On America, Science and Fundamentalist Christianity…

04/10/2003

Probably the one thing I understand least about America is its relationship with religion. American is a country that (i) is particularly known for not being hide-bound by convention in science or business and (ii) often demonstrates an astonishing (and often laudable) amount of bombast and rule-breaking in both domestic and foreign-affairs. How then can it be that so many elements of American life can be held so firmly under the sway of religious fundamentalism?

You’d think this kind of thing would be more of a problem for countries like the UK – old European powers whose organisation includes no inbuilt distinctions between church and state. I mean – look at the facts – in the UK, the monarch is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The same woman is also the country’s Head of State and has been for over fifty years. The UK also has – by law or convention – several representatives of the Church of England in our Upper House (The House of Lords), although there is considerable discussion ongoing about whether they should be there or whether all religions in the country should be represented.

But in fact the UK’s religious right has radically less power within the country than in the US. Presidents of the United States essentially have to be church-going Christians. Church-going in the UK is simply considered a bit odd. We have anti-abortion campaigners just like in the US, but nowhere near as many and nor are they so overtly religious. And while it would be naive of me to say that there are no schools in the UK in which creationism or intelligent design are taught, I can’t find any evidence that it’s even mentioned in the UK’s National Curriculum or that any religiously-tinted competitors for evolution are presented as of equal plausibility.

It’s the effects of religion on science, I think, that most appals me. I don’t believe – never have believed – that science is a completely value-free space. Decisions are made every day about what to study, who to study (and what not to study as well). Initial hypotheses are almost necessarily built upon assumption, intuition and the influx of current mainstream political consensus. But the idea that challenges to theories like “evolution” can circumvent the entire academic peer-review and testing process by way of the courts – inspired by people who want to find ways to equate the world with their religious beliefs… Well, it’s scandalous! Totally, utterly scandalous!

The Guardian is running an article in its new Life section today on exactly this subject: The Battle for American Science. It’s this article that part-inspired me to write about this subject today. Here’s a quote from it:

Critics speak with similar alarm about other theories that have been getting a new airing recently, on Aids and abstinence and global warming, for example – theories presented as rival scientific ideas asking only for a “fair hearing”. “It’s a very good rhetorical strategy, because it appeals to the very American sense of openness and fair play,” says Miller. “But there’s something called the scientific process, you know – involving open publication, criticism, and rejection of things that aren’t convincing. We don’t teach both sides of the germ theory of disease and faith-healing. Evolution isn’t in the classroom because of political action or court decisions. It’s in the classroom because it made it through, it stood up to scrutiny and became the scientific consensus. It fought the battle and won.”