A Special Supplement to Religion in the
The Congruence Between the Scientific and the Secular
Barry A. Kosmin
Embedded in a
certain concept of modernity is the idea that science is a major building
block of the secular worldview and that the progress of science is, de
facto, the triumph of the secular worldview. This outlook arises from the
close historical, philosophical, and intellectual relationship between the
natural sciences and secular ideas and values.
indeed many points of congruence between the scientific and the secular,
including commitments to reason, skepticism, systematic knowledge,
empiricism, and the procedural aspects of scientific methodology—all of
which form the basis of a common commitment to the impartial generation of
truth. The methodical use of empirical data in scientific research accords
with the “worldly” focus of secular ideas and values. The scientific and the
secular appeal to the experience of ordinary people under relatively common,
and replicable, circumstances.
is thus properly considered an agent of secularization because of its
association with free inquiry and freedom of thought and expression. It also
qualifies by virtue of its role in undermining the superstition, ignorance,
and belief in magic that so often fostered fear and authoritarianism in
Revolution of the 17th century involved an unprecedented endeavor to secure
the autonomy of the scientific enterprise from religious authority. It
established core methodologies that investigators use when they experiment,
when they confirm what others have done, when they follow through on the
processes of not only generating but testing, confirming, and denying
knowledge of one sort or another. This cultivation of a naturalistic
worldview and a skeptical spirit encouraged believers and non-believers
alike to cultivate a new mental habit of demanding good, empirically
verifiable reasons for their beliefs and to reexamine the factual basis of
It was the
proponents of Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric universe who began using
the phrase libertas philosophandi (freedom of philosophizing—free
inquiry) which eventually found its way into the full title of Spinoza’s
famous Theological-Political Treatise of 1670. Galileo
pronounced the fundamental scientific principle that “Two truths cannot
contradict each other.”
In 1660, when
the famous Royal Society of London was founded, its members asserted that
science was based on the principle of testing ideas by experiment, adopting
as their motto “Nullius in verba,” which loosely translated means,
“Take nobody’s word for granted.” They also went on to commit themselves to
exclude matters of religion and politics from scientific discussions.
in terms of their ethos and organization, can also be viewed as the best
example of the triumph of the essentially secular ideas embodied in the
French Revolution’s slogan of Liberté, egalité, fraternité
and its promise of la carrière ouverte aux talents—meritocracy.
universality, objectivity, and commitment to meritocratic peer review,
science seems to admit of egalitarianism and real democracy more than any
other area of human enterprise. Its ethos leads to a universalism of good
ideas and empirical data that are accepted from whatever quarter they
Science has an
anti-authoritarian tradition based on the concept of self-generated human
progress—constantly reforming and refining itself from within without
external guidance. In the words of the sociologist Max Weber, science is a
secular “vocation” and “scientific work is chained to the course of
progress…; every scientific ‘fulfillment’ raises new ‘questions’; it asks
to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated.”
scientific education and research are commonly viewed as pillars of secular
lifestyles and social organizations that, as a matter of principle, reject
the authority of any particular religious association or doctrine. Along the
lines of Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated distinction between “negative” and
“positive” conceptions of freedom, science and secularism can thus be seen
as congruent because of their common endeavor to demarcate areas of human
action that are “free from” external, particularly religious, authority.
of science education and secular values has public policy importance in a
number of areas—particularly with respect to economic prosperity and
geopolitical strength. In the United States, the dream of harnessing
scientific progress to the betterment of all citizens arose during the
Progressive era in the early 20th century—the heyday of belief in the public
school and the birth of the research university.
Progressive idea of universal education and progress, exemplified in the
writings of John Dewey, was predicated on the notion that the form of
education that can truly empower individuals is scientific in spirit and
principle. It was originally propagated by a coalition of industrialists,
public servants, and academicians who believed that science and its
universal method of knowledge acquisition could unify the nation and
generate economic and social progress.
assumed that science was and should be value-neutral and indifferent to the
varied identities and beliefs of an increasingly diverse American nation.
The Progressives professed that the “indifference” of science—its
disinterested search for truth—was basic to its credibility and strength.
Yet in our
time this ideology, which conceives of science as a common good embodying
value-neutral knowledge, has come to be disputed by certain communities that
feel threatened by the implications of scientific research for their own
academy, a fashionable relativist and postcolonial outlook belittles the
achievements of science and instead valorizes “local knowledge” grounded in
indigenous or ancient conceptual categories. More importantly, science has
come under challenge from a resurgent religious fundamentalism, which above
all seeks to protect young people from being taught scientific ideas that
seem to threaten religious beliefs.
the very triumph of science has enhanced its vulnerability to these forms of
“skepticism.” As it has advanced and grown, science has become more complex
and harder for ordinary people to comprehend. In an age when technology is
increasingly user-friendly, it is easy to be indifferent, alienated, or
hostile to the scientific enterprise while indulging in the benefits of
science-based high-tech industry.
gap between the scientific community, as a perceived elite, and much of the
general public has gradually eroded the status of science as a common good.
Even though most Americans still claim to value science highly and believe
it will continue to make their lives better, too many steer clear of it in
As a result,
the traditional model of science education now appears more elusive than
ever before. Although parents recognize that their children’s future depends
on a good education, the swell of scientific illiteracy prevents them from
assessing with confidence and clarity what actually constitutes a good
It is not too
much to say that the dream of science for all has become an empty cliché
rather than a source of personal inspiration. The result is a mood of
ambivalence and confusion among many science educators.
In order to
better understand what the educational system is up against, the ISSSC
undertook two initiatives in the summer of 2006. One was an academic
workshop on “science education and secular values” featuring papers by
leading experts in the area of science education and scientific literacy.
Abridged versions of three of these papers are included in this supplement.
the ISSSC sponsored an essay contest for Connecticut high school students.
Its rather revolutionary aim was to learn something of what was happening on
the ground by directly asking the rising, techno-savvy generation of young
people to explain the unpopularity of science among their peers. A short
report on what they had to say follows.
say, science as a model of human growth and development neither can nor
should be immune from scrutiny and debate. Questions inevitably arise.
What is the
nature of authority in science? Do problems in science classrooms reflect
broader problems concerning the public understanding of science? What level
of science literacy is necessary or desirable for the ordinary citizen?
concern be on the inputs (what is taught to students) or on the outputs
(what is learned)? Can the teaching of science in institutions of public
education be predicated on the assumption that it benefits every student,
regardless of his or her cultural identity or personal aspirations? How can
the claim to know what benefits other persons, which is either implied or
explicitly professed in contemporary treatises on science education, be
squared with the ideal of freedom of choice?
It is only
appropriate that our authors do not all agree on the answers.