Thursday, September 10, 2015

All Scientists Should Be Militant Humanists

An article appeared recently in the New Yorker in which an eminent scientist, Lawrence Krause, argues that all scientists ought to be militant atheists. The reasoning is clear in many places, but Krause's familiarity with religion is evidently meager and his faith in science unfounded. As a result, his conclusions are unsound.

Krause is correct to assert that science is an atheistic enterprise. That's just a one-word way of saying that appeals to a supreme being or to transcendental causes have no part to play in scientific explanation. That's true.

But being a scientist is not the same thing as being a human being, and anyone whose self-definition is limited to his or her methodology in the lab is likely to be a sorry excuse for a human being.

Why? Because as an approach to experience, science is categorically incapable of answering the big questions. Specifically, science will never tell us why we're here or what we ought to do next. And the attempt to scoff at such questions is likely to expose a shallow and largely uneducated mind.

Krause's article contains a number of valid points, but the entire piece is predicated on a sort of liberal tolerance (a position that I and many other readers of the New Yorker would fully endorse, by the way) that has nothing to do with science. It's a religious attitude, or better yet, an ethical and metaphysical one. The laws that the Kentucky clerk refuses to follow are based on such attitudes, though their validity rests not on divine revelation but on the constitutional system that instituted them.

Krause's blindspot is exposed, for example, when he describes the clerk's position in the following terms: "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."

Krause is evidently so unfamiliar with religions that he thinks they are merely a bundle of ideas—something that people think about. On the contrary, all religions are prescriptive in one way or another. They tell people what the universe is like, but also how one ought to behave in it. Some of these prescriptions are usually ritualistic and even superstitious, but many go beyond such "religious" practices to provide day-to-day rules of conduct. These are the injunctions and precepts that give religion its normative value, but also make it difficult sometimes for devout individuals to do their jobs.

I agree with Krause that the religion of the law trumps any personal religious views an individual might have. To think otherwise would be treasonous. Those who can't do a given job due to religious beliefs ought to be terminated— though they remain free, or course, to believe whatever they want to believe.  But Krause's basic differentiation between actions (politics) and ideas (religion) is unsound and misleading, because it's rooted in a view that intellectualizes, and therefore trivializes religious belief.

Everything becomes clearer once we acknowledge that the law of the land (politics, civil society) is itself a secular religion fraught with transcendental overtones. It doesn't conform to any specific sect or cosmology, but rather, advances a respect for individual freedom that's both deep-rooted and also brilliantly vague.

In any case, there's nothing scientific about it. 

No comments: