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The Salience of Secular Values and Scientific Literacy for American Democracy

The Salience of Secular Values and Scientific Literacy for American Democracy

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The Salience of Secular Values and Scientific
Literacy for American Democracy

Author: Barry A. Kosmin and Juhem Navarro-Rivera
The Salience of Secular Values and Scientific
Literacy for American Democracy

Author: Barry A. Kosmin and Juhem Navarro-Rivera

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12/01/2013

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173
10.
The Salience of Secular Values and Scientic
Literacy for American Democracy
Barry A. Kosmin & Juhem Navarro-Rivera 
The Congruence o Science and Secularism
E
mbedded in modernity is the idea that science is a major building block o the secular worldview, and that the progress o science is,
de facto 
, thetriumph o the secular worldview. This outlook arises rom the close historical,philosophical, and intellectual relationship between the natural sciences andsecular ideas and values. Both secular and scientic values were entrenched withinthe Enlightenment project o emancipating humanity and actualizing the highesthuman potentials through the diusion o knowledge. These goals, in turn, becamelinked to the quest or liberty, reedom o thought, and popular sovereignty—andthus democracy. The triadic relationship o secular values, scientic literacy, andsocial and economic progress, and their role as the building blocks o democracy in the United States, is the subject o this chapter. Our purpose is to demonstratethat particularly in the 21st century, in order to achieve a prosperous society anda healthy, participatory democratic order based on secular values, a high degree o science literacy among the citizenry is necessary.There are indeed many points o congruence between the scientic and thesecular, including commitments to reason, skepticism, systematic knowledge,empiricism, and the procedural aspects o scientic methodology—all o whichorm the basis o a common commitment to the impartial generation o truth.The methodical use o empirical data in scientic research accords with the“worldly” ocus o secular ideas and values. Modern science is thus properly considered an agent o secularization because o its association with ree inquiry and reedom o thought and expression. It also qualies by virtue o its role
 
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S
eculariSm
& S
cience
 
in
 
 the
21
St
c
entury
in undermining the superstition, ignorance, and belie in magic that so otenostered ear and authoritarianism in human societies.The Scientic Revolution o the 17th century involved an unprecedentedendeavor to secure the autonomy o the scientic enterprise rom religiousauthority. It established core methodologies that investigators use when they experiment, when they conrm what others have done, when they ollow through on the processes o not only generating but testing, conrming, anddenying knowledge o one sort or another. This cultivation o a naturalistic worldview and a skeptical spirit encouraged believers and non-believers alike tocultivate a new mental habit o demanding good, empirically veriable reasonsor their belies, and to reexamine the actual basis o moral causes. Thesepioneers envisioned science as a powerul orce or social progress.It was the proponents o Copernicus’ theory o a heliocentric universe whobegan using the phrase
libertas philosophandi 
(reedom o philosophizing—reeinquiry). This term eventually ound its way into the ull title o Spinozas amous
Theological-Political Treatise 
o 1670. Galileo proclaimed the undamentalscientic principle that “Two truths cannot contradict each other.” In 1660, when the amous Royal Society o London was ounded, its members assertedthat science was based on the principle o testing ideas by experiment, adopting astheir motto “
Nullius in verba 
,” which, loosely translated, means, “Take nobody’s word or granted.” They also went on to commit themselves to exclude matters o religion and politics rom scientic discussions. In a similar vein in
The Federalist No. 10,
U.S. ounding ather James Madison
1
warned o the danger passions andactions posed to reedom. By “passions,” he meant impulses such as irrationality and demagogy, and by “actions” he meant special interests. Since suppressingand controlling the creation o groups (i.e., regulating the right o association) was against reedom, the best check was a democratic impulse that encouragedvoluntary and civic organizations in the Enlightenment-based hope that reason would prevail and extreme and ringe groups would remain just that: marginal,on the ringe. The vehicle or achieving this experiment was the theologically neutral secular state.The sciences, in terms o their ethos and organization, can also be viewedas the best example o the triumph o the essentially secular ideas embodied inthe French Revolution’s slogan o 
liberté, égalité, fraternité 
,
 
and its promise o 
la carrière ouverte aux talents 
—meritocracy. With its universality, objectivity, andcommitment to meritocratic peer review, science seems to admit o egalitarianismand real democracy more than any other area o human enterprise. Its ethosleads to a universalism o good ideas and empirical data that are accepted rom whatever quarter they emerge.
 
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10. t
he
S
alience
 
of
S
ecular
V
alueS
 
and
S
cientific
l
iteracy
Science involves an anti-authoritarian tradition since it is based on theconcept o sel-generated human progress—constantly reorming and reningitsel rom within, without external guidance. In the words o the sociologistMax Weber,
2
science is a secular “vocation” and “scientic work is chained to thecourse o progress…; every scientic ‘ulllment’ raises new ‘questions’; it
asks 
to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated.” In the 20th century, modernist authoritarianmovements such as ascism and communism lauded science and invested heavily in it. However, these regimes were ambivalent in their embrace o science, or they still expected science and scientists to be subservient to, and even to buttress, theruling political ideologies. This led to state-endorsed pseudo-science such as “racetheory” and eugenics in Nazi Germany,
3
and Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union.
4
 Today, scientic education and research are commonly viewed as pillars o secular liestyles and social organizations that, as a matter o principle, reject theauthority o any particular religious association or ideological doctrine. Along thelines o Isaiah Berlin’s
5
celebrated distinction between “negative” and “positive”conceptions o liberty, science and secularism can thus be seen as congruentbecause o their common endeavor to demarcate areas o human action that are“ree rom” external, particularly religious, authority.
Science Education
The interplay o science education and secular values has long been recognized ashaving public policy importance in a number o areas—particularly with respectto economic prosperity and geopolitical strength. The pivotal role that educationplays in ostering labor productivity and, by implication, economic growth—not just as an input linking aggregate output to the stock o productive inputsbut also as a actor strongly associated the rate o technological progress—wasacknowledged rom the time o the Industrial Revolution. In the United States,the dream o harnessing scientic progress to the betterment o all citizens aroseduring the Progressive era in the early  20th century—the heyday o belie inthe public school and the birthplace o the research university. The Progressiveidea o universal education and progress, exemplied in the writings o JohnDewey, and earlier by Horace Mann, was predicated on the notion that theorm o education that can truly empower individuals is scientic in spirit andprinciple. This idea was originally propagated by a coalition o industrialists,public servants, and academicians who believed that science and its universalmethod o knowledge acquisition could uniy the nation and generate economicand social progress.This vision assumed that science was and should be value-neutral andindierent to the varied identities and belies o an increasingly diverse American

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