Tapestry in the Vatican Museum based on a painting by Raphael of the Resurrection of Jesus

If you happened to peruse the New Yorker‘s website recently, you might have come across a piece modestly titled “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists” by one Lawrence Krauss.  Krauss is a cosmologist — he runs something called the Origins Project at the University of Arizona — and he thinks religion is no excuse for violating the law.  It would probably be fair to say that he thinks religion is no excuse for anything.

He seems to think that ridiculing religion is part and parcel of his self-appointed mission to popularise science, because the two are locked in a perpetual zero-sum battle for the public’s attention and dollars.

In his article, he takes exception to the way that Kim Davis, a county clerk in Tennessee, was praised and exonerated for violating the law that instructed her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, although she did spend a few days in jail.  Even more troubling to him was the court case decided in favor of the U. S. retailer Hobby Lobby, which obtained an exemption from paying insurance premiums on medical policies that provide birth control.  In Krauss’s view, letting people get away with things like these just panders to the irrational, unscientific elements of society that threaten to drag us kicking and screaming back to the Dark Ages.

Given that religion has stubbornly refused to bow to the inevitable rise of modern scientific thinking and die a graceful death, what should we do with such people?  Krauss wants to be fair.  His version of fairness to religion is this: “Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals.”  And just what treatment should ideals get?  If Krauss gets his way, the treatment all ideals get in science:  radical skepticism.

Why is that?  Because it’s the scientific way.  You see, according to Krauss,

“In science. . . the very word ‘sacred’ is profane.  No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass.  The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking.”

I read this last bit out to my wife, who is not a philosopher.  Her college degree is in commercial art.  But she picked up right away on a problem.  She said in effect, “Okay, if no idea gets a free pass, what about the idea that no idea gets a free pass?”  Oops.

The point is that science is a way of knowing, but not the only way.  There really are some ideas in science that get a free pass, in the sense that nobody who is seriously doing science will question them.  Laws of logic come to mind — the law of non-contradiction, say.  (One form of that law is that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time.)

Modern science traces its roots back to Aristotle, whose writings on logic laid the foundation for all explicitly logical thinking since.  Nobody doing science, at least in the modern Western sense, questions those laws — not because they were pronounced by the sacred St. Aristotle and it is blasphemous to question them, but simply because you don’t get anywhere if you ignore them.

While I’m sure Krauss is well posted on the farthest reaches of the history of the universe, I’m not so sure he’s bothered to look into the more recent past of his own culture’s history.  For example, he says that “when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy.”  In other words, he seems to think that modern democracies should make no allowance for different religious beliefs, while maybe earlier ones did.

The truth is pretty much exactly the opposite.  It’s very old-fashioned of a government to suppress or make no allowance for the varieties of religious faith professed by its citizens.  Take the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which currently controls large chunks of Iraq and Syria and has outposts in several other Middle Eastern countries.  They run things in a very pre-modern way over there — rape as a weapon of war, public decapitations, and other good old-fashioned customs.  Unless you profess faith in the particular kind of radical Sunni Islam favored by the Islamic State, your faith is treated equally with all the others — Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and atheism.  If you try spreading your non-Islamic faith, you are likely to pay for it with your freedom, if not your life.  But hey, it’s equal treatment — just equally bad.

The idea that governments should respect not just one, but any religious faith, and make reasonable accommodations for believers who put the dictates of their conscience above the law — this idea is just as modern as science itself.  Both modern science and the idea of freedom of religion under the law grew to maturity in the Enlightenment, whose watch-phrase is summarised by a bumper sticker that Krauss would no doubt approve of:  “Question Authority.”

Science cannot function without freedom of thought and freedom of expression — freedoms that those question-everything Enlightenment thinkers helped us to obtain.  So when Krauss calls for no special treatment of religious believers under the law, he’s not being progressive.  He’s actually calling for a return to the old days when religion, law, and government were a unified whole — a form of government of which the Islamic State is a good example.

“Wait a minute,” I can hear Krauss saying.  “The Islamic State is a theocracy.  I want government to ignore religion, not be based on one particular religion.”  That’s not as easy as it sounds.  Atheism, like Christianity, can’t be “proved” like the Pythagorean Theorem can be proved.  So in that sense, a government based on atheistic assumptions is based on something that goes beyond empirical facts, just as much as the Islamic State is.  A government whose policy is that there is no such thing as religion would be based on the “religion” of atheism, which is precisely the problem Krauss wants to avoid.

One empirical fact that Krauss pays no attention to is that Christian cultures gave birth to modern science.  Not Buddhism, not Confucianism, not Hinduism, but Christianity was the cradle of science.  Like most teenagers, science has now gotten to the age where it thinks it knows a lot more than its parents.  It reminds me of the man who said that when he was fourteen, he couldn’t believe how ignorant his father was.  But by the time he got to be 23, he was amazed at how much his father had learned in only nine years.  Compared to Christianity, science is still a teenager.

As far as empirical facts go, here’s a good reason that all scientists should be militant Christians.  Of all the major religions in the world, only Christianity is based on eyewitness accounts of objective physical events:  the death and resurrection of Christ.

The four Gospels of the Christian New Testament are more or less what you would expect to find if a unique historical event — namely, the execution of a man and his subsequent rising from the dead in an unprecedented form — was seen by hundreds of eyewitnesses at the time.  Some of those eyewitnesses wrote down what they saw, and we have those historical accounts and records, including one written by a member of one of the most educated classes of the ancient world, Luke the physician.  These records are as scientific as you could get at the time.

Of course, the evidence for Christianity was questioned then, and has been questioned throughout history ever since.  Christianity welcomes such questions, because it has answers.

When Krauss asks us to be skeptical about everything, he recaps the history of science from its inception to today.  No reasonable person regrets the freedoms that we owe to those Enlightenment questioners who called Christendom to account and made it practice what it preached.  But you can have too much of a good thing, and Krauss’s radical skepticism can boomerang and undermine the religious and philosophical foundations that support the freedoms which both religious believers and scientists enjoy.  And, contrary to what Krauss seems to think, those two groups are not mutually exclusive.

A nicer way to say someone is radically skeptical is to say that they have an open mind.  But as G. K. Chesterton reminds us, “the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”  If Krauss can do his cosmology without thinking about God, more power to him.

But when he wants to get a whole society to play by what he sees to be scientific rules, he is asking for something that he might not like if he gets it.  If he wants consistent equality before the law, with no exceptions made for varieties of religious belief (other than Islam), I might be able to help him out with a ticket to Mosul, Iraq.  But somehow, I don’t think he’ll want to go.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. He blogs at Engineering Ethics, a MercatorNet partner site.

Karl D. Stephan

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...