Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 16 (December 1964): 120-122.

When one considers the guise of the sociologist, the inclination is to either observe him poking through the cloudy heights of general theory, or else adding the noses of crowd members. Obviously, neither image is quite correct.

Perhaps it is preferable to view him as somewhat of an iconoclast whose purpose it is to provide the interjectory question and to direct the conversation into seemingly unfruitful fields. He remains somewhat of a skeptic, unwilling to accept folklore as fact or statistics as meaningful. By virture of the need to cover vast areas of human behavior, he will find himself constantly raising more questions than he answers. Perhaps his proper function should be that of "eyebrow raiser."

Even though such an image of the sociologist is not well known, there is much basis for viewing him in this light. Whether, as an existentialist, he requests that we not "take the world for granted" or, as a structural-functionalist, he seeks out consequences of action which are latent, there is always the desire to not close the case until all the evidence is in, even if the defendant must be condemned as a result.

The sociologist, then, should consider all alternative behavioral patterns as possible explanations until proven otherwise. There is a need to maintain an open theoretical system, for to close it too hastily might lead to possible error. Such consequences might go beyond simply the inability to know "truth". In the area of social engineering, the establishment of policy based on prejudiced views and limited perception can be a costly undertaking indeed.

A recent text in social problems takes cognizance of this condition in its introductory remarks. The statement, which had been briefly referred to in an earlier issue of the Journal, clearly raises the possibility that conditions leading to social problems may be nonpathological. It would behoove the Christian to carefully consider the options inherent in such a possibility.

One final word could be made about this statement. Nisbet underscores, once again, the need to maintain a form of insulation among our various roles. In the final analysis, this might resolve itself into that well known dichotomy which exists between the subjective and the objective attitudes toward familiar things. 'Let us review, then, this contemporary opinion with the realization that the ultimate resting place of his comments should be on the responsibility of the individual whether he be Christian, scientist, citizen, or some curious combination of these roles.

* From a strictly theological point of view, many of the problems treated in this, book are, first and last, violations of a divinely sanctional moral order. As such they are often considered to be manifestations of evil, of original sin. The theologian will concede readily that such acts as murder, adultery, and theft are susceptible in part to nonreligious explanations, to influences of environment; and he will, if he is engaged in pastoral work, not hesitate to avail himself of the help of legal and social agencies. But, as a theologian, he will probably choose to see the final explanation of these acts in terms drawn from religion itself. He will see them as violations of God's commandments, as sin. And, like the explanation, the ultimate solution is put by the theologian in religious terms: expiation through prayer and penance . . .

When we turn to the scientific consideration of social problems we are in a different world of thought and discourse. Here the objective is not popular exposure or moral dramatization any more than it is expiation of evil or upholding of the law. The scientist, as citizen, as member of a religious group, will not dispute that murder, racial persecution, and narcotics addiction are illegal or evil. He may deplore these acts in the same terms as other citizens; he may join, on occasion, in exhortation or political action. But, as a scientist, he is interested in something else, something very different from the older and more common approaches. He is interested in understanding these pathological social actions in exactly the same way that he is interested in understanding the normal and the good. In his strict role of scientist, as seeker of knowledge, he cannot be interested in exhortation or repressive sanctions except insofar as these responses are themselves involved in the nature of the social problems he is concerned with. What the scientist, as scientist, seeks is knowledge of the conditions involved, how the problems have come to be as we find them, and what the crucial factors are in their incidence. It is not action that the scientist seeks but hypothesis-clear, verifiable, and valid statements of causation.

Nothing could be more false than the occasional charge that sociologists are indifferent to moral standards; that for them one form of behavior is as good or bad as the next; that relativism is the moral code by which men should live. It would be as true to suggest that the medical scientist is indifferent to the agonies of cancer because, instead of relying simply upon prayer or anesthetics, he insists upon the long-run study of this disease, upon approaching it in the same way that he would approach benign or normal aspects of organic functioning.

The scientist is as interested as the next citizen in making the protection of society his first responsibility, in seeing society reach higher levels of moral decency, and, when necessary, in promoting such legal actions as are necessary in the short run for protection or decency. But, as a scientist, it is his professional responsibility to deal with such matters as crime, suicide, narcotics, and ethnic tensions exactly in the manner in which he deals with other forms of human behavior.

This leads us to an important point about social problems. In the popular view, as the result of our religious and philosophical heritage, we have a tendency to think of social problems as the consequence solely of evil or undesirable elements. For centuries a large part of Western ethics has been based upon the view that only good can come from good; only evil from evil. If there is crime, it is because of evil persons, evil groups, evil values.

Yet, as every chapter of this book makes clear, much of what is associated with our social problems is closely related to things we deem good. This is patently true of transportation congestion and other aspects of urban blight: apart from the good and desirable values inherent in city life, values which attract people in large, numbers, many of the ills would not exist. This relationship is true also of the difficulties presented by population, growth. Plainly there is nothing intrinsically evil in having large families; an entire morality rests upon the Biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. For thousands of years high birthrates were necessary and functional, so far as the preservation of society was concerned. But today, in many areas, as the result of sharply lowered death rates, the growth of population has become one of society's most formidable problems.

Similarly, in crime, suicide, and family disorganization, we often discover processes of behavior which, if not necessarily beneficent, are at least normal to human endeavor in our society. This is not said in moral exoneration. Stealing is wrong, and it can constitute a serious problem to any community that prizes its own survival and integrity. Sociologists, however, interested in the causal conditions of types of crime, cannot overlook their effective contexts: the incentives, goals, status drives, and role needs which characterize our society. We may deplore our high rate of divorce, to be seen often tragically in broken homes and personalities set adrift; but we cannot isolate this divorce rate from a society that sets a high value upon individualism, romance, and contractual ties.

Too often the popular view of social problems likens them to cancers; for most citizens, the image of society and its problems is that of an essentially healthy organism invaded by alien substances. The legislator, or policeman, is thought of as a kind of physician, bound to remove the cyst, destroy the virus, but without altering the character of the organism itself.

Such an analogy seriously distorts social reality. We shall discover in the chapters of this book that social problems, even the worst of them, often have a functional relationship to the institutions and values by which we live. We cannot divorce racial and ethnic discrimination from the complex of customs that have sometimes given discrimination a wide variety of functions in our economic, political, domestic, and recreational affairs. We cannot separate many of the discontents of work from our own development of more cultivated standards of, existence, of leisure values that we properly cherish. Even prostitution exists only as a reflection, so to speak, of the value we place on the monogamous family and the sanctity of marriage.

* From Contemporary Social Problems, edited by Robert K * Merton and Robert A. Nisbet @ 1961 by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., and reprinted with their permission.