The age of scepticism?

It is no secret that church attendance in the UK, Europe and even America has been in decline in recent years. Some have seen this as evidence that science has 'disproved' religion, with the result that people no longer feel a need to believe in God. But is that really the reason?

 

The cover story of the current issue of National Geographic (March 2015) is entitled The war on science. Authored by Joel Achenbach, the article states, "We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge...faces organized and often furious opposition." Some of this is from conservative religious believers, but it is not a science versus religion issue. This mistrust of science is present right across the population.

 

It appears that we live in an age of scepticism. It's not that people don't have beliefs, but it seems that we are much less likely than in past generations to accept the authoratative voices of the experts - whether in science or religion. There are, of course, complex social and psychological reasons why people choose to believe the things that they do and to refuse to believe other things. But alongside these is the basic availability of information. As Achenbach points out in the National Geographic article, the internet has given people access to a great deal of information (some reliable, some not), and individuals can pick and choose what 'facts' they will believe. We no longer have to rely on specialists and experts to be the holders of knowledge. Pretty much everything is there for anyone to access. The problem with this is that, without expertise and specialist knowlege, we don't always know how properly to evaluate the information that we see.

 

In addition to the increased access to information, there is also a greater mistrust of those who society used to rely upon to provide facts and guidance, and to make policy: scientists, religious leaders, politicians. This is, perhaps, no surprise. Politics in the USA has become extremely polarised and antagonistic, and recent years have seen several political scandals in the UK. Similarly, scandals and cover-ups in the Church have made it harder for people to trust Church leaders. Neither has science escaped scandal and poor publicity, with reports of scientific papers with faslified or omitted data.

 

So this age of scepticism isn't really a product of belief or lack of belief. It is a crisis of trust. Openness and transparency are essential for both religion and science if we are to engage with an apparently disillusioned public. Good communication is needed if we wish to capture their imaginations. And possibly the best way to overcome the scepticism directed towards communities that make truth claims about our world is to work together - especially on issues that have clear moral and ethical implications, such as climate change. It may even be possible to restore trust to the age of scepticism.


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