Fucking magnets! How do they work?
Insane Clown Posse, 2010
A couple of weeks back, in the Scott Morrison honeymoon period, your correspondent argued that our new PM’s religiosity, as an enthusiastic evangelical Christian, was not of the manner of Tony Abbott’s apocalyptic Catholicism, but of the suburban manner in which happy-clappydom is taken up these days: as an insta-value system, a one-stop theo-shop, providing a literal and specific idea of a God, with firm views about everything, and an interest in your career, health of your children, your speech to the regional sales conference, etc.
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Such beliefs do not dwell on the mystery of Being, but serve to foreclose it; how are you going to top the regional sales board if you’re preoccupied by the existence of evil under an omniscient higher power? What you need is a god who will answer your prayer to find a Mr Muffler that’s open on a Sunday arvo.
But as the evidence rolls in, I’m wondering if I was mistaken. Is ScoMo the other type of evangelical*, the true believer, who got the faith young and hard, and who sees it as the central organising principle of his life? In that case, for Scomo, the tragicomedy of politics is just the business of the fallen world, through which one moves, looking for opportunities to witness. ScoMo’s assertion that he would pray for rain to end the drought, and a glimpse of him praying, has strengthened the sense that this is a bid deal for him.
But what really caught my eye was his remarks on the night of the prime minister’s awards for science ceremony last week. It’s an acid trip of a speech, but here’s the kicker:
I have no doubt that as you do that, you think it might be there, you suspect it might be. You turn it into a theory, then you follow the rulebook, but it all begins with something you believe. Something you think is possible. And if you look at all the great minds over time, those in Australia, those down through the generations around the world, that is that I think has always really encaptured, the great magic of science, if you like. It starts with belief, it starts with passion.
Ah, the magic of science, and the search for a hidden presence. This is an approach to science that evangelism has taken up in recent decades, attaching itself to newer theories of scientific discovery. In brief, the rough theory of science for a century or so was that scientists proceeded from evidence accumulated by experiment through inductive reasoning to create a testable theory, which can then be verified. But in the ’60s and ’70s, theorists like Lakatos and Kuhn pointed out that you never begin with no theory of what is going on in the world; the theory suggests invisible objects, processes, etc, that you look to confirm or falsify.
In the US, culture war evangelicals jumped on these ideas, at a time when they were transitioning from literal “creationism” to “intelligent design” — the (false) idea that Darwinian blind evolution could not explain living complexity — to suggest that science made no sense without a prior animating idea. Science, in this conception, is one of God’s ways of letting us find Him. The argument has been helped by the elements of cosmology beyond comprehension — such as the zero-time “big bang”, for which there is no “before” — and those postulated but hiding stubbornly, such as dark matter.
The reality is that invisible elements exist only as a function of a working theory. The electron had barely “existed” for 20 years as part of atomic theory, before quantum mechanics dissolved it. There’s nothing that an electron “is”; it’s not a presence found by belief in the magic of science. Nevertheless, ScoMo found a way to smuggle a homily on belief into the heart of a talk about its very opposite. That is the mark of a master proselytiser. Morrison is not burdened with Abbott’s desire to restore old orders, his ghastly mitteleuropean restaurant of a theology — all candelabras and goulash and lost holy empires. Morrison simply wants to collect souls in the present world, ahead of the judgement to come.
Of course, I could be wrong. But it’s worth watching Morrison’s future pronouncements to see if the pattern is there. Ahead of the wonderful possibility that we are being led by a man who regards stewardship of the nation as, in the final analysis, nothing more than an opportunity to gather us into God**.
*the clappy divisions are a bit more complex than it is possible to go into here. Evangelicals, Pentecostalists, and Dispensationalists are three sub-divisions.
**Indeed, the full speech portrays Captain Cook — whom ScoMo points out, was the model for Star Trek’s Captain Kirk (yessssss, he’s a Trekkie as well) — as a “scientist”, discovering the world. In other words, Cook’s incalculably important voyages, opening the whole Pacific to European contact, was the Word of God/science moving through the world.