All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists

Sep 15, 2015


By Lawrence M. Krauss

As a physicist, I do a lot of writing and public speaking about the remarkable nature of our cosmos, primarily because I think science is a key part of our cultural heritage and needs to be shared more broadly. Sometimes, I refer to the fact that religion and science are often in conflict; from time to time, I ridicule religious dogma. When I do, I sometimes get accused in public of being a “militant atheist.” Even a surprising number of my colleagues politely ask if it wouldn’t be better to avoid alienating religious people. Shouldn’t we respect religious sensibilities, masking potential conflicts and building common ground with religious groups so as to create a better, more equitable world?

I found myself thinking about those questions this week as I followed the story of Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who directly disobeyed a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and, as a result, was jailed for contempt of court. (She was released earlier today.) Davis’s supporters, including the Kentucky senator and Presidential candidate Rand Paul, are protesting what they believe to be an affront to her religious freedom. It is “absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberties,” Paul said, on CNN.

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? It’s possible to take that question to an extreme that even Senator Paul might find absurd: imagine, for example, a jihadist whose interpretation of the Koran suggested that he should be allowed to behead infidels and apostates. Should he be allowed to break the law? Or—to consider a less extreme case—imagine an Islamic-fundamentalist county clerk who would not let unmarried men and women enter the courthouse together, or grant marriage licenses to unveiled women. For Rand Paul, what separates these cases from Kim Davis’s? The biggest difference, I suspect, is that Senator Paul agrees with Kim Davis’s religious views but disagrees with those of the hypothetical Islamic fundamentalist.

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17 comments on “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists

  • I find totally amazing that in the second decade of XXI century there are reminiscences proper of medieval times. Nobody forces Ms. Davis to marry someone of the same sex, but as a public official she has a duty to marry homosexual couples because the law so permits and if she does not agree then she must find another job more in line with her beliefs . Imagine I work in a machine gun factory, I can claim I am a pacifist who doesn’t want to contribute to making weapons, in that case I should get another job elsewhere not related to defence. My freedom of ideology is preserved as long as I am not forced to shoot people. If I think that making machine guns is an affront to my pacifist beliefs then I am free to get another job elsewhere.

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  • @OP – For Rand Paul, what separates these cases from Kim Davis’s?

    The core biases of his god-delusion are what separates them. – Aided and abetted by his Xtian circular faith-thinking!

    (Xtian = good; other views, especially conflicting ones, = bad: – see its even simplistic enough for a faith-head to mindlessly follow!)

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  • Ms. Davis, as a public funded individual, has no authority to not perform her job. As a public employee, she has the right to quit her job, or simply obey existing law.

    However, the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage was an affront to rational, and objective rule-of-law. Though I support the spirit of their decision, the decision has several big problems. The really big problem is there is no right to marriage. No, you say — there must be a right…right? But, there is no constitutional right to marriage — of any type. If one is required to obtain permission from government in order to form a legally binding pair-bond, then there simply is no right to a formal marriage. Rights do not require government permission. Imagine if you needed a license to speak, write a book, or use a particular philosophy of life.

    Had the Supreme Court ruled that requiring a marriage license in order to establish a legally binding pair-bond (marriage, for a sexually dimorphic species) was unconstitutional, then this entire issue would not have existed. A marriage consists of a formal, and very personal contract between two individuals. The sexual nature inherent to the two individuals is legally irrelevant to any others except the two individuals. So, why do we tolerate government interfering with one of the most personal choices one makes in their life? Obtaining government permission should not be part of any decisions involving two people committing to each other with a bond based on love — the highest, and most complex set of personal values we can express.

    But this issue, on an epistemological level, was completely bypassed by the socially inebriated supreme court. I say socially inebriated, because it seems exalted attorneys who make up the Supreme Court have little experience in scientifically based issues, or at least issues which might use science as a reference point. They are steeped in the sempiternal morass of human subjectivity, and often use social pressure as a basis for court decisions.

    Had they defined the licensing requirement for marriage as unconstitutional, and defined marriage as a pair bond between consenting adults, then many issues would have been averted — present and future — and Ms. Davis would have simply been part of a nation-wide layoff of unnecessary government employees. Then, America would have experienced a very real injection of personal liberty.

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  • @OP – All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists

    I’m not sure this title is suitable for this article.

    “All militant scientists, should be atheists”, is perhaps more appropriate!

    With a long career as a science educator, I am militant in defending reputable science from quacks, pseudo-scientists, YECs, and dogmatic anti-science delusionists!
    Atheism (like afairyism), is merely a co-incidental bi-product of a rational, scientific, evidence-based, approach!

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  • Of course marriage is a legal entity between two people, and it is more concerned with the property those people own as and when, and if, they decide to end the arrangement especially where offspring are involved. Ask any divorce lawyer.

    As to Kim Davies, IMO she should forget about her Christianity, and concentrate on eating less junk food. Perhaps an evening class in common sense might help her too ?

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  • Yes, but the permitting license has little to do with the disposition of property if the marriage fails — as they often do.

    It seems someones god didn’t do too well with the ~50% divorce rate of his (its) sacred arrangement called marriage. I wonder if any devout Christians consider this failure rate as evidence of celestial imperfection?

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  • LCBoliou
    Sep 16, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    It seems someones god didn’t do too well with the ~50% divorce rate of his (its) sacred arrangement called marriage. I wonder if any devout Christians consider this failure rate as evidence of celestial imperfection?

    I think some of them are going through mental contortions over that at present!

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  • I’m not sure this title is suitable for this article.
    “All militant scientists, should be atheists”, is perhaps more appropriate!

    Like: Clever and True.

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  • I recently retired from the Science Faculty of an Australian university and, after 36 years of teaching and research, decided not to go out with a whimper. My retirement speech contained a number of criticisms of the accommodating attitude of both the University itself and of my own faculty’s staff towards religion and students who sought (and obtained) special dispensations on religious grounds. For many years I had been branded a militant atheist by virtue of my opposition to the provision of religious facilities such as Muslim prayer rooms and Christian chaplaincies at this publicly-funded university, and my refusal to make any allowances for “genuine” religious beliefs when students objected to being assessed on their knowledge of evolution.

    Science faculty staff could be a formidable force within any educational institution if they presented a united front on such issues, but they won’t do it, despite most of them being atheists themselves. This is what frustrated me most – the nature of science itself generates a deferential attitude to diverging views. Science has no dogma and successful scientists shun what they see as dogmatic behaviour. I think also that the fear of being seen to be intolerant of Islam in particular, when the western world is bending over backwards to reassure Muslims that we really do love them, has tended to stifle any criticism of any religion, at least in higher education circles.

    So my retirement speech didn’t go too well with my colleagues, but partly, I think, because I succeeded in making some of them uncomfortable with their silence. I hope that some of them briefly saw the ghostly outline of an elephant in the room.

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  • “…the ghostly outline of an elephant in the room.” Very apt.

    I’ve finally decided that belonging to any anti religious group limits the scope for discourse against superstition and the dogmas it generates, and leaves you vulnerable to labelling, which undermines your argument.

    I think it’s far better to be free to argue Socratically purely on grounds of reason and rationality, and make it far harder for the accusation of prejudice to be levelled at you because you belong to a particular tribe.

    Remain free to go where logic and analysis guide you, even if there are ghostly outlines which you don’t understand fully, or at all; they, will always exist.

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  • Interestingly, I can remember Lawrence Krauss publicly admonishing Richard Dawkins for being so acerbic in his criticism of religion.

    At the same event, Neil deGrass Tyson also had a go at Richard for the same reason.

    I think the religious should be snuggled up to and sympathised with; after all they’ve got problems enough already without smart arse rationalists giving them a hard time; instead, hug the hoodwinked.

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  • All “true” scientists will be atheists. If one who claims to be a scientist is not also atheist, then the claim is false.

    The militant part, though perhaps desirable or helpful in certain cases, is unnecessary.

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  • I too as a professor at a major research university had the most difficult time with those in my department suggesting that I take it easy on those of faith who disagreed with such basic scientific tenets as organic evolution. I vehemently rejected such advice. I would never take part in helping any individual obtain a degree from my university with Middle Age information guiding their psyche. My classroom tactic was to give the fundamentalist student (most usually Christian) sufficient evolutionary evidence including references to their own evolved body parts (vermiform appendix, molars, body hair, the spine suited for a four legged animal, etc., etc.). It was my intention to never call or indicate a student to be ignorant, but to make them feel such in light of the evidence. In our politically correct world most higher ed administrations would opt to appease the student body and avoid open confrontation at all cost. Well, screw that. This is not the day and age of the Scopes trial. science has things to tell the world and those who choose to live in ignorance be damned as far as I am concerned. Why should any scientist not be militant in view of the overwhelming contingent of religious purveyors in society? I’ll put it to you this way, …what if you were to retain your present day knowledge and go back in time to the Salem Witch Trials. Would you gently mollify the citizens by suggesting it was not prudent to hang or burn their daughters and wives at the stake? Or would you more militantly try to disrupt their diseased mindset with facts? So many in our society today function within the bounds of medieval thought. The people of Salem didn’t know better, and there was no one to correct them. We know much better today, and if scientists don’t start taking a more militant stand, we might as well be gathering fire wood.

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  • Hug them my arse! I’ll never apologize for providing scientific information that dispels the beliefs replete in our species since the days of early hominids. If that displeases or makes the fundamentalist mindset uncomfortable, ….good. How can we advance society if we don’t work from the factual knowledge base provided by science?

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