godless (yes, not goddess or goodness)

This is a post that has worked its way in my head to the top of the pile. It’s initiation was triggered by a cluster of stimuli, including discussions with friends. However watching the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program (available in its entirety for free at this link) on the well-publicized Dover school board’s attempt to introduce intelligent design into the science curriculum of schools in this district several years ago (Kitzmiller vs. Dover area school district), was the real motivator.

I didn’t watch program alone; in fact the entire family climbed into bed together and watched our little laptop in fascination as the story depicted the attempts of new earth creationists to disguise their “intelligent design” as a valid scientific theory.

While I had been aware of this famous court case, I have not been up to date on all the specific details. It was remarkable observing to what lengths the anti-evolutionists went to disguise the inherent fundamentalist religious agenda that they were trying to promote.

The parents and science teachers in Dover country, Pennsylvania, eventually triumphed over the school board in court–and were even able to show that a creationist textbook had merely been converted to an intelligent design textbook by changing a few words in a few sentences. Famously, one sentence wasn’t even properly “proofed” and it could actually be demonstrated that it still contained remnants of the word “creationism” (instead of the “intelligent design” it was now supposed to support). This intermediate, “cdesign proponentsists” (supposed to be “design proponents” but not having properly erased the “creationist”), became dubbed the “missing link” between creationism and intelligent design (see below)!

Of Pandas and People (1987, “intelligent design” version), p. 3-41:

But I do not want to debate intelligent design or creationism in this forum; it would be ‘preaching to the choir,’ as a semi-appropriate metaphor might indicate.

No, instead I would rather go a bit deeper and stir some additional controversy. One of the charges of the school board anti-evolutionists in Dover, PA, was that the teachers and those opposed to intelligent design were “godless atheists.” Just like me. Fair enough. Or is it?

Actually, no. Some of the key figures who fought valiantly for evolution and to keep creationism and its disguised form out of the classroom were not atheists at all, but rather devout believers in god, and churchgoers. In interviews, they were very much upset at being deemed godless, when in their case, religion did play an important role in their lives.

All this brings me to an interesting question: can one be a scientist and still have faith?

In my younger and rebellious days, my answer would have unequivocally been “NO.” Not that I thought that one can’t be a good scientist and have faith, but I thought–in those days of my youth–that the two were not compatible.

My views have moderated since those times, so don’t attack me YET. But although I do think differently now (despite maintaining my godless mindset), I do want the opportunity to explain how I arrived at that outlook.

As a child and later in Israel, I was absolutely horrified by the amount of religious coercion I encountered. The lack of tolerance for anyone who didn’t believe. The lack of civil rights for one who didn’t believe. In Israel, it’s as simple as there being no civil marriages, no public transport on the Sabbath, no bread allowed to be sold during Passover and the list goes on and on. It has progressed to the point of denigrating women and in some cases not allowing men to hear women sing in the military (supposedly not allowed as it is considered immodest and ‘tempting’).

So coming from such an intolerant background, where religion typically represented a rather tyrannical form of “for me to carry out my religious duties, everyone else has to do A, B and C…,” I fought back. Fire with fire.

For me, fighting back meant going to similar extremes in the opposite direction. So I formulated the following philosophy: Science is the pursuit of the truth, in a dispassionate and objective manner. Science is built on logic. Religion (and I did not discern here) on the other hand is based on a “leap of faith” that requires one to willingly suspend logic and disbelief–in order to believe. Therefore, religion opposes science and is bad.

I took this one step further, in my fight against religious coercion: if one is willing to admittedly disband logic to believe, then there is a slippery slope between believing in a god, and stepping away from that belief to other illogical beliefs that might endanger society. This too, is admittedly not unheard of. After all, most terrorist attacks and many wars result from beliefs that “god wants me to do this or that.”

Having “mellowed” over the years, or perhaps having learned that things are not so simple or straightforward–realizing now that the vast majority of  people who ‘believe’ or partake in religion are good people, tolerant, advocates of science and education, and people who often give back to their communities–I found that I desperately needed to update my thinking. And I have.

In the PBS Nova program, there is actually a statement about the young earth creationists noting that “while the vast majority of religions and religious people have been able to come to terms and make peace with the idea of evolution and Darwinism, only the extreme fundamentalists continue to put up a fight.” And this is certainly true.

So while I remain a proud godless atheist, if your own beliefs do not require converting me, I accept you just as you are!

How about you?

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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2 Responses to godless (yes, not goddess or goodness)

  1. Robin says:

    Great blog! It will be nice when people on both sides stop trying to change/impose/enforce their beliefs on others!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      With beliefs, yes–I absolutely agree.
      But beliefs need to stay out of the classrooms- certainly those in the science curriculum. So I do want to point out that this isn’t an entirely symmetrical thing. In my more mature incarnation, I can respect the intelligent design and creationist beliefs– as long as they are presented as faith and not to be pushed as pseudo science on par with bona-fide scientific theories. That’s where my tolerance ends!

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