Crisis of Faith: Science Denial and Western Civilization
Scientists—those who actually practice scientific research—understand that scientific findings are never final, are always subject of revision in light of new evidence. Still, those findings are routinely made the basis of public policies. They are the best knowledge we have about the problems we face.
That last sentence means different things to different people. For scientists, it is a straightforward statement of the state of our knowledge. For the rest of us, non-scientists, it is a statement of faith: we believe in the truth of what the scientists are telling us. Except some of us don’t believe it anymore.
For more than a century, since the late 19th century, science was believed by pretty much everybody. Christian fundamentalists refused to accept the evidence for evolution, but even they accepted Newtonian physics. What we heard from science was, for the vast majority of us, the Truth.
Now, increasing numbers of us don’t assume that such messages are true. A prominent feature of right-wing politics these days is skepticism or outright rejection of such scientific findings as the efficacy and safety of vaccines, and the dangers of global warming. Even those not on the Right get into the act: consider the widespread skepticism toward genetically modified crops and food.
This current crisis of faith in science is just the latest in a series going back centuries in Western civilization. If you go back to the Middle Ages in Western Europe, there was just The Church. But after a thousand years of hegemony, that Church had become corrupt and sclerotic. There was a crisis of faith in the Church: it was not meeting the spiritual needs of many people.
After a long and bloody struggle, the Protestants led by Luther and Calvin came to dominate in the North. In many cases the Protestants replaced the Catholics as the established churches. Henry VIII established the Anglican Church, breaking from Rome so he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Other Protestants, like the Anabaptists, followed the logic of the Reformation to split off and form independent religious communities.
In France and Southern Europe, the Catholics held on, but the openness to new ideas that characterized the Renaissance nonetheless undermined the Church’s authority. Anticlericalism questioned the secular authority of the Catholic hierarchy. Even where Catholicism remained established, fewer people were believers. The crisis of faith continued.
Growing from the Renaissance, a new truth, empirical science, began to emerge, first with Isaac Newton’s physics, later with such scholars as Joseph Priestley, and finally with the stunning theory of evolution developed by Charles Darwin. Even as religious leaders tried to keep faith alive, ever more people went to church on Sunday but lived secular lives.
By the late 19th century, religious faith had receded in importance, being replaced increasingly by a faith in science to point the way to a better life. Whether in industry or agriculture, whether in public health, medicine, or education, science was Truth. This high water mark of popular faith in science would last through the 20th century.
Now we live in a very different time, where the skeptics see science not as Truth, but rather as propaganda of the dominant elites to manipulate and control us. Acceotance of scientific findings is now correlated with partisan loyalties. Republicans are significantly less likely than Democrats to be fully vaccinated for Covid—and they have a correspondingly lower life expectancy.
Scientists, meanwhile, keep the faith. They do their research, they publish their findings, knowing that they are provisional, that they are not Truth, but are the best knowledge we have.
They are priests who keep the faith, but are losing the faithful.
What will we believe in next?
John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. After growing up in Florida and Georgia, he moved north as a teenager, and began a lifelong leftward migration. He’s been writing primarily for LA Progressive since 2008. He continues to live in central Pennsylvania.