Politics Magazine

In Defense Of "Militant Atheism"

Posted on the 13 September 2015 by Jobsanger
In Defense Of (This cartoon image of "militants" was found at the blog of the Friendly Atheist.)
Christians, especially those of the fundamentalist variety, have no problem trying to force their views on society at large in this country. In fact, I think many of them would love to turn this country into a christian theocracy. But when atheists fight back, they are accused of being too aggressive -- of being militant, and unfair to christianity.
Professor of Cosmology and Theoretical Physics Lawrence M. Krauss defends "militant atheism", especially for scientists, in an article for The New Yorker. It's an excellent article (and I urge you to read the whole thing), but here is a good part of his article:
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.
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. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.
Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion. The more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems. 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, for reasons of decorum, many scientists worry that ridiculing certain religious claims alienates the public from science. When they do so, they are being condescending at best and hypocritical at worst.
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?
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.

I see a direct link, in short, between the ethics that guide science and those that guide civic life. Cosmology, my specialty, may appear to be far removed from Kim Davis’s refusal to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, but in fact the same values apply in both realms. Whenever scientific claims are presented as unquestionable, they undermine science. Similarly, when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy. 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.

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