Secularism in South Asia is under threat, most recently in Bangladesh, where this year alone we have witnessed the brutal deaths of three science writers: Dr. Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman Babu, and Ananta Bijoy Das. Voices that promoted the value and beauty of viewing the world naturally were cut down by those who prefer a particular supernatural explanation for our origins and, although happening half a world away, this issue resonates directly with critical choices that our own society must make.
Every culture has its own story of supernatural creation. But over the last few thousand years, humans have engaged in a collective quest to find a natural explanation for the question "Where do we come from?" This approach requires us to explain what we observe through understanding of processes that operate naturally today, meaning processes that we can both observe and comprehend mechanistically. We call this approach "science", and the application of this method of knowing has resulted in extraordinary advances in human welfare that almost everyone living now benefits from in some real and personal way.
Science does not explain or encompass all facets of what it means to be living, or direct the moral choices we should make on every issue. But it does provide a firm understanding of the history of our universe and planet, and where we as individuals are located within it. It chronicles how our planet has faced changes in the past, and what the consequences of these changes have been. For those who accept that what the Earth says of itself is literally true, it extends the chance for us to learn from the past as we face a future that is axiomatically unknown.
Contributions to the collective enterprise of science have come from all over the world, including many from the Indian subcontinent, from China, and from Arabia, particularly at a time when free thought was fettered in Europe. Scientific knowledge has developed incrementally, with favored ideas repeatedly scrutinized in the light of new discovery. In marked contrast, supernatural creation stories remain static, tied to human experience at the time the authoritative scripture was enshrined.
Following the partition of India in 1947, largely along religious grounds, a vision of a free and secular nation was won for Bangladesh in 1971, but at huge cost. That vision sought not to impose particular views on any citizen, but rather to allow varied ideas to be expressed freely and their diversity celebrated. But slowly and stealthily a desire has emerged that seeks to impose a particular supernatural viewpoint on others, not only by expressing this view vigorously, but also by actively smothering alternatives.
In the United States, where freedom to believe what one wishes has been elevated to almost sacred status, the number of citizens who would sympathize with the meat cleaver-wielding maniacs and their masters who this year assassinated Roy, Rahman, and Das is small indeed. Certainly, no one who espouses the vision of America outlined within the US constitution could support such horrific crimes. But Roy, Rahman, and Das did not die only for the cause of free expression. They also died because they believed that the natural explanation of where we come from is the correct explanation; that it is factually right, that it speaks the truth. They died because they understood that what science has to tell us about the past has direct consequences for choosing how we face the future, and that science has repeatedly proven to be the surest way to do this successfully.
Yet on the very day that Roy, a U.S. citizen, was bludgeoned to death yards from where he was signing copies of his latest astronomy-themed book, another American stood on the floor of the US senate with a snowball in his hand, and claimed that what his gut told him was a better basis for preparing for the future than the scientific contributions of thousands of individuals the world over, accomplished over thousands of years: individuals who have built an understanding of what nature is itself telling us about how it operates, about our planet's past, and about using that knowledge to predict how we can successfully navigate the future.
In that sense, the senator and the many in the USA and the world over like him, who deny and suppress scientific understanding, stand not with Roy, Rahman and Das, but with those who opposed them. They would prefer to plan for the future based on supernatural providence rather than the Earth's natural chronicle of its own experience, available to us only if we choose wisely enough to listen.
This is why the deaths this year of these three science advocates in Bangladesh, one of whose transgressions included the translation of a book on evolution, is a matter of consequence the world over. The global significance of their deaths must not be obscured behind a veil of free speech concern: they died because they understood that the risks of ignoring what science tells us are too serious to indulge political ambition clothed in a supernatural mantle, wherever it occurs.
Nigel Hughes is Professor of Geology at the University of California, Riverside, and a former student of Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.