let’s end the free ride

Victor J. Stenger

For Reality Check in March, 2007 Skeptical Briefs.

Draft of Thursday, January 25, 2007 3:38 PM. For comment only. Do not copy, quote or distribute.


The continuing war between science and religion has attracted a lot of media attention lately. A few scientists have begun to speak out more forcefully about the contradictions between science and religion, and the public seems to be listening. Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Sam Harris's The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation have been bestsellers. I have made my own modest contribution with God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, which was released in January.

            These books represent an escalation in the science-religion rhetoric that is not welcome to many scientists. Consider the recent attempts to have intelligent design creationism taught in schools. This movement is completely motivated by religion. Yet scientists and science organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, 93 percent of whose members do not believe in a personal God, have avoided confronting religion directly on the issue by insisting, wrongfully in my view, that science has nothing to say about God.

As a matter of practical politics, this has worked well and evolution now looks secure. Although this battle seems to be over, the National Center for Science Education, a private organization that coordinates the political efforts to keep evolution in the schools, and its cohorts in various "citizens for science" groups around the country remain obsessed with creationism. They worry so much about the dreaded word "creation" damaging schoolchildren that they ignore far more dangerous threats religious ideas pose to science and society. These groups are sitting on their hands while theology has taken over the role of science in advising Washington policy makers. This has lead to decisions that not only contradict science but also threaten the lives and well being of people everywhere.

            The strong influence of religious thinking on the policies in the Bush administration, and the corresponding diminished role of science, has been thoroughly documented by Kevin Phillips in American Theocracy, Chris Mooney in The Republican War on Science, and Chris Hedges in American Fascists. Key conservative power brokers in Washington have imposed their biblically based views at almost every level of the federal government. Theological arguments have affected policies on everything from reproductive rights to the environment. Often these arguments fly in the face of scientific facts and restrict scientific research that could, in the end, greatly improve human life.

In one of his first acts as president, George W. Bush restored a gag rule on aid to international organizations that counsel women on abortion. Of millions of dollars spent on preventing and treating AIDS in Africa, 30 percent was earmarked for promoting sexual abstinence and none for condoms. Here at home, $170 million was spent in 2005 alone in promoting abstinence-only in schools. The Centers for Disease Control was pressured to remove from its website scientific findings that abstinence-only programs do not work. According to a 2003 report issued by Democratic Congressman Henry A. Waxman and the minority staff of the Government Reform Committee, the Bush administration modified performance measures for abstinence-based programs to make them look effective.

Similarly, under pressure from conservatives, a National Cancer Institute website was changed to reflect the view that there may be a risk of breast cancer associated with abortions, a claim made by evangelicals that has no scientific support.

Bush's obstruction of stem-cell research, which holds promise to provide a wide range of therapies, is based on the theological view that a 150-cell blastocyst contains a human soul. While scientists may prefer to remain neutral on the matter of souls, they should point out that a blastocyst cannot suffer while stem-cell research could result in considerable less suffering in fully developed humans.

Bush appointee to FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory committee, gynecologist W. David Hager, is an evangelical who prescribes Bible readings to treat premenstrual syndrome. Hager was primarily responsible for FDA blocking over-the-counter sales of the birth control drug known as Plan B. This was despite testimony before his committee by a scientific advisory panel that "Plan B was the safest product that we have ever seen brought before us."

In the 2004 Conference on World Population, only the U.S. and Vatican representatives voted against a resolution to limit population growth.

Evangelicals have also influenced Bush administration policies on the environment, the White House intervening in 2003 to remove cautions against global warming from a report on the environment. More recently, Bush has seemed to make an about face on global warming, but NASA is still delaying or canceling a number of satellites designed to obtain critical information on Earth climate. Bush gives the Space Station higher priority, despite the fact that a consensus of scientists regard it as scientifically useless.

In October 2005, George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations for middle-school students. The message said the word “theory” needed to be added after every mention of the big bang. The big bang is “not proven fact; it is opinion,” Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, “It is not NASA’s place, nor should it be, to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.”

While scientists have begun to speak out against these policies, they have not directly confronted the religious thinking underlying those policies. Presumably they fear offending "deeply held beliefs." I am pleading that religion no longer be given this free ride. The stakes are too high.

Let science compete with religion in the marketplace of ideas. Scientists should question religious assumptions just as they question those of other scientists. And they should vigorously protest whenever faith is used to suppress sound scientific results.

Vic Stenger's latest two books, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come from and God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist are now on the market. His website is at http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger.