Yesterday before the government shut down, famous scientists Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins made a foray to Capitol Hill and spoke to House and Senate staff.
The events, sponsored by the Secular Coalition for America, covered a range of topics. Not all of them were relevant to Americans United’s work, but some, such as the teaching of evolution in public schools and the threat to science posed by the Religious Right, were dead on.
Dawkins, named the world’s #1 thinker by Prospect magazine in 2013, is the acclaimed author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, The God Delusion and numerous other books about evolutionary biology and ethology – subjects which he used to teach at Oxford University. He has been an outspoken critic of creationism and has written extensively on the need for a greater emphasis on teaching evolution in schools.
“There is simply no doubt at all that evolution is true,” said Dawkins in response to a question regarding the proof of evolution. “The evidence for evolution is about as strong as anything we know.” He compared the level of scientific certainty about evolution to that of the Earth orbiting the sun.
According to a 2012 poll, 46 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago. Teaching creationism in schools, said Dawkins, is “an educational scandal and outrage.”
The fight against creationism has been one of our biggest issues here at Americans United. Although AU has had many successes – and even though the Supreme Court has ruled teaching creationism as science in public schools unconstitutional – countless teachers, administrators and school boards across the country continue to impose theological beliefs upon the moldable minds of young children. This is important because these kids will be our future scientists tasked with leading the United States, and the world, deep into the twenty-first century and beyond.
“The United States is beyond all question the leading scientific nation in the world, by a long way,” stated Dawkins. “And one has to speculate how much farther out ahead of the world it would be if it wasn’t held back by. . .nearly half of the population. It is a very serious educational crisis.”
Pinker, also on Prospect’s list of top thinkers in the world (#3), is a linguist, evolutionary psychologist and renowned public science advocate at Harvard University. He has written acclaimed books such as The Blank Slate, How the Mind Works, and his most recent work regarding humanity’s recent exponential drop in violent tendencies The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Pinker was asked why the United States retains a high degree of religiosity when so many other Western nations have seen interest in religion drop. His answer was wide ranging, touching on several current theories.
Religion, he said, may have helped “civilize” the rough men who advanced to the frontier during the “Wild West” days. It’s also possible, he added, that Americans rely more on religion because our social safety is smaller than the ones governments provide in many European nations.
The final theory Pinker outlined should have special interest to Americans United. He argued that one reason for America’s religiosity is due to the separation of church and state.
We have a “free market” of religion, said Pinker, “[And if there is] one thing the free market is good at doing [it is] is giving people what they want.” The large variety of churches and denominations, permitted by our Constitution, fill the diverse needs of Americans with a range of beliefs, leading to more people claiming a religious affiliation or connection.
Despite this range of religions and philosophies, Dawkins argued that non-believers aren’t well represented by Congress.
“Statistics show that non-believers in America are now 22 percent,” said Dawkins. “That’s a very high percentage, [but] for some reason that doesn’t seem to be regarded as a lobby worth currying favor with. Why not? Isn’t it about time that [members of Congress] woke up to the fact that there is a very, very large constituency in this country of nonbelievers? They deserve hearing as well.”
All Americans, religious or non-religious, who care about science, freedom of conscience and public policy free of fundamentalist dogma, have a stake in these issues. Aggressive, well-funded Religious Right groups remain determined to exercise as much control over our lives as possible. They and their congressional allies play hardball. During the recent debate over funding the government, one of the concessions House hardliners demanded was a broad “conscience clause” that would allow secular employers to deny birth control coverage to employees.
The battle to secure individual rights is far from over. It’s good to see two of the world’s top thinkers join the fray by lobbying Congress on behalf of science, reason and secular government.