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The God Crisis

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

As far back as I can remember contemplating the nature of the world on

any serious level, I have been an atheist.  Of course, I didn't know

there was a word for it, I simply felt the same thing towards God that

I felt towards the tooth fairy.  For a time, I assumed that everyone

felt the same way as they grew up and shed the superstitions we like to

believe as children.  But that was short lived, of course.  I soon

realized that there was a particular implausible story that even adults

clung to.  In the past years, beginning with 9-11 and accelerating

during my time at university, speaking up against religion and its

encroachment into the classroom and the state became a worthy and

consuming goal.

Last week, I attended the Atheist Alliance International conference. 

It had been their largest meeting to date.  The speakers included

scientists and luminaries, philosophers and activists.  The impressive

coalition included cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, planetary scientist

Carolyn Porco, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher

Daniel Dennet, Pharyngula's PZ Meyers, Eugenie Scott, and the always

witty Bill Maher.

A few years ago, author Sam Harris told this convention's hall full of

atheists, that we shouldn't be using the term "atheist" to describe

ourselves.  I agree, and I rejoice in Harris' dedication to reason and

science, but I couldn't disagree more with his corollary argument that

we should  advocate for reason and science "under the radar."  We've been under

the radar, it hasn't worked very well.  Harris was referring to the fact that atheism is not

an affirmation of anything, but rather a negation of certain beliefs:

we don't say we're non-astrologers, non-racists, or a-Zeusians, we

simply refuse to believe such nonsense.  However, I'll use the term

here for the sake of expediency.

American atheists and agnostics outnumber all (American) Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus combined,

so how many lobbying firms do we have in Washington?  You might imagine

my surprise when Sean Faircloth, Executive Director of the Secular

Coalition for America
, gave me his sobering answer: one ... his own. 

That's right, in the face of the Christian lobby and the religious

right - with more money than "god" in their coffers - we secularists

are an insignificant speed-bump.  That we have reason and the

constitution on our side won't make enough of a difference, if we don't organize.

It's a (bad) joke we tell each other: organizing atheists is like

herding cats (we're no flock of sheep).  I can see the malformed logic

behind this, and many repeat the meme, but the reality is that there's

no reason this should be true.  Heterogeneous groups are quite capable

of organizing behind a cause, or a movement.  Luckily, I felt a sense

of growing urgency and frustration at this year's conference.  No

longer can we afford to play nice with those who refuse to be

reasonable.

This is 2009, we now know more about our world than we have

throughout all of human history.  We live in the golden age of

science.  Yet, in an America where pundits and politicians so often

revel in American "exceptionalism," an NSF survey found that:

       -50% of adults don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun, and takes a year to do it.

       -53% of adults were unaware that the last dinosaur died before the first human arose.

       -only 53% of adults knew that: "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from

        earlier species of animals." 

(Lawrence Krauss quipped that Sarah Palin is a member of this last group, as he hit us with these figures.)

Worse, one political party has become distinctly anti-science, and the

other doesn't have the guts to make it an issue, likely from fear of

being labeled as the "intellectual elite"  (the phrase has come to be

derogatory, somehow.)

So allow me to make some blunt observations that might not be politically correct, but are nevertheless obvious:

       -Non-believers tend to be well-educated, scientifically minded, and smarter than average: 

        93% of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in a personal

        God, yet roughly 80-90% of the general public do.

      

       -In countries where there is a high standard of living and education, as more than one AAI

        speaker pointed out, roughly 80% of the population are non-believers (Sweden,

        Norway, Denmark etc.). 

     

With the state of our education system being what it is, other

countries are on a future trajectory to out-compete us in science and technology. 

Since science and technology have accounted for roughly half of

per-capita GDP growth over the last 50 years, it's hugely unpatriotic to do nothing in the face of moneyed interests pushing

superstition into the classroom and public policy.  During his talk, PZ

Meyers
pointed out that the single most important indicator of

scientific ability is math.  If I made a habit out of making bad puns,

I might say, "Houston, we have a problem..."

Eugenie Scott, who fights to keep creationism and it's reincarnation

"intelligent design" out of the classroom, gave a harrowing talk

regarding the state of science education.  She explained in

breathtaking relief, how after many courtroom defeats, lawyers and

lawmakers opposed to evolution are becoming increasingly clever at

achieving their goal of teaching creationism in the classroom (they are

evolving

to circumvent previous rulings).  In some states, this problem is

growing discouragingly quickly.  What should really frighten us is that, even with the current laws in place, some teachers are intimidated by

controversy into simply skipping over evolution, which is the foundation for all biology.

Another topic that seemed to arise frequently in my conversations with

conference attendees, was the frustration that it has become fashionable to

hold completely irrational beliefs in addition to

the mainstream theologies.  After reading the mission statement for the

Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, I decided to

replicate the exercise Dawkins describes:  I went to a local bookstore

and counted about eight good books on astronomy, but around 25 on

astrology.  I didn't see one on biology (although they probably had On the Origin of Species somewhere), but I found an entire section full

of books on how to beat cancer with vegetables and herbs, crystal

healing, "Eating Right for Your Blood-type," how to cultivate your

"third eye", and similar nonsense.  These kinds of beliefs aren't harmless, they're outright

dangerous, especially when they convince someone's mother to decline

cancer treatment for "faith-healing", or to forgo vaccinating her children.

All of this paints a bleak picture.   In fighting against it,

Australian author and critic Russel Blackford suggests that in certain

cases, it is entirely appropriate to mock people for what they

believe.  I couldn't agree more.  It has become trendy to be completely

irrational, and 'cool' for teens to be "down with Jesus;" therefore,

secularists should do everything in our power to make it un-cool.  We

must get past this ill-advised notion that we should "respect" other

peoples beliefs. 

If Sarah Palin believes that the Earth is six-thousand years old, we

should make her say it aloud and then promptly laugh at her.  No other category

in our discourse deserves the privilege of being off-limits to

skeptical inquiry: not politics, not art, nothing.  There is nothing

moral, nor mature, about playing "nice" when the other side is content

to sabotage the constitution and the classroom, where the future minds

of our nation are being formed.

I'm pretty sure we Americans don't want to be a laughing stock, mocked

by other nations for refusing to modernize.  It doesn't feel nice to

be laughed at.  It's effective.  In the U.K., religion stays well out of politics, in

fact, politicians deliberately avoid it for fear of being mocked.  In

America, religion is invasive to all aspects of politics. 

Will we falter in science and technology due to an increasingly

anti-science political atmosphere and an ever decreasing will to fund

research?  Maybe not, but it has me scared enough to become ever more

active in advocating for science, reason, and evidence based public

policy ... something even religious moderates should join us in fighting

for.