In the stone age and probably before, there were high priests and priestesses who kept society under some control by threatening them with the wrath of various gods. We tend to think today we live in more enlightened times, but I think in the last two or three decades we have made huge strides backwards.
Human nature forces many people to need approval from their peers, to feel good about themselves,to feel they are on moral high ground, indeed to feel what religions call holy. Many of these needs have been met historically by religion, and of course even today for many people. But when you take away religion, those needs don’t go away, the vacuum left sucks in all kinds of ‘isms’, according to taste. Vegetarianism, environmentalism, humanism, liberalism and even secularism are all meta-religions, modern abstractions that invoke the same behaviours as conventional religion. Secularism has made big progress in getting rid of Christianity from the UK, but it hasn’t been replaced by rationality, it has become almost a religion in its own right, just one set of beliefs replacing another, claiming the high ground exclusively for its advocates, with sanctimonious behaviour, exclusion of other points of view, pontificating on the truth, proselytising and so on.
I am not saying that these isms are always wrong or that all their follows indulge in such behaviours. Wanting to protect the environment is highly commendable, but all sensible people want to protect the environment, not just those who call themselves environmentalists. It is perfectly possible to be a vegetarian without looking down your nose at everyone else. It can even be well argued that it is a good idea for all kinds of health and environmental sustainability reasons, but it does tend to stretch sometimes to more than a purely rational decision. What I am saying is that isms attract people who are trying to fill these same human needs that religion once filled, as well as perfectly rational people like you, I hope.
I would go further and be provocative and say that when people join these isms with pseudo-religious motivations, they corrupt them, their need to feel holy taking priority over the core of the ism itself. That then is a problem. Vegetarians who progress into animal rights extremism can cause damage to the ecosystem, eventually harming animals, as we saw with the release of mink into the British countryside. Someone who joins an environmental group and worships mother earth is far more likely to cause damage to the environment via a dogma-based, anti-science mindset than they are to protect it. We’ve seen plenty of examples in recent years, with carbon credits and biofuels infamously working together to incentivise destruction of rainforest, bogs and other important habitats, as well as causing the deaths of many people (I’ve seen recent estimates of 350,000) via starvation due to increase in food prices resulting directly from these policies.
It is obvious that such behaviours can damage the cause they claim to support. Good intentions may arise from meta-religious pressures, but the wisdom of decisions correlates negatively with them. I’ve always argued that emotions should be used only as a driver to solve a problem, and once the decision to act has been made, they should be set aside. They should not be used as a means to decide the best mechanism to solve it. That should be done using a logical analysis of the problem, followed by development of potential solutions and rational comparison of their system-wide, full-lifetime effectiveness, before finally picking the best and implementing them. Emotions themselves tell us little about how the non-human bits of the universe work or how to fix things that are going wrong. And even in the human parts of the world, where they may govern people’s decision making so can be an important part of the system being analysed, they are of relatively little use unless at least analysed objectively.
Government suffers from such problems too. The problems where religious governments run things are pretty obvious, but political ideologies such as liberalism are almost equally rich in meta-religious tendencies, they just point in different directions. I will avoid debating the merits of different political viewpoints, you can make up your own mind, but consider how many political decisions are motivated by a desire to feel the moral high ground rather than looking objectively at evidence. And look at the consequences all around us. Loss of objectivity leads to loss in decision quality.
But let’s go back to environmental issues. It is here where the worst damage is being done at the moment. Even though the field of climate science is a tiny fraction of science as a whole, the whole of science has been badly tarnished by the corruption here. This didn’t start with Climategate, that was just another step along the way, but it was a big step. Just a few people putting their personal beliefs and their desire to occupy what they consider as the moral high ground above scientific objectivity has caused huge damage to the wider community of scientists. Scientists in every field now are doubted because of these few bad apples. And like any religious split, the many followers of the debates on climate change have polarised into religious squabbles. Although some of the debate is high quality and objective on both sides, much isn’t. The press coverage of the issues adds another layer of religious zeal to make it extremely hard to distinguish what the facts are in any aspect of the debate. The level of corruption now is such that both sides claim completely opposite interpretations of the same input data. Even for scientists, a sensible position can only be taken after enormously lengthy reading and analysis to try to filter out the good from the bad. Science shouldn’t be that hard, but it has been made so by pollution from meta-religion. And the rest of science has been corrupted by association now. Many people have far less faith in science than they had, and that makes it even easier for religiously motivated claims to gain ground. If we cannot stop the slide, we will head back into a dark age where priests masquerading as scientists carry as much authority as genuine scientists on the best way forward.
Science will recover, but it may take decades. The reason is the depth of the infiltration of meta-religion into many important circles, and the strength of the human tendency to want to feel morally or politically correct. If either side of any debate manages to claim followers because of this, and it happens frequently, it becomes harder to get to the facts that should be the basis of good science. Experiments get distorted, data discarded, evidence tweaked, models misdirected. Results get misrepresented and spun, truth buried deeply and disguised so well it might as well not be there. And we all lose because in the end, objective, good quality science is the only way we can figure out how the universe works and how to fix stuff. Religion won’t work, and meta-religion changes science into psuedo-science. It is a disease that must be eradicated if we are to reap the benefits that science can bring.