not to take the postmodern view that science is just one
interpretation of the world among many others. Rather, it is simply to
say that the scientific truth of one era may later come to be seen as
no more than a rough approximation.
So there is a clear logical and equally clear practical and historical
objection to what I have called scientific fundamentalism. Neither
objection demeans science in any way, yet both tend to inspire
apoplexy in the hard scientistic thinkers who have dominated recent
discourse. Scientific fundamentalism is alive and well.
That scientific fundamentalism is dangerous should be evident to any
serious thinker looking back on the 20th century. Fascism was an
anti-Enlightenment creed, but its most lethal expression in Nazism was
founded on science. Hitler's Mein Kampf leaned on the biology of Ernst
Haeckel, which, at the time, was perfectly respectable. Communism, an
ideology that sprang directly from the scientific Enlightenment, was
based on Marx's conviction that a science of history had been
discovered. The slaughter of the Jews, Stalin's massacres and Mao's
deliberate starving of millions were all executed by people persuaded
they were justified by scientific insights.
Of course, it might be said this was bad science. But that is no more
of an excuse than saying the Spanish Inquisition was bad religion. In
that case, people twisted benignly intended human value systems to
evil ends. There is nothing whatsoever in science - and this should be
shouted daily from the rooftops of every scientific institution - that
makes it immune from such abuses.
Some scientists will dispute this, claiming that the values of open,
objective enquiry, mutual criticism and protection of learning in the
accumulated wisdom of science amount to an ethical system which, if
applied to the world, would make it a better place, potentially
protected from future horrors. This is not wrong, it is just
fantastically utopian. Such values are not exclusive to science; they
preceded it. Science sprang from philosophy, theology and even magic.
The reason it became modern science at all was because of the
direction these disciplines took in the course of the Renaissance.
That these values worked so triumphantly in science is unarguable;
that they have failed to work anywhere else is equally unarguable. The
brief period of calm we currently enjoy in the west floats on the
usual sea of war and genocide.
The human world is very different from the one seen through the
telescope or in the test tube. To say it would be nice if it wasn't is
to say nothing. To say it should be and we can make it so is downright
sinister - fundamentalist, in fact. But that is precisely what many
scientistic thinkers, dazzled by the success of science, have been
saying. The human world is perverse, complex, violent and utterly
indecipherable. There is no science of history and no technology that
will save us from the future. Scientific fundamentalism deludes us
with dreams of competence; it expects too much of this world, just as
religious fundamentalism expects too much of the next.
For the moment, the tide of hard scientism is ebbing, perhaps because
people have grown bored with the frantic marketing of implausible
claims and moved on. It will return, though. Human delusions are
nothing if not robust.
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