Today science is enjoying a much-needed moment in the popular cultural zeitgeist, as indicated by march for science held in April 2017 and the popular TV show Bill Nye Saves the World, by Bill Nye, nicknamed “the Science guy.” Writing in Washington Post, journalist Tyler Huckabee, holds that entertainment science is “in danger of the same pratfalls that have hamstrung another subculture with which it has more in common than its stewards might care to admit: the religious one.”
He adds that religious entertainment could teach science a thing or two about the danger of pandering to pop culture. “Both science and faith try to use pop culture to get you to buy into a certain set of beliefs without boring you out of your skull. Both can safely assume a fair number of skeptics in their audiences, and both are trying to convince you that — contrary to what you may have heard — the subject in question is both cool and relevant,” writes Huckabee.
Coming to religion: In the ’90s American televangelists tried to be cool and was initially successful. Today it has faded as it became increasingly clear that wherever else faith’s natural habitat may be, it’s not in the entertainment industry. “The whiz-bang pyrotechnics and giddy razzle-dazzle of mainstream pop culture simply don't lend themselves to faith, which thrives best in contemplation and reflection,” Huckabee asserts.
Likewise, science thrives on serious study and sustained commitment. As Carl Sagan reminds us, science is “a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” The danger with scientists like Nye and the well-known American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson pandering to the entertainment industry is that it often becomes reduced to generating headlines.
This is again unfortunate, says Huckabee, because, Tyson is a man of obvious intelligence and charm, and his Cosmos reboot was outstanding. “There is no reason that such a naturally gifted communicator should waste his considerable talents on being the fun police for a superhero space romp. Doing so degrades his scientific brilliance to the same realm as the worst elements of the Christian subculture: turning a fascinating, mind-expanding tool for understanding reality into nothing more than a wet blanket,” opines Huckabee.
That, too, is reminiscent of some of the evangelical subculture at its most patronising and imposing attitude. Faith and culture will always necessarily be in conversation, but not in a cheap and entertaining manner.
Science, like religion, provides a profoundly beautiful prism through which to help interpret the world. It is organised knowledge that, in its truest essence, uses what we know about the universe to help us grasp at those things that we don’t. Unfortunately, dangerous, anti-intellectual bile about the “myth” of climate change and the “danger” of vaccines is being thrown around causally. Some solid science would go a long way toward fixing such disquieting trends.
In such dark times, it’s easy to take any tiny win as progress, even something as dubious as a few extra retweets. The temptation to cater to the social media masses is understandably huge. But it may not serve the good of either science or religion. But we need only look so far as religion to see just where such tricks will take you. “The infantilisation of religious discourse has elevated its worst elements, making heroes of people not fit to clean the boots of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr or Mahatma Gandhi.
For all its mainstream embarrassments, rigorous, insightful conversations around religion are happening, albeit in smaller pockets, away from the spotlight. Science, obviously, continues to thrive in institutions of higher learning. Therein lies the future of committed religions, genuine sciences and a more humane world.
(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)

Kuruvilla Pandikattu