Rupert Sheldrake: Science does not tolerate dissent

July 6, 2021
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The concept of scientism, the quasi-religious belief in science and scientists, has risen in prominence over the past year. It has been a theme explored in many UnHerd interviews, ranging from Matthew Crawford, who detailed the ways in which science has evolved from a mode of inquiry into a source of authority, to Richard Dawkins, who dismissed scientism as a “dirty word”. 

To author and biologist Rupert Sheldrake, it means something different: “It is the idea that science can solve all the problems of the world,” he tells Freddie Sayers in today’s LockdownTV. “Where science becomes a religion and that it’s humanity’s salvation. The scientists are the saviours of the world.”

The religious fervour with which phrases like ‘following the science’ and ‘trust the experts’ have been uttered and adhered to over the course of the pandemic would seem to underscore Sheldrake’s point. But according to Sheldrake, who has spent his entire career researching controversial or ‘fringe’ areas of science, the phenomenon is “nothing new”. As he himself has experienced, the scientific community does not like entertaining radical or dissent opinion, and goes out of its way to snuff it out:

The scientific world has always had a culture of pushing down dissenting ideas. It’s not pluralistic. I mean, most worlds – political, religious, sports – are pluralistic. You get different points of view, and you expect it in politics, in courts of law, you have the prosecution and the defence. In science, you don’t. You have the idea of the magisterium, the expert opinion, the Orthodox view, which has never been particularly tolerant of dissenting views. 
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd

One might therefore expect him to be sympathetic to those who have been dismissed as cranks and charlatans during the Covid debate. But curiously, he admits to having a rather “conventional” view when it comes to the pandemic:

I’ve been vaccinated and I was very glad there was a vaccine, but in other unconventional areas of science I do research, I often encounter irrational opposition, especially from people who now say they follow the science. They very often don’t follow the science when it doesn’t agree with their opinions or prejudices.
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd

On the increasing acceptance of non-orthodox viewpoints:

People who have religious or spiritual practices, generally speaking, live longer, happier, and healthier. This has not been lost on some of the new atheists. For example, Sam Harris, as a new atheist, is now giving online meditation courses. So in the last few years, there’s been an opening up of what you could call this liminal area in between science and religion, where spiritual practices can actually be studied scientifically.
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd

On his own religious journey: 

I went through a Dawkins-type atheist phase that lasted at least 10-15 years when I was at school and doing research at Cambridge. But I was drawn back to a more religious view, partly through psychedelic experience, partly through travelling in India, partly through taking up meditation, and yoga. And to my surprise, I found myself drawn back to a Christian path, and so I was confirmed in India at the age of 36, in the church of South India, and I’m now a practising church going Anglican.
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd

On ‘evangelical atheism’:

Evangelical atheism is a Christian heresy, as indeed secular humanism is…Instead of worshipping God, they worship humanity…Humanism is a form of speciesism: everything has to be done for human good, and doesn’t do much good to other species on the earth… Look at the current struggle for human rights – trans rights, gender rights – where does that come from? A secularised version of the Christian view that everyone’s equal in the sight of God.  
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd

Should religion be eliminated?

It would be an incredibly cultural impoverishment… The meaning and the structure that religions give to people’s lives, not only help them, but they have measurable effects. That’s why all these studies on religious practice show very clear results from thousands of scientific papers all around the world. The people who have religious practices are happier, healthier and live longer than those that don’t. So I think personally, that militant atheism should come with a health warning.
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd


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