Culture At Large

Children of atom, children of Eve

Robert Joustra

Are you smarter than the average American, at least when it comes to science and religion?

Following separate surveys in recent years on those two topics, the Pew Research Center has made quiz versions available online for the public. Now you can weigh your own knowledge on science and religion against those who were first polled.

Looking back at the results of the original surveys, the results were grim. The report on the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey showed atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions. To be clear, it’s not that they run so fast. It was a slow race. On average, Americans correctly answered only 16 out of 32 religious knowledge questions. The report on the Public’s Knowledge of Science and Technology also shows some tough results. Only 58% surveyed knew global warming was related to carbon dioxide.

What went wrong?

Apathy this widespread, this basic, is more than education failure. It’s about broken trust. Epistemology, they say, is how you go about knowing something such that you trust the results of the knowing process. We have a crisis of epistemology, which is really a crisis of trust.

Science and religion have created us, and for better or worse, like bickering parents, their tensions and their infections are manifest in us.

The decline of religion in North America is a well-worn story by now, even if the secularization thesis hasn’t entirely delivered on itself. But disenchantment with the religious is certainly not in question, a reactionary secularism having taken its toll in a country (pointedly not a globe) where religious knowledge is increasingly characterized by curiosity and confusion. Science, on the other hand, overawed the human psyche for much of the 20th century, but gradually, incrementally, its abuses and powers provoked more fear than awe: atom bombs, killer drones, corporate pillaging. The shift from science-fiction utopianism to dystopia has been subtle but sure: gone are predictive feats of psychohistory or federations of solidarity. Here, instead, are the sins of our parents, a ledger to be balanced, a trek into darkness.

Science and religion have created us, and for better or worse, like bickering parents, their tensions and their infections are manifest in us. Religion promised solidarity and peace, but it divided and polarized. Science promised progress and enlightenment, but it built systems of mass destruction, of terrible powers that bruised our imaginations and scorched our planet.  

But justified or not, betrayal and its reactionary criticisms cannot gain a truer understanding of the world. Totalized criticism, says Oliver O’Donovan, is the modern form of intellectual innocence, the apex of adolescence, but not a happy apex sadly, because by elevating suspicion to the dignity of a philosophical principle it destroys trust and makes learning impossible.

It is said that maturity in relation to our parents consists in going beyond a belief in their omniscience and a disdain for their weakness. Increasingly, it seems, Americans are choosing  - or having chosen for them - the ironic detachment of disgruntled children, trading off a limited inheritance, casually acknowledged, if that. Some of what science and religion taught us was important, but we try not to act too impressed. We’ll just be disappointed again, so we no longer trust. And like parents who rehearse their mistakes, I’ll bet those deeply engaged in both science and religion fret. Because failing a quiz here and there on whether helium causes global warming may not kill you - but then again, it just might.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Other Religions