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“You Keep on Using that Word…I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means.”

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.

 

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  • LawProf61

    Finally! An article that not only refutes the opposition, but arms the average person with the tools to counter it in conversation. Lawrence Krauss is a pugnacious loudmouth, and one of the reason I stopped reading Scientific American several years ago. How delightful it is to see his argument skewered.

  • DavidM

    Charlie, you make some sound criticisms, but pretty much *everything* you’ve quoted Krauss saying is a tissue of confusion. For example, these statements are neither reasonable nor innocuous (as you mistakenly claim): “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.” The implication of the first one is that it itself enunciates an effectively sacred idea or belief (i.e., about the sacredness of ‘law’ vis-à-vis ‘sacred ideas’) – so how is this ‘sacred belief’ justified according to Krauss, without completely begging the question? How can such an assertion be applied, without undermining itself? I think Krauss is completely full of crap, far more so than you seem to realize. So much so, that I doubt he’s worth even commenting on (but I guess it’s too late for that).

    • Charlie Ducey

      Hey, David. I was being a little too nice to Krauss’s argument, admittedly–perhaps the initial extension of the olive branch went a bit too far.

      I do find it interesting, though, that Krauss does indeed have a habit of starting off soft and equitable and all of the sudden getting really loud really quick, basically to the point of non sequitur. For example, in a panel discussion sponsored by the John Templeton foundation on the issue of religion and science (which also included a very eloquent Jesuit brother as a panelist), Krauss began with the concession that he didn’t know anything about God, and so would hold off on comments about God. Of course, he did not keep his promise and started bad-mouthing religion with some low-brow anti-theology pretty quickly thereafter. If he were more consistent — in his terms, in his concessionary tone, in his arguments — he might be worth your time. Alas, (or perhaps fortunately) he is not.

      • DavidM

        Well, Charlie, your fundamental criticism of Krauss is surely sound, and you do well to point it out: even though one would hope that the serious problems with his view would be obvious to anyone with any kind of basic intelligence and good-will, I suppose they are not. What seems worth noting about Krauss’s inconsistency is that it is born of passion, not just lack of intelligence – and I’m glad he at least cares. He may or may not be worth engaging, but for me engaging such a bumptious twit, someone who cares so little about even making sense? I’m afraid it is too much an occasion for me of feeling uncharitable contempt for a fellow man.

        • Charlie Ducey

          Yes. So I am left utterly baffled as to why such an incoherent article (by a non-writer) was published in so prominent a periodical as The New Yorker.

    • Doing our best with what God, uh, Lawrence has given us.

  • Well Seasoned One

    I think one can be an atheist about specific, stated claims or assumptions asserted by those who believe in them. However, I am surprised that any scientist worth their salt would make blanket “There is no . . ” statements or assertions. Quantum physics seems to suggest more dimensions or when one considers the big bang, the tightly packed ball of matter – whatever it’s size, had to come from somewhere to be consistent with the laws and properties we observe in nature and the universe. If the possibility exists that there is some other dimension or dimensions – perhaps different realities and one can’t see around that corner and know all the information about how everything is in all potential phases of reality then an atheist saying “There is no . . .” is not being honest as a scientist.
    I describe myself as an agnostic because I have concluded I don’t have enough information to come to any conclusion or opinion. When I was young I was an active believer, but there is so much information I feel we are missing or could have been fabricated as zealous humans have been wont to do. I very much understand the others I know – friends and family have some deep feelings and convictions and wonder at anyone’s wish to be a “militant” anything. Live and let live. A strong government and strong church watch each other so we don’t end up with terrible abuses we saw in the past.

    • DavidM

      I think it is a mistake to think that the question is one of more or less, or enough or not enough, information. It’s a question of understanding the essential nature of ‘information’ as such, which is one aspect of understanding the essential nature of being and of being human (the ‘information’ in question, along with judgments about its adequacy and import, are such specifically *for a human being*, and as such bear an essential relation to a human mode of being) . It is certainly advisable to be humble in making knowledge claims, but practically speaking agnosticism is not really an option. Life is a practical exercise which requires you to embrace some positive general understanding or other of who you are as a human being and what relation you bear to other beings and the whole of being and whatever is the cause of all of the being/beings about which you have more or less ‘information.’ Of course you can say “I don’t know,” but aren’t you still stuck with “nonetheless I believe…[fill in the blank]… (and thus will act accordingly)”?

  • I met Lawrence Krauss at a forum on communicating science. I have heard many people attribute the current popularity of Donald Trump and Ben Carson to their willingness to say what is on their minds. Krauss does that also. Like Trump and Carson, he taps into seething resentment which he feels himself. I know this because I feel it too. When a Creationist who cannot solve the equation for a falling rock dismisses all science to support his idiotic belief, that Creationist is insulting my family. My in-laws are both physicists, my wife is a math professor, one of my daughters is in a PhD psychology program. My family, to use the southern expression, has more degrees than a thermometer. The anti-science idiots are disparaging people I know to be sincere and brilliant. Krauss is wrong, but I fully understand why he is so over the top.

  • Bizinana

    Bravo!