Culture

Portrait of a Fanatic

Lawrence Krauss (Image via asu.edu)
A top physicist’s embarrassing tirade

‘A fanatic,” as Winston Churchill defined the term, “is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” They’re tedious company. As anybody who has spent any time around evangelical vegans, macrobiotic cranks, 9/11 truthers, Trumpkins, anti-Semites, Objectivists, Gamergate partisans, feminists, the Michael Brown Memorial Society for Riots and Sanctimony, or jazz aficionados can tell you, the Bible-thumping born-again Christian fanatic is relatively low on the list of unbearables. But for my money, the militant atheist takes the prize in the oh-for-pity’s-sake-give-it-a-rest-already sweepstakes.

Which brings us to Professor Lawrence M. Krauss, physicist and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and his deeply silly essay, “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists,” published in the increasingly meretricious virtual pages of The New Yorker. As we have seen with the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Politics Guy, when scientists and the scient-ish (Mr. Nye is a mechanical engineer by training) step out of the confines of their actual expertise, what they step into is more closely associated with the field of animal husbandry. But step in it they do, Professor Krauss with more enthusiasm than most.

Professor Krauss’s argument is shockingly sophomoric, the sort of thing that all of us heard, and most of us tired of, during late-night dorm-room debates when we were teenagers. His intellectual sloppiness is both embarrassing and worrisome; one must wonder what sort of intellectual standards Arizona State expects of its faculty engaged in public matters.

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Considering the case of Kim Davis, the recalcitrant Kentucky county clerk jailed over her refusal to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples, Professor Krauss writes: “The Kim Davis story raises a basic question: To what extent should we allow people to break the law if their religious views are in conflict with it?” If Professor Krauss had given even a moment’s consideration to the scholarly literature related to the question — or even to the non-academic discussion of the question here in National Review or other journals — he would understand that his argument is based upon a false premise. The question is not whether religious people should be permitted to violate the law, but to what extent and in what way the law and our public institutions should accommodate people’s religious views. For example, those who decline to perform military service when drafted and claim conscientious-objector status are not trying to “break the law,” as Professor Krauss insists, but rather are trying to comply with §6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act — that, too, is the law. Similarly, Professor Krauss claims that Hobby Lobby and other firms “have been arguing that they should be exempt from the law on religious grounds.” He does not seem to have heard of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, the law — law, professor — under which Hobby Lobby sued to defend its rights. As the Supreme Court made clear, Hobby Lobby wasn’t breaking the law — the Obama administration was.

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A doctorate in physics does not entitle you to ignore basic intellectual standards when engaging outside your field; if anything, it obliges you to cleave to a higher standard.

A doctorate in physics does not entitle you to ignore basic intellectual standards when engaging outside your field.

And vice versa. There are not very many legal scholars who publish in physics journals, for the excellent reason that there are very few legal scholars who know much about physics. Professor Krauss plainly has less of an understanding of the issues in the Hobby Lobby case than does the average interested non-specialist who reads the newspapers, but he feels entirely qualified to weigh in on the matter. Better he should stick to what he knows.

“Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature — just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law,” he writes. On the scientific question, he is correct; on the legal question, he simply does not seem to know what he is talking about: The question of religious accommodation is among the oldest issues in American law. It isn’t irrelevant to the law — it is the law.

His errors go well beyond that, as they inevitably must, given the depth of his ignorance and the lack of intellectual rigor tolerated by the editors of The New Yorker. Consider this:

The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. . . . We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments — totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic — that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered “sacred.”

This is, as it should be obvious to those with a passing familiarity with the issues, absurd. It simply is not a part of orthodox Christian thinking — certainly not a part of the Catholic tradition — that “some idea or concept is beyond question,” or that the “commitment to open questioning” is inherently part of “an atheistic enterprise.” In fact, Christian intellectuals have long held exactly the opposite opinion: that truths, including moral truths, are discoverable through ordinary reason without recourse to revelation. This is the basis of the natural-law thinking that can be found prominently in the work of Thomas Aquinas and — if Professor Krauss were inclined to take a peek — in the Declaration of Independence, not to mention pretty much the entire intellectual foundation of the American political order.

#share#Like an antique unreconstructed Calvinist, Professor Krauss falls easily into assumptions about who is among the elect and who is not. He proposes that Senator Rand Paul, who supports accommodations for believers such as Davis, is motivated by the fact “that Senator Paul agrees with Kim Davis’s religious views.” An intellectual with a sense of responsibility might have asked: It that true? It isn’t, as anybody familiar with Senator Paul’s thinking knows: Far from being a fervent fundamentalist, Senator Paul is a Presbyterian of moderate social views who frankly confesses that he harbors significant doubts about his religious faith. He also — perhaps Professor Krauss overlooked this — supports the right of gay people to get married. Senator Paul’s preferred policy is to remove government from the marriage business in toto.

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But “those people” thinking comes easily to the evangelical atheist. Yes, there are people who make religious arguments against gay marriage and abortion. And there are people who make secular arguments against gay marriage and abortion, just as there are religious people who make religious arguments for gay marriage and abortion rights.

Professor Krauss’s answer to this is, I kid you not, What if a jihadist wants to cut off your head and cites his religious belief as a justification? We have, as it turns out, been dealing with those kinds of questions for a few centuries now, without much in the way of empirically verifiable guidance from the physicists.

#related#Needless to say, Professor Krauss’s essay is full of ethical propositions: in favor of gay marriage and fetal-tissue research, against legal accommodation for religious beliefs, etc. He argues that the ethics underpinning scientific practice are linked to those underpinning democracy. Ethics, like aesthetics, has proved itself immune to scientific systematization and regimentation for a few millennia now, despite Aristotle’s best efforts. It is a truism that there is no ethical system — including the ethical system informing scientific endeavor — that can be decocted from anything that meets the scientific standard of evidence. It is not the case that statements beyond formal scientific evaluation are trivialities and chimera, teapots floating in space and “flying spaghetti monsters” and the like. “This is a beautiful painting,” “I love my brother,” and “We shouldn’t allow poor people to starve to death in the streets,” all are meaningful declarations not subject to scientific review. If the standards of scientific evidence are to be our only meaningful standards, then we must not have an ethics at all.

“It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one.” These are the sole words of wisdom in his entire illiterate argument; what’s ironic — and here, unlike Professor Krauss, I’m using the word “ironic” to mean “ironic” — is that he fails to appreciate the one bit of truth he manages to communicate. Science and religion really are separate fields of endeavor — “non-overlapping magisteria,” in Stephen Jay Gould’s famous phrase. The relationship between metaphysical propositions and empirical evaluation has been meditated on by better minds than Professor Krauss’s — Wittgenstein’s, famously.

And if Professor Krauss desires to cease embarrassing himself in public, he should follow that philosopher’s sage advice: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent. 

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