Mon, Oct 10, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Enlightenment on trial ... again

It took centuries for science to carve out its own sphere, away from politics and religion, but now this independence is once more under threat from dogmatism

By Helga Nowotny

Ugly debates about religion and science usually seem to be confined to the US. In recent months, however, such debates have begun to spread -- first to Europe and then around the world. Science, it seems, is drifting into political dangers it has not faced since before the Enlightenment.

Europe began its own American-style debate on the origins of life when Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna cast doubt on the acceptability of Darwinism and evolutionary theory to people who see themselves as faithful Roman Catholics. The cardinal argued that evolution is the work of God and that evolutionary theory should be interpreted in that light and no other.

With Schonborn's intervention, the peace between science and religion that in Old Europe had held almost since the Enlightenment -- and at least since the historically hard-won eviction of the church from politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- seemed suddenly to have been broken. Revealed truth, the cardinal seemed to say, must be accorded primacy over the truths science reveals through reason.

This is not to say that religious sentiment or, in the case of Germany, bitter historical experience stemming from the Nazi era, had not informed other European debates, say, on the ethics of stem-cell research. Indeed, the religious background of Europe's nations clearly manifested itself in various European laws on such research, with the UK and Sweden being the most liberal and Italy, Austria and Poland the most restrictive. But none of these debates directly challenged the role of science in society or posed, as Schonborn did, the idea that religion and science are potentially incompatible.

Following the cardinal's declaration, many pointed to the US as a warning sign of the dangers inherent in politicizing science through religion. They noted that US President George W. Bush had sided openly with those who want to make evolutionary theory optional in schools' science curricula.

The reason that such pseudo-science has prevailed in so many US schools is directly related to America's tremendously decentralized school system, which allows committed local groups of the religious-minded to reshape the curriculum. The power of faith-based movements in the US is undeniable, and their influence in other areas where science and politics meet, including the availability of certain drugs -- the so-called "morning after" pill being one example -- is growing.

It is unlikely that European schools, because of their structure, can be invaded by "creationism." Yet Europe should not think itself immune to this problem.

When dogmatic faith enters politics, compromises on controversial issues, which are indispensable in a democracy, become difficult to achieve. This is because fundamental values -- as opposed to, say, the distribution of material resources -- are seen as being non-negotiable. The danger is that scientific decisions with a scientific-technical component are no longer subject to study or rational argument, but instead are fought over by various interest groups, with some invariably claiming that their taxes should be used to fund only research that is compatible with their values.

Debates about the nature and benefits of science are not confined to the US and Europe. When South Korea's National University announced the first-ever successful cloning of a dog, the news triggered arguments about science and society throughout Asia. Although the language of religion was not used overtly, the debate in Asia reflected the same fears that science is somehow "out of control" and far too powerful.

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