‘Most people don’t have the time to be concerned with systems of ideas, because they have day jobs’

By John H. Evans

Chris Nurse – Skull Crucifixion-Wellcome Images

John H. Evans offers a sociologists’ view on science and religion debates

John H Evans is the author of Playing God? Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate  and Playing God? Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate. Here, he talks to Tom Kaden, one of the Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum team about sociology and debates about science and religion.

Tom Kaden: So welcome, John Evans, to this talk. Could you first of all please say a little about who you are and your general areas of study?

John H. Evans: My name is John Evans. I’m a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego. I was trained as what’s called a sociologist of religion. The basic difference between a sociologist of religion and, for example, a theologian, is a theologian makes arguments based upon faith presuppositions, like the bible was influenced by God or something like that. A sociologist of religion makes claims about religious people, religious institutions, using secular forms of argument, mostly through social science.

TK: So today we would like to focus on your research on the relationship between science and religion. It seems that much public discussion about science and religion takes place at a philosophical level, with a typical question being, ‘Are modern science and religious belief inherently in conflict with one another?’ But your research, although it focuses on science and religion, differs from this significantly. Can you say a little about those differences?

JE: I think the one major divide that we have to make in order to understand this is the difference between academics, professors, theologians and other, what I would call, elites, and how they make these arguments versus regular citizens in western countries. So to start with, the professors and scientists, and the debate that they’re having, that debate is best described as a conflict. Not over all issues and all times but there is often conflict between people about religious and scientific claims about the natural world. And there’s entire groups of academics who try to synthesise the two so that there isn’t a conflict.

So to start answering your question, among scientists, philosophers and theologians, there has been this conflict over, I would say, knowledge claims about the world that is often resolved by people adjusting their systems. And of course the most famous cases are conflicts that were not resolved. So the small group of Americans who you would call protestant fundamentalists, do make a competing knowledge claim with scientists and would say that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and any geologist will tell you that it’s much older than that. So that’s the academic debate.

Now, what I think is interesting as a sociologist, is the religion and science debate that regular citizens of the United States are having. And while you can point to some conflicts over fact claims about the world, in actuality, there’s very little of that. And what’s much more pervasive are conflicts over the social implications or values of science. So to take an obvious example, some conservative protestant traditions are opposed to embryonic stem cell research because they believe that human embryos are deserving of protection and they perceive scientists as taking a moral stance advocating destroying these embryos. So there’s this moral conflict with science, which I believe is much more pervasive in the contemporary west than a knowledge conflict for regular citizens.

TK: So if moral questions or questions of social cohesion, or social order, are actually prevalent in shaping the relationship between science and religion, why is it that certain parts of certain elites, as you’ve just explained, keep insisting that it is, in fact, about epistemology? What is it about conflicts between systems of facts that appears to be better explaining the situation, when in fact it’s not?

JE: Well, one of the classic problems could be called the conceit of professors, which is… professors tend to think that all problems are essentially intellectual idea problems and that if everyone in society just had the correct ideas that the professor happens to have themselves, then all problems would be solved. So, to give you an example of this, the field of bioethics could be defined by philosophers saying that they just need to come up with the correct moral answer for some bioethical conundrum and that’s  all that needs to be done. Whereas in actuality, that doesn’t begin to solve any of the problems. Academics tend to think that everything are these idea systems and knowledge claims because that’s what they do.

So in this particular debate, this is exacerbated by the fact that scientists’ self-perception is that the only thing that they do is to make fact claims about nature. So scientists would say, what I do is I determine how the grass grows or how the planets move, et cetera, and that’s all that I do. So they perceive, ‘Well, then if there’s anyone who’s in conflict with me, it must be over fact claims about nature because that’s all that I do’.

And so, at the elite level, elites tend to think this way and then they project on to the regular public. The regular public is similarly concerned, but the sociological reality of most people’s lives is that they don’t have the time to be concerned with overarching idea systems or logical relationships between systems of ideas because, you know, to put it crassly, they have day jobs – whereas theologians are paid to come up with these systems of ideas. So that’s the primary problem in my view, which is that people don’t really think about how regular citizens’ lives are not conducive to – and regular citizens are not rewarded in any way for – coming up with these systems and beliefs that academics think everyone has.

TK: Another question that is actually related to what you’ve been saying about the relation between our fact claims and moral claims, would then be, why is it that some parts of what we now call science or scientific knowledge are more prone to be connected with those moral issues than others? So if there is conflict between science and religion, why does it always seem to be about a number of issues like cloning, like human evolution, but not about other facets of science?

JE: That’s a very good question. I think that it’s the, sort of, back and forth reciprocal process where issues that get defined as moral in a society, in a western society, typically have religious overtones to them. And so, you know, though shalt not murder. Well there’s secular reasons for that law but there’s also traditional religious injunctions about that. But there really haven’t been any modern religious injunctions against, for example, just discovering how planets move around.

So I think what’s happened in recent years is quite interesting. If you look at the American context and you look what was big science in the 1950s. What was the science that was on the front of magazines? And it was essentially physics, nuclear weapons and things like this. ‘Science’ was really thought to be primarily about those sorts of questions, which really don’t have religious overtones at all in the western religious context and have not been thought of as particularly moral.

But if you get to the 1960s, all of a sudden there’s this biological turn to the body, and post-1960s science begins to develop technologies that are to do with the human body and that have never been there before. In the 60s, there was debate about organ transplantation, which was quite the new issue in the 50s and 60s. People debated mind control. People debated human genetic engineering and cloning and on and on, issues like these that were essentially about the human body. Well, you can argue that religions, at least western religions and Christianity in particular, has been very concerned with the human body and there’s a lot of moral religious teachings about the human body and so therefore you create this conflict, this moral conflict.

So to the extent to which scientists are perceived as advocating a particular position on some technology of the body, such as reproductive cloning, such as embryonic stem cell research, and so on and so forth, they’re seen as taking a moral stance on that, which then would conflict with some Christian traditions in the United States.

TK: What would you say are the priorities for building a better understanding of religion and science, for us?

JE: I think a lot would be accomplished by people better understanding both religion and science and religious people being more self-reflective and scientists being more self-reflective. On the side of understanding, people should understand more about science and I think what they need to understand, and scientists should often be better at admitting, is that science is not simply about discovering facts about the natural world. Nor is it simply about manipulating that world through technology. To do either of those requires a normative perspective that’s often advocated.

So, you know, scientists advocate for some consensual human values such as the reduction of suffering, that every religious person would agree with, and the value of inquiry, which every religious person would agree with. But there’s often things that are a bit more controversial that scientists don’t often see, such as the very notion of control of nature. This Promethean notion that the point of knowledge is to change and control. So that would be one.

I think people also need to have a much better understanding of what religion is. So, for example, I think that all of these debates would be much improved if people realised that a lot of the religions in the West really have not had any knowledge conflict with science, certainly for the past 70 years. Judaism, with the possible exception of some Hassidic Orthodox folks, really has no conflict with science over facts about nature at all. You could argue that mainline Protestantism was invented to solve the problem of a conflict between knowledge, and there remain no knowledge conflicts.

Catholicism has the same issue as mainline Protestantism and every pope since the twentieth century forward has proclaimed the autonomy of science and the Catholic Church has many moral disagreements with science but no fact claims. Now there is a tradition that does make some fact claim conflicts with science, which is conservative Protestantism. But I think if people recognise that this isn’t a universal feature of all religions, but is a particular feature of one religion that historians have pointed out exactly why it developed this conflict, I think that everyone would have a bit more understanding.

TK: You spoke just now about scientists being more aware of the values underlying current scientific practice. Would you go further and say that scientists should refrain from value judgements – or do you think this is even possible?

JE: Yeah actually, I don’t think it’s possible because, you know, the best way to describe most scientists who are involved with government bioethics commissions is that they are incredibly strong advocates the moral value of the relief of suffering. But they see nothing else. It’s like a very limited set, whereas everyone agrees with them about the reduction of suffering but then they add additional values that they think should be considered.

So I don’t think that scientists can, or should, ignore the values. I don’t think science can be value neutral, nor should it be. However, I do think it should be reflective about what it’s actually doing. Because part of the ideology of science is to say that we have no values, we are essentially value neutral. Whereas in actuality, it should be acknowledged that the vast majority of science is promoting a value that is quite supported by most people in Western societies, which is again, the reduction of suffering. So, you know, scientists should lay claim to that and be proud of it. But I think that oftentimes many scientists add additional values that they’re promoting, that they should simply be explicit and self-conscious about.

TK: Professor Evans, thank you very much.

JE: Thank you very much.

John H Evans is Tata Chancellor’s Chair in Social Sciences, Professor of Sociology, Associate Dean of the Social Sciences, and co-founder/co-director of the Institute for Practical Ethics at the University of California, San Diego. For more see his Research Profile.