Lesson 1, Section 2: Science and Reason

Science and Reason

Humanist support for critical thought and application of the scientific method puts us at the forefront in the perennial battle between science and religion. This conflict manifests in different ways throughout the world.

In the United States, for example, there are ongoing efforts on the part of evangelical Christians to introduce biblical literalism (i.e., Creationism or its newest incarnation, “Intelligent Design Theory”) into public science curricula as a supplement to, or replacement for, the teaching of sound scientific principles like the theory of biological evolution. This problem is exacerbated by parallel attempts on the part of the U.S. government to divert taxpayer funds from the public education system to private, parochial, and religion-based schools. In addition to the frightening prospect of creating a generation of youth lacking a foundation in essential scientific theories, such maneuvers contribute to the general decline in adult scientific literacy.

In other places, the conflict between religion and science plays out as part of the larger fight between modernity and fundamentalism, often with the outright rejection of life-saving technologies. While some of these difficulties arise because of the often-justified concern that the benefits of technology are often tightly linked to the problems of modern society, a significant portion may be attributed to lack of scientific literacy. In such places, where unjustified fear precludes the adoption of modern technology (to the detriment of a great number of people), humanists may find a role to play.

The line between sound science and official policy is not drawn strictly along religious lines. In Europe and elsewhere, important questions have been raised regarding the spread of bovine spongiform encephaly (“mad cow disease”), despite assurances from the scientific community that the situation had been contained. More controversy has arisen over the use and import of genetically modified crops before the environmental and health implications are fully understood. Thus, it is incumbent on humanists to ensure a reasoned debate of such issues so that scientific progress is not embraced or rejected simply on the basis of emotional appeal, political expediency, religious dogma, or outright misunderstanding.

Lack of understanding likewise affects public discourse on such important questions as, for example, the safety of transgenic agricultural products, research employing human embryos, and the prospect of heritable germ-line genetic manipulation. These debates may be easily subverted by irrational (and/or religious) based claims used in place of sound science. In such arenas, humanists can foster rational debate and the application of an enlightened and compassionate ethic. In an era where the pace of scientific progress overcomes our ability to assimilate and adjust our social norms and public policy, irrational decision-making can have lasting implications.

In fact, the public’s comprehension of even the most elementary scientific topics is unacceptably low in the United States and elsewhere. Thus, for example, while the existence of biological evolution is accepted in varying degrees by religious and non-religious alike, an alarmingly high proportion of Americans still reject this theory, largely on theological grounds. Even beyond any religious basis for rejecting scientific theory, standardized tests and surveys continue to point to unacceptably low educational standards in many parts of the world. To the extent that many contemporary ethical debates depend upon a sound understanding of the relevant science, deficiencies in scientific literacy do not bode well for humankind’s prospects for rational decision-making in the future.

A scientific viewpoint mandates consideration for our planetary environment. Thus, as humanists, we have an obligation to confront the difficult challenges posed by overpopulation, pollution, ecological damage, and global warming so that we can ensure the continued habitability of this planet for future generations.

Some would argue that a humanist or naturalist philosophy compels support for animal welfare and animal rights. This conclusion is based on the absence of any divine distinction between “man and beast” and is worthy of serious consideration. In fact, as genetic manipulation becomes reality and we enter what is seen by some as a “trans human” period of evolution, the scientific rationale for interspecies distinctions may largely fade from view. While the core principles of humanism may not directly answer such questions, humanists do agree that complex modern problems must be addressed only by giving full consideration to a scientific analysis of the pertinent facts, subject to amendment as new facts are learned.

By stripping away dogmatic arguments, humanists are able to bring the relevant facts to bear at the juncture of science and policy. Humanists must not blindly support scientific progress simply because it opposes revealed approaches to knowledge. We should seek the responsible use of developing technologies, rational allocation of natural resources, and enhanced scientific literacy. As in much of humanist activism, a significant commitment to public education may yield the highest returns.

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