Last week a “public intellectual” named Lawrence Krauss wrote a story of New York Magazine titled All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists. Krauss is, as Joe Biden would say, ‘a BFD’ among atheists. Presumably he appeals to the same group that memorizes Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweets and, even though they got their BA in Critical Feminism, loves to proclaim “I love f***ing science.”
What apparently set him off is the on-going saga of Rowan County (KY) clerk, Kim Davis, and her refusal to issue marriage licenses. In the process, Krauss, “public intellectual” that he is, demonstrates why very intelligent people are not necessarily smart at all. In fact, Krauss comes across an an ill-mannered college sophomore ranting on DailyKos. He doesn’t understand the Constitution, he doesn’t understand religious liberty, and, more importantly, he doesn’t even understand what the issues are in the Davis case. NRO’s Kevin Williamson addresses those issue in Portrait of a fanatic.
But “those people” thinking comes easily to the evangelical atheist. Yes, there are people who make religious arguments against gay marriage and abortion. And there are people who make secular arguments against gay marriage and abortion, just as there are religious people who make religious arguments for gay marriage and abortion rights.
Professor Krauss’s answer to this is, I kid you not, What if a jihadist wants to cut off your head and cites his religious belief as a justification? We have, as it turns out, been dealing with those kinds of questions for a few centuries now, without much in the way of empirically verifiable guidance from the physicists.
I was intrigued by the title. Why, I wondered, would anyone with a modicum of intelligence claim that atheism was desirable, much less required, in scientists. What aspect of science deals with God’s existence or work?
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, of course, is poppycock. Anyone vaguely familiar with either the history of science or the world scientific journals today knows that there are sacred ideas. Anthropogenic global warming simply screams at you from the page. Where Krauss shows his pig ignorance is that he is fighting his own strawman. Science and Faith operate in different spheres. As the old saw goes, science tells you how, faith tells you why. No matter how much sciencey stuff Krauss does, he does not have the training, the education, or the native wit of a Thomas Aquinas. The corollary to that, of course, is that God does not lie. Therefore, it is impossible for a scientific finding to actually contradict a religious doctrine. If empirical study shows, for instance, that the Earth orbits about the Sun and you believe that your religion tells you that the opposite is true you have one of two cases. Either you are misinterpreting your religion. Or you believe in bull****. It really is a pretty simple construct.
The greater lie is given to Krauss’s statement by the fact that religious men have been on the forefront of science. Copernicus was a devout Catholic with a degree in Canon Law. Gregor Mendel was an Augustinian friar. Galileo remained a practicing Catholic. Renee Descartes? Devout Catholic. Tyche? Big time Lutheran. Robert Boyle? Very, un-atheist. The list goes on and on and it hasn’t gotten smaller as Krauss and his atheist ilk have become more obnoxious. Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, is an active Evangelical Christian.
Science, as Krauss acknowledges, is constantly in a state of flux. Scientists have believed some very exotic things over the years. That continues today. The fact that most scientists are very narrowly educated often means that they are no more equipped to give advice on social problems than your auto mechanic is qualified to tell you how to build an interstate highway system.
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?
There is really a short answer for Krauss.
Were the Allies “anti-science” when we hanged a dozen or so German doctors for inhumane experiments? Of course not. The featured guest in the video clip infected concentration camp patients with malaria in hopes of finding a cure. He wasn’t some butcher. Before the war he was internationally renowned. He didn’t even set out to kill or harm patients. Some of them died from co-infections brought on by their diet, etc. Some died from trying to find the correct dosage of medicine. But, at the end of the day, it came to an end on a gallows in Bavaria.
Krauss is unable to even process the idea that science shows that a fetus is a separate being from the mother. The fact of whether that being is entitled to life is not only not a question of science, it is not even a question that science has the capacity to render an opinion on. And like many other things, Krauss is talking out of his butt. He obviously hasn’t seen the CMR videos, he obviously doesn’t understand what happened, and he obviously hasn’t a clue about either the law or regulations under discussion.
In short, he takes a rapid dive into dishonest hackery to make a very illogical point. Really, who cares what the parts of a dead baby might do? Do I have he right to cut out Krauss’s brain to study it in hopes of eradicating pompous stupidity? Is it right for the Chinese to tissue match the organs of condemned criminals for sale before execution? How about the infirm being involuntarily euthanized in the Netherlands and Belgium? How does any of this differ from what happened in concentration camps? Science offers no answers to these questions. Science can only say, gee, if I cut this guy up I might find out some neat stuff.
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.
Actually, science has had zero impact on liberating humanity. Liberation of humanity has been achieved by decidedly liberal arts types like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and political and social reformers. These were not atheists. Whenever science has been unmoored from religion it regularly, because of the asshattery of guys like Krauss, runs off the rails and gives us eugenics and the Tuskegee Experiment and gulags and concentration camps.
Science and religion are both necessary. They, like men and women, have a complementary relationship. Neither, alone, allows for the full expression of humanity. The idea that atheists, untethered by morality, make better scientists is a fallacy as big as Krauss’s ego.