I wrote this post a while ago in response to another blog post I read (https://smallpondscience.com/2018/01/29/science-has-an-atheism-problem). I’m going to drop it here.
Society has a religion problem
An alternate title for this post might be: The religious have a reality problem.
It has been sometimes alleged (https://smallpondscience.com/2018/01/29/science-has-an-atheism-problem/) that scientific communities do not fully accept scientists of faith, and that this impedes an equitable scientific community.
Let me first agree that an equitable scientific community is a worthy goal. I hope throughout my career I will continue to work alongside individuals of all colors and genders hailing from all socioeconomic backgrounds and nationalities. There is one thing, however, that I hope unites those colleagues. That is scientific acumen. I do not believe we should traipse out to recruit poets, stockbrokers, dancers, and journalists to come join our ranks in pursuit of equity. While some poets would certainly make excellent scientists, most of them would likely make rather terrible ones. There is little overlap between the properties that make an excellent poet and those that make a successful scientist. Likewise, there is little overlap between the paradigms of religion and of science. It is dangerous to pretend otherwise in order to placate the religious.
The article to which I am responding makes a point of stating that, while many phenomena that used to require a religious explanation are now explained by science, many questions still exist without scientific explanation and thus there is no harm in a scientist that chalks these matters up to the supernatural. This is ludicrous. The entire point of any scientific inquiry is to push the sphere of our understanding past it’s current point, not to simply throw our hands up and say, “Well this seems complicated – must be God”. It is a dangerous and silly notion that the processes of the natural world can be neatly binned into “stuff we know” and “stuff God does”. Certainly, that is how many non-scientists approach the realm of human knowledge, and while I find it frustrating, I’m not going to fight them on it. Scientists, however, by their very nature should should be averse to that behavior.
This response so far probably falls into what the author (of the blog I’m responding to) would consider adversarial atheism. Sure, Lawrence Krauss can be sometimes be a dick. And sure, Richard Dawkins runs a clinic on condescension. But let’s consider the sentiment they encounter on a daily basis. Throughout history and right up to present day in most countries, atheists are viewed as immoral and dangerous. There are next to no open atheists holding public office in the United States, and few in European countries. Poll after poll shows that most Americans believe atheists are threats to society. Open atheists are less likely to win custody of children in divorce proceedings. There is evidence of job discrimination against the non-religious. The list goes on and on and academia is not exempt.
I have never heard of a college or university prohibiting the practice of any form of mainstream religion (or fringe ones, for that matter). I have never heard of an institution not allowing the offering of coursework of a religious nature. I have never heard of an institution refusing to hire some type of campus faith leader. I have never heard of a faculty candidate not being hired due to religious beliefs. Here are some things I have heard of: censorship of course content by leadership at Catholic Universities, disrespectful and disruptive attitudes towards course content by religious students that go unaddressed and unpunished by administration, an expectation that faculty hired at religious institutions make a “statement of faith”, and threats and intimidations made by the public towards scientists well-known for research not in line with church teachings.
The author of this blog post seems to think that atheists have an image problem, and that if scientists are too aligned in the public eye with atheists, science will have an image problem. Science already has an image problem. Facts have an image problem right now. Reality has an image problem right now. Yes, science needs to do a better job at communicating to the public. Yes, science needs to come across as more accessible and less elitist. The way forward is to collaborate towards increasing access to early education, to push policies of inclusion, and to improve transparency and communication. The way forward is not a warmer embrace of theology. That has always been, and will always be, the way backward.