Religion at its best can protect science from politics at its worst

I choose to believe these tweets are true because I want to write about it. I’m pretty sure they are, but unlike some people, I don’t have “medievalist friends” to verify it and I’m to tired to open Google.

Regardless of whether the “the book preciptated witch hunting” is true, I am in full agreement that much of misinformation is demand driven. Even when motivated by an alterior motive, disinformation has to be wrapped in the candy-coating of something people want to believe is true. For all the talk of disinformation though, the connection to witch hunting and religion is what I find most interesting, particularly in our pandemic times. There’s been a lot of frustration over people’s eagerness to believe non-scientific and pseudo-scientific garbage, but what I find most concerning is how rapidly identities solidified around believing experts and not believing experts. My suspicion is that this is, at least partly, a symptom of becoming a more broadly secular society, where political and scientific beliefs have for many people substituted for faith affiliations as group signifiers and shibboleths.

Religion makes for better and safer group identities than science. Why? Because religion is predominantly interested in untestable assertions whose veracity is entirely orthogonal to the quality of our lives and how we function as a society. This isn’t to say that societies can’t just as easily violently fracture as peacefully congeal around these beliefs, but the “truth” of them is entirely irrelevant. Communities and sub-communities can form Russian nesting dolls all the way up to continents and all the way down to Tilda Swinton, and the truth of the individual sets of religious beliefs won’t matter in the slightest.

Science, on the other hand, is a vastly different story. Groups that form around disbelief in the germ theory of disease or the food safety of the Green Revolution in agriculture will face vastly more limited prospects in the lives of members and their future generations. Groups naturally split into insiders and outsiders– that’s how we solve whole swaths of the collective action problems and Prisoner’s Dilemmas we face everyday.

Science needs religion to stake out territory in the ineffable and claim beliefs as their own. From these beliefs religion can provide people with the tools to tell stories, form bonds, and cultivate trust beyond the limits of kinship and familiarity. Religion needs to thrive so that science can work its way unmolested, and unco-opted, through the unending labryinth of truth-seeking, of learning and unlearning, discarding old truths as evidence mounts. It’s hard enough to accept evidence denying old truths when repuations are built around them (science does, after all, advance “one funeral at a time”). But it’s nearly impossible to discard old truths if they are holding a community together. People will cling to them because there’s too much immediately at stake, and in doing so you become trapped at the sclerotic local maximum of a costly falsehood.

I know there’s a tendency to focus on shared social media clips of preachers advocating against vaccines and masks and what not. But I don’t think that’s religion competing with science. I think that’s ostensibly religious leaders giving up on their faith to sell what they see people buying. Yesterday they were selling God, today they’re selling disinformation. Not because God is disinformation, but because they are seeing more demand for disinformation than God.

I don’t have a faith to sell anyone, and I certainly don’t have a policy solution in my back pocket (though I can only assume the answer starts with crypto and ends with profit). But I do think that if we are going to keep science safe from the short-term vicissitudes of our petty political identities, we will have to better resist the urge to call ourselves, our group, pro-science. It inevitably creates an anti-science opposition, cornering people into rallying around ideas that benefit no one in the long run. And we also have to have more faith in our faiths. If you don’t hold that your beliefs, and the community you’ve built around them, are appealing enough on their own merits, then you’re not really a believer. You’re not a scientist either. You’re a salesman, and one with a bad product at that.

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