October 23, 2017

The priesthood of industrial society

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 2 No. 10, October 1972. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


According to the early Christian world view, this life is but a preparation for the next. If people fulfil their duties towards God in the manner laid down by the Church, they will be rewarded with a blissful non-material existence in the next world. The duties were of a mainly ritualistic nature, so much so that the Christians were accused of substituting duties towards God for duties towards their fellow men. This ‘otherworldliness’, it was argued, could only lead to the disintegration of society.

This otherworldliness became even more pronounced in the religio-culture of some of the mediaeval heresies, which tended to regard the world as so evil that it could only have been created by the devil. In such conditions, the only behaviour that could conceivably meet with God’s approval was to divorce oneself entirely from the concerns of this world and preoccupy oneself exclusively with those of the next.

Clearly no psychological terrain could have been less propitious for the emergence of a technological society. Not so, however, that furnished by later nonconformist heresies. The puritans reacted against otherworldliness. They sought to reintroduce duties towards humans, not as a substitute for duties towards God, but rather as the only true means of serving him.

To achieve the Christian paradise, they assumed, it was necessary to submit to a rigid set of behavioural constraints which banished frivolities and put a premium on hard work. Work was thereby equated with virtue and the materially successful with the righteous.

It is a well-known thesis of the great German social philosopher, Max Weber, that it was only among people who had developed so singular a world view that the industrial revolution could have occurred and that science, technology and industry could have been sanctified as a tool for achieving one’s peace with God.

It is fashionable to pour scorn on the conventional notions of paradise proposed by the principal religions of today. None, however, is as naïve as this one. Its achievement would violate practically all the basic principles of social and ecological organization. One might well ask why we are behaving in so misguided a manner at a time when knowledge has never accumulated faster and when, as we are told, 90 percent of the scientists who have ever lived are at present at work.

But it is really the object of ‘scientific’ knowledge to guide public policy so as best to serve man’s interests? If it is, how can one explain the apparent paradox? The answer is that modern science is not as objective as it is made out to be. If one examines the world view that gives rise to the technological goal structure and corresponding social behaviour pattern, one finds that it is taken as given, one might say, as gospel, by most of today’s scientists.

Indeed, rather than serve as the critics of our technological society and offer us some protection against its worst abuses, they have been as involved in it, as instrumental to it, as the technologists and industrialists who have exploited their ‘discoveries’. They are the priests of our modern-day society. It is they who provide the information on the basis of which the industrial process is mediated and without which it could not occur. It is they who have formulated the world view that provides its rationale, and like other priesthoods, they have couched their holy texts in an esoteric language of their own which no outsider can understand.

What is more, they have defined truth in such a way that they alone have access to it, for it must be established by a set of scientific rituals which only they can perform, for only they possess the necessary scientific skills, only they are equipped with the requisite equipment, and only they have access to the holy places where, in order to be effective, these rituals must be performed.

In this way they have become the sole intermediaries in our relationship with this new and formidable deity, and not surprisingly their writings are imbued with an aura of sanctity previously reserved for the holy texts of the established religions. Indeed, if a proposition is classified as ‘scientific’, then it must be true, indeed incontestable; if on the other hand it is branded as ‘unscientific’, then it must be the work of a charlatan.

This has provided the Scientific Priesthood with the power to prevent any undesired deviation from scientific orthodoxy, just as the Catholic establishment of the Middle Ages could excommunicate any heretic whose teachings were a challenge to its authority. In fact, one finds amongst the annals of the scientific world some which are strangely reminiscent of mediaeval witch hunts.

Consider, for instance, the response to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Limits to Growth. Both were branded as ‘unscientific’ by Nature and by Science, the most sacred publications of our scientific-priesthood. Their heretical nature was thus clearly established, and their authors effectively branded as the enemies of civilised society.

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