On Science, Religion and Identity

Despite the fact that I’m a social scientist – or perhaps because of that – I’ve always disliked the simplicity of catch-all ideological labels, such as liberal, socialist or communitarian. That is not to say that I subscribe to the view that political scientists ought to try to “cleanse” their research/thought of any political views or biases. Far from that, I am convinced that any action, stance, statement or research agenda – however subjective or objective it may appear/be – is fundamentally political in the sense that it is, explicitly or implicitly, based on assumptions and value judgments which have profound political consequences (not to mention that its outcomes and uses can be used to promote specific political ends). Having said that, I do agree with Lichtenberg that objectivity in the sense of being true to the facts/reality (in history, journalism or, indeed, social research) is a cause worth defending and pursuing. Having an opinion and being able to recognise its limitations (or the evidence against it) is not a paradox; it’s common sense.

The reason for my scepticism of political labels is not a general lack of ideology or values on my part, either. Indeed I believe that the so-called lack or “end of the era” of ideology is a coherent ideology itself. I have views on most public matters as well as a specific value system (hopefully of reasonable internal consistency) – bits and pieces of which are outlined here.

No, my problem with political labels – apart from the fact that they’ve been repeatedly abused, which is not really their fault – is the fact that I find them inadequate and unable to accurately represent what is really a quite complex reality (the reality of my personal views). To give a crude but often cited example, the polarisation between left and right – a division which used to carry the socio-political baggage of class and contrasted equality/fraternity to freedom – has lost a good part of its meaning and I notice ideas coming from left and right which are respectively neither progressive, nor liberal. Moreover, the expansion of human activity, science, technology and enterprise has created a host of moral dilemmas and problems (e.g. environmental sustainability v. energy sufficiency, consumption, climate change, terrorism, cloning, cell stem research, abortions, assisted suicide etc), which old social cleavages and political parties were never really designed to accommodate [this also being one of the reasons for the rise of new social movements, identity politics and more recently issue politics – all of which has been well documented by political and social scientists].

All this means that: my views on tax, health, education, transport, regulation, rehabilitation of criminals and state/church separation could be classified as left-wing (UK), socialist (Europe) or liberal (US); my views on community integration, policing and security could be classified as right-wing or conservative; my views on freedom of speech / expression, gay rights, abortions, assisted suicide etc could be classified as libertarian (that doesn’t mean that I personally morally condone, for example, abortions – merely that I wouldn’t dream of trying to stop anyone from having one); and those on smoking, alcohol, drugs, art, architecture, planning and a number of other issues as communitarian or interventionist – and still have an internal consistency (not to mention my views on foreign policy / international affairs which would strongly favour international law and humanitarian intervention along with global citizenship).

Based on all that, and if I had my arm twisted, I would identify myself as a centrist. This would be not only because I despise populism and extremism – the twin vices of fear and laziness – upon which large parts of right-wing and leftist rhetoric are based, but also because I genuinely think that effective and socially constructive (rather than destructive) social change has almost always stemmed from the centre of the political spectrum. The combination of personal responsibility with universally available support structures seems to be a potent combination for progress and happiness. I stress the “personal responsibility” part because I think (a) that it has been heavily neglected by the left and misused by the right and (b) noting that it extends long beyond paying taxes and voting – into really assuming the role of an active, informed, engaged citizen who takes ownership of their community (in good times and bad) as they would for their own home.

But all that would still miss the fact that I think that environmental protection and sustainability is by a long mile the most important issue we’re facing at the moment (and likely to be facing throughout the 21st century); an issue of life and death for us and the planet; an issue on which I feel most major parties in Europe, including those at the centre of the political spectrum, have proven to be spectacularly inadequate. Which perhaps means that I’m ultimately a Green – although I haven’t yet found a Green Party that caters to all of my other views. And that’s probably just as well, as that’s precisely the beauty of politics and being a citizen within a society – that you have to negotiate your demands and ultimately compromise vis-à-vis other people’s priorities and demands in order to co-exist.

This brings me to identity. While it seems to me that our political, social, religious, cultural, aesthetic, moral, academic, scientific etc choices should ideally be viewed as parts of a coherent whole (call it identity, personality, lifestyle, ideology or whatever you like), contemporary theory and practice has favoured “walled gardens” between areas of life that are intrinsically related, hence facilitating the fragmentation of the self (division of labour, messed up work/life or body/mind balance, alienation, consumerism and cultural dumbing down – to name but a few – are causes and symptoms of this phenomenon). My identification as both a European and as a Greek citizen has both shaped, and been shaped by, my experiences and choices, as well as, obviously, the choices of others, especially those around me (for a fascinating genre-bending narrative on mobility and contemporary European identity I strongly recommend Adrian Favell’s book “Eurostars and Eurocities”).

This interaction between the macro- and the micro-social levels, the realisation that we shape – as much as being shaped by – society through our everyday actions and choices was also a central theme of my doctoral research. I found that one of the main reasons for civic disengagement and the lack of efficacy amongst young people is the breakdown of the cycle of political socialisation, i.e. the inability to see how social structures or the choices of others affect the individual and vice versa (predictably, this is even more so when it comes to global or international affairs).

The realisation that our everyday actions and aesthetic preferences as citizens, consumers, users, residents, viewers, neighbours, partners, voters, discussants, employees and commuters contribute to the world we live in is ultimately very liberating and empowering. It tackles the fundamentally disenfranchising, manipulating and patronising rhetoric of victimhood, populism and extremism (i.e. the innocent people are the victims or a corrupt and all-powerful elite / establishment / political class / media), which is so prevalent in contemporary discourse (one of the themes of my current research). Corruption and inequalities of resources/power etc certainly exist but a dysfunctional social order survives precisely because citizens tolerate it (or, conversely, collapses because people decide to take responsibility for their actions).

This brings me to religion. I’m often asked whether I’m a Christian (Orthodox), agnostic, atheist or whatever and find myself unable to easily and quickly articulate an accurate and comprehensible response. I grew up in Greece, which is quite homogeneously Orthodox (although for many Greeks being Christian equals going on a shopping spree before Christmas and for a big feast after the Resurrection). While my family was not religious, like all Greek children I received a good dosage of Christian teachings at school and Christian traditions and narratives are quite embedded in the Greek culture. Thus, I have come to appreciate the essence of the teachings of Jesus Christ and feel that all these formative experiences may well have affected my value system (and, if so, feel appreciative and proud of that). I also have a lot of respect for people of (any) faith, as long as they do not judge me or try to persuade me about the truth of their convictions; I enjoy observing / learning about different religious practices; and acknowledge the historical importance of faith as a source of inspiration for artists and as a source of social capital.

That is probably where I would draw the boundaries of my relationship to formal religion. I don’t really believe in life after death, heaven/hell and all the rest of it. I’m very critical of the many ways in which religion and faith have been / are being used to conquer, manipulate, oppress and dominate. I’m also fundamentally opposed to literal readings of religious texts, which are clearly products of their time. I feel that the spirit of each religion should be viewed as a “manual” (one of several in fact) that people have at their disposal in order to live their lives, face adversity and attempt to be happy. Taken in their spirit rather than their literal interpretations, religions have remarkable similarities to each other and to other non-religious humanist traditions and ultimately highlight the essential dignity, as well as power and responsibility, of each human being. Speaking of which, David Eagleman’s book “Sum: Tales from the Afterlives” is simultaneously one of the shortest and one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read and approaches my idea of a secular “holy” book.

While as a social scientist I subscribe to the principles, methods and techniques of logic, inquiry and science, I do find the discussion on religion v. science polarised to the extent that we completely miss the point of both and get distracted from the real issues. Religion and science are not necessarily incompatible or mutually exclusive (in fact the dialogue can often be interesting – see the fascinating discussion between Jürgen Habermas and Pope Benedict XVI) – although I would argue that religion belongs to the private realm of the individual’s spiritual framework, whereas science has, by default, public and universal consequences (e.g. see the magnificent, illuminating and empowering work of Susan Jacoby, “The Age of American Unreason”).

Yet, the questions of whether God exists, whether we can prove it etc which have consumed the public discussion may not necessarily be the most productive questions. The point is not which “manual” you use but what you use it for – whether the outcome of your actions is good or bad. Technological evolution and scientific research may have an inherent value but they are not inherently positive – they can lead to progress, or destruction, or both [even the terms “progress” and “destruction” can be debated but let’s assume that we accept at least some basic, universal principles of humanitarian dignity and welfare]. You do not need science or technology to do good or bad (and you certainly don’t need religion either), but you probably need some sense of right and wrong (or “moral compass”) to guide your actions. Extremists / determinists / reductionists in religion but sadly also in science have taken over the debate (if you’d enjoya “whodunit” version of this debate, I recommend Véronique Roy’s fascinating, hilarious and thought-provoking “Museum” – a serial killer mystery taking place at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris).

In conclusion. Attempting to observe one self and reflect on the huge range of different influences, preferences and expressions of those preferences is, I believe, a fundamentally experiential method of learning, as well as worthwhile project. Identifying such links and synergies between different aspects of my everyday life, which may seem arbitrary or unrelated to each other, has been a fascinating and rewarding part of this reflective process. Fragmented, flawed, self-centred (and indeed self-censored) as it may be, this website is a very sketchy and, by definition, incomplete attempt at piecing together different – but complementary – aspects of my academic, aesthetic and intellectual identity. It could be read as a metaphor, self-conscious statement, quasi-artistic installation or social experiment. Or, as just another personal website.


Last Update: November 2011