"I believe in free speech," goes an archetypical conversation I sometimes have in the pub with people largely outside of any religious tradition, "but people shouldn't reject vaccination/evolution/science etc." Oh dear, I think to myself... how do I unpick this knot without offending them? Because these apparently innocuous statements run perilously close to saying "democracy is great, but I prefer theocracy". How can this possibly be...?
For more or less anyone reading this, theocracy will seem like the worst possible form of government. Indeed, a great deal of the tacit hostility that some today hold for the Catholic Church lies in the rejection of the idea that anyone should be placed in a position of arbiter of the truth, and thus in hostility towards theocracy, broadly construed. This is sometimes expressed in a conceptual rejection of the Catholic pope, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone did in their hilariously blasphemous South Park episode "Fantastic Easter Special", which ends with a rabbit being appointed pope and the claim that this was what God had always intended. This episode really interested me, as I believe it successfully captures Protestant Christians' prejudice against Catholics, from which the so-called "New Atheist" movement descended (all the prominent New Atheists began by rejecting Protestant Christianity, then expanded their dismissal until it encompassed all world religions). A similar theme also manifests in the Principia Discordia, the sacred book of the Discordian Society, which also aligns with elements of Protestant theology against Catholic theology, while softening the hard edges by cross-breeding (rather productively) with those schools of Zen Buddhism that embrace absurdity as a path to wisdom.
In Catholic parlance, the term 'theocracy' is seldom if ever used (although Vatican City can be understood as a theocratic nation - albeit a rather small one!). The official term for the authority of the Vatican is 'magisterium', meaning 'power of the office of magister', where 'magister' is Latin for 'master'. The magisterium is understood as the capacity of the pope and the bishops to render a judgement on the authentic interpretation of the Word of God, taken both in the sense of establishing an official interpretation to scriptural texts but more importantly in terms of guiding traditional practice, which encompasses an extremely broad range of human activities. Thus, when Pope Francis endorsed the idea in 2016 that Catholic churches could offer the sacraments to divorced Catholics (a controversial suggestion in some quarters!), he was exercising his official role in the magisterium.
The term was applied outside of Catholicism in 1997, when the brilliant evolutionary essayist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that the alleged conflict between science and religion could be resolved by asserting 'non-overlapping magisteria' (NOMA). His proposal was to assign dominion over facts to the sciences, while religions (and non-religions) would have separate dominion over values. Gould's use of the term 'magisterium' was borrowed directly from Catholic parlance; as a palaeontologist coming from a Jewish family in New York, where 60% of the population is Catholic (and only 10% Protestant), he would have been quite familiar with Catholic terminology and thought. This proposal did not go down particularly well - those who would go on to align with the New Atheist movement unilaterally replied that there was no need for such a principle because science could claim authority over everything and there was thus no need to make concessions. In such situations, 'religion' is being rejected not over the idea of asserting a magisterium, but merely because the wrong magisterium is being asserted.
This is roughly where I see the problem with my friends in the pub claiming to support free speech, but placing its limit on topics that they consider to have been scientifically resolved, and thus beyond dispute. This position implies a magisterium of science, and in the same way that the presence of a magisterium in Catholic tradition implies a theocracy, any time someone unthinkingly singles out a scientific topic for special status (vaccination and evolution are by far the most common), they are also requesting or expecting something similar, if only implicitly. For it is solely in the presence of a magisterium of some kind that there could be authority to adjudicate what is or is not permitted as an absolute matter. The law, after all, is free to change when the people require it; only a magisterium is beyond dispute.
I think back to a very good friend of mine expounding his outrage in respect of a Creationist Museum somewhere in the United States that he had heard about. And I found this odd, because it sounded very amusing to me, and I could not see any legitimate cause for indignation here. "But it's not true," was his retort. But so what? It's not true that there is an inherent goodness to humanity, but I still choose to believe it, and if we are defenders of the so-called free society (and always assuming such a thing still exists) we should be able to accept that at least some of the things others believe are 'not true'. It seemed to me that a Creationist Museum was hardly likely to change anyone's opinion about anything, which means even if we accept that it's 'not true', the expected harms of such an establishment are rather limited.
Besides, who are we to call out other people's nonsense and not our own...? I have yet to meet a human who does not harbour strange non-testable beliefs of some kind, and I am perfectly happy for this situation to persist - because the alternative can only be a theocracy of some kind, or rather, I suppose atheocracy, in that it has become very possible to compose the kind of metaphysically-justified autocracy without any concept of deities. Besides, we make a mistake when we associate religions exclusively with positive theology (a concept of God or gods), since we are singling out just one aspect of the immense diversity of religious experiences and making it central. This is not entirely surprising, however. Christianity and Islam were too successful at making a theology of truth versus falsehood central to our thought via the creation and maintenance of libraries over a span of millennia. We never lost this habit of thought, we just switched from from theology to atheology and from libraries to corporate-managed online repositories while also ceasing to notice the change entirely.
The idea that truth is singular and that deviation from it is abhorrent is an artefact of the monotheistic religions that has been inherited by those who place their faith in 'science', as Nietzsche shrewdly pointed out in 1882. This desire for a magisterium for science is far more widespread than we tend to admit. Consider the political questions that have continued to erupt over gender and sex for the entire duration of the feminist movement (which is to say, since at least Mary Wollstencroft in the latter half of the 18th century). Feminists largely managed to avoid calls for anything like a magisterium on gender up until the end of the twentieth century. After this, the number of non-testable beliefs about gender required to meet everyone's emotional needs ballooned beyond any reasonable expectation. Problematically, tolerance between these different metaphysical conceptions has been extremely limited - remind you of anything? I can't be the only person who thinks that offensive labels like 'TERF' or the 'trans cult' are oddly resonant of older insults like 'heretic' and 'infidel' that came from others who were rather too certain about their beliefs...
No-one should be subjected to the arbitrary beliefs of others, and it does not matter to me one jot whether those beliefs are about God, or gender, or flying spaghetti monsters. However, quite unlike the South Park creators, I don't find a rabbit a desirable replacement for a human Catholic pope, especially one with such an uncommon passion for the oft-forgotten humility of the Christian tradition as Pope Francis. It rather seems to me that the problems with the Protestant Christian traditions I was raised in emerge precisely from the consequences of deciding that a rabbit would indeed be better than a human as a pope. As a Discordian, the absurdity amuses me; as a Christian, I am less convinced. The Catholic church may lag behind the western zeitgeist by about a century but it does eventually change its mind, whereas certain Protestant Christians seem to have an almost negligible possibility of changing their mind under any circumstances! Frankly, they are far from alone in this...
Here I should like to note that the Discordians have a different and altogether more hilarious conception of what it is to be a pope. In a move clearly inspired by the Protestant philosophy of the Enlightenment, Discordians claim that every human is a pope, and some Discordians like to give out 'pope cards' to certify people as such. Indeed, I was ordained as a Discordian pope by Robert Anton Wilson in the late 1990s, which sounds impressive but really is not, since there is no Discordian magisterium and if there were, Wilson would have excommunicated himself. The followers of this religion are almost universally anti-magisterium, and I hope that most if not all of my fellow Discordians would have the sense to never be caught arguing for a magisterium of science, although the golden rule of the followers of Eris is that "we Discordians should stick apart". As such, Paul Feyerabend's adage for capturing the realities of scientific practice, "anything goes!", applies far better to Discordians than to scientists, where suggesting that 'anything goes' is widely considered tantamount to blasphemy.
And here lies the awful truth of the idea that we can claim to be a supporter of free speech but place its limits at some scientific point of reference: the emotional framework that makes this possible is directly parallel with that of blasphemy. This word, after all, is only the name we have given cognitive dissonance when it occurs within a religious context. We must already have determined a necessary truth in order to wish to prevent dissemination of alternative views, and this implies that we secretly desire a scientific magisterium, the rejection of which would be tantamount to blaspheming. Yet free speech depends upon an absence of limitations, with the sole exception being the one proposed by Immanuel Kant: that we should only enact limitations upon freedom where they are necessary to protect a like freedom for others. It requires a real commitment to liberty for people to negotiate how to achieve such a balance, and alas for the most part we have decided not to bother.
Besides, why worry about being free to speak when the social media giants of Facebook, Twitter, et al. and the search engine giants of Google, Baidu, et al. have conveniently provided their own magisterium of thought for us? Watch them with amazement as they merrily adjust search results and the relative visibility of what different people are saying, choosing on the one hand what should be read first, and on the other hand pronouncing which blasphemies must never be heard. Habemas papam, Cyberpope Google I...? I shudder to think. It is situations like this that ought to provoke the outrage my friend felt for a mostly harmless 'museum of ignorance'. Yet we apparently accept this gerrymandering of information without concern - some of our neighbours even advocate for this censorship, as the example from the pub at the opening of this piece foreshadowed!
When I first starting thinking about 'science popes' and a magisterium for science - always in opposition of any such concept! - my concern was that there would come some kind of attempt to create a Council of Scientists that could attempt to act as magister and offer declarations of what was or was not scientifically valid and therefore permitted to be enforced. Then came 2020, when the World Health Organisation - to its own great distress! - found itself unwittingly appointed to this role in a new and disturbing medical magisterium that spread into almost every world government and swiftly ran out of anyone's control. The topics upon which adjudication was demanded rapidly and inevitably fell into that state of pseudoscience whereby disagreement was not permitted (and thus the sciences cease to function), and the medical magisterium that we collectively instituted immediately undermined its own credentials in a manner rather parallel to the idea that a rabbit would make a better pope. I will not say that a rabbit would have made a good replacement for the WHO, only that the WHO struggled to fulfil its role scientifically while it was also expected to act as magister.
It is an admirable thing to stand up for public health and say "what can I do to help?" It is far more problematic to stand up and demand that everyone must satisfy your chosen vision of public health. In a democracy, any such claim is valid solely while it is has the support of the people, and if we propose any intervention on scientific grounds (where the people may have to take it on trust that we are not mistaken), those acting must at all times be ready both to absorb any new evidence, and to remain open to even the most difficult debates about what it all means (which is never a scientific judgement). We are no doubt emotionally secure in our support for science, but it remains to be seen if we are intellectually secure in our support for the sciences. The test for this is whether we are indeed open to new evidence... whenever you no longer need to test your own claims because you know in advance that you are correct, it makes little sense to assert that what you are doing is 'scientific': you are just playing at magister.
We have a choice to make, between free scientific enquiry and a magisterium of science. Yet there is no viable magisterium of science that will not swiftly become an abomination, since it is only because scientists are free in their enquiries that they gain their cybernetically-enhanced power to secure whatever limited truths are available via various research methods. Without debate there can be no legitimate science of any kind, and since a magisterium of science necessarily declares an authorised truth to enforce it could never be scientific. Rather, these kinds of atheology (like so many brutal monotheisms before them) rest upon an ideological claim to a complete and final knowledge - a rather ugly conception that might truly deserve the name 'anti-science'. Inevitably, every attempt at a magisterium of science prevents discussion and therefore unleashes the state of pseudoscience where free research is impossible, thus destroying the very conditions for enquiry that make scientific methods effective.
Perhaps, if you have read this far, you have nodded sagely to everything I've said and thought it obvious. Yet the moment you step away from this train of thought, you will encounter the anti-vaxxers or the pro-maskers, the Creationists or the militant atheists, the 'TERFs' or the 'trans cult' or whatever else it might happen to be that throws you into a blind seething rage. And when you do, won't you still experience that powerful emotional upheaval that comes with encountering blasphemy...? Underneath it all, our desire for a truth that we can depend upon is entirely human, and the Catholic church's stumbling towards hopes of a good life via its magisterium are only one expression of our unquenchable desire for secure foundations to truth. The Catholic pope these days always has the moral defence that the magisterium of the Vatican applies solely to those of the Catholic faith. A magisterium for science demands more: it demands obedience from us all, and a silencing of all objections. This is not, and can never be, scientific, no matter what claims it defends, no matter what motives it evokes. This is the ghastly confusion at the heart of the terrible events of 2020. Yet all it would take to bring this mistake to an end is the restoration of free scientific discourse, of listening once more to all we have refused to listen to. If only any of us knew how we could go back to doing that.