Commentary: Scientists, show your good side

  • 05 January 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Lawrence Krauss

LAST month, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave his own version of John Kennedy's famous 1960 speech, in which Kennedy reassured those who thought his Catholicism would turn him into a puppet of the Vatican by bravely declaring to an audience of Southern Baptist leaders, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute". In Romney's rendition, however, America is a place where there is no room in the state for those who do not go to church.

In the spirit of inclusiveness, Romney described an America made up of Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims. He failed, though, to include one group that is probably larger than at least two of these: the non-religious.

I have expressed my differences with Richard Dawkins in the pages of New Scientist, but nothing better supports the validity of his concerns about the public perception of atheism in the US than Romney's speech: the notion that an individual whose actions are based on a belief in God is a good person, while one whose actions are not rooted in religion is evil.

Even scarier is the notion clearly prevalent in the current US political system that the more you pray, the better suited you are to govern. Romney urged judges to use the foundations of their faith in making decisions, and insisted that religious faith remain a vibrant force in government.

There are many among the faithful who argue that their faith helps inform their reason. I accept that as a reality. Ultimately, though, reason has to be the key basis of political decision-making, and whatever else comes into it, the most important factor informing reason should be empirical evidence.

If Romney doesn't scare you in this regard, consider Mike Huckabee. Without expending significant funds, Huckabee has pulled ahead of his fellow Republican candidates in the important early primary state of South Carolina. When asked to identify the source of his new-found popularity, Huckabee suggested it might be the Lord's doing, saying there was "no human explanation" for his recent surge in the polls.

That's not surprising coming from a man who thinks the Earth might be 6000 years old, but is it what we need in the leader of the free world?

Romney argued in his speech that America's founding fathers established the United States "under God". In light of that claim, it is worth remembering Thomas Jefferson's words: "I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence." Jefferson and others established a precedent for reality-based governance, which, in these times, we so desperately need.

These issues are worth raising in a science magazine because scientists, regardless of their religious leanings, need to play an active role in opposing faith-based governing. Scientists have done a particularly poor job of explaining that basing decisions on empirical evidence does not make one immoral.

Scientists need to play an active role in opposing faith-based governing

Many of the current attacks on science in the US are predicated on the notion that because science does not include God in its picture of the universe, science is inherently evil. Science, however, has an ethical basis in honesty, open-mindedness tempered by healthy scepticism, full disclosure and anti-authoritarianism. The scientific method makes it possible for empirical reasoning to provide a basis for an ethical, and even moral world. If scientists are shy to point that out, then we encourage the at best exclusionary and at worst delusional attitudes espoused by Romney and Huckabee in the public square.

Read all of Lawrence Krauss' articles here

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From issue 2637 of New Scientist magazine, 05 January 2008, page 45