Go Ye Into All The World and Make Disciples of Them
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…”
Matthew 28:19 (English Standard Version)
If there is one thing that unites Evangelical Christianity, it’s The Great Commission: Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to going out into all the world and to bring them the gospel. So enthusiastic about this command are some strains of Christianity that a friend recently walked out of his bedroom stark naked, only to be surprised to find that his front door was open, and that two representatives of the local church were smiling at him and asking if he had time to talk about the Good News.
This urge to tell others about your perspective, with the aim of persuading them of it’s benefits as a world view, is common as a social behaviour. If we accept that humans are tribal animals, then its in our nature to both want people to share our value system, and to distrust people who do not. I’m sure that anyone who’s watched the news will be familiar with this, because it’s at the core of any dispute between any two groups you care to name. Participants will each try to besmirch the name of the opposing group whilst promoting the advantages of their own.
I feel the same pattern can be observed in much the same about some of the periodic science communication conversations that come round time and time again. You know the type, the stories which appear in specialist and public press, claiming that, for example, science literacy levels are embarrassingly low, or that governments are spending too little on science and technology or, today, that hard-to-reach groups are disengaged or unengaged in conversations about science. In short, the bread-and-butter of the interface between science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and publics. Today, I see that Australians are jumping on this band wagon, complaining that communicators need to work harder to engage the unengaged.
The unspoken predicate for all these rhetorical attempts is that STEM is so important that in order to validate your existence as a consumer of its outputs, you must have a deep and meaningful understanding of, and views on, a wide range of STEM topics. If this assumption were not lying at the bottom of the discussion, it would be impossible to make a statement like: “But worse than any of the above [recoiling in horror or laughing heartily]: you may not have reacted at all [to news about STEM strategies]” (Cormick, ibid).
Consider the implications of that sentence.
If you recoiled in horror to news that people don’t do well on exams for which they haven’t prepared, then you are in Our Club. Alternatively, if you laughed at such ignorant fools who care so little for the universe around them, then we also approve of you, for you value Science.
If you celebrated that a government chief scientist is promoting the strategic consideration of STEM issues within a governmental context (and, by the way, I might argue that’s what a government chief scientist is paid to do, whether in Australia or Britain) then you are fighting the good fight, sister. If you shook your head, mildly embarrassed that such a basic step had yet to be properly implemented, then you too are a committed to the fight against the legions of uneducated darkness who threaten civilisation.
If, on the other hand, it passed you by, perhaps because you were distracted by the slightly-over-reported news of the birth of Royal Baby Prince Diana (it’s what she’d have wanted), or by news that supposedly-democratic states misuse surveillance technology, or by the introduction of fascist homophobic policies into Russian law, then you are a sinner! You will burn in hell for not caring the degree to which the government funds STEM development in universities. Your soul is forever damned for putting your immediate priorities (feeding the family, going to work, playing Candy Crush Saga) above the Gospel of STEM. AS Cormick puts it:
That’s three in every ten people lined up at the check-out at your average local shops who probably haven’t once thought of Brian Cox nor dinosaurs nor space, yet alone basic chemistry, in the last year!
I know! Thirty percent have not been saved! 3 in 10 of the population are trapped, forever doomed to not appreciate STEM. Worse, they don’t even understand what they are missing. So sinful are they that they cannot see the light, they deny the truth of the beauty of science, they say things like (brace yourselves, for this is horrifying to the True Believer):
Why do you think it so important that we know about your science?
(quoted in Cormick, ibid)
Such infidels hold deeply heretical perspectives, for example, worrying more about whether something is safe and works than how it works, or take sacrosanct rituals such as The Science Lesson and fail to see the inherent beauty in it. They might even take their teachings from people who aren’t Qualified Experts, and thus form an understanding that doesn’t appreciate the true, rational basis of the Truth being conveyed unto them.
Now, obviously, I am slightly paraphrasing and I am reframing the arguments, but if one were so inclined, one might find it difficult to differentiate between the rhetoric of the Science Zealot from that of the enthusiastic preacher from a pulpit of a Sunday morning.
There is a serious issue here: the less socioeconomic advantages a person has in life, the less engaged with STEM issues they tend to be. This to me is entirely understandable: the valency of a carbon atom tends not to be incredibly valuable information when you are working three minimum wage jobs, nor do you tend to have time to watch the latest Epistle from St Brian of Cox. When your education was punctuated with bullying because of your sexuality, when your ethnicity acted as a boundary in the classroom, or when your parents weren’t home and you had nothing to eat, I frankly find it unsurprising that STEM doesn’t seem like a priority.
This serious discussion, in which the failure to engage with STEM is placed at the door of the unengaged sinner, doesn’t address the underlying problem of social inequality and instead goes for the traditional Evangelical approaches to conversion: send more preachers out into the places where the poor wretched delinquents congregate, and
TESTIFY the Word of the Lord, sorry, promote the benefits of STEM unto the blasphemer unengaged until he (or she!) sees the light.
Such a conclusion about outreach (also what churches call it) can only be supported if you accept that without Science people cannot truly be citizens in society. It’s a fundamentally scientistic position in which we take a small step from the Creed of Scientism “everything that is worth knowing is science” to “unless you know science, you have no worth”.
I, for one, cannot accept that conclusion. I love science, I love the way in which science has transformed the ways in which I perceive the world, and I love the ways in which the world is transformed by science, but science is far from the only way to perceive the world, and it’s a privileged perspective at that.
Because if we accept Evangelical Scientism, we are but a step away from instituting a Science Literacy Inquisition. We are but a step away from using our privilege to oppress people whose perspectives differ from ours. And we are a mere step away from knocking on people’s doors at nine o’clock in the morning to ask them if they’ve heard the Good News about evolution.