Editorial note: The following critique of the secular left will surely ruffle some feathers, so be forewarned. However, the essay is not intended to offend anyone or any group. Rather, it is intended to spur some self-reflection among my fellow liberals, progressives, and secularists regarding issues larger than the individual causes we each support. The world today faces unprecedented existential crises. To have any chance of remedy, we must rediscover who and what we are and to rally around those core values. The great diversity of the Left is not the problem, but our internal fracturing is.
By Robert A. Vella
Early in my grammar school education, I developed a special interest in science that later became my greatest passion. What led me in that direction is difficult to say. Perhaps it was simply the realization that I was good at science, so good in fact that the few grades I received lower than an A annoyed me. The lone C grade I received for high school chemistry still bothers me to this day. Once I started attending college, I knew my career path would be in the academic sciences or technology fields. My heart was set on astronomy, specifically cosmology; but, I ended up pursuing a computer profession because it provided the most promising job prospects at the time.
One of the first things I noticed in my formative science education was that most of the other students didn’t like science classes and/or didn’t perform well in them. It seemed as though us kids who did succeed were different somehow. Maybe our brains were better wired for the intense focus and monotonous rigor necessary for scientific studies, I don’t know. My brother, for example, was so disinclined towards science that he quit college and pursued a blue-collar career. In any case, whatever made us different caused a social schism of sorts. We, the science “nerds,” were the unpopular minority. We didn’t relate well to the others, and few of them understood or even cared about us. Most strikingly, a communication gap was evident.
As I progressed in the post-college working world, I noticed something else peculiar. My orientation towards science began eliciting resistance from family, friends, and acquaintances. It was hard finding anyone willing to listen to me if I brought up any science-related topic. Once, my fiancé and I stopped at Donner Summit in the Sierra Nevada mountains on the clearest night I’d ever seen. The brilliant multi-colored stars and planets were a radiantly spectacular scene! As I identified and described several of the stunning celestial bodies, my mate became bored, then irritated, then demanded we continue homeward. I wondered why she couldn’t appreciate the exquisite beauty of that very unique moment. She never did say, nor did I ever ask.
But, that isolated incident was just a taste of things to come. By this time, Ronald Reagan was President and the Christian fundamentalist Moral Majority was making itself heard. My scientific perspective was no longer being met with disinterest or ridicule, but with confrontational disagreement and occasional hostility. It was obvious that the faithful had become overtly anti-science especially concerning the subject of evolution and the big-bang theory of the universe. Even casual discussions frequently turned into heated arguments. Basic scientific principles, verifiable facts, and generally accepted knowledge, were now being openly contested on a societal scale. It was the Scopes Monkey Trial multiplied thousands of times.
This religious fervor persisted in America, ebbing and flowing slightly over the following decades. By the 2000s, I began to notice another anti-science, anti-empiricism attitude rising in the country. It was coming neither from the “science is for nerds” crowd nor from evangelicals, but typically from religious “de-converts” who had left their churches for the rationalism of New Atheism or for the secular spiritualism of eclectic belief systems such as pantheism, Gaiaism (i.e. naturism), and gender feminism (see: Are gender feminists and transgender activists undermining science? and: Feminists should end their distrust of science).
This new amorphous anti-science movement coincided with the rise of far-right nationalist populism which culminated in the election of President Trump. Prior to his electoral victory in 2016, conservative politics in America was already deeply lost in the “alternative facts” virtual universe epitomized by Fox News. After his inauguration, Trump began aggressively attacking the legitimate news media with his “fake news!” mantra. Consequently, the best objective frame of reference we humans have ever created – empirical science – had come under siege from both sides of the cultural and political spectrum.
Now, subjective opinion has been elevated above verifiable evidence and real facts while debate over social issues has become perpetual with the marginalization of our only impartial arbiter. This is intrinsically an anarchical situation where those who can wield the most power and force determine the outcome. Civilization, under these rules, cannot endure.
I have asked myself repeatedly how and why this has happened. Aside from the natural aversion to science felt by many people which I described in the first part of this essay, is there any commonality between religious fundamentalists and those who have de-converted from religion? From my own Catholic upbringing, I found a possible answer.
In the biblical story of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2–3), God forbids Adam and Eve from eating the forbidden fruit on the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” They are seduced by a serpent (identified as Satan or the Devil in the Book of Revelation) to violate God’s order which gets them expelled from paradise and prevents them from ever again eating from the “tree of life” (i.e. immortality). Allegorically, the “tree of knowledge” could easily represent the scientific pursuit of knowledge. Does the story convey the message that to seek knowledge is to serve Satan? If so, how ingrained is this message in our collective psyche? Can the persistent decline in America’s secular public education system bring this subconscious memory to the surface? How many of us today instinctually feel that science is somehow evil?
I’ll close with some quotes from the two articles previously cited.
From the Los Angeles Times piece by Debra W. Soh who is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto:
Distortion of science hinders progress. When gender feminists start refuting basic biology, people stop listening, and the larger point about equality is lost.
Both the gender feminist and transgender movements are operating with good intentions — namely, the desire to obtain the dignity women and transgender people rightly deserve. But it’s never a good idea to dismiss scientific nuances in the name of a compelling argument or an honorable cause. We must allow science to speak for itself.
From The Guardian piece by Angela Saini who is a freelance science journalist and author:
The problem is that dismissing science as a body of knowledge means ignoring the best means we have of understanding ourselves. Like all sets of ideas, we need to see science for what it is: an imperfect but promising road to the facts. Correcting itself along the way – and there’s no doubt that corrections are needed – it explains our bodies, minds and place in the universe.
Further reading: The Liberals’ War on Science