Disturbing the public

The atheist blogosphere (to the extent that there is such a thing) seems convulsed about the question about whether public advocacy of atheism etc. is a good idea—after all, maybe the public can’t handle it. (I’ll just mention a post by Jason Rosenhouse; follow the links back from him if you’re at all interested.)

Everybody’s trying to figure out some principled position or other about the matter. But whatever comes out of such a debate, I doubt if it will be very generalizable.

Consider, for example, someone teaching science at a public university, like myself. Many of us in such a situation are nonbelievers; indeed, we very often encounter fundamentalist varieties of religion as a significant nuisance for science. We wish it would go away, and intellectually, we are not greatly enamored of non-fundamentalist religion either.

But also our first allegiance is more likely to be to the health of the scientific enterprise in a wider public context—not to the wider flourishing of nonreligious ways of life. These interests can conflict.

Worse, today we’re in a nasty political climate, where corporatist and religious conservatives are seeking to comprehensively undermine any public activity not narrowly devoted to policing the social world. They’re already out to destroy public universities (they may well be doomed institutions). In such a situation, the best interests of a public scientific enterprise may well demand that we not associate ourselves with religious skepticism. Why give the conservative loonies in charge an excuse to drop the axe? More to the point, why risk alienating liberal religious constituencies that would be perfectly happy to support science, and who might still help public universities enjoy a slow death rather than instant disembowelment?

That’s a difficult political calculation, and people in different circumstances may well make different decisions. If someone decides that keeping quiet would be best, I’d be reluctant to portray this as cowardice or contempt toward the intellectual capabilities of the masses. I’m not about to keep quiet, but that’s more because of general orneriness (and, not having children, having less to lose) than any deep principle.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University