Some may doubt the existence of a priestly class. First-world nations especially pride themselves in their technological ubiquity, public and private secondary and post-secondary educational opportunities, and free and democratic values. Nevertheless, someone has to commune with gods and communicate their demands to mortals. Someone has to decide what truth is and how it can be known. Someone has to demarcate what fundamental ideas will be allowed to shape the legal and political discourse of a culture.
The question is not whether a priestly class exists--every culture has to decide what it is and what it is not. The question is who makes the decision? Who is in control of the public square? French historian Georges Duby divides medieval society into those that prayed, those that fought, and those that worked. It doesn’t take long to sort out who is in the latter two classes. So who, then s in the former? Who are the priests? Here are a few characteristics that may help answer the question.
Science is becoming inaccessible to us. Who can understand the latest innovations in genetics, astrophysics and biology? Who can explain them to the profane? Knowledge no longer communicates; writers and philosophers in our day are incapable of enabling us to understand science. At the same time, the scope of imagination in science is dazzling. . . . I am concerned by what it means to be literate today. Is it possible to be literate if you do not understand non-linear equations?
Another demonstrable trait of a priestly class is a penchant for isolation and pageantry. Priests live ensconced in their temples and institutions. But when they emerge, they spin myths of fantastic speculation and drama. Priests use the most sophisticated technologies of the day to awe the public and further cement their offices as mouthpieces of the gods and the arbiters of all wisdom. It is the priestly class that brings fire from heaven to earth. (One best not forget that because they've been known to burn, torture, imprison, and silence men, women, children, nations, and peoples to maintain their power.)
There are others traits as well. For example, a priestly class demands sacrifice. It attracts members from and nurtures the future of the political bourgeois, whereas it needs and fears the military. It has an identifiable costume that sets it apart from others. And given enough time, it will undermine its own foundations.
Given these few characteristics, the argument can be made that the West’s priestly class is made up of practicing scientists. Take for example the half-a-lifetime of painful and expensive mathematical hazing it takes to even come abreast of what is current in the field, thus barring we plebians from real understanding. (We understand at the level of myth.) Or consider the role, and cost, of universities. Undergraduate education is a court of the gentiles; masters degrees the court of the women. Gown and mortarboard mark the initiates. And who can argue but the university system of our day, bloated and fat on the blood of the middle-class, regulates status, income, and mate-selection using impenetrable matrices to separate the sheep from the goats.
So then, having identified our priests, we return to our watchman, Dr. Alan P. Lightman. “The history of science,” he says, “can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles.” Humanity has measured the heavens with the span of its calculus and dispelled the old gods of nature and chaos before the daylight of scientific certainty. Reason reigned--until now. Now “this long and appealing trend may be coming to an end.”