Skepticism & Criticism of Religious Claims is Not “Intolerence”, It’s Necessary
Posted by mattusmaximus on August 3, 2010
I just got done reading an excellent article from the Scientific American website by Dr. Lawrence Krauss, the theoretical physicist who wrote The Physics of Star Trek and avid defender of science & reason, whereupon he discusses something to which all allies of rationality & free inquiry should pay attention. It seems that recently there has been a growing movement to staunch the criticism of any religious belief, even if said belief is demonstrably harmful to the believers or to others, by labeling those who question or criticize said belief as “intolerant”. I suppose the implication is that if we are “intolerant”, then we are somehow mean, nasty, and morally bad people who should be dismissed.
Allow me to point out some selected section’s of Dr. Krauss’s article, along with my own comments…
Every two years the National Science Foundation produces a report, Science and Engineering Indicators, designed to probe the public’s understanding of science concepts. And every two years we relearn the sad fact that U.S. adults are less willing to accept evolution and the big bang as factual than adults in other industrial countries.
Except for this time. Was there suddenly a quantum leap in U.S. science literacy? Sadly, no. Rather the National Science Board, which oversees the foundation, chose to leave the section that discussed these issues out of the 2010 edition, claiming the questions were “flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs.” In short, if their religious beliefs require respondents to discard scientific facts, the board doesn’t think it appropriate to expose that truth.
I blogged about this particular screwup on the part of the NSF in an earlier post. The thing that concerns me about this move on the part of the NSF is how the influence of this politically-correct “we can’t criticize religion” or “we can’t even mention religion when it is an obvious contributing factor to the rejection of science by many Americans” has crept its way into the upper echelons of scientific institutions. If we aren’t willing to face the hard fact that almost half of Americans outright reject the theory of evolution because of their religious beliefs, then how can we expect to address the problem of scientific illiteracy in this country? Ignoring the problem or sweeping it under the rug won’t fix it.
Dr. Krauss continues…
I don’t know which is more dangerous, that religious beliefs force some people to choose between knowledge and myth or that pointing out how religion can purvey ignorance is taboo. To do so risks being branded as intolerant of religion. The kindly Dalai Lama, in a recent New York Times editorial, juxtaposed the statement that “radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold religious beliefs” with his censure of the extremist intolerance, murderous actions and religious hatred in the Middle East. Aside from the distinction between questioning beliefs and beheading or bombing people, the “radical atheists” in question rarely condemn individuals but rather actions and ideas that deserve to be challenged.
Surprisingly, the strongest reticence to speak out often comes from those who should be most worried about silence. Last May I attended a conference on science and public policy at which a representative of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences gave a keynote address. When I questioned how he reconciled his own reasonable views about science with the sometimes absurd and unjust activities of the Church—from false claims about condoms and AIDS in Africa to pedophilia among the clergy—I was denounced by one speaker after another for my intolerance.
And this is the real crux of the matter: a blatant attempt to silence criticism of & free inquiry regarding religion by labeling questioners as “intolerant” and equating them with “radical atheism”. As an atheist myself, I find this both insulting & amusing at the same time – insulting because the implication in this argument is that there is something immoral about being an atheist, and this smear is also an attempt to quiet dissent within the ranks of the religious themselves (because many religious believers don’t want to be associated with atheism); I find it amusing because the very nature of this argument shows just how, to coin a phrase, the emperor has no clothes.
If the best that these would-be defenders of crazy, and sometimes dangerous, religious beliefs & practices can come up with is a blatant ad-hominem attack against the critics, then they don’t have much to stand on. Case in point: just look at the amazingly stupid & audacious comments sent out repeatedly by the Vatican in recent months as news of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal has rocked the upper reaches of that religion’s hierarchy – rather than accept responsibility for the cover-up of the systematic rape & abuse of children by the priests that they have continually protected, many in the Vatican have chosen instead to blame “rampant secularism” for these crimes. Fortunately, the Vatican’s politically motivated & morally bankrupt strategy hasn’t worked, it seems.
Let me close with Dr. Krauss’s last words, as I think he says it best:
Keeping religion immune from criticism is both unwarranted and dangerous. Unless we are willing to expose religious irrationality whenever it arises, we will encourage irrational public policy and promote ignorance over education for our children.