Despite being the leading religious leader of his day, the civil rights activist was also a vocal advocate of scientific progress.
Martin Luther King Jr. is most famously remembered for his pivotal role in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s.
A Baptist minister, philosopher, theologian, political organizer, and advocate of nonviolence, Dr King’s rousing speeches and heroic moral leadership left a lasting legacy and helped bring an end to the evils of Jim Crow segregation in the United States.
Less known about the great man, however, are his views on science and technology and their relationship with religious thought. As we will see, King was ahead of his time in more ways than one.
Science and religion: complementary, not rivals
Taking a remarkably prescient and progressive view for a Southern church leader of the time, King saw religious belief and empirical scientific thought as compatible rather than contradictory.
In his writings, sermons, and speeches, King regularly invoked the importance of scientific progress and recognized science’s potential to improve the lives of people all over the world. In doing so, he also sought to bridge the centuries-old divide between science and religion.
According to Dr King:
"There may be a conflict between soft-minded religionists and tough-minded scientists, but not between science and religion. Their respective worlds are different and their methods are dissimilar. Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary."
In his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, King celebrated the many achievements of science and technology:
"Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. He has produced machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. He has built gigantic bridges to span the seas and gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies. His airplanes and spaceships have dwarfed distance, placed time in chains, and carved highways through the stratosphere. This is a dazzling picture of modern man's scientific and technological progress.”
While praising these advances, however, King also recognized that the scientific progress he saw was largely meaningless without proper social progress, too:
"Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”
For King, while science is crucial for keeping religion in check, the reverse is also true. Writing with trademark vigour and dynamism, King summed up his thoughts on the relationship between spirituality and scientific materialism:
"Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism."
Why MLK remains relevant today
King’s idea that science needs strong moral leadership to achieve real progress was no doubt influenced by the Black experience of the 1960s, when African-Americans were systematically excluded from the major scientific advances of the day (Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who worked on the Apollo missions and inspired the film Hidden Figures, was a rare exception).
Thankfully, science has come a long way since then. Over the last year, we have seen this moral leadership in action, as scientists and epidemiologists of all nations have led the global fightback against COVID-19. In this regard, science is heeding Dr King’s words.
However, STEM still has some way to go before becoming truly representational of the societies it aspires to improve. Despite ongoing efforts to embrace diversity, the underrepresentation of minorities in the STEM workforce still remains a huge problem for the sector. And with novel techniques such as gene editing throwing up a spate of moral issues, science needs to tread carefully in this age of unparalleled progress.
This April marks fifty-three years since King’s passing, but his words still offer a valuable lesson. When pursuing progress in the name of science, we must not lose sight of the most important thing: our shared humanity. And we must not forget that, like religion, atrocities have been committed in the name of science.
As STEM seeks ways to combat continued systemic inequality, growing misinformation in the political arena, and the very real threat of climate catastrophe, the moral teachings of Dr King will no doubt remain profound for years to come.
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