Lawrence Krauss wrote an article for The New Yorker recently with the explosively antagonistic title “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists.” I don’t think he quite understands what the word atheist means.
Although a theoretical physicist by training, Krauss is also a frequent commentator in the religion and science debate. In the article linked above, Krauss primarily discusses the Kim Davis case and argues for the necessary separation of church and state. In typical Lawrence Krauss fashion, he starts off being reasonable and innocuous, with comments such as, “No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal” and “Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them [religious ideals], but, by the same token, the law shouldn’t elevate them, either.”
Of course, in fashion equally typical of Mr. Krauss, things take a nose-dive toward the absurd when he begins to widen his discussion of the Kim Davis case to the entire religion and science debate. The problem, simply, is that he neither pays attention to nor defines the pertinent terms. He quotes the English scientist J. B. S. Haldane: “My practice as a scientist is necessarily atheistic, that is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.”
The problem with this quotation is that it misunderstands atheism. Atheism is the philosophical stance or existential conviction that “there is no God,” but Krauss misconstrues atheism as methodological naturalism. The scientist is indeed a methodological naturalist in the sense that she assumes no divine interference with her experiments. But there is no corollary in this pragmatic naturalism necessitating belief that “there is no God,” nor antagonism towards religion. Krauss at least concedes that disbelief in God is not necessary for science either when he writes: “Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”
But lack of belief either way is quite simply not atheism. Atheism, if it is to be a useful term in the God debate, necessarily takes a stance. Using the word “atheism” as a general term for those who do not have particular religious commitments (be they agnostic, atheistic, or simply apathetic) doesn’t identify where individuals really stand. So why does Krauss include this nearly vacuous term in his article’s title?
The answer is not too hard to figure out. Krauss is a spokesperson for militant “atheism.” He would like as many people as possible to identify as militant “atheists.” The broader and murkier the term, the more people can herald it as their own label. This tactic of expansive but imprecise titling is common among vocal “atheists,” including the popular host of The Atheist Experience, Matt Dillahunty. He defines atheism as broadly as Krauss, calling it “simply a lack of belief in a God or gods.”
It is also worth noting that Krauss misunderstands what is meant by science, though the misunderstanding here results not from over-generalization but from myopic specificity. He writes: “Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion.”
But there is a problem here. Science only withholds the mantle of sacredness in the process of doing science, not in the daily lives of its practitioners. One should bar talk of miracles and supernatural intervention when inserting plasmids into E. coli or calculating gravitational force fields, but science itself gives us no reason to shrug off religious beliefs — regarding the good life, morals, metaphysics, and the experience of the sacred — outside the laboratory.
Moreover, even if supernaturalism must sit on the sidelines during experiments, this does not mean that we should exclude such concepts as “universal human dignity” or the “imago Dei” when doing science. If we did, we might well end up with the cold, sterile inhumane scientific pursuits described in dystopian fiction and, indeed, concentration camps.
Krauss concludes with the note that because science requires questioning the sacred and refusing to give religious ideas a free pass, “no scientist should be ashamed of the label” of militant atheist. Scientists need not adopt this label at all, since the words “science” and “atheist” simply do not mean what Krauss thinks they mean.