Science, Religion, and Nano

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Culturally, we often hear that there is an irreconcilable conflict between science and religion, but, in my experience, many people believe that the two can co-exist, and perhaps even confirm one another. The perceived conflict between science and religion has become more than a philosophical question.  It has real impact on the cultural perception of the significance of science, and the state of science education in schools.

The idea of a faith-driven distrust of nanotechnology (a field of science that allows researchers to work at the level of individual molecules and atoms) is interesting because it doesn’t seem to pose the same immediate theological challenges that surround issues such as stem cells or cloning.  There may be theories of human enhancement or self-reproducing systems discussed in the exploration of nano, but more often applications tend towards the practical -  stain-resistant fabric coatings or advances in cellular delivery systems for medicines.  But as I researched the subject, I found that the question of why nano may pose a problem to religious communities has no simple answer.  I spent several weeks researching and interviewing on the topic before coming to realize and accept that fact.

When speaking with Phil Hefner, a former director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science in Chicago, we discussed the question of why cutting-edge technologies receive much more push-back than everyday ones.  It seems that all it takes for skepticism and controversy over many technologies to cease is for those technologies to become so commonplace as to be taken for granted. (Read more in the original article here.)

The fluidity of nanotech is particularly relevant in this regard, since what nanotech becomes known to represent may have a great impact on how it is received.  If it simply becomes an aid to everyday products and non-controversial medical treatments, I think it could go the way of cell phones – a technology that perhaps has not been around long enough for the average consumer to feel it's 100 percent safe, but still considered a non-controversial necessity.  On the other hand, if it comes to stand for ways to alter the potential of humans, or associated with incidences of safety risk, it really could follow stem cells as the next great controversy.

Recent news in Europe about distrust of nanotech in food products is reminiscent of greater public concern over labeling and monitoring of genetically modified food there.  On this score, Europeans may already be making up their mind and placing nanotech in that controversial category.  Yet this isn’t so shocking when I consider my interview with Phil Hefner, who viewed the issue in the context of frequent dualisms in Western culture.  He likened it to other dualistic debates that impact science, such as the philosophical idea that man is separate from nature compared to the ecological impact of human behavior.

- blog authored by Elizabeth Bahm

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