Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The God Crisis

As far back as I can remember contemplating the nature of the world on any serious level, I have been an atheist.  Of course, I didn't know there was a word for it, I simply felt the same thing towards God that I felt towards the tooth fairy.  For a time, I assumed that everyone felt the same way as they grew up and shed the superstitions we like to believe as children.  But that was short lived, of course.  I soon realized that there was a particular implausible story that even adults clung to.  In the past years, beginning with 9-11 and accelerating during my time at university, speaking up against religion and its encroachment into the classroom and the state became a worthy and consuming goal.

Last week, I attended the Atheist Alliance International conference.  It had been their largest meeting to date.  The speakers included scientists and luminaries, philosophers and activists.  The impressive coalition included cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennet, Pharyngula's PZ Meyers, Eugenie Scott, and the always witty Bill Maher.

A few years ago, author Sam Harris told this convention's hall full of atheists, that we shouldn't be using the term "atheist" to describe ourselves.  I agree, and I rejoice in Harris' dedication to reason and science, but I couldn't disagree more with his corollary argument that we should  advocate for reason and science "under the radar."  We've been under the radar, it hasn't worked very well.  Harris was referring to the fact that atheism is not an affirmation of anything, but rather a negation of certain beliefs: we don't say we're non-astrologers, non-racists, or a-Zeusians, we simply refuse to believe such nonsense.  However, I'll use the term here for the sake of expediency.

American atheists and agnostics outnumber all (American) Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hinduscombined, so how many lobbying firms do we have in Washington?  You might imagine my surprise when Sean Faircloth, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America, gave me his sobering answer: one ... his own.  That's right, in the face of the Christian lobby and the religious right - with more money than "god" in their coffers - we secularists are an insignificant speed-bump.  That we have reason and the constitution on our side won't make enough of a difference, if we don't organize.

It's a (bad) joke we tell each other: organizing atheists is like herding cats (we're no flock of sheep).  I can see the malformed logic behind this, and many repeat the meme, but the reality is that there's no reason this should be true.  Heterogeneous groups are quite capable of organizing behind a cause, or a movement.  Luckily, I felt a sense of growing urgency and frustration at this year's conference.  No longer can we afford to play nice with those who refuse to be reasonable.

This is 2009, we now know more about our world than we have throughout all of human history.  We live in the golden age of science.  Yet, in an America where pundits and politicians so often revel in American "exceptionalism," an NSF survey found that:

- 50% of adults don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun, and takes a year to do it.

- 53% of adults were unaware that the last dinosaur died before the first human arose.

- only 53% of adults knew that: "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals."
(Lawrence Krauss quipped that Sarah Palin is a member of this last group, as he hit us with these figures.)

Worse, one political party has become distinctly anti-science, and the other doesn't have the guts to make it an issue, likely from fear of being labeled as the "intellectual elite"  (the phrase has come to be derogatory, somehow.)

So allow me to make some blunt observations that might not be politically correct, but are nevertheless obvious:

-Non-believers tend to be well-educated, scientifically minded, and smarter than average: 93% of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in a personal God, yet roughly 80-90% of the general public do.
-In countries where there is a high standard of living and education, as more than one AAI speaker pointed out, roughly 80% of the population are non-believers (Sweden, Norway, Denmark etc.).
With the state of our education system being what it is, other countries are on a future trajectory to out-compete us in science and technology.  Since science and technology have accounted for roughly half of per-capita GDP growth over the last 50 years, it's hugely unpatriotic to do nothing in the face of moneyed interests pushing superstition into the classroom and public policy.  During his talk, PZ Meyers pointed out that the single most important indicator of scientific ability is math.  If I made a habit out of making bad puns, I might say, "Houston, we have a problem..."

Eugenie Scott, who fights to keep creationism and it's reincarnation "intelligent design" out of the classroom, gave a harrowing talk regarding the state of science education.  She explained in breathtaking relief, how after many courtroom defeats, lawyers and lawmakers opposed to evolution are becoming increasingly clever at achieving their goal of teaching creationism in the classroom (they are evolving to circumvent previous rulings).  In some states, this problem is growing discouragingly quickly.  What should really frighten us is that, even with the current laws in place, some teachers are intimidated by controversy into simply skipping over evolution, which is thefoundation for all biology.

Another topic that seemed to arise frequently in my conversations with conference attendees, was the frustration that it has become fashionable to hold completely irrational beliefs in addition to the mainstream theologies.  After reading the mission statement for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, I decided to replicate the exercise Dawkins describes:  I went to a local bookstore and counted about eight good books on astronomy, but around 25 on astrology.  I didn't see one on biology (although they probably had On the Origin of Species somewhere), but I found an entire section full of books on how to beat cancer with vegetables and herbs, crystal healing, "Eating Right for Your Blood-type," how to cultivate your "third eye", and similar nonsense.  These kinds of beliefs aren't harmless, they're outright dangerous, especially when they convince someone's mother to decline cancer treatment for "faith-healing", or to forgo vaccinating her children.

All of this paints a bleak picture.   In fighting against it, Australian author and critic Russel Blackford suggests that in certain cases, it is entirely appropriate to mock people for what they believe.  I couldn't agree more.  It has become trendy to be completely irrational, and 'cool' for teens to be "down with Jesus;" therefore, secularists should do everything in our power to make it un-cool.  We must get past this ill-advised notion that we should "respect" other peoples beliefs.

If Sarah Palin believes that the Earth is six-thousand years old, we should make her say it aloud and then promptly laugh at her.  No other category in our discourse deserves the privilege of being off-limits to skeptical inquiry: not politics, not art, nothing.  There is nothing moral, nor mature, about playing "nice" when the other side is content to sabotage the constitution and the classroom, where the future minds of our nation are being formed.

I'm pretty sure we Americans don't want to be a laughing stock, mocked by other nations for refusing to modernize.  It doesn't feel nice to be laughed at.  It's effective.  In the U.K., religion stays well out of politics, in fact, politicians deliberately avoid it for fear of being mocked.  In America, religion is invasive to all aspects of politics.

Will we falter in science and technology due to an increasingly anti-science political atmosphere and an ever decreasing will to fund research?  Maybe not, but it has me scared enough to become ever more active in advocating for science, reason, and evidence based public policy ... something even religious moderates should join us in fighting for.

The preceding was originally published on The Huffington Post.  You can find links to my other articles on the feed to the right...

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