Should all scientists really be militant atheists?

As my title implies this post discusses the New Yorker article by Lawrence Krauss – All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists. I basically agree with his analysis but feel he has left himself open to an unwarranted criticism often made of the scientific approach.

The headline is very provocative – and was clearly meant to be. The term “militant atheist” is just silly. But it did smoke out the expected criticism from the faithful (for example Should Scientists Be Atheists? More Nonsense From Lawrence Krauss by Kelly James Clark from the Brooks College and Kaufman Interfaith Institute). These critics attempt to avoid Krauss’s central complaint about the unwarranted privilege religion gets in our society (to the extent that when a law-breaker like Kim Davis is punished there are loud complaints of Christians being persecuted or Christian beliefs being made illegal). And they also attempt to denigrate his point that the scientific process should not be perverted in its exploration of the evidence and application of reason by demands of unjustified respect for belief or faith when it conflicts with evidence.

The people who wish to protect this religious privilege – even in scientific investigation – are the ones who describe any criticism of their stance as “militant.”

Rejecting the “sacred” justification

Krauss dismissed the demand for respect with:

“The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.”

Applying this to the scientific process he wrote:

“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.”

Unfortunately his use of Haldane’s quote – together with his provocative title “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheistsconveyed the impression that scientists should approach their investigation with a bias that already rejects some possible outcomes.

No relationship between science and religion

However, that was not Krauss’s claim. He used the term “atheist” in its negative sense (not theist) – not implying an imposition of any preconceived beliefs or ideas.

His real point was expressed in his point that basically there is no relationship between science and religion:

“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.”

Clark, more or less agrees with Krauss’s central claim  when he retaliated with:

“Scientists can be religious, liberal, communist, or even gay. But when they’re doing science, those beliefs are irrelevant and should not affect the practice of science. So be it. Scientists are under no obligation to affirm the opposite of any of those beliefs; and they needn’t deny them–but they should not bring those beliefs into their scientific practices.”

And in effect, he also agrees with Haldane – when we take into account the flippant words Haldane used. Of course scientists “assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere” with their experimental investigations. In the same way they assume that goblins, fairies, and all sorts of mythical creatures will not interfere.

Mind you, I really wonder at his assertion that a scientist need not deny her beliefs when the evidence shows them wrong. Surely that is unhealthy?

Scientists must be completely open to all and every outcome of their investigation – and perhaps they should even be “militant” about this rejection of blinkers. It is one thing to start with a strong, empirically supported, acceptance of the laws of thermodynamics – but quite another to be restricted by a strong belief in a myth without any evidential support.

sagan

The “god idea” is just such a myth. It is never expressed even as a concrete hypothesis (which implies testability) let alone a rational theory with an evidential base.

Unfortunately, for much of history humanity’s attempts to investigate and understand the world have been hampered by an a priori insistence that investigation be based on such myths. Modern science has broken away from such bonds – and that is why it is so overwhelmingly successful.

Yet, there are people who work hard to reapply those bonds. Who wish to introduce  a”theistically-correct” approach to science which denies the need for evidence and (what amounts to the same thing) insists that “supernatural explanation’ are accepted.

People like Krauss are standing up to this pressure – and good on them. We need people who are prepared to be “militant” in this way.

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2 responses to “Should all scientists really be militant atheists?

  1. I once read that trying to change the behaviour of an autistic child can be like doing a religious conversion. Maybe the part of their brain for normal low intensity activity is damaged, and the high intensity part takes over.

    It has been suggested some scientists can have a sort of autism: Asperger’s Syndrome. Albert Einstein has been said to be somewhat that way. In his case when more “conventional” scientists tried to say he was wrong he “laughed” at them, saying they had got things wrong, and he won. That was related in one of the Brother Guy programs I liked recently or maybe in this which is just listening:

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  2. “Catholics are not “Biblical literalists”” said Brother Guy.

    Some of some scientists’ reaction against religion seems based on a limited view that all religious people have a sacred book they literally believe.

    Remember also in another of Guy’s vids I linked he pointed out that the Vatican’s entry into astronomy was to counter a “myth” which was being forged in 19th century trying to make the Catholic Church look anti-science. Got to beware all the time of that sort of straw man thing. Straw man is not a new mechanism.

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