The Erosion of Christendom and the Predicament of Science


The Erosion of Christendom and the Predicament of Science


Some twenty years ago, I was a young science lecturer struggling with my first job at an institution of higher learning in Adelaide—famous of course as our "City of Churches"—a now embarrassing epithet reflecting Adelaide's one-time status as a key centre of Nonconformist Protestantism. Just returned from scientific training in the USA, I was feeling the anxiety that afflicts new academics finding themselves alone in lecture halls filled with critical, hard-to-impress late-teens: how the dickens do I hold their attention for the next forty-five minutes?

Returning to my department after a lecture one day, I mentioned my frustrations to a senior colleague. He was growing nostalgic upon nearing retirement and said something memorable that morning running along these lines: "Ah yes—things were much better in the early sixties when I started out. The little blighters used to grow up in church. They learned to sit still and pay attention to the sermon. It made our job as lecturers much easier."

His throwaway observation opens rarely acknowledged doors to key questions concerning the consequences of the twentieth-century decline in religious observance for the Australian educational sector in general, and for science education in particular. While recent articles in Quadrant have discussed the travails of the humanities in Australian universities, my time as a teaching researcher in two sandstone institutions leads me to suspect that the malaise on modern campuses also afflicts the basic sciences. In my estimation, most Australian teaching departments that carry responsibilities for educating undergraduates in the core scientific disciplines are now doing it hard on several fronts. Yet rather than catalogue these difficulties, this article seeks to explore the more fundamental issue of the possible associations between the declining public influence of Christianity and the health of the scientific enterprise.

Admittedly, from the standpoint of the "hard secularism" currently dominating Australian academia, the terrain I will cover is bizarre and out- of-bounds. The term "hard secularism" denotes an insistent naturalistic worldview that denies legitimacy to any religious belief and strives to exclude all traces of religion from the educational arena. This outlook contrasts with a "soft secularism" that accords freedom of expression and association to different religious groups, yet in the interest of promoting the common good, seeks to minimise dominance of public policy by narrow sectarian viewpoints. Some trace the origins of soft secularism to the sixteenth-century Anabaptists and their theological progeny, but this outlook is probably compatible with most strands of modern Christian belief Advocates of soft secularism usually concede the beneficial influences of religion on the development of our civilisation, in contrast to hard secularists who typically identify the church as the chief bogeyman of Western history, condemning it as an obscurantist opponent of social progress and scientific advancement. Indeed, a triumphalist view of science is a hallmark of the hard secularist mindset, as its proponents typically view scientific investigation as yielding a high degree of epistemic certainty that contrasts with the errors and follies bred by religion. On this triumphalist view, since it rests upon ignorance and irrational faith, religious commitment is expected to progressively decline in the face of inevitable advances in scientific knowledge. The future unquestionably belongs to science.

With the advantage of hindsight, it seems that hard secularism unintentionally fostered unwarranted complacency concerning the future of not just science, but also the science education sector. This outlook took much for granted, including the assumption that modern science is a self-sustaining endeavour that can thrive in a socio-cultural milieu in which Christian theistic convictions exert little public influence. It may also have underestimated the challenges involved in sustaining the social values needed to preserve a scientific culture over the long term. Again, these tendencies are understandable in retrospect since it follows that if one harbours glowing expectations of the inevitable triumph of science, then the teaching of science is expected to naturally—even inexorably—become easier in inverse proportion to extent of the influence of religion in society. We science educators assumed that with each generation of freshers progressively less encumbered by religious superstition, their minds would be more receptive to scientific facts. Surely, a Golden Age of Science beckoned just over the horizon!

I fervently believed this rose-coloured scenario in my youth. Although raised in a solidly Protestant home, I stuffed my adolescent head with books by secular advocates of scientific triumphalism such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells. While church involvement was such an ingrained feature of family life that I never contemplated ceasing at least a perfunctory participation, the glowing picture of the future of science painted by these authors strongly influenced my decision not to follow my father into a religiously-based vocation. I suspect my elder brother felt much the same way when he embarked on an engineering degree ten years before I started my BSc. The fact that my parents borrowed from a famous nineteenth-century British Nonconformist preacher for my brother's middle name did not sway us to embrace a religious calling.

We were part of the large cohort of Baby Boomer boys who grew up during the Cold War, were fascinated by the struggle for technological supremacy between the Free World and the USSR, and more or less reflexively flooded into careers in science and technology. Our career choices did not flow from antipathy towards religion of the cantankerous twenty-first-century "New Atheist" kind: we simply thought that since Protestantism was losing its grip on the Australian soul then the science and technology fields would provide more secure futures. The fact that the congregation in which I spent my teenage years included several academic scientists also shaped my choice. My peers in the parish youth group likely reached similar conclusions: I can recall nine of us who concurrently completed science degrees of one kind or another. Most were happy to assist our congregation in a voluntary capacity, but in my case, the best I hoped for was that our church would survive as a tiny island of Protestant profession amidst a vast and swelling cultural ocean of scientific rationality.

On completing my PhD I needed to decide whether I should pursue a career in academia or the private sector. I opted for academia, guided again by optimistic expectations nourished by my diet of triumphalist science writers: most of the sci-fi literature I enjoyed in my youth imagined glowing futures in which scientific knowledge was highly valued and widely disseminated. A typical sample of this sunny optimism appears in the celebrated 1901 novel by H.G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon. The book recounts a trip to the moon by two adventurers, Mr Bedford and Dr Cavor. On reaching their destination, they encounter the Selenites, an anatomically strange yet blissful species that maintains a technologically superior secular society beneath the lunar surface. According to Wells's ever-vivid imagination, the Selenites had hitched the powers of the evolutionary process to the possibilities afforded by surgical intervention to create numerous variants of their kind that possessed unique talents—including a mathematically proficient subspecies capable of great computational feats. It seems that producing these individuals was a proverbial cake-walk.

If, for example, a Selenite is destined to be a mathematician, his teachers and trainers set out at once to that end. They check any incipient disposition to other pursuits, they encourage his mathematical bias with a perfect psychological skill. His brain grows, or at least the mathematical faculties of his brain grow, and the rest of him only so much as necessary to sustain this essential part of him. At last, save for rest and food, his one delight lies in the exercise and display of his faculty, his one interest in its application, his sole society with other specialists of his own line.

There you go—making mathematicians really is a doddle: just crank the appropriate handle or press the right buttons, and the educational system can supply dedicated individuals in whatever numbers needed! Such gung-ho optimism concerning the ease of maintaining a proficient scientific culture within future secular societies pervades the sci-fi genre.

Perhaps critical re-evaluation of the myths embraced in one's youth is a normal accompaniment of middle age, but I am increasingly sceptical of the happy scenarios painted by sci-fi novelists and authors of popular triumphalist tomes. Where are all the young scientists we should expect under their paradigm? If the prevalent "triumph of secularism + religious decline = boom time for science" equation is correct, given the thoroughness with which Christianity has been purged from our state schools and the public square, where are the youngsters who ought to have flooded into science? If religion is as inhibitory of science as hard secularists would have us believe, since the influence of the churches over recent generations of young Aussies has sharply receded, should not the brakes on the research enterprise have been released? Surely our cities should be swarming with them: pesky young microbiologists ought to be pinching your bus seat during the morning rush-hour; lanky nanotechnologists should be obscuring your line of sight at the footy.

According to recent reports, the numbers in Australia are running directly counter to the happy expectations raised by triumphalists, suggesting that while the project to secularise Australia's youth has succeeded admirably, the promised windfall of scientific rationality has not eventuated. For example, a comprehensive 2010 study found that Australian university enrolments in maths, physics and chemistry had fallen by so to 70 per cent in the past two decades. In late 2011 a report from the Australian Academy of Science announced similar trends in high school science enrolments. The latter study was reported with bleak headlines across the nation—"Science is out of Equation in High Schools" announced the Daily Telegraph, while the Advertiser moaned that "Australian Students Dump Science".

Unhappily, these trends are not unique to Australia. A year or two ago, during an interview with the US-based Chemical & Engineering News, a recruitment manager at a large multinational chemical company noted that "even though Generation Y is a big group, when you begin to look at how few of these people actually go into science and engineering, it gets very frightening very quickly". Due to this perception, following the 2008 financial crisis his company resisted the instinctive US corporate urge to shed thousands of jobs. The manager reported that his company planned to retain older scientists by offering flexible hours as they reach retirement age. These Band-Aid solutions are fine, but I don't relish the prospect of hoofing around my sprawling campus on a Zimmer frame!

Yet challenging demographic trends are not the only issue facing the demoralised Australian science education community. Eavesdrop on researchers conversing in a departmental tea room and you will hear a litany of complaints that, when taken together, suggest the scientific sector is facing strong headwinds. They'll speak of being abandoned by the managers running their universities to an environment dominated by funding cuts and heavy administrative requirements; of the disappearance of institutional funds to support the training of young scientists in lab-based research methods; of the cultivation of a caste system in Australian science that relegates staff in teaching departments to a resource-depleted "untouchable" underclass; of the devaluing of basic research in favour of ostensibly profit-yielding "translational" studies; of perpetual internal instability due to managerial obsession with finding the perfect institutional structure; of a cavalier "top-down" approach to curriculum reform that corrodes the education of young scientists; of legalistic ethics-approval processes and a tide of health and safety regulations.

What accounts for the declining interest in science among young Australians? The unprecedented ubiquity of the trivialising and distracting pop culture is one possibility, as is the seemingly lower priority assigned to maths and science teaching in our secondary schools. Alternatively, most practising Australian scientists blame the lack of adequate career structures or long-term job prospects. To my mind however, such problems are secondary manifestations of deeper and less obvious causes of our emerging lack of interest in science.

The heretical hypothesis developed here is that the growing disregard for science in Australia is a delayed and unanticipated consequence of the pervasive de-Christianisation of our public square. I realise that this thesis runs contrary to the conventional wisdom which posits an irreconcilable tension between Christianity and the scientific vocation. But the purpose in airing this unfashionable proposal is simply to float the possibility that—in accordance with the Law of Unintended Consequences—the drama of history can sometimes unfold in ways that differ from the original script. While secularisation might have benign consequences for science over the short term, in the long term it could conceivably erode the social values needed for a sustainable scientific culture.

In the late 1960s, when the revolt against Christendom migrated into the cultural mainstream, we took for granted that embracing secularism would hasten the transition to modern societies in which secular rationality was king and science reigned supreme. This persuasive "secularism is good" attitude seduced a whole generation, including many of us in the Protestant churches. Some adventurous theologians went so far as to suggest secularisation was the Good Lord's intention for the Western world! In his 1965 book The Secular City, all the go in Protestant circles for a time, Harvard theologian Harvey Cox voiced the aspirations of many:

Rather than fighting or opposing secularization, we would do better to discern in it the action of the same One who called an earlier people out of toil, in a land where the taskmasters were cruel, and into a land flowing with milk and honey.

Fifty years after a preponderance of Australians evacuated Christendom to reside in the Secular City, the fact that science is doing it so hard needs explaining. Why are the grandchildren of the sixties generation—surely the most secular in Australian history—seemingly turning their backs on science? How did the bond between secularism and science— which once seemed patently self-evident—prove so labile? Why isn't the scientific enterprise floating in milk and honey? Doubtless many answers could be offered to these questions. Personally, I suspect that many of us harboured ambitious expectations of the future of science in a secular setting because we underestimated how important a shared vision of reality—one based on unspoken theistic assumptions concerning the place of humans in the natural world, as well as convictions concerning the point and purpose of human existence—would prove to the scientific enterprise. We failed to envisage that once secularism eroded such assumptions on a culture-wide scale, interest in the scientific study of nature might subside.

A number of science historians have sensed the inadequacies of the "Conflict Model" that has dominated public discussion of the relationship between science and Christianity for over 100 years. Promoted by books such as Andrew Dickson White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), the Conflict Model entrenched an unfortunate lack of trust towards the church across the scientific sector. Nonetheless in recent years this model has faced growing revaluation. Inspired by revisionist pioneers such as Pierre Duhem, Stanley Jaki and Reijer Hooykaas, an alternative picture of the historical interplay between science and Christianity has emerged that is more variegated than the black-and-white caricatures popularised by hard secularists or Conflict Model enthusiasts.

On this alternative reading of history, Catholic and Protestant orthodoxies played an essential role in supplying science-enabling metaphysical convictions and reinforcing social values that helped render the Western world safe for science. While readily acknowledging that ancient Babylonian civilisation had its gifted astronomers, that medieval Islamic societies made substantial contributions to mathematics, and that the Greeks derived impressive geometric formulae, revisionist historians ask why the practice of science in such settings often amounted to "stillbirths" that did not grow into the sustained, progressive enterprise that arose in seventeenth-century Europe. From the historicist perspective, the emergence of modern science was a historical singularity that occurred in societies shaped decisively by the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Those seeking a rancour-free account of the emergence of modern science in which the role of religion is weighed critically against a range of other historical factors might consult a demanding yet rewarding work by a leading Australian historian, Stephen Gaukroger: The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210 to 1685 (2006).

While different branches of Christendom can highlight roles played by members of their respective traditions in helping make the Western world safe for science, in my neck of the ecclesiastical woods—Reformed Presbyterianism—the Genevan reformer John Calvin (1509-64) receives special commendation. An incisive thinker and articulate writer, well versed in the Patristic theology of the early Christian centuries, this capable Frenchman saved the struggling Protestant cause in mid-sixteenth-century Europe by providing a compelling theological corpus that defended the movement against criticisms of doctrinal superficiality, historical rootlessness and social sedition. As a legal scholar with keen interests in the full breadth of human existence, Calvin exerted a social influence far beyond the walls of the church. The recent flurry of books that celebrated the sooth anniversary of his birth included critical evaluation of Calvin's influence on many aspects of modern life (see for example John Calvin's Impact on Church and Society 1509-2009, Hirzel and Sallmann, eds., 2009).

For someone living when the prevailing scientific knowledge was highly rudimentary, Calvin's writings reveal surprising esteem for the "natural philosophers" who dedicated their lives to studying nature—termed "God's glorious theatre" in his theological vocabulary. For Calvin, the cosmos resembles a resplendently lit theatrical stage, radiating beauty, orderliness and majesty to onlookers. With this mentality, the scientific exploration of nature becomes an imperative response of gratitude to the Deity for placing humanity in this fine setting. In his influential work Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin thus urges his readers to "not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theatre" (1:14:20). His word choice is revealing. In the popular medieval mind the authenticity of one's faith was demonstrated via a host of duties that included fasting, almsgiving, participating in pilgrimages and the adoring of religious icons. Since studying nature rated low beside such pious duties, in the popular European mind of his day, an element of shame seems to have attached to the scientific vocation. This is wrong, says Calvin: the natural world manifests the divine handiwork, so why should we be ashamed to explore it? This idea was fresh, bold and timely. A deep appreciation for science pervades the Institutes, Calvin's handbook of Protestant theology. The book was a best-seller in the UK during the crucial seventeenth century in which scientific institutions such as the Royal Society were established, in part by English Puritans who carefully heeded Calvin's injunction:

To be sure there is need of art and more exacting toil in order to investigate the motion of the stars, to determine their assigned stations, to measure their intervals, to note their properties. As God's providence shows itself more explicitly when one observes these, so the mind must rise to a somewhat higher level to look upon his glory. (Institutes I:5:2)

The "exacting toil" commended here as the intellect raises to a "somewhat higher level" suggests Calvin envisages more than a casual engagement in science. Sustained, disciplined effort is what we need.

As odd as it seems to us twenty-first-century sophisticates, Calvin regarded the growth of such disciplines as mathematics and astronomy as evidence that the Deity is benevolently at work in human history. Thus "whatever seems to be derived from man's ingenuity should be regarded as proofs of God's paternal solicitude for us" (Calvin's Commentaries III:291). Accordingly, when commenting on a biblical passage in Isaiah 28 that celebrates the divine origins of the specialist knowledge of soil, climate and horticulture displayed by competent farmers, Calvin extrapolates to other domains of endeavour:

If we ought to form such an opinion about agriculture and mechanical arts, what shall we think of the learned and exalted sciences, such as medicine, jurisprudence, astronomy, geometry, logic, and such like? Shall we not much more consider them to have proceeded from God? (Commentaries VII:306).

With such high regard for the research enterprise, Calvin was unperturbed by the fact that the greatest discoveries are often made by scientists who don't personally embrace Christianity. Compared to the grim misanthrope of popular caricature, Calvin on his best days was a generous, tolerant scholar who could celebrate the achievements of those who held different beliefs. Accordingly, during a sermon on the remarkable twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Job, Calvin noted sagely that when it comes to science, often the "despisers of God" are in fact "the sharper witted, and more skilful in their doings".

This sympathetic vision kept his followers from disparaging science and technology in the manner of some non-Calvinistic Protestant sects such as the Amish. Instead, the propagation of a science-friendly outlook over the centuries to the general populace by means of sermons, books and classroom lessons created a supportive cultural milieu in Protestant societies in which the seedlings of science could put down deep roots. European cities in which Calvin's theology found greatest acceptance—such as Leiden, Edinburgh, Zurich and London—formed, a number of vigorous scientific institutions. Whole societies in which Protestantism was influential— including Great Britain, Holland, Switzerland and the USA—emerged as powerhouses of research productivity. This pro-scientific attitude was also exported to Protestant settler cultures around the globe, including, no doubt, Australia. The solitary clergyman to alight at Botany Bay in January 1788 was, after all, that rarest of species, a Calvinistic Anglican. Because of Calvin's role in seeding the global growth of science, the scientifically- trained author of a definitive study of the Genevan Reformer, Alister McGrath, went so far as to identify modern science as a cultural "crater" that witnesses to the enduring impact of Calvin's broad reforming vision (A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture, 1990).

Few cultural proclivities are less conducive to science than air-headed shallowness or superficiality. While we take for granted that scientific research be accorded full respect and conducted in a spirit of seriousness and strict objectivity, at the start of the Scientific Revolution experimentalists were dismissed as a bit of a giggle, ribbed by one comic for "spending time only in the weighing of ayre, and doing nothing else while they sat". Professor Gaukroger quotes a long- running London stage comedy from 1676 which lampooned an early zoology researcher "who has broken his brains about the nature of maggots: who has studied these 20 years to find out the several sorts of spiders".

While often pilloried as the Killjoy of Geneva, perhaps Calvin's greatest gift to Western civilisation was a high regard for mental habits of seriousness, self-discipline and thoughtfulness. It is not hard to predict how he would have reacted if, while ascending to his lofty pulpit in Saint Pierre cathedral, Calvin had looked out upon pews filled with parishioners playing Angry Birds on iPhones or watching The Biggest Loser re-runs on tablets. By stressing the need for every individual to transcend a life focused on self-gratification and pointless hedonism, Calvin helped forge a social matrix in which serious cultural endeavours were sustainable:

We have never been forbidden to laugh, or be filled, or to join new possessions to old or ancestral ones, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine. True indeed. But where there is plenty, to wallow in delights, to gorge oneself, to intoxicate mind and heart with present pleasures and be always panting after new ones—such are very far removed from a lawful use of God's gifts. (Institutes III:19:9)

Some historians further suggest that the sixteenth- century Reformation reinforced the growth of science in other subtle ways. For example, while the extent of the persecution of Galileo by the Catholic Church is often exaggerated, it is possible that in Protestant societies, the leaner ecclesiastical structures favoured by the Reformers diminished opportunities for clerical meddling in scientific affairs.

The so-called Hermeneutical Revolution affected by the Reformation may also have had pro- scientific spin-offs. Hermeneutics is the branch of theology that specialises in the interpretation of sacred texts, taking its name from Hermes, the figure in Greek mythology who shuttles between the gods and humanity, recasting the divine oracles into a form understandable by mortals. Shunning the medieval habit of applying an allegorical hermeneutic to Scripture, Protestants brought a new concern for establishing the plain meaning of ancient texts using linguistic tools borrowed from Renaissance humanists. This habit of seeking the truth of things via plain, direct explanations was definitive of the Protestant mindset and probably influenced attitudes to the "Book of Nature". In his provocative book The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (1998), Australian science historian Peter Harrison argues that this Hermeneutical Revolution was deeply catalytic of the growth of science.

Our brief excursus has revealed how, until comparatively recent times, an influential tradition in Protestant societies, Reformed Presbyterianism, helped forge a science-friendly ethos in the modern world. We have seen that this tradition emphasised that scientific research is an intrinsic good, an influential idea which has only recently given way to an instrumentalist view in which science only has value if put to useful ends, such as generating revenue for cash-strapped administrators or newspaper headlines for the campus PR office. Yet we are not so daft as to pretend that the Reformed strand of Christian devotion was solely responsible for the growth of modern science. For example, as the large body of work by the late Benedictine scholar Stanley Jaki has shown, the contours of a pro-scientific theology can also be traced in the writings of great Catholic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. James Hannam's recent book God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science gives an enjoyable overview of the emergence of Western science from an essentially Anglo-Catholic perspective. My point here is that by exploring the attitude towards science held by John Calvin, the most influential theologian in the Continental Protestant tradition, a case can be made for his religious outlook in helping to create a welcoming social environment for the fledgling research enterprise. Since science originated in an era in which social innovations needed sanction from churchmen if they were to endure, the endorsement the great Frenchman gave to the emerging scientific endeavour was deeply significant.

Rehearsing this story shows how easily our spiritual legacy as Westerners is forgotten. In the case of Calvin, secularist scholars such as Bertrand Russell uncritically propagated the idea that Calvin opposed the Scientific Revolution, an opinion based on a dodgy "Calvin" quotation concerning Copernicus that probably originated with a nineteenth-century English cleric. The infamous "Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit" utterance appears in Russell's influential History of Western Philosophy. Wobbly scholarship of this kind helped forge today's forgetfulness of the role Christian thinkers played in cultivating a science-friendly social atmosphere that is too easily taken for granted.

This returns us to our original question: what, if any, are the scientific consequences of the weakening of both the Catholic and Protestant forms of Christian profession in Australia and other Western societies in recent decades? A sceptic might justly point out that even if Christianity helped launch the scientific enterprise, it need not follow that theistic values are needed to keep it airborne. Indeed, our hard-secularist friends assure us that the ebbing of Christendom is good for science, and at the most superficial level of argumentation, they may be right.

Yet even if the Faith is abandoned upon reaching adulthood, the first absconding generation subconsciously retains many of the social habits and values that were instilled by a religious upbringing. They may even unwittingly pass secularised versions of these values onto their offspring. But what about their children's children and those subsequent generations that have had no exposure to the social and moral values propagated within the four walls of a local parish? Is it likely that the original social habits that originated in a religious context will be transmitted in perpetuity to future generations? To recall Professor McGrath's insight concerning the scientific "crater" John Calvin left in the European landscape; as someone who is increasingly challenged during the teaching of science to students raised in today's superficial sport- and entertainment-dominated society, I wonder if such craters might have a finite shelf-life? Under the winds of a contradictory worldview, could they shrink?

It is an irony of modern life that even in a highly secular society, the research enterprise seems strangely dependent upon widespread acceptance of a cluster of enabling assumptions concerning humanity and its role in the cosmos that were originally furnished by the doctrinal formulations of Christian theism. My colleague's insight into the churches aiding the practice of science by teaching kids how to sit still and pay attention is just one ingredient of this recipe. Rather, the momentum of science appears to depend on a raft of presuppositions on loan from Christian theology concerning the rationality, uniformity and "knowability" of the cosmos; the "research competence" of the human mind, uniquely endowed with the spark of rationality by the Deity; of the real and abiding distinction between truth and error, necessary to distinguish between a factual claim that is well-founded and one that is not; and of the obligation to make the most of one's intellectual abilities by living serious, purposeful lives.


The fact that most modern scientists—in contrast to many early pioneers such as Paracelsus, Newton, Pascal, Boyle, Mendel or Maxwell—display little interest in the theology that supplied these science- enabling assumptions is not relevant to our discussion. Simply by participating in the research endeavour, researchers benefit functionally from background assumptions inherited from the theistic tradition that once underpinned Western civilisation. Hence, until the decline in church participation in the 196os and pros, preceding the steady evacuation of Christian meaning and symbols from contemporary public life, a significant proportion of the Australian populace was exposed to an orderly religious worldview that promoted mental and social habits that were conducive to the scientific vocation. Some enterprising Australian sociologist needs to replicate the recent Religion Amongst Academic Scientists (RAAS) study by Rice University researcher Elaine Ecklund, which found that a staggering 8o per cent of 744 top scientists in the USA were reared in a "religious home".

Could it be that the social climate in which our kids now mature possesses fewer avenues for exposure to science-enabling theistic values? As the Methodist theologian John Oswalt recently noted, we seem to be struggling to associate the loss of the fruits that once grew on the tree of Christendom with the dissipation of the belief system that once mysteriously enabled its cultural achievements:

As that worldview is progressively lost among us, we are losing the by-products as well. Not realising that they are by-products, we are surprised to see them go, but we have no real explanation for their departure.

I have spent the past twenty years teaching university students how aspirin lowers body temperature in febrile patients; how the Agent Orange contaminant dioxin induced skin disease in Vietnam veterans; how the morning-sickness drug thalidomide caused an epidemic of ghastly birth defects in the 1960s; or how maternal alcohol ingestion during pregnancy disrupts brain development in the unborn. No doubt my teaching abilities have declined, but each year it seems harder to engage my students with scientific puzzles of this kind. "What do we have to know for our exam?" and "How does this knowledge help me get a well-paying job?" seem the most pressing questions for some.

Of course there are many exceptions—those wonderful students with a thirst for knowledge who help keep the job interesting. However, such individuals seem to be so few now that there is a danger we will suffocate them, like zealous parents celebrating the first steps of a coddled infant, precluding the development of the inner toughness and ability to withstand criticism that is essential to the practice of science.

Could this, then, be the sad end zone to which secular postmodernity brings us: a world shorn of anchor points grounded in shared transcendent values, where nothing has significance beyond the domain of the present digitally-mediated cultural moment? Science, unexpectedly, is an early victim of this mentality, although with hindsight, a certain logic seems in play: If there's no Deity "out there" for one generation, for the next perhaps there's no rationally ordered world "out there" awaiting investigation. The final stage of this cultural declension involves the substitution of myth- making and an obsession with synthetic realities for the search for truth. Scientists of an earlier generation seem at a loss to explain why students today attach deep significance to the inane daily escapades of a Charlie Sheen or Kim Kardashian, while their eyes glaze over when we try to excite them about the achievements of a Gertrude Elion, Howard Florey or John Vane. Given the relativistic assumptions underlying secular postmodernity and its educational enterprise, where every human action is as celebratory as any other, is this surprising?

As in healthcare, where the efficacy of one's medical interventions depends heavily on the accuracy of the original diagnosis, the recent debate over the social implications of Christianity for Western civilisation has far-reaching significance. If our New Atheist friends are correct, then the persistence of the "faith virus" might underlie the downturn in scientific interest among today's youth. Their brave efforts to fight the pathogen called Christianity using the medicine of aggressive atheism might well lift the prospects for science.

If, on the other hand, the declining interest in science is actually due to the disordering of our social life caused by the pervasive de-Christianisation of our public square, then administering the same old atheist drug, in higher doses or purer form, could prove catastrophic. The British mathematician John Lennox has recently lamented that the polarising rhetoric of the New Atheists is forcing twentyfirst-century people into the no-win position of having to choose either science or God. Noting the long-standing religiosity of the human species, a fact reflected in survey data suggesting that most Australians still profess belief in God, Lennox suggests that when facing this binary dilemma, many will choose God, concluding that science is the unappealing domain of atheist blowhards. Given the many scientific challenges facing humanity in coming decades, the resulting loss of human capital to the science professions could be damaging.

If in fact the dissemination of reflective Christian theism truly serves as a mysterious social fertiliser for the scientific endeavour, then perhaps the longterm solution to our looming crisis is rather simple. No Great Big Science Stimulus Tax is required: all it might take would be for a good chunk of the Australian population to reschedule their Sunday morning calisthenics classes or soccer games, and instead send their kids to their friendly local parish Sunday school.

Professor Philip Burcham is a Perth-based medical researcher and a lay leader in the Presbyterian Church of Australia. The views expressed in this article are his own.