The Religious Enclave in the House of Science

15 Apr 2010 // science

If you believe what they say in newspapers, you might get the impression that science is a fundamentally atheist institution, irrevocably opposed to religious organizations of any sort. After all, if you wandered down the halls of a typical research institution and conducted a straw poll, chances are, you will encounter a fervent atheist, a hardened warrior against the irrationality of religion.

Indeed, it might easily be argued, given the scientist's supposed penchant for rational scepticism, that science, as an institution, is fundamentally opposed to religious behavior. Of course, there are high profile religious mavericks such as Francis Collins, but one could argue that the liberal attitude of science to social mores means that there will always be room for eccentrics.

However, if you the scratch surface and look carefully around you, you will find that a surpising number of scientists in the middle to junior ranks are religious, often fully committed members of a local church. I was made aware of this several years ago as I got in the elevator with a an older, conservative colleague from China. As I greeted him, I noticed that he was listening to his brand new iPod, which at the time was a shiny new thing. I had badly wanted one then, and found it hard to imagine that my colleague was such a fashion junkie. So, curious to know more about his uber-desirable gadget, I asked him what music he was listening to. He answered, "oh, I am not listening to music, I am listening to my pastor's sermons."

I believe that the existence of this enclave of religion in scientific institutions is not by accident. Rather, it is a direct result of how modern science is organized as a social institution, especially in the United States. Here's the reason: science, as it's practised in the United States, is like a factory. It demands of individuals to work like a pluggable creative unit with few concession for the fact that they are human beings with desires, needs and human frailties.

Science is a hard industry to crack, harder than say, accounting, but still considerably easier than acting or professional sport. Many years ago, it used to be the case that most people who obtained a Phd inevitably found a position as an academic. But after the massive expansion of the higher education system after the GI Bill, we have found ourselves with a glut of postdocs compared to the number of position that allows them to move on up. An army of postdoc researchers that serve a much smaller number of professors. Indeed in elite colleges, superhuman abilities to work hard are desirable, a process that grinds through postdocs like meat.

Structurally, science is an anti-family institution. Graduate students from all around the world are brought into labs all around the United States, where one is expected to slave away for the prime years of your lives working on extremely difficult research projects. Job security is poor. The pay is low and one is expected to move at the drop of a hat, or in most cases, at the drop of a a grant. It demands of a researcher a monastic like commitment at an age when people in other industries are starting families. People who do start families in science normally rely on a spouse who has regular employment.

Science also attracts a certain type of personality. The obsessed and somewhat socially awkward type of person. These are not people who travel well. They are not people who love to master new languages, try out new foods, learn the music of foreigners, learn foreign ritual. Life becomes a rich diet of work but a social desert. Many of these individuals have traveled half-way around the world to live in foreign country – devoid of social support and other such niceties, and unable to enjoy the cultural comforts of a foreign culture. It is assumed that with their devotion to science, they are expected to rise above the frailties of, well, being human.

Except many don't: they get depressed, lonely, and culturally isolated. They have few friends outside lab, no family or spouses. On weekends, instead of looking for fun and fullfilling things to do, they sit in the lab. The experiments are bound to fail at some point and it is precisely then that a tight-knit support of a social group keeps one sane. If they had one.

Is it any surprise then that these types of scientists find solace in religion? The work of David O. Wilson has really shed a lot of light onto the evolutionary function of religions. The point of religious beliefs is not so much that their beliefs are objectivably believable in themselves, but the beliefs are necessary to shape how a particular community behaves towards its members. The true function of religions is to provide a social structure. The church groups that spring around scientists don't just provide a belief system, but they provide a massive infracture of support – things to do, a social support group, a ready pool of friends, people who care about you, and more often than not, potential spouses.

It is exactly this that the institution of science does not provide. Nature, one might say, abbhors a vacuum, even a social one. In the psychic void found in the the academy, religion has rushed in to fill the void. Ironically, it is the social support provided by these church groups that maintains the sanity of these religious scientists. As they cope with their horredously difficult scientific projects, the frontiers of science advance once again.