Should Scientists Be Atheists? More Nonsense From Lawrence Krauss

While Lawrence Krauss has publicly denounced philosophy, he can’t seem to stop himself from doing it and doing it badly (and publicly, to boot). His lack of intellectual self-control is remarkable given that he is an accomplished physicist. He might have profited in his latest rant, “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists,” by a course in elementary logic.

This diatribe was prompted by the case of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage license to gay couples. He writes of militant atheism and science, “I found myself thinking about those questions this week as I followed the story of Kim Davis….” How this totally non-scientific event is relevant to his scientific thesis is mind-boggling.

He writes, “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?” Tots agreed. He seems to think that if you would allow Kim Davis to break the law, you should also allow jihadists to behead infidels and apostates with impunity. And, thus, you should be a militant atheist scientist. This is plain old slippery slope reasoning on issues of no relevance to the practice of science (so the conclusion is a non-sequitur).

Let me be clear. I think that Kim Davis should not be allowed to break the law (and jihadists should not be allowed to behead infidels) because other people are harmed by their religious convictions. And yet we should make every accommodation for Jews not to work on their Sabbaths, for Muslim women to wear veils, and for Quakers to avoid military service because those religious choices don’t harm anyone else. In between infidels and Quakers lie the very murky issues that a liberal society faces when it values both religious liberty, on the one hand, and the common good, on the other.

Krauss seems to think that Kim Davis has gotten away with something: “When religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy.” But Davis has been punished and her punishment is not likely over: she was sent to jail, lives under threat of imprisonment, and will, in all likelihood, lose her job. When religious convictions impinge on the public good, a liberal society must make hard choices. And, in the Kim Davis case, along with many others, they have. Kim Davis has not been given a “free pass.” And yet he writes, “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.” Really? Would he prefer to live in a society that did not allow such controversies?

But he’s missed the point: the Kim Davis controversy exists because in the US there is a constitutional right to religious liberty, the US has Christian majority (this is not a principled reason but it is a relevant contingent fact), and the US is a pluralist nation under the rule of law. And so we struggle to think together, not without growing pains, about how to best respect an individual’s religious convictions without impinging on the common good.

The Kim Davis case is playing out as it should. We should celebrate that we live in a country where she can believe as she pleases and can attempt defiance, where the court clearly affirms the law and sides with the common good, and where people can publicly align with any side they want on these issues.

What the heck does all this have to do with science? I have no idea. With respect to scientific atheism, the Kim Davis case is a red herring, pure and simple. My best reconstruction: Krauss seems to think the US, the world leader is science, has simply lent too much respect to religion and that religion is somehow encroaching on science.

He offers one case: those who criticize the use of fetal tissue samples from abortions in science. This is a complex case, one whose complexity Krauss cannot seem to see. If a fetus is a person (I’m not saying it is), then abortion is wrong. Whether or not a fetus is a person, though, is not a scientific question it is a metaphysical question. In short, the use of fetal tissue samples from abortions in science is not entirely or even primarily a scientific issue—it is a philosophical issue.

Krauss thinks we should make such decisions on utilitarian (that is, non-scientific, philosophical grounds of the most controversial variety): “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?” His rhetorical question is philosophical, not scientific. That said, thank God we live in a country, where people can freely proclaim that we should do whatever conduces to the greatest good (no matter what the cost).

Finally, Krauss’s argument trades on a fundamental logical error: “In science, of course, the very word ‘sacred’ is profane.” And from the profaness of science, he infers the militant atheism of science. Any time someone says, “of course,” you should think, “maybe not.” The denial of the sacred in the practice of science is not tantamount to holding the sacred to be profane. It’s just that science should be not sacred, which doesn’t imply atheism. It shouldn’t be politically liberal, either, but that doesn’t mean that scientists should be communists. They should just not, in their practice of science, rely on political liberal values. 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.

85% of the people in the world are religious believers. Based on a colossally bad philosophical argument, Krauss thinks that in order to become scientists they should all become militant atheists. Seems an unduly heavy burden for religious believers to bear.

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