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

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05868095335395368227 vjack

    I agree that it would be a mistake to call this cowardice of some sort. Those of us teaching at public universities are there to work with everyone – not just the non-religious. If we don't want people preaching in the classroom, we can't very well do our version of it either. Of course, that doesn't mean we cannot present relevant material in our classes, but we do need to consider our audience and stay on topic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00380048898500411561 Corey

    "Why give the conservative loonies in charge an excuse to drop the axe?"

    Why? Because they will do it regardless of what anyone does. For example, the Republican party has decided to go against anything Obama does, even if he has given them everything they want, they don't want to see him succeed, so they must go against him. Its the "big picture" ideology when telling a little lie helps the whole is some people's eye. I say, do not budge on what you believe. As a non-believer/secularist/humanist/atheist/theist/agnostic (etc) there is a simple "guide-line" to follow; will what I do harm people? Again, the "right" and "left" have completely opposite ideas of what this means. I keep it simple. We the People or "Socialism" or whatever religious/political/humanism angle I look at it, we must not let people be harmed on any level, not just the "big" picture. Its very "state-level" which is such a "right wing" ideology, but its communal, from the "left wing" ideology. The difference is; "right-wing" is all about exclusion (example: "No gay marriage in our state") and the :"left-wing" is about inclusion. Regardless of political or religious "wing" someone is on, Id hope inclusion was the way people would want their world to be like. This of course, is ironically, very un-American. All minorities are demonized until another comes along that can be more easily targeted. This is, has, and always will be the "American Way" until we move away from the "Right-wing" which includes conservative Christianity. its pretty "black and white" to me. And yes, it is a war of "us against them" because they don't want non-conformists to be equal, they want to convince everyone they are the enemy. The "Left-wing" need not spend it's time trying to play nice and make everyone like them to get what they want: freedom for all people, less suffering, more equality, community, etc.

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