Posted by: Becoming Gaia | Jul 4, 2010

Science is *NOT* Morally Neutral

Never mind that science is morally neutral and reason is used as often to upend as to build; the dangers of technology easily fade when we see clerics debasing faith through all sorts of moral outrages.
— David Wolpe, author of Why Faith Matters in the Washington Post (7/4/2010)

One of the more interesting and important aspects of the debate between religion and science is that religion claims to be a moral authority and morally positive while science generally makes no such claims.  Science doesn’t (indeed can’t) make the claim to morality (yet!) because morality has not been described adequately enough to create the necessary common understanding and agreement necessary to make such a claim within the rules of science.  Religion has no such rules limiting it and the power of moral legitimacy is such that not claiming it when it is available is almost inconceivable.

Unfortunately, the threat of science and government is so great, that most religions are also willing to grant other religions moral authority *despite* their own rules and despite the fact that those religions are promoting actions that are highly immoral in the granting religions view.  Apparently, the mere fact of claiming to be a religion (claiming a belief in a G*d — any god — and believing that that G*d has instructed you in what is moral) immediately makes you into a moral authority and makes you morally positive (unless, of course, you are deluded — maybe by ignorance, possibly by Satan/Shaitan).  This free pass makes complete sense in terms of preventing a religious “fight to the death” but doesn’t make sense when considering religions (or adherents) that not only insist that they are the one and only (as most Western religions and cults do) but actually act strongly, if not fanatically, upon that insistence.

Of course, what the argument between secularism and religion really boils down to is exactly what morality is — Is it “What is best for humanity” or “What G*d says”?  Someone who comes down on the side of religion will argue that the two arguments are the same — that G*d will instruct us in what is good for us.  Every religion is claiming moral authority for itself through the archetype of G*d.  The problem here is that we are receiving different instructions from different religions — each insisting that it is correct and each showing varying levels of tolerance for the others but more than willing to defend the group against outsiders/secularists.

The so-called “new atheists” have faith (or, a faith that says) that the belief in G*d is emphatically not what is “best for humanity”.  They are effectively claiming moral authority for themselves through the archetype of science.  They prosecute their case against religion by pointing out all the instances where religion was clearly not what was best for humanity but their arguments are critically, if not fatally, weakened by having no clear, understandable meme of what is best for humanity (morality) that would compel a flawed, selfish human to follow it.

One of the arguments for science being morally neutral is the claim that it is a tool (or a technology) that can be used for good or for evil.  Of course, exactly the same argument can be made about religion.  Consequential ethicists ask the questions “Has science brought more good than bad?” and “Has religion brought more good than bad?” but the answers are clearly up for grabs and easily manipulable to produce any results you want.  There are also the forecasting questions “Will following science bring more good than bad?” and “Will following a religion bring more good than bad?” which are equally subject to debate.

The fundamental problem is that we need to have a common understanding and agreement about what is good and bad.  Religious people will argue that we should accept the word of G*d for a common understanding and agreement about what is good and bad.  Secularists will argue that we should follow the rules of science and let the data tell us what is good and bad.  In this view, science is a process that should bring us into common understanding and agreement (since that is specifically what science is designed to do — impartially determine what is reproducible and what is not).

The most compelling argument for science and against religion as a moral *authority* should be that the end effect of the scientific process is to bring people with conflicting viewpoints into common understanding and agreement.  Through the ages, religion has done a lot of good because it is a social process that brings people together, keeps them together, and encourages good acts.  Also, through the ages, religion has done a lot of evil because it is a social process that separates people, keeps them apart, and frequently encourages bad acts against those with different beliefs.  For the latter reason alone, science is arguably a much better moral authority.

Many scientists studying morality are converging towards the belief that morality should be defined as those things that make a cooperative social life possible because a cooperative social life is the highest good for people in general and because, in a correctly structured society, cooperation is also what is best for the individual (because a correctly structured society will successfully ensure that this is the case). According to this belief, religion is good and moral in so far as it promotes cooperation with others. Also, according to this belief, religion is bad and immoral in so far as it promotes not cooperating.

Once the “new atheists” recognize what their own scientific process is telling them and end their crusade of refusing to cooperate with religious people is when we will start to make some real progress in making the world a better place. The scientific process is more than capable of forming a common understanding and agreement on good and bad if we all understood it and were willing to follow it. Religions now band together and refuse to police themselves and each other despite huge disagreements because they, correctly, perceive science as the biggest threat. The fact that they have only succeeded in painting science as morally neutral despite this is a testament to science’s true morality. Scientists need to wake up to this fact and promote the idea that science *can* help us not only to form a common understanding and appreciation for morality but also speed us along the way to a better life for all.


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