Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Democracy, science, and the Golden Calf

Posted by metaphorical on 11 March 2007

One of my best friends’ daughters had her bat mitzvah yesterday. At their synagogue the initiate picks the day’s reading from the Torah. She then gives a talk about it—the morning’s sermon, if you will (though most rabbis annoyingly can’t keep themselves from commenting on it afterward, making sure we know who has the upper hand in their houses. This one was no exception.)

Her reading was the story of the Golden Calf, from Exodus.

To refresh your recollection, Moses is up on the mount with God for longer than the Israelites expected, and it’s the last straw from some of them. Moses has dragged his people out Egypt (from slavery, sure, but it’s the only home they know). He’s insisted they worship this totally inanimate insubstantial God. And now he has seemingly abandoned them in the middle of the desert, somewhere between home and promised land. So they complain to Aaron, Moses’s nebbishy brother. Facing a revolt, Aaron has everyone give him their gold earrings, which he melts down into the Golden Calf. God sees his people worshiping an idol, which is a pretty serious offense. He and Moses are quite upset. God tells Moses to get some folks together for some smiting. Moses has his people, the Levites, punish the people.

The bat mitzvah girl thought God was overly harsh. Her first argument was that they were still worshiping God, just differently. Her second was that since the 10 commandments weren’t yet received, the people weren’t sinning, since they hadn’t really assimilated the rule against idol-worship. They didn’t really know better yet, was her argument.

She and the rabbi then debated the issue, in the sense that he told her what he thought, and she stood there and listened. If I understood him correctly, the rabbi said that the punishment of the people was really God teaching Moses a lesson. Neither of them mentioned what that punishment consisted of—the slaughter of 3000 people, including friends and neighbors. Some lesson. God was ready to kill everyone and start over, as with Noah, but Moses persuaded him otherwise.

Whatever you believe or don’t believe about the Judeo-Christian God, I myself find the Golden Calf pretty hard to understand as a religious story. One of my college teachers read the Bible as a collection of political lessons, and for me, this is a great place for that.

God in the Bible is always the source of legal authority. In a democracy authority comes from a free people coming to an agreement with one another about what the law is, but for an authoritarian society, such as that of the Israelites, a ruler’s authority comes from God. In a democracy, God is the social contract and the law is a covenant with one another. For Israel, the covenant was between God and Moses and the law was handed down from God. Moses was in charge because he had God’s ear.

On this understanding, Aaron, Moses’s delegate while he was on the mountain, faced a revolt. He forged a compromise. Moses returned in time to reassert his authority. He killed his enemies. Perhaps Aaron would have been amenable to democratic rule. We’ll never know. Moses returned and his authoritarianism persisted for many generations.

It’s no coincidence that the Bush administration is the most authoritarian this country has had in decades, probably ever, and that it is the most religious. It’s also no coincidence that it is opposed to science.

Science, as it was invented by the Greeks and has been perfected over five centuries since the Enlightenment, is the democratic process of determining what it is rational to believe. It is an agreement we have made with one another to share our perceptions and intuitions, and to reason from them, all in a way that can be shared, which is to say published and replicated.

The opponents of science would rather get their standard of belief from authority. The fundamentalist Christians choose a book, the fundamentalist Muslims do the same (but a different one); other anti-science people can choose yet a third and a fourth authoritative source of belief. It doesn’t much matter.

It’s no coincidence that the founding document of the U.S. doesn’t mention God, and it’s no coincidence that Ben Franklin (America’s Noah), and Thomas Jefferson (America’s Moses), were the most scientific of the founding fathers. It’s also no coincidence that we’re finally, in the last few years, seeing some pushing back by atheists and agnostics. It was all fine and well when science’s place in our culture was secure, through the 1960s and 1970s. Religion was a source of friendship and charity. Back then Christianity, like astrology, was fun.

Since then, the fundamentalists have changed all that. Those in the administration are hollowing out the institutions of government. They are as opposed to democratic determinations of what to do (law) as what to believe (science). Atheists are digging in and speaking out not because they fear theology but because they fear theocracy.

My best friend (and his rabbi), could worry a little bit more about the role of religion in a democracy, or his daughter’s daughter won’t live in one. Given the eternal Christian infatuation with Israel, the synagogues are probably safe, but probably not the mosques, and if the science labs still stand at all, we’ll see how well they’re funded. The fundamentalists are serious in their authoritarian project. Those of us who prefer science and democracy need to be as well.

“Unique among nations, America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. And because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different. We have no king but Jesus.” — John Ashcroft, 8 May 1999, at Bob Jones University

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10 Responses to “Democracy, science, and the Golden Calf”

  1. Vicki said

    It’s also no coincidence that we’re finally, in the last few years, seeing some pushing back by atheists and agnostics.

    And by quite a few Christians, as well, who are just as upset over this anti-science administration as you are. I freely acknowledge that mainstream Christianity isn’t doing 10% of what it should be doing in this arena, but its efforts are not absent, nor do mainstream Christians buy into the anti-science mindset.

    Back then Christianity, like astrology, was fun.

    Back then Christianity was a serious and important way of life to a lot of people. Most emphatically NOT like astrology. Most emphatically. I’m having problems being emphatic enough here.

    Since then, the fundamentalists have changed all that.

    Yes, they’ve given Christians as a group a bad name.

    Atheists are digging in and speaking out not because they fear theology but because they fear theocracy.

    So do a great many Christians. I do wish that they/we were much much more vocal about it.

    Those of us who prefer science and democracy and the Christianity espoused by Jesus Christ need to be as well.

  2. “Back then Christianity was a serious and important way of life to a lot of people. Most emphatically NOT like astrology.” It was serious (“a source of friendship and charity”) and fun both. The non-rational believers of Christianity weren’t threatening (astrology isn’t threatening to science), in the way they are now.

  3. digglahhh said

    Let’s be cautious of setting up a false dichotomy here. I think it is useful to take a more postmodern approach to defining religion, or religious zealots even. Yes, the ruling body of our country are fundamentalists, but the religion they worship is capitalism. Even science can function as a religion. A religion is merely a set of beliefs and blind faith in any set of beliefs is the foundation of fundamentalism. Science defines reality in its own terms and dismisses that which does not agree with it, just like traditional religions.

    Science is usually cast as the hero opposite the villain that is religion, but that ignores the huge corollary between the two. Often parroted is that more people have been killed in the name of religion than anything else. Well, what do those people use to kill? Science. What is our greatest fear? Religious groups with access to the most scientifically advanced weapons available.

    So, fundamental scientists march on. Science advances in general disregard of whether or not humankind is responsible enough to handle to power of the newest innovations. Nuclear weaponry, cloning, MK Ultra and on and on. Science progresses with no reflection on whether or not its progression is helping or harming humanity on the whole. We have the capability of doing it, so we do it- that is scientific zealotry.

    Science, just as religion, can be used to heal or kill. Belief systems take on the morality of those who manifest them, not the reverse. Christianity can’t heal a person, but people can heal Christianity.

    Threaten science, threaten religion, threaten this, threaten that. The only thing that is moral is that which threatens immorality and either cam take any form.

  4. Digglahhh, can you give some examples of things that Science (there are some problems with treating Science as a monolith, but we can leave those aside for the moment) dismisses? From where I sit, science investigates, with experiments and an open mind, even things that are easy to dismiss, such as astrology, faith healing, and homeopathy, to name just three.

    The question of science’s relentless pursuit of innovation (a distinction can be made between science and engineering, and discovery vs innovation, but let’s not bother here) is quite a different thing. The argument usually made is that the innovation is going to occur anyway. There’s no shortage of examples here, Edison and Tesla for electricity, Edison and Bell for the telephone, Edison and Armstrong for the radio. (In other words, even for arguably the greatest inventor of all time, Edison, his great inventions would probably have been invented without him.)

    So for example, we used law and public policy to exclude automotive innovation from the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. But it couldn’t be kept out forever, and we paid a price by delaying its introduction into the U.S. economy. (We’re still paying that price – Toyota will this year surpass the ailing General Motors as the largest car company in the world.)

    We can debate whether science (and engineering) have made our lives better or worse, when everything is taken into account, but it’s a fairly abstract argument, because no one has found a way to stop innovation or put the genie back in the bottle once something has been invented.

  5. digglahhh said

    Not treating science as a monolith is probably better for argument as well. Science itself does not dismiss things, rather those myopically devoted to believing only that which can be scientifically proven do.

    It is easy to pick on outlandish beliefs that fly in the face of science, like the president of Gambia claiming that he has mystical powers and herbs that can cure AIDS in three days. But, are you a kook because you believe in a scientifically unprovable universal consciousness?

    It is the connotation associated with science takes on that’s the problem. Scientific lexicon is bestowed with a sense of progress, not unlike the divinity implied in calling somebody a “disciple” of something.

    Innovation, as a word has adopted a positive connotation, though in and of itself it is a neutral act. Do we refer to innovative torture techniques? Even when those techniques are are the product of scientific innovation?…

    People are responsible for healthy or destructive manifestations of religion, as they are with science. They are vessels through which emotions, values or morals can be expressed. The map is not the territory, so to speak.

    In trying comment on science as a beleif system, not as a monolith per se, but as a voice representative of the collective body of the scientific community, I ask if it does not play the same territorial games as religion? It does differentiate between “hard” science and social science. It casts judgment on certain scientific fields as pseudo-scientific. Banished to limbo, are the Terrence Mckenna types. Where does the mystic tradition fit in this dichotomy?

    Religion itself doesn’t even “dismiss” as much as we often claim it does either. Much of that is open the interpretation of the reader.

    At end of the day, my argument is that science and religion, in the way they are is often juxtaposed (including here), is a false dichotomy.

  6. You are a kook if you structure your life around the existence of something that’s unprovable, yes. “Unprovable” is quite different from “unproven,” of course.

    Science does progress, in that its knowledge is cumulative. Whether you like computers, for example, there’s no denying they’re smaller, cheaper, and better. We understand roads, engines, dinosaurs, and germs better today than a 100 years ago. Perhaps you can describe how religions progress in a comparable way.

  7. digglahhh said

    Computers are not science, they are a manifestation thereof (because science is not a monolith).

    You can use a computer to more easily spread good or evil. Their capacity for both has progressed.

    With the developments of computer software it has become easier to create and distribute your own music. What’s the result? More good music and more poor music.

    Greater efficiency of a tool or medium is only as beneficial as the content that flows through it. Technology isn’t art; faster, smaller and cheaper computers aren’t “better” for their own sake, they have no intrinsic “sake.” They are just hunks of silicone and plastic or whatever.

    Religion, or scripture rather, is just interpretable passages. Much like a screenplay, it “progresses” (or regresses) as far as the actors take it. I guess, I could point to progressive clergy who advocate condom use as a progression of religion. But again, neither science nor religion progress on their own.

    I’m the last person to defend religion in a traditional sense, but it seems like its acceptable to talk about religion as a monolith (even though we all recognize the various denominations) but it is not acceptable to talk about science the same way.

    People get very defensive when the theoretical becomes personal, perhaps when their specific religion is attacked. Is it possible that your faith in science is causing you to become defensive, similar to the way followers of a religion become defensive when that particular religion is attacked?

  8. Computers indeed aren’t science. I’m not the one who conflated science and technology, I just went along with it. It started with this remark: Well, what do those people use to kill? Science.

    I generally don’t make gross generalizations when it comes to religion. When I mean evangelicals, I say evangelicals. When I mean Christian extremists, I say Christian extremists. In this case, I’m happy for the generalization to be proven wrong. We know how that’s done, it’s with counterexamples. Where are the religions that don’t have authoritative individuals or written works? Where are the religions that alter their view of the world based on experience? Where are the religions that learn from their mistakes, that make progress in the way that science does?

    When the plate tectonics guys nailed their 95 theses on the Wittenberg church door, there was disagreement, verbal fighting, arguments in the learned journals. Then, a generation later, it was over, and the better view had won. Geology made progress. That didn’t happen with the real 95 theses, instead they killed each other. And they’re still killing each other over it to this day.

  9. digglahhh said

    For all we know, science could just be proving the existence of God, right? God could have theoretically created man through the process of evolution, no? At this point, I’m tempted to get into a more philosophical notion of provability. If traditional religions can asscribe any power to God, disproving the existence of God would be a precondition of proving the existence of say, gravity, right? I’d like to generally avoid that road though.

    There are few problems here. One, we are using two different definitions of religion. I proclaim that science is, ostensibly, a religion as well. You asked me to give you an example of a religion that progresses the same way as science. Okay, um, how about, science? Or philosophy or economics… They count a religions according to my definition.

    You are positing a reliance on authoritarian scripture supposedly handed down from God as being the defining characteristic of religion. I have offered instead a more postmodern definition by considering any fairly well defined belief structure to be a “religion.” Even as fundamentalist Christians, our leaders seem to worship capitalism above Christianity as a source of guiding principles. So I choose to define their religion as the set of beliefs that most notably defines their behavior whether or not that belief set is a traditional religion.

    But, let’s entertain the more traditional definition for a second. I think we come a lot closer authoritarian texts and deities than you are recognizing. Is the scientific method not science’s commandments? Are there not texts and individuals in just about any field that are deified. Is it not considered something of a sacrilege to question the brilliance of Plato the Ancient Greek sect of the philosophical religion?

    This post is already getting too long, but I wanted to raise one other point. When it comes to science or technology, it is often the most innovative and revolutionary thinkers who have the loudest voice in the public sphere. The complete reverse is true for traditional religions, but that doesn’t mean that those views are representative of the majority of people who consider themselves followers of those religions

    I guess one could make a distinction between the way one follows a religious model and the way somebody follows an economic, scientific or philosophical model, but I would argue it is a largely academic one. The models (especially as one approached fundamentalism) are far more similar than different. Most intellectuals don’t like to admit that though; it threatens their self-professed intellectual superiority.

    That same self-professed superiority is predicated upon the crutches of “logic” and “reason.” Those terms are just euphemisms for hegemonic value systems, but that’s for another discussion…

  10. ClaireDePlume said

    Being his birthday today, it seems appropriate to post this quote by Mr. Einstein:

    “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.”

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