“The scientific investigator does not preserve the cleavage between the sacred and the profane, between that which requires uncritical respect and that which can be objectively analyzed.”
Institutions shape and form who we are as individuals. The more habituated we become to working and living within an institutional structure, the more we will internalize its rules and the less we will consciously make decisions with regards to our obedience to those rules. With this in mind, it is important to our individual freedom and responsibility that we make explicit – in other words externalize – the rules of science and the ways in which they clash with those that regulate church activity. Both of these institutions have rules that regulate behavior within them and to the extent that these rules contradict each other we who are institutionalized within both will be compelled to navigate our ways through various forms of cognitive dissonance, compartmentalization, strategic equivocation, etc.
I will rely upon Robert Merton’s classic “The Normative Structure of Science” in order to articulate the values of science. While I think Merton’s account is more than a little dated with respect to how science is actually practiced today, I think it is a very fair description, first, of how the public is taught to conceptualize and understand science and, secondly, of the scientific values that we are taught within our educational system – especially at the college undergraduate level. In other words, I am largely assuming that our educational system in general strives to, and to some degree succeeds in modeling itself upon and instilling the values of a 1940’s understanding of science which is itself, according to Merton, closely wedded to the democratic values of the Enlightenment.
It should also be noted that Merton rejects the idea that these rules are merely “technical” such that they are merely useful guidelines to be followed by scientists. Instead, these values are taught as moral obligations that are binding upon all would-be scientists and critical thinkers. The values that structure institutionalized science, then, are as follows:
- Communism (again, this was before the Cold War)
- Organized Skepticism
Universalism – Similar to Alvin Gouldner’s description of the Culture of Critical Discourse and Jurgen Habermas’s Ideal Speech Situation, science measures all claims and truths against impersonal standards of observation and previously “certified” knowledge (note the institutional language). At no point are personal attributes or the social status of the speaker relevant to the matter at hand. As Merton puts it, “objectivity precludes particularism.”
This is completely counter to an institution where a person’s ordination and stewardship limit the scope of what is said. Personal revelation over one’s stewardship is the very definition of the particularism that science rejects. The fact that one person was a Levite rather than a member of some other tribe of very important to the Israelites. While church certainly has universalistic ambitions, the entire point of many ordinances is to separation those who are “under covenant” from those who are not.
Communism – This rule is probably the most dated, both in its name as well as in its content. It claim that there is, or at least shouldn’t be any intellectual property within science. Since science is a communal effort in which even the most brilliant minds stand upon the shoulders of other giants, the findings and data collected by such people are openly and freely shared such that all scientists should have access to and be able to cite all other scientists. According to Merton, the only individual rights that a scientists can properly lay claim to within science is an increase in reputational esteem.
While Merton notes that this is in tension with the capitalistic privatization of science, it is also in tension with the rules which govern the distribution of knowledge within the church. Certain findings, revelation and ordinances are very much intended to be kept from the uninitiated, the unworthy, etc. While we might be tempted to claim this policy of “milk before meat” is no different from a scientist’s having to familiarize themselves with the requisite mathematics, for example, in order to fully understand the relevant work it seems obvious to me that whatever overlap there is between these cases is not only limited in scope but probably ideologically motivated as well. The limitations placed upon substantial amounts of knowledge within the church have nothing to do with intellectual qualifications necessary for a proper understanding of it. Contrary to science, some gospel experiences and knowledge belong to us and nobody else. We might prefer it if others shared their revelation more often than they do, but we have no moral claim to such knowledge.
Disinterestedness – By this, Merton is explicitly not claiming that scientists are more noble or altruistic than others. Rather he is remarking on the specific means by which science sanctions and redirects self-aggrandizement and cheating within the scientific community: peer review. The regulation of fraud, cheating and other forms of self-interestedness is done (ideally) through mutual scrutiny and competition among peers. Indeed, it is precisely because scientists are speaking to peers rather than uninformed “clients” that fraud and other forms of cheating are kept in check.
Mutual scrutiny and competition among peers is expressly and forcefully rejected within the church. The entire point of forbidding arguments and disputations through the hierarchical stratification of stewardships is to undermine the idea that church leaders are peers to be reviewed such that different policies and teaching come into competition or conflict. (Laman and Lemuel really struggled with this.) Yes, there are mechanisms by which such leaders are constrained (raising hands, reporting unrighteousness, etc.) but none of these have anything to do there being an equal and open scrutiny among peers with competing arguments.
Organized Skepticism – This is the scientific rule described in the quote above which says that the scientist is not to take 1) any assumption for granted or 2) anybody’s word for it. Everything and everyone is open to investigation/analysis and nobody is able to hide behind their social status or some sacred taboo. In other words, no person, thing or idea is sacred.
When spelled out as Merton does, this rule is quite obviously incompatible with a gospel in which only certain lineages are allowed within certain areas during certain times of the year wherein they see and hear things that they are never to discuss outside of this context. Some things in the church are simply not meant to be discussed or analyzed, criticized or doubted. Moreover, there is an undeniably anti-skeptical element to the idea that faith is a moral virtue and that we will be condemned for not believing certain things. If, however, somebody resists this reading of faith by saying that we are all equally able to confirm whatever doubts we have through personal prayer, this still falls very short of an organized skepticism that actively encourages its members to doubt, criticize or otherwise “review” all persons, claims, etc. At no point in gospel teachings are doubt and criticism praised as institutional virtues as such. On the contrary, when we are tempted by Descartes’s method of universal doubt we are encouraged to begin by first doubting that very method and its supposed virtues.
Conclusion – While the reader may not completely agree with my understanding of science or religion I don’t think it’s possible to re-describe these institutions such that all of these tensions disappear into thin air. I should also point out that these tensions have nothing whatsoever to do with any particular finding or theory defended by science. Instead, I have simply juxtaposed the rules by which each institutions regulates and thus shapes its members. No doubt, each person will have internalized these rules and negotiated their tensions differently. My point in this post has not been to pass judgement on how we ought to go about this process. Rather, my goal has been to raise this process to a conscious level such that each person can gain control of the ways in which both institutions continue to shape their lives.