By Ken Perrott 21/09/2015 6


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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6 Responses to “Should all scientists really be militant atheists?”

  • Certainly a nice provocative title Ken.
    I 100% agree that Once we have assumed enough (eg that there will be no “outside” interference in our experiments & that the laws of nature are constant) that we do not require the “God hypothesis” to carry out an experiment. Yet, this is a far cry from claiming there is “no relationship between science & religion.” Indeed, the history of science suggests that cultures dominated by a religious belief where the gods were capricious or all pervasive (pantheistic, panenthestic) were a hindrance to the development of empiricism. Furthermore, our beliefs as individuals and societies set the value we place in science and the projects we pursue. As for what a scientist “should” and “should not” bring into the practice of science – this comes across as a statement of faith from someone proposing a meta-narrative every bit exclusive as religious meta-narratives.

    • John, I suggest you may yourself be “proposing a meta-narrative” in your interpretation of my post. 🙂

      You agree that the modern scientific approach does not require a god hypothesis (or assumption) or similar idea or assumption. Yet that was inherent in much of humanity’s attempts to understand reality and impeded that understanding. Modern science has made the progress it has because it has pushed that aside – yet that is a constant struggle as there are strong elements in society wishing to reverse this. For example, the US Discovery institute has as part of its programme:

      “Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.”

      People like Lawrence Krauss have been confronting these attempts – and gets labelled “militant’ as a result.

      Your comment on capricious gods may be comforting to some – but isn’t that the very nature of gods – to be capricious – and isn’t that the reason such assumptions had to be overcome? At least that is my perspective and how I understand the Galileo issue – then again I am on the outside looking in (seeing very little difference between all those gods) and the perspective may understandably be a little different on the inside.

      I agree that our values are important to how we see science but do not see how that justifies a religious outlook, least of all interference. I see values and morality as being human – not religious (although again I do realise that various religious and other belief systems have a somewhat chauvinistic attitude and will claim values and morality cannot exist outside their dogmas. Something else which must be resisted.).

      It is in this sense I deny a relationship between religion (of whatever colour), or any other dogma, and science. Although I rather like the description A. C. Grayling has of religion and science having a common evolutionary ancestor – ignorance. Maybe science and religion are, in that sense, very distant evolutionary cousins. Unfortunately, some people attempt to use that distant relationship to argue for a more immediate relationship to give scientific respectability to their own non-scientific dogmas.

      Granted both Krauss and Clark used “should” in their quotes – but I can only speak for myself. I cannot see how you get a meta-narrative out of the few places I used “should.” My specific use of the word was in phrases like:

      “the scientific process should not be perverted in its exploration of the evidence and application of reason”

      “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.”

      These surely reject an undesirable meta-narrative. (Let’s be clear – I am quite happy to accept a god hypothesis or theory if it comes out of proper investigation using evidence and reason. That is what I mean by being completely open to all and every outcome. As I made clear – I hope – this has yet to happen).

      My only other use of “should” was in my criticism of Krauss’s use of the Haldane quote:

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

      Perhaps this meta-narrative I specifically rejected is the one you were thinking about and attributing to me as my “statement of faith?” 🙂

      • Naturally, I proclaim a metanarrative. I was not commenting on a particular narrative of yours, but Clark’s which you quoted concerning what a scientist “… should not bring those beliefs into their scientific practices.” I read that as attempting to come from a position of authority. I also reject it – I take my religious beliefs into my scientific practice as I do every other part of my life.

        I think it a “myth” that the progress of modern science involved “pushing aside” religion – after all it flourished from the 16th century onwards in Christian Europe. As for Galileo, there were two primary issues for his problems (1) he brassed off the entire “scientific” establishment whose paradigm was Aristotelian (and the church had, wrongly, bought into it, and just as wrongly, tried to use scripture to justify it) (ii) he brassed off the Pope for reasons I’ve now forgotten. Certainly, it wasn’t as some imagine a case of science v religion, rather science v Aristotle.

        As for the “Discovery institute” and their ilk – sadly, their theology and biblical scholarship is worse then their science. Fortunately, in NZ at least, they have little sway in most churches (certainly in those which used to be called “mainstream”) & are easily ignored. In the occasional conversation I have with people influenced by their kind of thinking I tend to focus on helping them see the errors of the biblical interpretation – something the non-scientist responds better to than more science (which they are not in a position to evaluate).

        • John – I am pleased your criticism of an undeclared exclusive meta-narrative did not apply to me but to Clark.

          But given you own apparently negative attitude to meta-narratives in research I am surprised you declare that in fact you yourself do proclaim a meta-narrative and that you do, in fact, take your religious beliefs into your scientific practice.

          Of course, this lays you wide open to the sort of criticisms that has been aimed at Krauss and Haldane – backed up by the inevitable cherry-picked quotes of the sort I criticised. However, I will be charitable and not direct such invective in your direction. I choose to interpret your declaration as applying to a philosophical approach, rather than specific beliefs. After all, we must all take a philosophical approach in our efforts to understand reality. I am referring to the philosophical approach in the quote from Carl Sagan above. In that sense, I too take my philosophy into my scientific practice. Philosophy – but not beliefs (except in the sense of testing them against reality).

          I suspect that Clark may also agree with that sort of meta-narrative – although he seems to be more of a theologian than a scientist and perhaps does not really understand the scientific process. He, at least, chose to be very uncharitable in interpreting Krauss’s article.

          I take your point about the intelligent design having little sway – but think that this really only applies to their more open version. Even very strong critics of the ID people, such as biologist Ken Miller, do reveal a certain amount of interference of their religious beliefs in their science (or at least their scientific comments) when push comes to shove. (I am thinking of his slipping into theological explanations of the physical constants).

          Even in NZ the ID-type interpretation still does have some sway in the churches – more so than the usual polls (which include mostly non-churchgoers) indicate. A UMR research Poll in 2007 suggested up to 20 of NZers reject evolutionary science. Assuming most of the rejecters are religious, this suggest that over 40% who a “census believers” also reject evolutionary science.

          I find the Galileo affair interesting, not just for what it reveals about those times and the evolution of science, but also for what it reveals about current thinking. I believe there is a strong tendency to find excuses for the behaviour of the church – similar in some ways to the way that some modern communists have tended to excuse Stalin’s behaviour. In other words – modern-day discussion of the Galileo affair is tainted by the today’s ideological discussions around science.
          The Consultant’s Report on Copernicanism (24 February 1616) was a consensus of theologians, not “scientists.” it is this sort of authority which is the end result (will, not quite the end as Bruno’s experience showed) of introducing a “theistic understanding of nature).

          I agree these people are better approached by theological, rather than scientific, arguments. After all, their beliefs are based in religious beliefs, not facts. But that is just another example of the problem of introducing religion into science. Many of these people probably believe they have science on their side and some of their leaders continually tell them that.

          • I’m quite open that my beliefs are also a meta-narrative. I merely point out that those who use language such as “should” or “must” seem to also be espousing a meta-narrative too (sometimes while bemoaning other meta-narratives).

            My beliefs inform what I choose to research, my motives for research, my recognition of the purpose of science (in general), my acknowledgment of the origin of the orderliness of the universe etc etc. They don’t (at least as far as I can tell) overtly give me an a priori belief in what the outcome of any particular experiment will be. I expect that they would influence how I may interpret the results of an experiment, but then I’d argue that necessarily a priori beliefs affect interpretation of results by all scientists (one reason we publish and open our interpretations up to critique).

            Concerning 20% reject evolutionary science. I doubt the 20% are all religious given that consistently 10% or less NZers attend church (or other religious institution). I wouldn’t be surprised if 20% (or more) have absolutely no idea what “evolutionary science” mean! Having said that, I suspect the simple question “Do you believe in evolution?” may result in more negative results amongst Christians than non, but that drilling down one would find that this is based on some misconceptions about what the theory of evolution really is. (ps. Prof Philip Pattemore, a paediatrician and scientist, recently wrote an excellent book “Am I my keeper’s brother?” http://www.amimykeepersbrother.com which tackles a number of the misconceptions for a NZ Christian audience).

            Alas, looking for excuses is a human trait (that appears in the first few chapters of the Bible!) and making excuses for the behaviour of the church in the past is any easy pastime. I certainly don’t think Galileo was well treated, but I also don’t see it as “theologians” vs the “scientists” as they were hardly distinguishable in those days. I tend to regard Galileo as the first (of at least one of the first) “true” scientists in that he pioneered experimentation [incidentally, begun when he was obviously bored in church and timed the swinging of a lantern/pendulum with his pulse 🙂 ].

            Finally, “their beliefs are based in religious beliefs, not facts” – apart from the “A=A”, I can not agree, my beliefs are based on facts, simply not empirically derived – but that is not so much a discussion for a science forum as somewhere else (preferably involving a nice dark beer).

  • I was critical of Clark (for his apparent protection of his beliefs against evidence) but I suspect he was talking about imposition of belief rather than introduction of a philosophical approach. He was choosing to interpret the “atheist” word as introducing a specific belief rather than meaning not introducing theistic beliefs. So perhaps his use of “should” is not too bad.

    From memory (I blogged on this year’s ago) the 20% figure related to a choice between a natural origin of humanity vs a creationist – created by a god. So I think it is correct to refer to this 20% as religious and using census figures this is likely to be more than 40% of the census religious. Granted, not all of these belong to or attend a church, mosque or temple by any means. But they do consider themselves religious. And I am surprised how often I find defenders of ID or similar among religious people.

    But I think the reliance on religious beliefs is stronger than that in other fields such as cosmology and physics. There is a tendency to respect a theological explanation in some of these areas when they do not deserve respect. The “God of the gaps” problem. We should not submit to unfounded respect to such ideas and be prepared to criticise them strongly – even “militantly.”

    I agree that the Galileo affair was not a conflict between “scientists” (who did not exist as such at the time) and theologians. In some sense it was a dispute amongst theologians (and Galileo to some extent considered himself in that group – he certainly used theological arguments in the conflict). The theological consultants group seemed to be weighted more to theology (and relied on theological arguments) than any empirical investigation.

    But I agree, that there is a case for calling Galileo the first scientist. But his reliance on experimentation and empirical facts and exclusion of theology from understanding physical reality was part of the required separation from theology that I was talking about as being a fundamental necessity for the advance of modern science. I am not claiming that scientists had to necessarily become atheist in their beliefs – just in their methods. But of course the separation has been accompanied by changes in the common beliefs of scientists.

    My comment in beliefs being based on religious beliefs rather than fact referred to advocates and supporters of creationism in the poll – certainly not to scientists. I have worked alongside scientists who were Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, agnostic – and even ACT supporters. 🙂 None of these ever introduced their religious beliefs into our work or hypotheses and theories. But I do come across (non-scientific) people who specifically reject scientific ideas because there is no reliance on their God in those ideas. As you say, looking for excuses is a human trait.