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Do religion and nanotechnology mix?

By Hamish Johnston

No, at least according to a paper published yesterday in Nature Nanotechnology by researchers in the US and Singapore.

The team discovered that people who live in countries with a relatively high level of “religiosity” are less likely to agree that “nanotechnology is morally acceptable”.

Their study on public attitudes towards nanotechnology involved surveys of over 30,000 people in the US and 12 European countries. Americans topped the religiosity scale with a score of about 9 out of a possible 10, and also had the highest percentage of respondents (25%) who did not agree that nanotechnology is morally acceptable.

At the other end of the scale were countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden (5 and 4 on religiosity respectively) where far fewer respondents had negative moral issues with nanotechnology.

On the surface, this study seems to go against the popular notion of Europeans as Luddites, and Americans being keen to embrace new technologies.

The study is also interesting in relation to another paper published in the same issue of the journal but by a different team. This concludes that, “people who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe”.

In terms of national stereotypes, that sounds more like your average American than your average Swede. Indeed, the UK and Ireland — which are usually thought of as individualistic and pro-commerce — also tended to be less morally accepting of nanotechnology than many of their more “socialist” neighbours.

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  1. David

    I wonder how many people can be asked about nanotechnology who would actually know enough about what it is and its possible implications, to give a meaningful answer about whether or not they approve of it.

  2. I simply -and I stress simply:)- wonder about the ’cause’ part of ’cause and effect’. Effects could come upon a person through the manipulation of nano-sized mechanations caused by another. That might be a concern of mine if I did not know that scientists were of a lofty moral character.

  3. Emanuel Hoogeveen

    Nanotechnology involves such a wide spectrum of applications; correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t ‘nanotechnology’ simply mean ‘any technology involving the manipulating of matter and/or energy at the nanoscale’? Presumably, that even includes lithography – digital cameras anyone? For that matter, what about washing machines with presets? Well, I don’t claim to know what the average person thinks of when they hear the term nanotechnology – perhaps biological applications such as gene therapy or even stem cell research. There are issues to be addressed with mass production of nanoscale components, but they seem to mostly involve waste disposal, which is hardly a ‘moral’ issue.

  4. V.D.Ramanathan

    May be the conclusions will be different if the survey is done in India which is a multi religious country where a sizable proportion of the practising scientists are comfortable in reconciling science with their religion. In this connection, I would expect a large number of scientists/science teach teachers (who are also religious) in India will not find nanotechnology morally unacceptable.
    Perhaps a similar survey should be done in this country! I agree with Mr David that this survey should have questioned the respondents about their knowledge regarding nanotechnology also.
    I have not seen the original paper and therefore, I do not know the definitions of religiosity and ‘morality’ used in the questionnaire.

  5. Robert H. Bloom

    Perhaps our distinction as Americans is our love of Science Fiction horror stories — and our willingness to continue to “suspend disbelief” as we proceed back in the real world that we interact in.
    Actually, it does amaze me that non-Americans are not just as susceptible to fears of the unknown
    — whether unexpected threats from outside our common experience, e.g. plagues, meteors, volcanoes, aliens, etc.; or unintended effects by creations of our own, e.g. selfishly and/or carelessly designed/constructed uncontrollable artificial devices and manipulations of our environment, or even of ourselves.
    There is, of course, some justification for this sense of vulnerability:
    Rampant iconoclasm destroys our faith in our own ability to recognize reality
    — whether in our personal perceptions, our long-accepted scientific ‘truths’, or our trust in each other.
    By the way, Humankind has long ‘seen’ warnings of the results of HUBRIS. Certainly, such warnings have appeared repeatedly in our religions.
    Even outside religions, our sciences and ethics continually warn us of terrible possibilities, e.g. the elegant and very potent aphorism known as Murphy’s Law — warning that in any sufficiently complex process, if it can go wrong (i.e. if all possible failures are not recognized and dealt with), it will (i.e., in time, one or more unprotected-against failures will occur).
    Religious faiths we grew up with have also been likewise battered.
    Perhaps we can comfort and support each other, regardless.
    As far as we can tell, our world and life upon it has lasted for a very long time. Therefore, rationally, unless evidence to the contrary arises (if ever), we are justified in believing that there is a good chance that those conditions will continue.
    Regarding religious faith, that too has existed for a long time (albeit, I think, too frequently manipulated and suborned for power plays)…
    Perhaps our Old World brethren are just more accepting of whatever fate will befall us.
    After all, they have suffered through thousands of years of strife, disease, and what not — and people still live there, even with fulfilled lives.
    Perhaps Americans believe that, having been warned by that potent aphorism, Murphy’s Law, it is our responsibility to shoulder the implied burden — and that, as per the Protestant Ethic, we deserve terrible punishments if we disregard our given burden.
    We might take heart, nonetheless, in the high probability that, though individual species may indeed end, life as a whole appears to be very robust — and will likely reoccur, elsewhere if not here, in other forms if not those familiar to us — even if it has to start again from scratch. Here on Earth, life exists even in very severe environments. There are a lot of other planets out there too.

    Those feeling their religious foundations threatened might reconsider upon reading the following:
    This observation is not essentially a challenge to our religions.
    It does not even conflict with the idea of an omniscient, omnipotent Being creating all of this deliberately and with intent.
    Indeed, it actually fits well with that concept.
    Let’s apply Occam’s Razor:
    After all, why would an omniscient, omnipotent Being bother creating a minimal Universe — when providing myriad possibilities, both concurrently and over a huge extent of time, assures the production of desired results, robustly because of the many available environments and possible forms those desired results may appear in and as?
    An elegantly simple resolution to that issue, isn’t it?

  6. myrta

    @David: From what I can see from the abstract of the cited letter, the goal was indeed to see how/on which basis people judge the risk of NT without having or with little knowledge.


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