Category Archives: philosophy

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.


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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Something to consider


Being open-minded

This meme is for those commenters here who accuse me of having a closed mind.

open minded

I am always happy to change my opinion or view of things – if there is evidence to suggest I should.

And no, claims that “science once thought the world was flat,” or “science once supported smoking,” is not a credible argument that we should ignore current scientific consensus. It’s especially not an argument we should suddenly adopted unsupported claims as “gospel truth.”

Along these same lines, it’s worth considering this quote from Carl Sagan – if you want me to consider a really extraordinary claim your evidence had better be exceptional.


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“Fair-weather” scepticism


My old man used to label us kids as “fair-weather sailors” when we bitched about working outside during bad weather.

That phrase comes to my mind sometimes when I come across people who claim to be “sceptics ” (“Skeptics”) behaving very unsceptically when confronted with a claim outside their area of interest. For example, someone who can be quite objective about scientific claims but reacts quite unobjectively to political claims.

Perhaps politics is a bit like religion to some people – they line up instinctively on one side or another. However, I think a true sceptic should still be able to consider political claims according to the facts available and not just rely on instincts.

So, I am all for this image. Yes it is hard. But when you think about it what use are one’s ingrained prejudices if they do not stand up to sceptical consideration.

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Don’t you get tired of this?

I have seen so much of this lately:


And this:


And in so many cases when we challenge this cherry-picking and confirmation bias we get this:


Sad news – Victor Stenger has died


I was sad to read that Victor Stenger died during the week at the age of 79.

Victor was a prolific author, writing on science, religion and philosophy. He often dealt with difficult issues coming out of the religion-science debates and was always able to explain complex subjects very effectively for the layperson.

In his retirement, after a career in particle physics research, Stenger took to writing popular books in science, religion and philosophy and participating in the public discussion and debate of these issues. Although not as prominent as the people usually called the “New Atheists” he was one of that group. In fact he wrote a book  titled The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. (See my review of this book at Defending science and reason).

Victor was also well-known for public debates with religious apologists like William Lane Craig and Hugh Ross. I believe his role in these were important because of his ability to explain particle and cosmological physics and thereby show how these apologists had been distorting the science. Readers interested in watching some of these debates will be able to find them on YouTube.

I suppose it is fitting that Victor Stenger was writing till the end. He died with one book waiting to be published – God and the Multiverse: Humanity’s Expanding View of the Cosmos.

Victor will be missed not only by his family and people who knew him, but also by many readers.

I urge interested readers to read one or more of his popular science book. Wikipedia lists the following –  all published by Prometheus Books:

See also:
Victor Stenger, Physicist and Prolific Atheist Author, is Dead at 79
Victor Stenger has died.

The links below are to my own reviews of a few of Victor Stenger’s books:

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Approaching scientific literature sensibly


We all suffer more or less from confirmation bias – it is just human.  So it’s natural for people to be selective, and to indulge in some cherry-picking and biased interpretation, when quoting scientific literature to support an idea they promote.


In the scientific community peer review and continual submission of ideas to scrutiny by colleagues helps keep this under control. But it can really get out of hand when used political activists use the literature to support their claims.

I have got used to anti-fluoride commenters on social media simply citing a paper or even providing a bare link, without comment, as if this somehow makes their claims irrefutable. Perhaps, in truth, they have not even read the paper they cite, or understood it, so do not feel confident discussing it.

But this tactic is particularly lazy – and stupid. To simply give a Google Scholar search as proof. Lately I have been presented with links to such searches to argue that fluoridation is toxic. Just a search for “fluoride toxicity.”

This is what that search produces – 234,000 hits:

Fluoride toxicity – 234,000 results


Sounds good to the uninitiated, I guess. It does seem to produce a large number. But does that mean anything?

What about searching for water toxicity. This produces over 2 million hits. Are we to assume from this that water is toxic, seemingly 10 times more toxic than fluoride?

Water toxicity – 2,190,000 results


Yes, I know some social media do not offer much space for commenting but that should not be an excuse for such silly citations.

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A healthy attitude towards quantum mechanics

Credit: xkcd.

Apparently the above quote “You can safely ignore any sentence that includes the phrase’ according to quantum mechanics” is used by Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharf  in their upcoming book The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty.

Good advice.

What makes something right or wrong?

Here is another of the  4 animated videos produced by the British Humanist Association. They are all narrated by Stephen Fry.

This one deals with aspects of morality – an important subject where the voice of non-theists is often ignored.

“What makes something right or wrong?” Narrated by Stephen Fry 

See: That’s Humanism: Four animated videos about Humanism narrated by Stephen Fry

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How do we know what is true?

The British Humanist Association has produced 4 animated videos explaining humanist ideas. They are all narrated by Stephen Fry

Here is one that particularly appealed to me – “How do we know what is true?.

See: That’s Humanism: Four animated videos about Humanism narrated by Stephen Fry

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