08/20/2012 12:53 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

New Atheism and the Same Old Story

Recently, a friend posted a meme on Facebook that proclaims, "Science Flies You to Mars. Religion Flies You Into Buildings." Having just flown back from the Red Planet, jet lag perhaps impeded his thinking. But that meme reminds me of the classic Tom Lehrer song about Wernher von Braun, the German scientist who played a crucial role in developing the V-2 rocket for the Nazis. Thousands of von Braun's V-2's flew into English buildings during the Second World War. As Lehrer sang,

Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some think our attitude
Should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.

Von Braun's career might prove that religion breeds violence. Supposedly he surrendered to the Americans rather than to the Soviets so that the terrible destructive potential of rocket science would be entrusted "to people who are guided by the Bible." Eventually he used that science to help those Bible-believing Americans put humans on the moon. But one gets the feeling that von Braun's only real motivation was political expediency. As Lehrer put it: "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.

It would not be fair to draw a line from the Nazi war machine to the landing of Curiosity -- at least not a straight line. But von Braun reminds us that science neither exists in a historical vacuum nor supplies its practitioners with a moral compass. The scientific method of observation, hypothesis and experiment only serves to create a body of reliable knowledge. It offers no advice on what to do with that knowledge, except to use it to pursue more knowledge. And it sets no limits on what scientists do in that pursuit.

Examples are easy to find. We might dismiss the experiments conducted in the concentration camps as the results of Nazi ideology. But how do we explain then the experiments conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in Guatemala in the 1940s? Or the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which African American men went untreated, in order to discover the long-term effects of the disease? Or the work of the virologist Chester Southam, as described by Rebecca Skloot in her engrossing book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." During the 1950s Southam injected cancer cells into hundreds of people without their knowledge. Although he insisted that the procedure was safe, he never injected himself. As he told a reporter, "Let's face it, there are relatively few skilled cancer researchers, and it seemed stupid to take even the little risk" (Skloot, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," 126-136, esp. 134). If scientific endeavors are privileged, then privileged too are those who pursue them -- Southam believed that his life was worth more others' precisely because he was a scientist.

Based on Skloot's account, it could be argued that religion finally put an end to his experiments. Three doctors resigned from a Brooklyn hospital rather than cooperate with his research. The doctors were Jewish, and they were derided as being "overly sensitive because of their Jewish ancestry" (Skloot, p. 132). This was the claim of the director of medicine who had agreed to let Southam experiment on patients at the hospital, a man named Emanuel Mandel -- ironically, another Jew. Perhaps Mandel saw Southam's research as a response to the rabbinic imperative to preserve life. But the action of those three doctors was shaped by the same rabbinic imperative. Mandel's criticism suggests that, besides Talmudic teaching, those doctors felt real solidarity with fellow Jews who had suffered in Nazi experiments. As a gentile, it might not be my place to say who was truer to the Torah, but even an outsider can see who had the better ethics.

This is not to smear science and scientists. But besides science there is another kind of knowledge: history. And the histories of "science" and "religion" deserve more thought and attention than a Facebook meme allows. That history is still being made. In the 1970s Federal law mandated the creation of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to oversee the ethical issues of human experimentation -- not that IRBs are above conflict of interest and dubious ethical assumptions. They are also limited to work done in the U.S. When ABC reported on the Guatemalan experiments, it quoted Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, who argued that pharmaceutical companies still routinely carry out experiments in developing countries, where there is "less vigorous regulatory oversight." There's no scientific reason not to.

The history of science is not limitless benevolence. The history of religion is more than violence, and even the violence committed in the name of religion needs more thought than this. Against the opportunism of von Braun, we might set the Jesuit priest Rupert Mayer, imprisoned for opposing the Nazis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Third Reich for his involvement in the German resistance (including possibly plans to kill Hitler). Martin Luther King was inspired by the Gospel -- not science. The martyrs of El Salvador -- Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Jean Donavon, Dorothy Kazel, Oscar Romero, the victims of the death squads at the Universidad Centroamericana -- all were guilty of violence: the violence of witnessing against the prevailing wisdom of their time, against a common-sense that accords other humans the same dignity it offers lab rats. That violence continues in the arrest of Sister Megan Rice, 82, for breaking into a high-security nuclear facility to proclaim, ""Swords into plowshares, Spears into pruning hooks!" (Isaiah 2:4).

Like the scientists who landed Curiosity on Mars, these people embraced a difficult discipline -- that's why they're called disciples. My friend is neither a scientist nor religious, and I'm not sure what discipline is involved in circulating hate-memes on Facebook. It seems fairly clear that it has little to do with science or religion, at least as he understands those things. Shall we do a study and found out?