Atheism, science, and the law 9

Any idea that needs a law to protect it from criticism is ipso facto a bad idea.

That is our own maxim. We repeat it often. It cannot be repeated often enough.

There used to be laws, in Western secular states, protecting religious ideas; usually the ideas of a particular religion favored by the state. The crime was called “blasphemy”.

Such a crime, carrying severe punishment, including the death sentence, still exists in Islamic countries.

And the crime still exists in Communist countries. As Communists do not acknowledge their ideology to be a religion, they do not call it blasphemy. It is called an offense against the state, or “dissidence”. It was often treated as a mental illness in the Soviet Union. It was also often punished by execution, not only in Russia but wherever the iron fist of the Soviet regime was the law.

In America the First Amendment to the Constituion, as everybody knows, enshrined freedom of belief and freedom of speech. Yet there lingers in the mores of the American people, generation after generation, the notion that religious beliefs should not be publicly criticized. Such criticism is felt to be a discourtesy at best, and at worst an actual defiance of the First Amendment itself!

Even some scientists respect this social taboo.

We quote a good article on the subject from the New Yorker, by Lawrence M. Krauss:

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?

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. Davis’s supporters, including the Kentucky senator and Presidential candidate Rand Paul, are protesting what they believe to be an affront to her religious freedom. It is “absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberties”, Paul said, on CNN.

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? It’s possible to take that question to an extreme that even Senator Paul might find absurd: imagine, 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? Or — to consider a less extreme case — imagine an Islamic-fundamentalist county clerk who would not let unmarried men and women enter the courthouse together, or grant marriage licenses to unveiled women. For Rand Paul, what separates these cases from Kim Davis’s? The biggest difference, I suspect, is that Senator Paul agrees with Kim Davis’s religious views but disagrees with those of the hypothetical Islamic fundamentalist.

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. Davis is free to believe whatever she wants, just as the jihadist is free to believe whatever he wants; in both cases, the law constrains not what they believe but what they do.

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 laws from which they wish to claim exemption do not focus on religion; instead, they have to do with social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.) 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 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.

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.

We have said it is a good article. And what we have quoted, we heartily agree with.

But we left out one paragraph (where the dots are).

Here it is:

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?

Either the author did not watch the videos that recorded Planned Parnethood personnel talking about their trade in the body parts of aborted fetuses, or he did not hear, or chose to forget, some statements they made. The videos make it perfecty clear that the organization was not just selling the parts in order to cover costs, but carryng on the trade for profit.

Now we have nothing against trade for profit. On the contrary, we think the making of profit is the morally best and most socially useful reason for selling anything and providing any service.

But it happens that the selling of the body parts of aborted fetuses for profit is against the law.  So exactly the same objection that Lawrence Krauss makes to Kim Davis’s action – that she broke the law – applies to Planned Parenthood’s action.

What seems to cloud his judgment in the case of Planned Parenthood – if he did watch the videos and take in what was said –  is the fact that the body parts went to scientists for the great cause (and we do think it is a great cause) of scientific research.

But however good the cause that the illegal trade was serving, it was still illegal.

In fact, what emerges from those videos is criminal action more morally outrageous than just selling the parts of aborted fetuses. (Note, please, that we are calling them fetuses, not “babies”, in order not to use controversial language.) It is revealed, in an interview with an employee of a firm that bought the body parts, that Planned Parenthood was urging pregnant women to have an abortion – even when they were uncertain that they wanted one, and even in one case when the woman was inclined NOT to have one – so that Planned Parenthood could sell the fetus’s body parts and so make a profit. 

That is iniquity.

Now scientists like Lawrence Krauss might argue persuasively that there should not be a law forbidding the selling of fetuses, whole or in parts, for profit. Just as Kim Davis might argue that there should not be a law that compels her to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. But there are such laws. And if it is wrong for Kim Davis to break the law on the grounds that it does a disservice to her idea of a higher good, so it is wrong for Planned Parenthood to break the law even if by doing so it is serving the genuinely higher good of science.

We have said that Lawrence Krauss’s judgment may be clouded by his belief in the supreme goodness of scientific research. We will not go so far as to say that he holds that end to be “sacred”, because we agree with him that the word has no place in the vocabulary of atheism. So we toss the accusation aside.

It could be said that our moral judgment of Planned Parenthood – accurate though our allegation is that the organization broke the law – may be clouded by our extreme distaste for their abortion services. (Note that we call them “services”, firmly resisting the temptation to call them “abuses”.) It  is true that we have an arguably irrational prejudice in favor of human life. We very much dislike abortion – while acknowledging that there are reasonable grounds for it in certain cases, and on no account arguing for it to be made wholly illegal. But obviously our objection to it is not on religious grounds. We do not believe that it frustrates “God’s purposes”. We are against it because we are against the deliberate destruction of human life  unless the human in question has forfeited his or her life by taking someone else’s.

Those who are for abortion on demand accuse those of us who are against it of being inconsistent when we call ourselves “pro-life”, because many of us are for the death penalty. By the same token, we can accuse them of inconsistency when they are for the destruction of life in the womb, but against putting convicted murderers to death. We are for saving the innocent and punishing the guilty, while they are for destroying the innocent and saving the guilty.

 

(Hat-tip for the article to our reader, Stephen)

No light from the moon 0

Amusing comment on science and religion. Nothing new in it, but worth watching for the mild fun. (It tails off into irrelevance at the end.)

Posted under Christianity, Commentary, education, Religion general, Science, United States by Jillian Becker on Monday, September 16, 2013

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More on the war between science and religion 10

From an article by Mano Singham in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

There is a new war between science and religion, rising from the ashes of the old one, which ended with the defeat of the anti-evolution forces in the 2005 “intelligent design” trial.

That was Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District. Eleven parents of students in Dover, York County, Pa. sued over the school board requirement that  intelligent design should be taught in ninth-grade science classes along with evolution. They lost. US District Judge John Jones ruled (inter alia):

We have concluded that it is not [science], and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents. To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

Mano Singham continues:

The new war concerns questions that are more profound than whether or not to teach evolution. Unlike the old science-religion war, this battle is going to be fought not in the courts but in the arena of public opinion. The new war pits those who argue that science and “moderate” forms of religion are compatible worldviews against those who think they are not.

The former group, known as accommodationists, seeks to carve out areas of knowledge that are off-limits to science, arguing that certain fundamental features of the world — such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the origin of the universe — allow for God to act in ways that cannot be detected using the methods of science. Some accommodationists, including Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, suggest that there are deeply mysterious, spiritual domains of human experience, such as morality, mind, and consciousness, for which only religion can provide deep insights.

Prestigious organizations like the National Academy of Sciences have come down squarely on the side of the accommodationists.

What? The National Academy of Sciences … ? Pause here for that to sink in.

Then on we go:

On March 25, the NAS let the John Templeton Foundation use its venue to announce that the biologist (and accommodationist) Francisco Ayala had been awarded its Templeton Prize, with the NAS president himself, Ralph Cicerone, having nominated him. The foundation has in recent years awarded its prize to scientists and philosophers who are accommodationists, though it used to give it to more overtly religious figures, like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Critics are disturbed at the NAS’s so closely identifying itself with the accommodationist position. As the physicist Sean Carroll said, “Templeton has a fairly overt agenda that some scientists are comfortable with, but very many are not. In my opinion, for a prestigious scientific organization to work with them sends the wrong message.”

In a 2008 publication titled Science, Evolution, and Creationism, the NAS stated: “Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. … Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist. … Many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings.”

Those of us who disagree — sometimes called “new atheists” — point out that historically, the scope of science has always expanded, steadily replacing supernatural explanations with scientific ones. Science will continue this inexorable march, making it highly likely that the accommodationists’ strategy will fail. After all, there is no evidence that consciousness and mind arise from anything other than the workings of the physical brain, and so those phenomena are well within the scope of scientific investigation. What’s more, because the powerful appeal of religion comes precisely from its claims that the deity intervenes in the physical world, in response to prayers and such, religious claims, too, fall well within the domain of science. The only deity that science can say nothing about is a deity who does nothing at all.

In support of its position, the National Academy of Sciences makes a spurious argument: “Newspaper and television stories sometimes make it seem as though evolution and religion are incompatible, but that is not true. Many scientists and theologians have written about how one can accept both faith and the validity of biological evolution. Many past and current scientists who have made major contributions to our understanding of the world have been devoutly religious. … Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator. The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith.”

But the fact that some scientists are religious is not evidence of the compatibility of science and religion. …  Jerry Coyne, a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, notes, “True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.”

Accommodationists are alarmed that their position has been challenged by a recent flurry of best-selling books, widely read articles, and blogs. In Britain an open letter expressing this concern was signed by two Church of England bishops; a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain; a member of the Evangelical Alliance; Professor Lord Winston, a fertility pioneer; Professor Sir Martin Evans, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; and others. The letter said, “We respectfully ask those contemporary Darwinians who seem intent on using Darwin’s theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda to desist from doing so as they are, albeit unintentionally, turning people away from the theory.” …

What people? Why?

Accommodationists frequently brand us new atheists as “extreme,” “uncivil,” “rude,” and responsible for setting a “bad tone.” However, those accusations are rarely accompanied by concrete examples of such impolite speech. Behind the charges seems to lie the assumption that it is rude to even question religious beliefs or to challenge the point of view of the accommodationists. Apparently the polite thing to do is keep quiet.

Why have organizations like the National Academy of Sciences sided with the accommodationists even though there is no imperative to take a position? After all, it would be perfectly acceptable to simply advocate for good science and stay out of this particular fray.

One has to suspect that tactical considerations are at play here. The majority of Americans subscribe to some form of faith tradition. Some scientists may fear that if science is viewed as antithetical to religion, then even moderate believers may turn away from science and join the fundamentalists.

But political considerations should not be used to silence honest critical inquiry. Richard Dawkins has challenged the accommodationist strategy, calling it “a cowardly copout. I think it’s an attempt to woo the sophisticated theological lobby and to get them into our camp and put the creationists into another camp. It’s good politics. But it’s intellectually disreputable.”

Evolution, and science in general, will ultimately flourish or die on its scientific merits, not because of any political strategy. Good science is an invaluable tool in humanity’s progress and survival, and it cannot be ignored or suppressed for long. The public may turn against this or that theory in the short run but will eventually have to accept evolution, just as it had to accept the Copernican heliocentric system.

It is strange that the phrase “respect for religion” has come to mean that religious beliefs should be exempt from the close scrutiny that other beliefs are subjected to. Such an attitude infantilizes religious believers, suggesting that their views cannot be defended and can be preserved only by silencing those who disagree. …

We think religious belief is childish. And we recall that for long ages the religious defended their beliefs by forcibly silencing those who disagreed, and we suspect that many would do it again if they could. (They do in Islamic states.)

But see how far the religious have had to retreat as science demolishes dogma after dogma. We do not hear their advocates talking nearly as much or as loudly as they used to of the seven days of creation, of a virgin giving birth to God in Bethlehem, of God dictating commandments. (Okay – of the Angel Gabriel dictating the Koran we still hear too much.) Mano Singham informs us that they’re not even insisting on “intelligent design” as much as they did. Backs to the wall, they’re only begging us to concede  that, because of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and continuing conjecture about the Big Bang (for example), we “must allow for God to act in ways that cannot be detected” by science. And if we don’t, we’re being rude. “Be nice to us”, they’re implying, “let us nurse our fantasies. If you don’t, you’re just a lot of rationalist bullies.”

Let them put their thumbs in their mouths and sulk. We’re winning!