As always, I’ve cut some material out of these quotes. Feel free to read the full article, or just to rest assured that I haven’t left out anything significant.
As a physicist, I do a lot of writing and public speaking about the remarkable nature of our cosmos, primarily because I think science is a key part of our cultural heritage and needs to be shared more broadly. Sometimes, I refer to the fact that religion and science are often in conflict; from time to time, I ridicule religious dogma. When I do, I sometimes get accused in public of being a “militant atheist.” Even a surprising number of my colleagues politely ask if it wouldn’t be better to avoid alienating religious people. Shouldn’t we respect religious sensibilities, masking potential conflicts and building common ground with religious groups so as to create a better, more equitable world?
Let’s start this off with an admission: I am an atheist. As a teen, I used to be much more militant about it. But then, I started to realize that it really just pissed people off-and didn’t really change any minds, either.
You see, Judeo-Christian religions are brilliantly structured to be immune to refutation; God answers prayers, but not always, and he mostly works his magic behind the scenes, in the afterlife and before we were around to notice. So what do you say? That the whole thing’s a dumb idea and has no proof? They’ll fire back that you have no proof to the contrary, that something must have created the world, and simply keep believing. I’m fine with fighting to the death, but something must at least be accomplished beyond just calling people stupid for being able to believe in something unprovable (they are, but it’s a known flaw).
I found myself thinking about those questions this week as I followed the story of Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who directly disobeyed a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and, as a result, was jailed for contempt of court. (She was released earlier today.) Davis’s supporters are protesting what they believe to be an affront to her religious freedom. The Kim Davis story raises a basic question: To what extent should we allow people to break the law if their religious views are in conflict with it? For example, a jihadist whose interpretation of the Koran suggested that he should be allowed to behead infidels and apostates. Should he be allowed to break the law?
I support people’s rights to religious freedoms. I also support their getting fired if they can’t fulfill their job requirements as a result. For example, what if an underwear model were to convert to fundamentalist Islam? Obviously, the burkha would prevent her from modeling underwear; I have every respect for her beliefs, but if they prevent her from doing her job, then she can find another.
Apparently Kim, as an elected official, can’t be fired and refused to quit, so there wasn’t much else to do but put her in jail. I agree that putting her in jail seems a bit overblown, but show me the alternative?
As for truly breaking the law, it has to be weighed by a judge, just like the Hobby Lobby case. Does not being able to kill people hurt the jihadist more than it hurts the dead people? Clearly not, so goodbye.
The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.
In recent years, this territory has grown murkier. Under the banner of religious freedom, individuals, states, and even—in the case of Hobby Lobby—corporations have been arguing that they should be exempt from the law on religious grounds. The government has a compelling interest in insuring that all citizens are treated equally. But “religious freedom” advocates argue that religious ideals should be elevated above all others as a rationale for action. In a secular society, this is inappropriate.
The whole point of religious freedom is that people are saying ‘my personal beliefs, which are intrinsic to the core of my being, are being violated; i am forced to do something I consider evil and immoral, and I shouldn’t be.’
Of course, anyone could theoretically claim this about anything, but by making it religion-based, it requires you to adhere to some pre-existing moral code, preventing you from gaming the system “providing minimum wage is against my moral code!!” if a company were to make up a fake religion just to try and game the system, it would probably just get mass boycotted out of sheer disgust.
The Kim Davis controversy exists because, as a culture, we have elevated respect for religious sensibilities to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more. Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals. Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them, but, by the same token, the law shouldn’t elevate them, either.
you do realise there are judges that have handed out gay marriage licenses back when they were illegal right
i bet if they had been put under arrest the same exact controversy would be happening, copy/paste religious liberty with ‘civil disobedience liberty’ basically.
In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking.
Not to shill, but ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, both in entertainment value and in informational value.
Specifically, after having read it, I’m fully aware that scientists absolutely have treated many ideas as dogma, despite us eventually disproving them and their theories then looking utterly ridiculous. Sure, the average scientist is more likely to question things than the average person, and the most curious people will tend to flock to the profession, but this doesn’t stop an idea from being held as dogma and curious people ridiculed for questioning it.
Scientists have an obligation not to lie about the natural world. Even so, to avoid offense, they sometimes misleadingly imply that today’s discoveries exist in easy harmony with preëxisting religious doctrines, or remain silent rather than pointing out contradictions between science and religious doctrine. It’s a strange inconsistency, since scientists often happily disagree with other kinds of beliefs. Astronomers have no problem ridiculing the claims of astrologists, even though a significant fraction of the public believes these claims. Doctors have no problem condemning the actions of anti-vaccine activists who endanger children. And yet, many scientists worry that ridiculing certain religious claims alienates the public from science.
What discoveries don’t exist in easy harmony? Did we discover that souls don’t exist, or that hell isn’t real?
Astrologists don’t preach a god or a moral code, they just pretend to predict the future. If christianity was convincing people that bad investments were good ones, i’d be down to unleash the hounds.
Doctors have no problem condeming the actions of people who endanger children? sounds about right.
This reticence can have significant consequences. Consider the example of Planned Parenthood. Lawmakers are calling for a government shutdown unless federal funds for Planned Parenthood are stripped from spending bills for the fiscal year starting October 1st. Why? Because Planned Parenthood provides fetal tissue samples from abortions to scientific researchers hoping to cure diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer. (Storing and safeguarding that tissue requires resources, and Planned Parenthood charges researchers for the costs.) It’s clear that many of the people protesting Planned Parenthood are opposed to abortion on religious grounds and are, to varying degrees, anti-science. Should this cause scientists to clam up at the risk of further offending or alienating them? Or should we speak out loudly to point out that, independent of one’s beliefs about what is sacred, this tissue would otherwise be thrown away, even though it could help improve and save lives?
No, because Planned Parenthood illegally sells these tissue samples (storing and safeguarding that tissue requires resources, and Planned Parenthood purposely overcharges researchers for the costs. It’s also come out that they would sometimes sell this tissue without consent, and guide women towards abortion with their advice instead of having their best interest at heart.
Notice that these people are trying to get rid of abortion, period. Is that anti-science?
Ultimately, when we hesitate to openly question beliefs because we don’t want to risk offense, questioning itself becomes taboo. It is here that the imperative for scientists to speak out seems to me to be most urgent. As a result of speaking out on issues of science and religion, I have heard from many young people about the shame and ostracism they experience after merely questioning their family’s faith. Sometimes, they find themselves denied rights and privileges because their actions confront the faith of others. Scientists need to be prepared to demonstrate by example that questioning perceived truth, especially “sacred truth,” is an essential part of living in a free country.
Query: if your child were to find God, and become…say, Jewish. How would you treat him? About the same as religious families treat atheist children? impossible to say, but I bet you would.
We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments—totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic—that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered “sacred.” Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may offend.
If that is what causes someone to be called a militant atheist, then no scientist should be ashamed of the label.
We owe it to ourselves and to our children to question, but not be total pricks about it either. A militant atheist is the worst possible label, and is just as annoying as a militant Christian, Jew, or Muslim.