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
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
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
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
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
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