Sunday was my husband’s and my 18th wedding anniversary. It was our first anniversary in California, but otherwise there is nothing particularly special about the number. It snuck up on us a bit, leaving us to make plans at the second-last minute. One of the nice things my husband planned to do was come to church with me.
I have gone to church regularly since becoming a Unitarian-Universalist as an adult. In fact, the first UU church I ever joined was in California, Neighborhood Church in Pasadena. The UU churches here aren’t the direct Bostonian heirs of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing. I’m not going to walk into a Messiah sing here and find myself sitting next to one of Hosea Ballou‘s violin-playing relatives (this really happened to me in back in Massachusetts). Out here, churches appear to be closer to the 6th UU source, Earth-Centered traditions. I’d been in a spiritual wilderness before I joined Neighborhood Church, and what I most remember about it now are the redwoods it was nestled in. I felt peace there among those trees, and welcome, and protection, and most importantly, relief from pressure, judgement, competition, and the need to be socially “on” at all times. The trees had been there long before all that, and would be there long after all that was gone. Although I wouldn’t have used this language at the time, the trees accepted my inner introvert, and I was grateful.
My husband and I were married in a UU church a year and a half later, but he’s generally not a churchgoer. Born and raised in Germany, he and his father formally resigned from the state church. Both my husband and I have PhDs in scientific disciplines (he, computer science; I, neuroscience) and both of us carry a strong skepticism towards fundamentalist religion and unscientific thinking. I found this outlook compatible with Unitarian-Universalism, he did not. I also found I wanted, and needed, the community of other seekers I found at a UU church, and he did not. After we were married, I continued to go to church almost every Sunday, and he did not.
Perhaps surprisingly, this has worked okay for 18 years. He comes to church occasionally, to see me and/or the kids play music or celebrate a milestone. I like it when he comes. Sometimes when he’s not there, during a service I will stand holding a hymnal by myself, and look around at whole families, families in which both parents are there every week singing from a shared hymnal, a little wistfully. But then I remember an alternative that proved unworkable: having a significant other who was a true believer in a religious orthodoxy that was more important to him than my feelings or experiences were. Having a significant other who needed me to change my beliefs in order for the relationship to work. I know how painful that was, because I lived it. I can’t turn around now and do that to someone else, certainly not someone I love. I turn back to my hymnal, and keep singing by myself.
So this week when my husband wanted to come to church on our anniversary, I hoped it would be a good service. The church that I’ve started attending here is promising. The people are all quite friendly and I enjoy the minister’s sermons. Plus, outside of the church, there are redwoods.
This week’s sermon was about Pluto, called “Pluto’s Demotion and Religious Devotion.” Before we left Boston we went to see a big exhibit at the Museum of Science about Pluto. It was right when the New Horizons flyby was happening, and I remember the pictures that came back, especially the one with the heart. My college classmate, Kenneth Chang, a New York Times science reporter, covered it. In fact, my Facebook feed was full of people giving Pluto some love. But a sermon about Pluto? The fifth UU source (in a tie with the 6th source for my favorite): Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit. They get points for taking on this potentially scientific topic in the first place.
So, I’m sorry to say that I was a little disappointed in the sermon. It started out strong, pointing out that at first, before Copernicus and telescopes, there were 7 planets: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These were what human observers could see with the naked eye. Earth wasn’t on the list, since it was thought to be in the center. What follows is an old, familiar story: scientists find out new facts, perspectives shift. Earth and humans move further and further away from the center of things. This trajectory encapsulates what I’ve learned over the years about the “conflict between science and religion:” when religious people talk about it, it is assumed to be self-evident that this de-centralizing of humanity is a Bad Thing. When scientific people talk about it, it seems to be generally assumed and self-evident that this de-centralizing of humanity is a Good Thing. I find these assumptions can get in the way of productive conversations and greater understanding. I’d like to have a conversation about the topic in a way that doesn’t insult my intellect or condescend to my sensibilities, in order to understand why Darwin had to defend the “grandeur in this view of life.”
I rarely have such an opportunity, and I didn’t get one this Sunday morning. Instead, I was told what’s wrong with scientism and what’s right about humility. Perhaps the minister was trying to get at the second half of the 5th source, the warning against “idolatries of the mind and spirit.” I agree there about the virtues of humility, but scientism is another story. I looked up this AAAS blog, “What is Scientism?” afterwards, because I had forgotten what the word meant. I never heard it during my scientific training, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a scientist use it. While the author of the blog, Thomas Burnett, gives a thorough history of the word scientism and claims that it is a strange but useful word, I don’t find his arguments convincing. For example, Burnett simply assumes that statements from scientists such as, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” (from Carl Sagan), or “We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little” (from E.O. Wilson) are self-evidently alienating and bullying without ever explaining why he thinks so. The point of view expressed in the sermon was similar: science is just another way of looking at the world with no more validity than any other and to say otherwise is scientism (another Bad Thing), lacking in appropriate humility. The changes in the accepted number of planets, in Pluto’s status in particular, and people’s reactions to those changes, were cited as evidence for this claim.
Sorry, but I’m still not buying it. It’s not because I don’t believe that everyone, including scientists, is biased. And it’s not because I believe that scientists are better people than non-scientists. The minister cited a number of examples of biases affecting both beliefs and behavior in the case of Pluto. I found these examples interesting and informative. I didn’t know, for example, that Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, was a UU. And I hadn’t thought of it before, but he was also the only American to have discovered a planet. As an American UU, sure, I’m proud of Clyde Tombaugh, and want to remain so. Back when I was in 6th grade, I learned that my very elegant mother just sat upon nine pins. I don’t like that one as much since I’ve become a mother myself, but my delight at imagining puffed-up authority figures being skewered is still alive and well. So yeah, I see these biases in my own thinking and in that of my tribe. I wish Pluto was still a planet. But crying scientism still seems like a strange response.
The problem for me with the “scientism” critique is that people who like to use the word seem not to understand what science is. Like Willy Wonka in the meme, perhaps they think “science” is some anthropomorphic entity that has a will of its own and can say things. Or they think that because scientists, like all humans, are biased and imperfect, the scientific method itself shares the same biases and imperfections, just writ large–the sum of all the flaws of its practitioners. But that’s not it at all. The second half of the 5th source says that the results of science are a warning against, not a feeder of, idolatries of the mind and spirit.
As we were driving home, my husband pointed out that the Pluto debate turns on definitions, not on science, and I agree completely. The word planet has been given a new definition several times in history, but that hasn’t changed the objective nature of what Pluto is or the scientific method by which Pluto is being studied. The newest definition includes 1. the shape of the object (that it has to be massive enough to be round) and 2. that it has to clear its neighborhood of other objects. This new definition excludes Pluto from planethood, much to many people’s disappointment. But not all. For a gleeful salvo from the anti-planet camp, read Mike Brown’s book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. Brown is the Caltech astronomer who discovered Eris, another dwarf planet that is larger than Pluto. His discovery started the astronomy community down the road to “demoting” Pluto and ruining it for the rest of us who liked our 9 planets and our quaint motherly mnemonics.
Well, you could look at it that way. Or you could look at it as Brown does: as a new, exciting discovery about the universe. In this view, we haven’t lost Pluto, we’ve gained Eris, and Ceres, Haumea and Makemake, and a whole Kuiper belt full of strange and wonderful objects. “Praise him for showing us that stargazing, far from being a dead science, is a living, changing wonder,” says Benjamin Wallace about Mike Brown. And Mike Brown still loves Pluto.
If this had been my sermon, I would have focused on the wonders and new worlds that new scientific knowledge and changing definitions can open up to all of us. As UUs, we could even bring in for discussion the changes in definitions of other important words and concepts in response to new knowledge. Maybe it’s that I had marriage on my mind that anniversary day, because I kept expecting the minister to mention it. The most recent change in the definition of that word and concept, marriage, to include same-sex couples, has delighted many people (including me) but has also caused controversy and hurt on a scale far larger than anything Pluto has to offer. The analogy isn’t perfect, but to me there is a strong parallel in how both definitions, of planets and of marriage, have evolved to be more precise, and also to take into account facts about the universe that were not previously known or understood.
According to Burnett, the definition of scientism given to us by historian Richard G. Olson, “efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern,” is so broad as to be “virtually useless.” I disagree. Rather, efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern are exactly what what we are engaging in and should be doing more of. Definitions sometimes change and evolve because of a traditional scientist working formally in a laboratory. But they also change and evolve when the status quo isn’t working for someone, somewhere, who may or may not be a formally trained scientist. Trained scientists or not, these folks make an observation (or have that observation thrust upon them by circumstance) and formulate a hypothesis about a better way, gather evidence in support of their hypothesis in the form of empirical observations and experiments, including lived experience, and then try to convince others on the basis of that evidence. Definitions change and evolve because of these people’s hard work in bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice.
The opposite of arrogance and idolatry, coping with these changes in definitions has taught us humility in the face of what we did, and still do, not know.