Science and faith have battled for ideological supremacy from the dawn of civilization. This battle takes place in both large and small arenas: the larger including theocratic empires and military-industrial capitalism, the smaller including our personal choices while shopping or arguing on the internet. And most of us have a harder time than we realize (or can admit) telling the difference between them.
For one thing, the two approaches get blurred and conflated all the time. An authority figure states that X is true, and because we believe in their authority, we accept their claim as truth. In nutrition, for example, a mix of science, profiteering, and hubris regularly causes widespread fads of consuming or avoiding various fats, carbohydrates, or proteins. Most of us don’t have the scientific tools, skills, or inclination to independently verify whether these dietary edicts really do us more good than harm.
In order to actually understand how life (and everything else in the world) works, we have to challenge assumptions and make experiments to test what we believe. This includes the realms of spirit, metaphysics, and magic. If the results of a test cannot be duplicated by another person then we have to question our own findings.
In many cases this standard will knock a lot of “woo” spiritualism right out. You can have a strong feeling that you communicated with beings from another dimension, but what evidence shows that it did not all happen in your imagination, excited by incense and chanting? That said, if you experience something strongly enough then nobody can take the reality of that experience away from you. To consciously interact with magic or spirit requires someone willing and able to step outside their limiting thought patterns. But we must continually apply the scientific method in order to have confidence in our interpretations.
Faith in Science
People raised on faith tend to accept the declarations of ministers, prominent community figures, and holy books because of deeply-ingrained indoctrination that critical thought should not conflict too much with those sources. But believers in science can make the same error, blindly trusting the claim of a scientific authority, without sufficient testing. The word “scientism” describes this ideology. People in this mindset will take scientific ideas, and abstract them out to erroneous conclusions by misunderstanding the underlying principles, and ignoring contradictory data–sometimes intentionally. They do this while claiming to support only rational thought.
Reactionary extremists such as flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, and audiophiles believe only what their intuition tells them. They reject any corrections from actual scientists, as either propaganda from nefarious corporate illuminati, or ignorance from those who lack the ability to perceive “the real truth” on their own. These deep thinkers will seize on a science-like tidbit they read somewhere, that supports their belief, and extrapolate it out to a fanciful end. They need the science that gave them their idea in the first place (and the ability to communicate about it online), but they reject any science that challenges the original findings or the interpreted conclusions.
This brings us back to the fundamental key of science: it inherently requires challenges by ever-advancing tests. When people say “science is bullshit” because findings published by scientists in one year get overturned by others later on, they miss the point that science has no end. As researchers experiment, gather new data, and refine their analysis, they may adjust or reject even the most widely-accepted earlier claims–as long as other scientists can repeat the new results in their own tests.
Science has frequently conflicted with ethics over the centuries. Scientists, usually in the service of a corporate or political master, have made some terrible decisions that lead to innumerable deaths and ongoing torments. Racial classification, nuclear and chemical weapons, psychiatric and medical abuses of women and the poor, and monoculture of crops have all caused deep harm on a scale we can barely comprehend. Ideological agents use the science of social engineering to spur deeper tribalism and hatred, instead of using the same technologies to bring people together.
We’ve seen an argument that atheism is inherently racist, because atheism promotes science, and science promoted eugenics and crimes like the Tuskegee syphilis study. But for every example you can come up with where science got blamed for harm like this, the actual culprits were always racism, capitalism, colonialism, and related systems of oppression. Those forces used science to further their objectives. You can use a knife to kill someone, to perform a life-saving surgery, or to spread peanut butter; it depends on the intentions and abilities of the person wielding the knife. Science did not do any of those things on its own, and atheism itself has nothing to do with whether people use science to abuse power.
Additionally, at the same time as some people and institutions committed crimes against humanity using science, other people used science to discover microbes, understand more about nutrition, develop cures, improve accessibility, and communicate quickly across great distances. If you think you would prefer to live without science, first think about how even the smallest of injuries or disabilities would lead to an early death, or at least prevent you from participating in society.
Think about early humans discovering how to knap flint, to plant and harvest crops, and later to forge metal–each of those developments came from the application of science. Even primativists, who long for simpler indigenous lifestyles, would depend on the sciences of tracking, shelter-building, foraging, and healing. All of these involve testing, learning about the causes, effects, and conditions for success, and communication of this knowledge with others, who can then test the process themselves.
Some scholars say “science” is a recent invention, born between the 16th and 18th centuries CE, because that is when Europeans began recording scientific theories based on evidence, and opening those theories up to the test of repeatability by others. Yet this ignores -even erases- centuries of scientific work performed outside Europe. When looking at achievements such as the pyramids of Egypt, Europeans and Americans have found it easier to suggest space aliens must have built those, rather than accept that older cultures had some fairly advanced means of studying and communicating their own technologies.
What to do?
In spite of their innocence -in the abstract- from good or evil, neither atheism nor science includes any inherent means for distinguishing right from wrong. Consequently they are easily adapted toward abusive people and purposes. Various groups have written manifestos or established committees to address this problem, but none of these come with the same sort of ingrained societal belief that early cultural leaders established through religion.
This establishment came about through colonialism and other forms of cultural domination. We must note that religion itself has a thick, deeply entrenched history of abuse, mass murder, and toxicity that equals anything one could attribute to science. Some trolls like to point to the millions killed under the rule of “atheist” Stalin, but those millions died due to imperialism, not irreligion; and again, untold millions more have suffered and died in the name of Christ or Allah.
We cannot presently go back in time to change the way humanity has developed to this point; but until our species finally expires altogether, we can build fresh new architectures, new trellises or waterways, to direct those lives now growing, and the generations to come. So the challenge before us is to simultaneously build trust in the scientific method, and frame that trust in guidance toward compassion and away from venal or amoral misuse.
Humanist organizations have done good work toward this goal, and they deserve our financial and vocal support. Whatever your personal belief system or political affiliation, you can find ways to promote scientific study over faith, while also promoting ethical and compassionate values in that context.
We founded Demonkind on this premise. Though just a new and small philosophical entity, we believe that a tiny pebble thrown can cause wide ripples to spread. We understand that for each of us to grow past the harmful actions of our ancestors -and ourselves– we must gaze unblinkingly into the darkness; we must accept the truths that we wish we did not see there; and we must make the correspondent changes in our actions that will help everyone become more free. As scientists we engage in ongoing experimentation, observation, and refinement of our understanding and our practices. As Demons we do so with a fire in our hearts for uplifting people rather than amoral systems.